Confidence Mon Brave!
This article first appeared in Birds Illustrated
It has long been a source of extreme angst and ire to me that ugly SOBs of the ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ persuasion get the good looking, good natured and otherwise intelligent women. Why, I have often internally whined, do these blokes think they are God’s gift to women? To me they seem more like the spawn of the devil? Moreover, why do women agree with them?
I, on the other hand, believing myself to be, on the whole, an ugly to average catch, have always been diffident in the extreme. Indeed it wasn’t until my wife told me who, from our mutual past, used to fancy me, that I realised how many birds, in the 1960s chauvinist sense of the word, I had dipped on! How ever did I managed to find such a first-class mate when my display behaviour has always been so second-class? It could not have been my toneless song, and the depth of my sartorial inelegance means it surely wasn’t attractive plumage that persuaded her to pair with me for life.
Before the reader’s patience is exhausted, and my extended metaphor is stretched to breaking point, I should explain in what way this rant is pertinent. To answer the question I implicitly posed, the trick to being a successful male is confidence, and this is a trick I wish I, and more of my birding friends would learn.
I had a call from one of my best birding buddies the other day, how, he wanted to know, could one be sure of the ID of an adult male White Wagtail in winter, when first winter Pied Wagtails look so very similar. He had been studying a bird that was regularly visiting his garden, which very, very rarely gets any sort of wagtail, and had been told that it must be a Pied as White’s never over-winter in the UK.
I don’t know who told him this, but clearly whoever the culprit was he had plenty of confidence in himself, and so, no doubt, is considered an authority by others. My mate has such a poor opinion of his own birding skills that he is easily talked out of his original conviction. Why? He has the bird regularly, right in front of him at close-quarters, and he sits with the fieldguide open at the correct page showing the subtle grey tones, and, moreover, has seen hundreds and hundreds of both sub-species in his time. Yet someone combining arrogance and ignorance has talked him out of his conviction simply because he is confident and my mate is not.
Do White Wagtails ever over-winter in northern Europe? Rarely, is the answer in most books, but never say never! In any event, they do pass through the UK on their way to breed in Iceland and are one of our first migrants. I’m not an expert but I have seen them at all sorts of funny times and, I’m talking about the easier to ID adults of both races side by side. Part of the confirming evidence for climate change is that more and more of the species that were wholly migratory have begun to winter further and further north. When my dad was birding Cetti’s Warblers were rarer than cockerel’s eggs, now they burst your eardrums from low bushes every 50 yards around my local reserve all year round.
Some years go I was on a trip to India and we had broken a long journey with a stop for a picnic lunch at a nicely wooded area with a stream. I was distracted from joining the rest of the party by a beautiful White-rumped Sharma weaving along the bank of the stream. This got me looking at the birds where I was and I clocked up a number of new species. One was a new Bulbul for me and, when the group re-joined us, one of the party told me, in no uncertain terms, that this particular Bulbul could not be found in this area; indeed it wasn’t to be seen within several hundred miles of where we were. He referred me to the field-guide we were using, which confirmed his affirmation in so far as its miniscule map was able. I just couldn’t believe how I had got it so wrong. It was then that our local guide quietly took me aside and told me the bird I had seen was now quite common here and that it had either expanded its range or had just been overlooked in the past. In other words I was right but had been quite ready to give up a lifer when pontificated at by a more confident birder.
One of the best things about birding is that unexpected birds turn up in all the ‘wrong’ places. If they did not, there would be no twitchers, just a few twits who think they know it all and an awful lot of us diffident camp followers.