Monday 30 October 2017

Another Hawfinch

I am sorry about this patch exuberance, it will stop soon I promise. Today I took advantage of the clock change to spend an extra hour out on Wanstead Flats, and in contrast to yesterday it was excellent. The chief excellence flew east at 0721, a chunky bird making a call that I initially just could not place. It appeared to come from the south before looping back around and heading off east towards Manor Park, and both Bob and I got on it pretty early in its trajectory. As I followed it around and into the lovely early sunlight it  dawned on me that it had absolutely enormous wingbars. At this moment Bob’s brain matched the call to the Hawfinch that he seen and heard earlier in the week. Despite having Hawfinch on the brain, my own revision has clearly not sunk in deep enough yet, but yes, it had been those subtle “seeps”, and they were ultimately very helpful.

So although this is only one bird and the flock on Saturday numbered nine, in my own mind I actually feel a lot better about this one having been able to watch it for longer whilst hearing it call, thus concluding on the ID myself rather than rely on others as well. It does also reinforce, to me at least, that the ID of small birds in flight that you are not hugely familiar with remains very difficult indeed – you have so little time to process what you are seeing and hearing, and therefore to know what features you need to focus in on and pull out before it has gone. In this instance despite having the bird in view for probably ten seconds, it was not until nearly the very last moment that my brain was able to recognise the enormous wingbars for what they were– before that I had just a shape making a noise really, with no features other than a thought that it was perhaps on the large size. I suppose that without thinking about it most of my available brain is busy ruling out all the expected species that I see regularly, going through the various thrushes, pipits, buntings and finches that are expected here. Meanwhile another part of my brain is screaming that it doesn’t recognize the call and something is not quite right here, but it seems that the process of elimination must take priority somehow. Luckily there was just enough time left to get some of the other bits in before the bird disappeared from view, else it may have been another of those all too frequent, “well I know what it wasn’t but unfortunately I don’t know what it is either!” which is no good to anyone.

I think it proves that the successful identification of birds has to be deep-rooted, you can’t just take a field guide and learn it, you have to be out living and breathing it and gradually you just become pretty familiar with the regular birds where you live, with the exception of being able to describe a Blue Tit of course. That then helps with the identification of those birds that are not as regular in that it gives you more clues and more time, but clearly doesn’t solve the problem completely. How does one get familiar with everything on the British list? Not by sticking religiously to a single inland patch I suspect! Equally how do some people get so good at digging out rarities on the coast every autumn, when they don’t see those birds day in day out as part of the rest of their birding year?

My conclusion is that they’re just a lot better than me. And that they must never be allowed to visit Wanstead unsupervised!


  1. Interesting musings! As one who has found a rare bird recently, I can confirm that while the simple part of my brain was saying "oh look, that looks like another grey-cheeked thrush", another louder part was yelling "AAAAAARRGH WHATS THAT? DOES NOT COMPUTE. OH NO ITS HOPPED OFF THE BRANCH INTO COVER - WHAT WAS IT? WAS IT A GREY -CHEEKED THRUSH? OR ARE YOU JUST MAKING A TOTAL HAIMES OF A SONG THRUSH? THAT WAS A SONG THRUSH YOU IDIOT! WAS IT? AAAAAARGGGH, I DON'T KNOW!! Feck, got to go collect the kids from school...."

    A slightly more anguished wait outside the school than usual, in which i spent the time smacking my head off the steering wheel repeatedly, while contemplating the finer points of rare bird ID. And then I was thankfully able to revisit the site, relocate the bird, and with the help of a recently summoned calm(ish) person, sort it out!

    Black & White Warbler would be easy tho eh?

  2. Replies
    1. I think the 1st comment was better than the post!