Monday 13 April 2020

Nocmig: to count or not to count

The night before last I put the recorder out on the balcony and went to bed. I enjoyed a refreshing nine hour sleep reminiscent of my teenage years, and feeling refreshed stepped out onto the balcony for a spot of early morning birding. A solid 31 species were recorded before breakfast, proving once again that all garden totals from 2006 to 2019 were half-hearted at best. Then I sat down to go through the overnight recording.

About an hour in a Moorhen called directly overhead. None of this straining to disentangle obviously distant sounds - it sounded like it was perched on the chimney before being surprised by a bat and bursting into an explosive escape. Moorhen would be a garden tick, and it is now the second time in a week that I have picked in up on an overnight recording. Worse was to come however. At around midnight a wader appeared on the recording. A distant call shaped like a hairpin on the spectrogram. "Kleep!Fifteen seconds later it appeared again, much bolder and much louder. ......."KLEEP!!" I suspect I don't need to tell you what it was.

Well now. Oystercatcher is patch gold. It knocks Moorhen into a cocked hat. It knocks most patch birds into a series of cocked hats. It is the milliner of local birds. I can stay up listening any night I choose and score a Moorhen* whereas there have been precisely two previous records of Oystercatcher, both heard-only flyovers. And now we have a third and it was over my garden. 

Our local 'rules', mutually agreed by all those who take an interest in these things, define the boundaries of the patch, and also offer some standard advice on escapes, Cat E etc. Local patch listers have to see birds on or from the patch, and we also at some point declared that heard only birds could be added to the overall patch list, but in order to grace an individual's list had to be heard 'live', i.e. heard by that person at the time and not solely by a tape recording reviewed after the event. Thus I have added Oystercatcher to the 2020 consolidated patch list, but there is a large Oystercatcher-shaped hole in my own 2020 list. This hole is large, and deeply black...

I am taking part in two lockdown listing competitions, one local and one national. The local one is fairly unscientific, centred largely around East London and consolidated by Howard V using our long-standing WhatsApp group. It is simply the highest total that wins, so that's Fraser S who lives on the Thames. For this one nocmig records don't count, as I found out when I first recorded Common Scoter. The more geographically diverse competition coordinated by Steve G in Surrey pits your pre-lockdown all-time garden list against your lockdown garden list as a percentage, a bit like the Golden Mallard challenge. However for this one nocmig records are perfectly fine, indeed you would be foolish if you are nocmigging to ignore them, although that does of course disadvantage any birders not listening out at night. Oh my mistake, there aren't any.

So to count or not to count? If I wanted to be thorough, there is no doubt that a Moorhen and an Oystercatcher have passed over or very close to my garden. Using the usual on or from listing criteria, they would be very firmly on the list. Had I been stood in my red bucket I would without a doubt have heard them both. So the fact it is added to the overall patch list (I live in the middle of the patch, which is not entirely surprising as I drew up the map....) creates a bit of a dilemma, we now have an orphan record. 

"Oh you have Oystercatcher on the patch list, wow, whereabouts was it?!"
"Over Jono's garden actually."
"Amazing, what a fantastic garden tick!"
"It's not on his list"

It really messes with my sense of order. Spreadsheets and databases deal with this kind of thing very badly. I added the records to eBird as this is useful scientific data, but this now creates a discrepancy between the list I know and the list that is recorded. Put simply, it does not add up, and for the good of my inner calm things need to add up. Irritating, and could so easily be reconciled with a slight relaxation of some unwritten rules....

But we must stand firm. Think where it could end. Yes, I am thinking Terminator. The rise of the machines. The patch list could end up being dominated by heard-only recordings that nobody has ever seen, and the annual top listing spots could be taken over by the "Zoom H2n" and "Tascam DR-05". Nick could be relegated off the podium! No, that would not do at all. This needs to remain a human activity to have any relevance.

With that in mind I spent two hours on the balcony last night until just after midnight. The result? One solitary distant Mallard. I retired to bed and left it to the machine.


  1. One birder who does not noc-mig. I think you have to see it. Lockdown has persuaded me that hearing a bird "live" might be permissible, if the bird has been seen previously - I do not accept unseen lifers. But not much help as I am pretty useless on calls. Just in case you want to edit your entertaining report....

    1. I am with you (whoever you are!) on unseen lifers - my life list contains none of them, but I have heard plenty of birds in rainforests that I would dearly like to have seen. The recent Costa Rica trip I went on had about 15 heard-only birds which never made it to the final total. Shame, as 412 sounded a lot better than 397.

  2. This is a right bag of worms! I too work on the "have to see it to tick it" approach for lifers - no problems there. However, how does this work for the patch? Luckily for me, I only have one species on my patch list that I haven't seen - Corncrake. I used to have Crossbill on there too, and that definately was causing me grief for about a week when I heard another one go over, and managed to actually see it. But yes, I do feel a bit bad about that Corncrake - I just checked and its on my Irish list too, which is definately iffy, as you really should have to see a species to be able to count it on a national level. I think I only ticked it for Ireland as I couldn't really have it on the patch list but not on the national list, could I? And I have seen the species elsewhere in the world (Scotland). And they are hard to actually see, and you can't be disturbing potential rare breeders etc etc....

    But I couldn't tick a nocmig recording. Its like someone telling you "Oh I had a Canada Goose [or other appropriate patch mega] on the lake - here's the pic" - you couldn't couldn't tick it, but it would have to count on the overall Patch List, as you now know there was one there. Same with this Oystercatcher. It counts on the overall patch list, but not YOUR patch list. And as such, the whole noc-migging thing is bad news for the avid patch-lister. There can only be one loser here, and its not to be the recording device, unless you take to it with a lump hammer after hearing it play the unmistakeable "hoarse grep" of a ......

    1. More to come on this one, has the potential to be really irritating. Especially as every time I go to sleep I record something good and every time I stay awake absolutely nothing happens!

  3. Brilliant Jono. What if another birder, walking past your house had an oyker fly by and recorded it on his phone, then played it back to you. Would you tick it? Would you tick it if he had only heard it and told you? What if a passing birder photographed the oyker on your lawn while you were in bed, then showed you the photo. Would that do? I suspect I know the answer. What about a bird race? A competition to get as many sets of recording gear out as possible then just listen back and add those not on the real list to it. Bingo, records all round! And on top of all that birds neither seen or heard, many arent 100% positive recordings either theyre just guesses! Oh dear we are in danger of vanishing up our own... :)

    1. There is bit of a debate now occurring locally as to how we should note nocmig records, which lists they should or should not go on etc. The debate seems to be intensifying the more nocmig records I get, even "live" ones!