Tuesday 20 August 2013

Red-billed Tropicbird at Pendeen

So what really happened at Pendeen on Sunday? Unlike most people commenting on the events, I was actually there. Don't read the predictable Birdforum thread and think you know the score. The histrionics on there are absurd, as you would expect, and so far roughly 20 posts out of 160-odd are from people who were actually there.

It was slow in the early morning. Sitting up at the watchpoint, with my back to the lighthouse wall, I decided that I'd rather be at the bottom of the slope with my camera photographing Gannets, just as two photographers I could see were doing. Quite frequently I could see Gannets and Fulmars passing very close inshore, so at 8.40ish I left Matt M, Mark P, Dan P and the guys I had travelled with and picked my way down the grass. Midway down the rocks I stopped to photograph a Wheatear, I mean how could I not? My exif on these three images says 8.46am. I noticed a guy with a lens sat up a bit higher than I was at this point, still on the grass. The lens looked quite short, he looked quite some distance from the sea, I felt I could get nearer. I think I recall him getting up from his position, but thought nothing of it. If he subsequently waved or shouted, I didn't notice a thing, and I gingerly picked my way down the slippery rocks to join the two aforementioned photographers. There I remained for a good half hour, indeed a bit longer, as my last image suggests 9.21am. During this time I was fully engaged on photography, with somewhat underwhelming results. Hey-ho, all good practice.

Lovely, but costly?
At some point William came down the slope and shouted. I didn't hear, but the other two did and alerted me. What's up? "A Red-billed Tropicbird has flown past and everybody has left!" William shouted. I stopped in my tracks. Did he really just say that? Surely that's not possible? Is it? I clambered back up the slope in a state of disbelief and shock, to find that at least 70% of those present had indeed left. People asked if I had seen it? Had I photographed it? Eh? No, of course I hadn't. Bits of the story came out. The photographer I had seen slightly higher than me - and not visible from the main seating area underneath the lighthouse - had been the one to see it. It had passed between the coast and the rocks, and had lingered, allowing some photographs. Per the internet, i.e. make your own mind up, it had been on view for over five minutes. The guy in question had come back up the slope some time after the sighting, perhaps as long as 25 minutes, shown a photo of the Tropicbird to a couple of people on the most northern wall of the lighthouse, and then all hell had broken loose. He had then left the site, and so when I returned up the slope with my camera, there was an assumption he was me.

I wish.

All of the following is also second hand. The select few to whom this guy had shown the photo had run around the corner, alerted others, who had in turn dashed around the corner. The photographer refused to show them the photos, and left the site. This, I surmise, resulted in another delay, as people were unsure whether to act. Eventually a lot of people decided it was gen and scattered, some to Sennen Cove, some to Cape Cornwall, some elsewhere. We did the same, stopping first at Sennen Cove where I learned that per the most recent information on the internet, I was actually the finder, and subsequently to Cape Cornwall, where we enjoyed a couple of pale morph Arctic Skuas and a huge pod of Common Dophins, but no Tropicbirds.

To summarise, the greatest prize in UK seawatching had just flown, unobserved, past between 40 and 76 observers, and had been seen by just one person.

The web is alive with opinion. Fair play to the guy involved, a stunning find. Right place, right time. Everyone else had been scanning too far out. Their bad, me included, and we will in time have a place in the Pantheon of the damned. We might already be there. But what do I think? I came so close, yet remain so far. Being down on the rocks at that point, I have a dubious claim to fame as being one of the closest dippers of a UK Tropicbird. Shit happens.

I can completely understand sour grapes, but put yourselves in the shoes of those there. Forget the usual crap about suppression and people who only twitch birds and give nothing back. 40 people (76 if you're feeling generous) were there. Many had travelled far, many had committed a lot in the hope of a decent sea-watch, in the hope, dare I say it, of a dream bird like a Fea's. They were there, they were working it. How would you feel if somebody came up the slope once all hope of seeing the bird had gone and told them about it. I wasn't there up at the lighthouse, but per what I have heard, it was a relatively casual "I assume you all saw the Tropicbird?" Don't get me wrong, that's not a bad assumption. 40 people scanning out to sea, some of them seasoned observers. You would expect that one of them would see a bird that was on view for a prolonged period of time. Except in this instance you would be wrong. I'm going to stick my neck out here, and say that no matter what an observer expects, when it concerns a Red-billed Tropicbird that is lingering close inshore to a manned sea-watch point, all bets are off. All bets are off, and what you expect becomes irrelevant. First and foremost you document the record, after all you know what the British birding scene is like. And when you have quickly done that, you jump up, and you run as fast as your little legs can carry you to the nearest people you can see (that would be me, as it happens), and you shout your head off, you wave your arms, you scream, you go completely and utterly mental. You exhaust yourself, you peg it up the slope, down the slope, you do not rest until you are sure that other people are on the bird, because sea-watching is the most collegiate of all birding activities. And then you soak up the adulation and the glory and the praise. That's what I would have done. That's what most people I know would have done.

Call me jaded, call it sour grapes, but to wait perhaps 20-25 minutes before coming up to the main crowd, when all hope of picking up the bird from the watchpoint has passed, that is unforgivable. Unforgivable. Clearly I am biased, but that is ridiculous. There are claims that he shouted, perhaps even towards me and the two photographers I was with. Maybe he did? But if this elicited no reaction, then what? Shrug the shoulders and sit back down? That appears to be what happened. No other person there, of which there were many, was any the wiser for what is in sea-watching terms an age. And that is the source of the sour grapes and dejection. Forget about whether the observer wants some kind of magazine scoop and associated piss-ant payment (even though that is scarcely believable). If the timings are correct every single person at Pendeen on Sunday ought to have been able to get on that bird. And not one did.

You can talk all you like about finding your own birds, about nobody having a right to see a rare bird, about dickhead twitchers. Maybe I am being naive, but surely birding is bigger than this. The finder by all accounts knew exactly what it is was he was watching. But he seems does not know much about birding etiquette, or at least not what I understand birding to be about. Am I being unkind? Maybe, maybe not. Again, anyone who wasn't there feel free to have a go in the time-honoured fashion, call me an idiot, a tosser, say what you want. Say I should have picked it up, say look properly next time, say I'm just bitter etc. Maybe I should have and yes I am, but get real. A monster, a complete once-in-a-lifetime bird was on show for an age in sea-watching terms and based on what I know the finder could have done so much more. So much more. Assumptions out the window, it's a Tropicbird, and so you go fucking nuts, end of. You don't shout a bit, and then sit back down. You just don't. That's not right, it's not to my mind what sea-watching is about. You're in it together. Again, I sound like a pre-pubescent teenager probably, an idealist, someone wet behind the ears who hasn't the faintest clue about real life. I like to think I'm normal. What kind of person doesn't do their utmost to alert other observers they know to be present? People on the net are talking about giving the finder credit where credit is due. I agree with that, but only to a point. I know that my greatest pleasure would be to get other people onto the bird, as I know how much it means. I can hardly claim to be a huge rarity finder, but when a number of other people got onto my Stone-curlew on Wanstead Flats earlier this year, I was utterly delighted. And I was gutted that some did not. I was on the phone ten seconds after seeing that bird for the first time, I had phoned two people I knew to be close within a minute or two, and was getting the news out as fast as I could even before I had confirmed the record. I ran. Once I knew what I had I sacrificed getting better views in order to give other people a chance of connecting, and that was just a good bird in a local context. A Red-billed Tropicbird is in a completely different league altogether.

This is of course my reaction, and people are different. I don't know the person in question, what drives him, what makes him tick. I react based on my reaction. The guy was not obliged to alert people, each to his own. I'm just saying I would have reacted differently, and so would many other people. So to be on the receiving end of what I perceive to be a striking lack of generosity, well that is very galling indeed. But that's birding for you, and I'll live. And as you saw yesterday (if you were alert!) I can laugh about it too, and that's also birding. And if you didn't think sea-watching was exciting, think again!


  1. Replies
    1. Irritating whatever it was! A good story in years to come!

  2. I have no idea what happened here, but there can be a very real phenomenon of self-doubt and worry when finding a rare bird. It happened to me, when I found a state-first bird here in the US. At first I assumed that, it being a fairly well-birded location, everyone must already know about this bird. I couldn't possibly just stumble upon something like that. Instead of telling anyone I went on the long birding walk I had left that day aiming for. It wasn't until I returned hours later (and back in cell service) that I told some friends, and word got out. Thankfully, that bird stayed around for a few days and most everyone had a chance to see it, but I was pretty ashamed of how I had handled things. It's a lot of pressure to be saddled with, all of a sudden. Again, I have no idea what this guy was doing, but perhaps more likely than sinister suppression is a situation where a) the guy sees it b) he looks around to see if anyone else saw something c) he wracks his brain to think of all the species it could have been (a juvie something? What terns have red bills?) instead of a tropicbird d) when he sees that no one else is shouting or going crazy, he thinks he must have been seeing things e) when he is finally confident of the ID he's too embarrassed by how he handled things to stick around. Just my two cents, from experience.

  3. I'm just amazed it got past so many eyes but if people were viewing middle to long distance then it's obviously possible! I think even i would know what an RBT was - what i still do'nt understand and your post has clarified the situation somewhat is why the bloke did'nt hang around and show his pics to more people? I know i would - still, it takes all sorts.

    I think only rags like the Daily Mail would pay for a photo.......

    Laurie -

  4. I see this is were Lego got his 76 from...bollocks! 40 is way off to...25 mate and I unfortuntely was one of them. As for the photographer and the 2o+ minute wait I like most there were just incredulous of why it took so long to break the news. I have just partaken in the greatest dip ever in British birding history and feel numb.....I had my first nightmare last night......oh if only???

    1. Au contraire, I got this number from his website. Personally I thought there were about 40 there.

  5. So where are all these photos. I would be straight home and they would be on that Internet within minutes with my name all over them. Perhaps Google images have not come up with the right shot yet to be posted by the observer!!

  6. Why not? It's not always going to be a top-birder find, is it? Most regular birders know when they've seen something of this magnitude, even if others cause then to doubt themselves. Good luck to the guy!
    Hoping to see some grainy images soon, to paw over with envy.