(This article first appeared in the October 2014 edition of Birdwatching)
When an old mate of mine got his newly retired dad into birding some of the birds he saw were a surprise. Before he ticked Swallow he had seen Alpine Swift and he clocked Pallass’s Grasshopper Warbler before seeing Dunnock. Smelling a large rodent eating a ripe kipper my mate took his dad birding otherwise his dad would have dipped on immature Greenfinch having instead ticked Dark-eyed Junco!
They were not Hastings Rarities, deliberately perpetrated by a taxidermist to satisfy customers, but inexperience combined with poor Field Guide use.
Nowadays newbies don’t take notes; they thumb iPad icons or pour over field guides ignoring distribution maps and seasonal indicators, many twitching before mastering common species. With pager and satnav one can genuinely see a Grey-cheeked Thrush before your first Redwing, a Nutcracker before a Nuthatch. Foreign trips add exotics before prosaic patch birds.
Misidentification is not confined to novices we’ve all seen stick species and bag birds. Cheating happens and self-delusion can prevail, some people value integrity less than being considered top listers. But sticking an extra leaf on a three-leafed clover won’t change your luck. One self-proclaimed arbiter of listing, judges reported observations using his own scoring of the birders skills and reputation.
Sightings are reported differently for different purposes. If you see a rare or unusual bird then news services put it out there for twitchers to chase down. But county recorders want to hear about it too. The processes and outcomes are quite different.
When twitchers go for the bird they may corroborate the news or not, and if only one person sees it that too is known. Occasionally something misidentified is re-identified by the throng or a brave birder telling the emperor he’s naked.
Reporting to the county recorder is quite different as you have to send in a description and a panel accepts or rejects the record. Whether reputations effect outcomes is hotly debated. Why is a description wanted? Maybe I see a point when Black Kites and Young Marsh Harriers are commonly confused, which may be important if Black Kite might potentially colonise. But individual records only help to expose trends, so why do descriptions matter? One record, right or wrong, is not scientifically significant. Anyway reporters can just copy a description from a book so they don’t help with evaluation.
Why am I whining on about this? Isn’t it transparently obvious?
Recently I was standing one side of the car searching the air above a lake for hawking Hobbies when Hawkeye banged on the windscreen to point out a bird flying low toward us. I did a double take hastily thrusting bins back to eyeballs… a massive raptor hove into view bigger and bulkier than a Buzzard on steroids. It tried to land in a tree but was seen off by half a dozen Jackdaws and a Kestrel… wait a minute, make that Rooks and a Sparrowhawk, this raptor was awesome and then some!
It turned right around the tree flying to within 50 feet of us, then took another right turn and flew back into the ring woods, lazily flapping away completely disdainful of the merciless mobsters.
It was without a shadow of doubt a Short-toed Snake Eagle; cousin to the ones I’ve seen in central France and across Iberia or maybe the one I saw weeks before in Turkey.
I rang a friend who sometimes works for a birding alert service to ask if the Ashdown Forest Short-toed was wandering to be told yes, but to Hampshire not Kent! He asked if the bird was immature and I ran the internal reel again… I guess so, its chin was light tan not chocolate. Could there be two of these mega rarities in the country? Well, I’m here to tell you there was.
Have I sent a description to the country recorder? Honestly, I can’t see the point.
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