Thursday 4 February 2010

Human Nature

An interesting stat for your consideration. Two weeks ago I stuffed up a Gull ID, called it a Caspian, and it wasn't. A bit of a howler. I posted photos of it up on the web. Within 24 hours, these invited no fewer than eight public comments, and four private ones, ranging in tone (as I interpreted them) from "You idiot, how could you possibly have thought that was a Caspian Gull." to "Nice try, Gulls are sods, better luck next time". So, twelve comments about getting it wrong.

Yesterday, in a minor miracle, I appear to have got it right. Same process, photos mailed to a few people, and photos up on the same website. You can probably guess where this is leading. Yup, public comments on my Gull identifying prowess - zero. Private comments, four.

So what could this mean? That people are busy? Maybe. The cynic within me that rarely surfaces thinks different though. Now I posted up the photos because I want to learn, not because I am in need of public adulation. Reputation? Hah, as if! I am rubbish at Gulls, happily admit this fact to all and sundry, and I was half expecting to have got it wrong again, but I am happy to be humiliated in my quest to become a better birder. I know this makes me appear a bit holier than thou, but I'm serious about it, and though I may joke about it on here, I was straight back to grilling gulls shortly after my dismal failure. Anyway, there is not a great deal of literature out there about Caspian Gull ID, and what there is somewhat heavy going. Tertials? Most people lurking on the web are probably better birders than I am and have looked at Gulls for much longer. The South-east seems to be Caspian Central, and so I value their opinions. But cruelly, there is this thing called Human Nature, and birders suffer from it just as everybody else does. There is no fun to be had when somebody has got it right, no belittling available, no scope to show how amazing you are versus the rest of the planet, so what's the point? I hope I'm not sounding too bitter...

Let's lighten the mood. Here, have a Gull photo. I'm pretty sure it isn't a Caspian as it has a yellow eye, but beyond that I have no idea. 1w Med Gull perhaps?


  1. Hi Jonathan. Must confess I held back from commenting on your gull because it did indeed look like it might be a Caspian, and the last thing any of us need is positive feedback from our peers. That will make us soft and needy, and totally unable to weather the inevitable mockery that will be coming our way with the next blunder.

    Which will be only too soon of course.

    However, I can offer a comment of sorts, and it is (for me) a relatively serious one, and the result of a fair bit of pondering the gull thing. Here it is:

    The SE (especially the Thames estuary area) seems exceptionally blessed with Caspian Gulls. This is great for keen SE gull-watchers, but let me ask this question: Does this abundance make for complacency? To illustrate, here is a link to a post on one of Peter Alfrey's blogs ( where he presents some photos of what LOOK like Caspians, but one of which he calls a 'Caspian type?'. His captions ALL hint at the need for a detailed approach to Caspian ID. I wonder how many SE birders would be as cautious as Peter before whacking them unequivocally in the notebook as 'Casp Gull - 4x 1st-winters'?

    To illustrate further, I can safely say that your photos and [published] description - if offered for a Caspian candidate in DEVON (where they are very rare) - would definitely result in a 'Not Proven' verdict. The bird looks good, as far as it goes, but PROOF would require a lot more.

    Mind you, when it comes to patch lists etc, who cares about proof?

    I'm sorry, I should really be congratulating you on a nice find, so I shall! far as it goes ;o)

    Yours in Warm Encouragement, etc.....

  2. Hi Gavin
    That's a fair comment. There have now been about 20 different 'records' of Caspian Gull from Rainham this year, from observers of varying competency levels (I am happily propping up the bottom), but I doubt that the official record will show a single one. I'm sure it is still a description species here, but none ever get submitted, and as far as my bird goes, I won't be submitting it either. Partly this is my usual fecklessness, but also deep down I know that, although extremely high, the quality of my photos perhaps does not allow all the salient features to be easily discernible. Plus of course my gull thought process and topography terminology come straight out of kindergarten.

    My post was purely to illustrate that in general, people are better at mockery than almost anything else. No doubt I will be providing some more entertainment shortly...

  3. Well, I didn't comment on either because I am absolutely shit at gulls. I think I might know the above example. That's about it. However, in defense of human nature, I will say that it's a lot easier sometimes to say what something is *not* than what it is, especially if you have limited visual information.

    No denying some people get really competitive or even outright jerky about ID, though, as you have already demonstrated in other posts.

  4. I wouldn't feel bad about gull IDs. The ONLY one I can confidently ID is the Common Gull when I can judge the size correctly. Otherwise its a case of 'probably a black headed gull but maybe a med gull' or 'one of the black backed' or everything else 'herring gull or similar type'

    I may have to attend one of the Gull workshops at Rainham Marshes, there is one the weekend after next too....

  5. Jonnyboy, I also did some birding recently...

    ...apparently it was quite a rare one.