Saturday, 10 December 2016

Internet birding

I’ve just seen another Yellow-browed Warbler on the patch, my third. Or rather, I’ve heard my second, as I didn’t see it at all in the gloom yesterday morning. Nick had whooped his way through Wednesday afternoon having found it on the shores of the Alex in the Willow Carr, a much-wanted grip back from earlier in the autumn when he and Bob had missed the bird that James and I simultaneously found over in the SSSI, and that a number of folk managed to successfully twitch – including my two daughters. Fellow retiree Bob twitched it too, but at some point between then and the evening doubt began to creep in.

I blame the internet. Nick managed a few photos and popped them up on the other blog (you can see them here if you are so inclined) and before you know it there’s a message asking if Hume’s has been considered. For those of you that don’t know, Hume’s Leaf Warbler is a very similar looking bird but considerably rarer. I’ve only seen two or three in nearly a decade of twitchery. Identical structure but basically duller and a bit paler, and crucially the call is totally different which makes for pretty straightforward ID in the field. Somehow I missed the comment that raised the possibility of Hume’s, but on this I didn’t doubt Nick for a minute so it was a little puzzling to see various messages that evening asking if people thought from the photos that it could be the rarer relative.

Now I know two things about Nick that the internet does not. One, he has heard and seen a stack-load of Yellow-browed Warblers, most recently on Shetland this October. And two, that the exposure compensation wheel on the back of his camera doesn’t work. Well I know three things actually – the third is that even if that wheel did work it’s highly unlikely to ever get a look in! Now I hadn’t seen the bird in the flesh, but this led me to believe that the internet was wrong, and that Hume’s was being suggested on the basis of underexposed photographs that made the bird look duller and darker than it likely was in real life. But of course the internet is also a fast-moving machine, and so already there was news circulating that there was a possible Hume’s on Wanstead Flats blah blah blah. This is the trouble with internets – it’s out of control, inexorable. But what if a bunch of people turned up tomorrow to find nothing if the sort? I remember a funny one a few years ago where a weekday Lesser Whitethroat in Devon somehow morphed into a Orphean Warbler online that evening, causing people to skip work and drive overnight only to find a Lesser Whitethroat. You can imagine how that went down, but here’s the thing – Lesser Whitethroat is what the finder had said it was all along and was presumably as mystified as everyone else when the green-clad mass descended. I’m not saying that scenario would have played out here, but I felt that for the greater good I had better tootle down there first thing and see the bird for myself. Especially if it was a Hume’s!

It wasn’t of course, and Nick (and Bob) had been spot on. I met him somewhat randomly near Long Wood in the pre-dawn and together we crossed the playing fields towards the Alex. I heard the bird long before we even got to the shoreline, calling its head off just like the other one in October. 100% classic and normal Yellow-browed Warbler, and just as superb as it always is. We played Hume’s to ourselves just to be totally certain, but of course it’s completely different, which we knew. I put the news out to quell the rumour mill and went to work. Later than morning there was a tweet from a well-known UK birder and list-keeper. It read:

YELLOW-BROWED WARBLER at Wanstead Flats’ Alexandra Pond Willows, and not Hume’s Leaf according to @Wansteadbirder".

You could read that short message a number of ways of course, but you have to laugh really. It was never thought to be a Hume’s and never reported as one by anybody who had seen or heard it, and in this instance a photograph was positively unhelpful. That’s not to say that photos aren’t useful, indeed all sorts of birds are now getting ‘found’ by web-based birders pointing out previously overlooked rarities labelled as something commoner or posted on ID help threads, but seeing and/or hearing a bird in the field has little substitute. More telling perhaps is the “according to Wansteadbirder” part. I’m still faintly surprised that this didn’t cause a mass twitch for a nailed-on Hume’s Warbler!


  1. '...according to @Wansteadbirder' is now the stamp of authority re warbler ID that 'according to Killian Mullarney' gives to waders and 'according to Klaus Malling Olsen' to gulls.

    You didn't know that??

    1. Oh I see. Yes, makes perfect sense now.

      PS In response to all the pressure it has now been recorded and videod. Guess what?
      PPS What happened to proper birding?

  2. Not officially verified unless DNA samples have been extracted and sent to the relevant labs