Monday 26 March 2012

The dark rise of cynicism

Once upon a time, I was a young inexperienced birder. I birded with childlike wonder, and believed everything I was told. Birding was fantastic, everything was rosy. If somebody had told me that they had seen a Northern Parula in the carr next to Shoulder of Mutton pond I would have believed them without question and offered my hearty congratulations. In a similar vein, there was a report from Gwent today about a Short-toed Eagle flying over the Yellowthroat field at Rhiwderin. Was my initial thought “Wow! What a great record, what lucky so-and-sos those birders must have been! I have to confess that it was not. In fact, my first thought was a most uncharitable “Bollocks” Note that although I have been to Rhiwderin, today I am sat approximately 150 miles away. I have absolutely no knowledge of any events on the ground (or in the sky!) and am thus totally unable to offer any credible criticism. Except to say that it was a Buzzard.

Here’s one I took in France. When I get bored in June, I believe the done thing is to change the exif and claim it for my local patch.
I am not an experienced birder, or at least not very. I came quite late to the game really, and in some quarters I would be very firmly mid-apprenticeship. This is no bar to being a cynic I’m afraid. But why am I so cynical? Is it simply jealousy, or is it something else? Obviously I’d like to see a Short-toed Eagle, who wouldn’t? So is it that it’s a spectacularly rare bird, a stunning tick? But what about birds that are closer to home? This is the dilemma that most people are more likely to be faced with. The dreaded single-observer local record!

This, for me, is the one I spend most time thinking about. The fact that a random birder in south Wales may have confused a Buzzard with a Short-toed Eagle is of very little consequence to me. If the same thing happened somewhere in London, I’d probably get a bit more excited, but I think that in order to truly get wound up, it would have to be on the patch. Shall I end this post here? Of course not!

These are, of course, difficult issues, but what to do? You cannot see everything, no matter how hard you try, and in common with many other patches, there are birds on the patch list that I have not seen. The other local birders all have similar lists to mine, but theirs will have birds on that I’ve seen. For instance I’m the only one to have seen an Osprey. I didn’t have my camera on that landmark day, a fact which still niggles. Perhaps it was a Short-toed Eagle? Every time I think about this, I think how fabulous (and even more gripping!) it would have been to have got a shot of it. But am I worried that people don’t believe me? Is that part of the reason I wish I had had a camera, to silence the critics had there been any? Surely that’s not how local birding (or any birding) is supposed to work? And so it is the other way around - the fact that I have not seen various birds on the patch, and am jealous of those who have, does it give me the right to dismiss these sightings out of hand? Of course not. Can you imagine the patch camaraderie if we all dissed each others records all the time? I feel like a shit for even thinking about it. No, there has to be some pragmatism. Some give, some take. But at the same time, in order to retain some credibility, including to myself, I can’t say I believe all the records genuinely refer to the species in question, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise. No birder is perfect, and I’m not stupid. And neither are the other local birders.

There will be those that say that local birders should be more rigourous with each other, and that local sightings form the basis of the scientific record. Perhaps they are right, perhaps they are not. On the one hand, does it really matter if a few dodgy calls slip through? Is environmental and conservation policy really going to be impacted by a few outliers?  On the other hand, will data like this, mirrored country-wide, falsely represent the decline (or increase!!) of rare and at-risk species? It truly is a difficult question, I do not know the answer. For the sake of patch harmony, I'd prefer to let the occasional bold call lie. Then again, do I want my patch - and by association, me - to garner a reputation for stringiness? Of course not. Tough, isn't it? I'd imagine similar musings are occuring in Gwent tonight. Rare birds are exactly that - rare. And knowing what turns up where, and when, cannot be learned from a book. So should I distance myself from records I don't have 100% faith in? How do I strike a balance? I know, blog about it....

What I do know is that we have a great little patch here in east London with some great guys and dedicated observers, and so even if I am a little sceptical about certain sightings, or if people are a perhaps a little sceptical of some of mine (though of course I like to think I keep a pretty clean sheet), then that's the way it's going to be. And so if I don't see birds that others have put on their lists, so be it. But I find myself dearly wishing that the Short-toed Eagle in Gwent isn't a Buzzard. It would cause perhaps a small retreat of the cynic in me that I wish I was not, and would be a triumph for the observers concerned.


  1. Interesting. The STE report stirred similar thoughts in me, if less analytical. Plus, I have not been so brave as to poke a toe into the murky waters of fellow patchers' credibility! Cutting edge, dude!

    PS. If you're interested, I know where you can buy those mirrors on long poles that go all the way beneath your car...?

  2. A good thought, but I have a better plan - I am skipping the country.