Tuesday 21 April 2020

The great patch birding nocmig debate continues

Back to the nocmig debate I'm afraid. Pandora's box for the individual lister perhaps, but for a collective of local patch-workers the can of worms is far more accurate. One night last week I heard and recorded Whimbrel flying over. Amazing! However celebrations at the time were rather put on hold as I grappled with the whole nocmig argument.

We have a local birding WhatsApp group to share news and sightings (and now audio files....), there are perhaps ten of us on it. It has been busier than normal what with lockdown; even the most banal of birds now get shared. Then I set up my bucket and in short order have recorded a series of what are basically patch megas. The WhatsApp group has gone into overdrive - we just don't get sea ducks and waders here. The former - Common Scoter - were recorded twice last century, the most recent nearly 60 years ago, and under what circumstances we will probably never know. All we know is that there was a bird on the Basin for a day way back when. Waders, with a few exceptions like Snipe and Common Sandpiper, are basically all flyovers. Nasty weather - rain or fog - seems to aid our chances, but essentially they're as rare as rocking horse you know what.

Nocmig is making them less rare and that's the crux of the current debate. With my slightly gleeful morning reports of x y z recorded "rarities", even if heard "live", there was a suggestion that nocmigging could cause a devaluation in status of rare birds on the patch, especially for those that live a little further away and can't partake in nocturnal recording/listening. If this trend continues and noc-migging remains a thing even post lockdown, will birds that for most patch-workers were a once in a decade sighting be reduced to merely expected annual nocturnal migrants that nobody actually sees?

We're divided I'm afraid. I think we're all agreed that vision is the superior and ranking sense for people [most people - what if one of us were blind?], and that we therefore all find visual records of birds and photographs of birds more satisfying than aural records and mp3 files. We also all seem to agree that a recording of a bird reviewed after the event is just not as kosher as a heard at the time bird, and as such whereas that bird cannot be denied an entry onto the patch list for we all agree that it was indeed present, it can't be said to have actually been heard by the individual who turned on the recorder and thus can't go their personal list. Fine.

But that is where it ends. Personally I was extremely excited as I heard the Scoter and now this Whimbrel go over. Probably less excited than had I found either of them on the deck, or flying past in the daytime*, but more excited than if somebody else had found one on the deck and I'd then twitched them. I am finding that there is definitely a big element of "self found" associated with nocmig.

I was actually indoors at the start of both events, listening on headphones connected to the microphone on the balcony. Lying in bed actually! Is this allowed? To deflect the most obvious objections I took them off, opened the door and also managed to hear a call 'naturally', but I didn't bother for the Moorhen and that's now on my garden list too. It strikes me writing this that if there are issues with the use of a microphone and headphones then we may also have problems with binoculars and telescopes, both of which also augment human sensory capabilities. We have yet not had the 'webcam' debate, whereby an internet connection replaces a short cable, and hopefully we don't need to, but camera traps did get a mention.

As I have added more decent nocmig records the debate has naturally intensified. So does this argument of devaluation hold any water? To my mind not really, but I am new to all this as many of us are, and the reason I am penning this is to see if any readers would like to offer an opposing opinion, or to give their thought on nocmig and patch birding if they have already been through this stage. If anything I think it makes our collective local list more complete. We may have thought Common Scoter was mega but we were ill informed, simply not aware that each year an annual overland migration takes place. That wonderfully quick-to-market graphical representation of the Scoter migration had a lot of people similarly enlightened I expect. We also thought that poor weather saw the best chance of waders on our patch, and it probably still does, but perhaps their spring movements commonly take them over urban areas like ours in fine weather? My nocmig sessions along with everyones else's help to understand that. To ignore these records or give them any less merit than the diurnal migrants that we hear (a high percentage Yellow Wagtails go unseen for example) strikes me as counter-intuitive. The opposing argument to this is that for the sake therefore of scientific exactitude, why not set up camera traps and microphones everywhere and ensure that nothing, bar nothing, gets through unrecorded?

Where we are really getting hung up is how we list these birds. A separate nocmig list? That's one option I suppose, but only a single list can describe the totality of what birds use or fly over a patch. If we were to have a separate list for nocturnal migrants should we also have a list for diurnal migrants? A separate list for birds that we heard but didn't see? I think that as long as we clearly state what type of record each is then we're fine. Where this falls down a little is that year on year patch lists, or current and historical lists, are not easily compared in the post nocmig era. The view here is that we should mention in the annual report that a new survey method has begun to be employed, albeit in a limited way, and that this has contributed to a change in how some birds have been recorded. It will work the other way too as with significantly less coverage by local birders, passerine spring migrant records are likely going to fall. Were it not for lockdown this wouldn't be happening of course, and frankly the only way I can manage nocmig is because of lockdown. I don't have to go to the office so nobody can see the huge bags under my eyes caused by lack of sleep - these nocmig records have not come for free, especially with the "at the time" stipulation we have decided on.

If the worry here is individual lists, i.e. the competitive part of local birding - and let's face it, many of these birds are certainly becoming a lot less rare on my list. I can of course see why my new records may ruffle some feathers. I sympathise, not everyone is able to nocmig from the patch, in fact most people who keep a Wanstead list cannot do so without serious effort (Nick has been talking about it!). In that respect I and a couple of others have a clear advantage, albeit not one we have up until now ever used. Fifteen years I could have been doing this! Location is just one aspect, time is the other. There is a huge amount of disparity in the time each of us are able to devote to birding the patch, in any manner. Some of us have partners and kids, some of us don't. Some of us travel frequently for extended periods of work, others not at all. At best, I could at certain times of year do an hour or so each weekday morning, and then all weekend every weekend if I sacrificed everything else I enjoy doing. Others struggle to do more than a couple of hours every Saturday morning. At the other end of the spectrum at least one local birder spends ten hours a day on the patch during the prime months and could do more if he wanted. It all comes down to personal circumstances, there just isn't a way to level a playing field this diverse. I don't think anybody is suggesting that we introduce birding caps, and I am not going to deny the geography of Chateau L - if it's not giving the game away too much I can be on Wanstead Flats in under thirty seconds. Indeed I think last week's Whimbrel were over Wanstead Flats when I first head them. I would have no problem keeping a separate list for nocmig (in fact I do in a way, via eBird nocturnal sightings). However when it came to describing my total patch list I'd simply add them together, i.e 158 of which one is nocmig. Clearly specifying nocmig records on a combined list achieves exactly the same thing. I also feel I've made more effort for these recent records than many daytime rare birds where I've just got lucky with a flyover, a case of being in the right place at the right time.....**

But there is no denying that nocmig, a new concept for all of us here, has started out as a bit tricky in terms of reaching a concensus, and it feels like we're still feeling our way a little bit. As such, and to check that we're not an outlier in how we might deal with this, I'd like to find out how other local patches deal with these types of nocturnal records.


Nick managed to get the crucial photo that I could not!

Three days after I made my nocmig recording of Whimbrel, two flew over me on Wanstead Flats early in the morning. This is patently absurd given all of the above, but there you have it. Patch birding - sometimes you cannot make it up! Did I feel any less elated having ticked the species a few days earlier? Not in the slightest! Did it feel like a full fat patch tick? Well, not quite, although I confess I did feel slightly and strangely vindicated. There were also a few others around who I was able to get on the birds which for me made it far more satisfactory - there is joy in shared sightings. I then also recorded another bird a day afterwards, so that's three definite flyovers in five days. Whether this is simply a 2020 phenomenon or part of a regular Spring movement remains to be seen.


  1. You know its a lot of faff for a common scoter and a whimbrel. I cant imagine people keeping it up year in year out for these species once they have been recorded a few times. Then you get a real rarity. What do you do with that? Lifer? The difference between sounds and sight is that birds can throw out many hitherto unknown nocturnal calls on migrations, so there might just be a doubt when a potential rare could just be a commonish species with an odd night time call... I too live in the centre of my patch and could do this without effort and without much ambient sound either being very rural but, its just not for me...I'm out. I will read the debate as it unfolds with great interest though...Cheers.

    1. I also think that the interest in nocmig will wane once we can all get out and do some proper birding again. It's not sustainable for one thing, it is too tiring - like running a moth trap.

      The threat of a real rarity is always out there. Personally I am discarding all single note calls, it is fraught with danger and just very very difficult. After two weeks I already have a large folder of "unknowns". They may get looked at again as my knowledge improves, then again they may not!

  2. I have two 'Birds of Devon' type books. One recent, the other published in the '60s I think (I'm naked nocmigging right now, and not going indoors to check). In the old one it is interesting how few records there are of large shearwaters and suchlike. Why? Nobody seawatched in days of yore. The birds were no doubt always there when conditions were right though, and in later years such species underwent a status change. Or should I say perceived status change...

    Your Wanstead patch is present 24/7,and birds are in it, or over it, likewise 24/7. Just because observers choose (or are obliged) to limit their presence to less than that makes no difference to the birdies. And if they choose (or are obliged) to further handicap themselves by limiting their sensory augmentation kit to just optical stuff, well...

    All that is happening here is that you are learning new stuff about your local avifauna. What's not to like?

    1. The lack of sleep is not to like, but I agree with nocmig being the variable here rather than what the birds are doing.

  3. The listing thing is another matter though. All the best with that one. 😊

  4. Hi Jonathan. Wishing I had a decent microphone here in rural Dorset. It's very, very quiet. I will do some experiments tonight with a phone. Re. records: I think anything 'live' is great. Heard or seen. Great if it's backed up by a photo or a recording. Remotely recorded takes the edge off. Where I (usually) live in Italy almost every single record of Otter has been a camera-trap record & subsequently-found spraints. I don't know anyone apart from me who's actually seen a live one. Remember when photos were as rare as hens' teeth? I think the important thing (e.g. in the case of the Common Scoters) is the collection of information that develops our knowledge re. birds' ethology - both where they fly, in what numbers & when they fly.

    1. I completely agree Paul, thanks for your comment