Wednesday 2 September 2020

I don't know

Now more than ever is the time to be circumspect. There are all sorts of interesting birds arriving on our shores, part of a regular migration to wintering grounds or simply blown off course. They are whizzing around the countryside, hiding in bushes and flying over your head. Here is a sad truth: you won't be able to identify them all. You will see a silhouette, a bit of wing, a snatch of tail, or hear a single frustrating call note. And then it will disappear never to be seen again. It is highly frustrating - part of the attraction of birding is to be able to put names to things, to order the natural world around you. But in some cases those fleeting glimpses don't allow you to do that. And that's OK, in fact it is perfectly normal. If on the basis of tiny scraps of incomplete information you could then you would be unusual - with the possible exception of sea-watching gurus who must practice some form of black magic. But for normal people this would be highly unusual, and thus highly suspicious There is always one that gets away. Always. 

Giving everything a name is an easy trap to fall into. You will start with common things like Finches and Pipits. Ooooh, that looked quite chunky! Quite chunky is unfortunately not a solid ID feature, but when combined with a gap on a list and circumstantial information it is surprising how quickly it can firm up. It goes like this: I need Crossbill for my patch list. Crossbills are quite chunky Finches and what just flew over [silently] was a chunky Finch. It is the right time of year and I know that there are Crossbills about as Bill had several yesterday over near the Res. That mental pencilling in of Crossbill is heading towards ink.

Don't do it! It might just be a patch list or even just your garden list, but you are fooling nobody, least of all yourself. And whilst you are busy being delusional your fellow birders are doing some listing of their own. They are adding you to a list of unreliable observers. Of people who are bit stringy.... You don't want to be on that list!

You don't gain acceptance into the great birding circle by being infallibly brilliant. It is perfectly acceptable not to know what something is, indeed you will get far more kudos for admitting your shortcomings rather than trying to cover them up. Not knowing is a critical part of birding and there are birding geniuses out there with gazillions of birding hours under their belts who throw away birds all the time.

Needless to say I am not a birding genius, but I can still practice good discipline. Today three small Finches flew over my head at around 7am whilst I was standing on my balcony. They did not stop and they did not call. Goldfinches almost always call and the current gap on my list is Siskin. I know that Siskin numbers are building but.... unless I get simply fantastic views I am not skilled enough to identify a Siskin in flight without a call, ideally several calls. So my eBird list from this morning has the following entry:

3 finch sp. 

I also had a regular-sized Pipit that I very nearly managed to get a photograph of as it sailed past. Unfortunately I blew it and so that was that, for it was a silent Pipit. At the moment the possible Pipits around here are Meadow Pipit and Tree Pipit. I know this because on Monday I saw them both on Wanstead Flats and they both called. I don't put names to flying Pipits unless they call and so on my eBird list you will also find this:

1 Meadow/Tree Pipit

I am reconciled to not knowing - to never knowing - what this Pipit was. It is obviously not that big a deal as I have both species for the garden anyway and so there was nothing riding on this particular bird, but that won't always be the case. Witness my desperation for my camera when that Curlew flew over at the weekend - I knew that I wouldn't be able to ID that to species unless I had a photo. I had Whimbrel for the garden already but not Curlew - the temptation to call it a Curlew would have been huge, especially as I knew that a number of other London birders had had Curlew flying around recently. And of course the stakes get higher still. I'm staring at the sky in suburban London, not at a dense Pittosporum clump on Scilly or down a Geo on Shetland. Mastering your ignorance is obviously much harder as the birds get rarer, but if you can get into the habit of doing it for the common stuff then you will find it easier to let the potentially rare stuff go as well.

Embrace it. There will always be one that got away. It is a normal part of birding and nobody knows it all. And you know what people think of know-it-alls.


  1. There are known unknowns, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, although I don't think he was talking about birding. – Malcolm

  2. I always take inspiration from Elsa (Frozen) “Let it go”, “Let it go”.

  3. "1 Meadow/Tree/Red-throated/OB Pipit"