Wednesday, 30 November 2016

A Poignant Moment

Last week the heater on my van suddenly went cold. Initially I was simply annoyed (and chilly) but quickly the penny dropped and a memory from the days of ancient motors past reared its ugly head and said "You're losing coolant, old son". Sure enough I was, and rapidly. So, right now I am vanless until a crucial new part is delivered and fitted.

Being unable to work is a nuisance but, with the outdoor temperatures at finger-numbing lowness just now, I can live with it. So what have I been doing instead? Earning a few brownie points here and there. Also cycling. Wrapping up and getting out on the bike is highly satisfying. Yes it's cold, but the sunshine and scenery more than compensate. Mind you, today I kept mainly to gritted roads - the lanes were decidedly iffy where the sun hadn't melted the frost. It's a long time since I've properly fallen off my bike, and I'm quite happy to extend that period indefinitely.

Early this afternoon I walked into town and completed a couple of errands. On the way back I strolled with deliberate slowness along the little river that runs down the valley just east of our house...

This is the River Asker, one of Bridport's two main watercourses
I was looking for fish. The Asker contains small trout. I say small, but who knows, perhaps there are big ones in there too? As expected I spotted one or two darting for cover as I meandered along. Then, rounding a bend, I saw something quite unexpected: a piece of wood the size of a book floating downstream towards me, with a blazing fire aboard! Watching its progress were a woman and two young boys, aged around seven and five. I could hear the boys' eager voices from some distance, and naturally wondered what it was all about. I had my quip ready for when I drew level. I was going to say "That looks just like a Viking funeral ship!" or something along those lines...

Before I could say anything though, the older boy turned to me and said, quite matter-of-fact: "We're burning it for our dead daddy's birthday." As you can imagine, I was not expecting that. After exchanging a few appropriate words with the boys and their mum I walked on, my mind suddenly on quite other matters than fish...

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Back in the Day...

If you google 'nostalgia' you'll see it can be defined 'a...wistful affection for a period in the past'. As far as I'm concerned that fits nicely. I have no sentimental longing that such times were here again, I simply enjoy the memory of them.

Given my age you might expect my nostalgia trips to reach far back in time, and of course some do. But not all. Recently I was searching online for a photo I knew I'd published somewhere, and thought I might find it on Birdforum. If you followed earlier incarnations of NQS you'll probably be familiar with Backwater Birding, a Birdforum thread which began in January 2006. Like a little soap opera it documented the fortunes of the Backwater Birders as they exploited the potential of the Axe Estuary and surrounding area in East Devon. It was quite lively right from the start, but at its peak there would be several posts a day - 30 or more in a week was not at all unusual. It is safe to say that 2007 was the big year in many ways, not least for this amazing event (scroll down to post #2795 and on...). However, change was in the air, and 2008 saw three of the principal contributors start up their own blogs. Pretty soon the writing was on the wall and Backwater Birding eventually fizzled out in 2012.

Well, I didn't find my photo but I did enjoy enjoy a delightfully nostalgic time browsing the Backwater thread...

I can't believe how rude I was about Steve Waite, who now of course is the venerable and respected ex-county recorder for Devon, but then...well...let's just say there was a reason I regularly referred to Steve as the Eating Machine, and the Doughnut Jedi. I'm sure it's just a total coincidence that he married a girl whose Twitter handle is Jessicakes!

On 27th October 2007 Steve found a putative 2nd-winter Caspian Gull on the estuary at Coronation Corner. I quickly joined him and together we watched the bird and managed a few poor photos. This was early days of tricky gull ID for both of us; if confirmed as a Casp this would be Devon's second, following a juv in Torbay in 2006. On October 30th I wrote this on Backwater Birding:

"I have done a good bit of reading up on Caspian Gull ID, and am happy enough with our bird to a) submit it, and b) tick it. I think we are getting better and better at gull ID here, so hopefully Caspian will appear again before too long..."

In the event we had to wait another two years for our second Caspian Gull (and Devon's third) but even so I cannot help smiling wryly at what seem slightly prescient words now. I'm not sure how many the Axe has had to date, but it's comfortably into double figures.

Here's one from December 2011...



And then again, here's a...er... 'possible Casp' we wrestled with in April 2007. I even posted a few photos on the Birdforum ID thread. At the time I was hopeful...but clearly also quite ignorant!


Today my 'gull eye' would filter out this poor creature in a moment, but this was more than nine years ago.

Yep, back in the day I was pretty rubbish at gulls.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Bike Ride Imitates Life

On Wednesday I skived off work early and went for a hefty bike ride. This was naughty. After a lot of wet weather I should really have been earning money, but...well...

It was only about 6 or 7 °C, so I was trying a little dodge I'd read about somewhere. It's always my feet that suffer first in cold weather, but apparently if you wrap kitchen foil over your socks it keeps then all toasty. So that's what I did. Wooly socks, foil, shoes, neoprene overshoes. And off I went, like something ready for the oven.

The country lanes around here are quite lovely, like this one between Eggardon Hill and Beaminster...


This little section is downhill, and as I stopped to take this photo I felt all at peace with the world, life, everything. At the bottom of the slope you go under a disused railway bridge, and on approaching it I noticed a temporary road sign: 'Flood'. Sure enough, beneath the bridge was a stretch of water. Ah well, I thought blithely, I'll coast gently into it and see how we go. Well, we went deep. In just a few yards my 'gentle coast' was grinding to a rapid halt in two feet of water. Nothing for it but to unclip, put down my carefully wrapped tootsies and wade the bike through as quickly as possible. What now? Well, I certainly wasn't turning around and going back! So, drippingly, onwards...

My plan was to ride to Sutton Bingham Reservoir and back, some 45 miles. So far I'd done about seven. By the time I got to SBR my feet were very cold indeed. Walking across the road to take this photo I wasn't quite sure if I had feet at all; I certainly couldn't feel them.


A mile or so later I passed a tractor cutting a hedge with a flail. It's happening everywhere locally right now, and many of the lanes are consequently littered with twigs and chippings. I was just thinking how fortunate we are that most of our hedges down here comprise elm, hazel and suchlike, rather than the diabolical hawthorn, when 'tick-tick-tick-tick...' why, there was a little chunk of wood stuck to my front tyre. I stopped and tried unsuccessfully to flick it off. So I pulled at it. Reluctantly, a thorn about a foot long eased itself out, and a thin hiss of precious air made a bid for freedom...

I got home as it was getting dark. My feet looked - and felt - like huge fillets of refrigerated cod. As I waited patiently for them to thaw naturally before poaching them in a hot shower I meditated on the day's lesson.

Hmmm, I thought, that floodwater was a like a little metaphor for life. You plunge in, all cheery hope and optimism, you wind up seriously out of your depth and you suffer the consequences for ages afterwards.

Then I uncorked a bottle of wine...which cures everything.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

The Records Committee. Part 4. The Decision.

So, you send in the description of the rarity you've seen and the records committee sits down to assess it. They come to a decision. In London, in the 1980s, that decision would be Accept or Reject. In Devon today (and probably everywhere else) it is Accept or Not Proven. I'm not sure when 'reject' morphed into 'not proven' but one can't help wondering why this happened. After all, there's no actual difference in the decision - it's certainly not 'accepted' is it? And isn't the end result for that particular rarity description precisely the same? In the bin!

Well, yes...I suppose it is...but rather than just mock this little game of semantics, can we learn something from it?

A bit of insight into what 'not proven' means can be found on the Devon Birds website. Here's a quote:

'Records will be accepted if a majority of the Committee agree that the evidence presented is adequate. The criteria used by the Committee are necessarily strict to maintain the credibility of the Annual Report and Devon Birds database.' 

'if...the evidence presented is adequate.' Notice that? What we as observers have to realise is that when we send in a rarity description we are not telling the records committee what we've seen, no, we are presenting evidence for what we've seen. We are making a case. And, as in a court, the evidence may, or may not, be adequate to prove the case in the eyes of that court. The case might possibly wind up 'not proven'.

In a courtroom the decision will affect lives, of course. But what's at stake in the County Records Committee room? Well, it's there in the above quote: '...the credibility of the Annual Report and Devon Birds database'. The committee is simply trying to safeguard the credibility of the county's Annual Bird Report and birdy database for posterity, trying to keep them free of anything that might in the future be pointed at with a raised eyebrow and a "Hah! Re-e-e-e-eally??!" *

Logically then, our description - our 'evidence' - will need to meet a very good standard. And the rarer the bird, the higher the bar.

Unfortunately we don't necessarily see it in such sanguine terms. Our view might be that we've seen what we've seen, and we are graciously offering the records committee our description for their files. And quite often we're a bit miffed at being asked to go through such a process at all. So if our offer is deemed 'not proven', well, it's been turned down, hasn't it! Our offer has been...yes...rejected!

We don't tend to take rejection well. We're much better at taking offense.

I suspect this is why we've seen the move from 'rejected' to 'not proven'. In a sense, I think the records committee represents the Establishment. It doesn't mean to, and certainly doesn't want to, but it does. In previous generations, most folk would willingly kowtow to various forms of the Establishment. Indeed, historically many birdwatchers would have come from its ranks, would have seen no problem with having a committee act as guardian of avifaunal records, and certainly not been upset by a 'reject' decision. "On the chin, dear boy..." Feelings towards the Establishment are very different today. Many, understandably, do not wish to conform. Folk are much more prone to bristle, fume and kick hard against what they will now see as imperious, high-handed behaviour by jumped-up, self-appointed twerps in questionable authority. Records committees do not wish to be seen as imperious and high-handed. Or jumped-up twerps. Hence...softly-softly...whisper it...

Not Proven...sorry about that...

To put it simply, we're more touchy these days, and need gentler handling. I reckon the move from 'reject' to 'not proven' is a recognition of that shift in sensitivity, and though a bit of a cheesy move perhaps, suggests to me that records committees are keen not to alienate us, but to win us over and gain our support. Anyway, that's my little theory.

_____________________________________________________________


On a different note, some have asked what happens when a committee member submits a rarity description. Well, that's easy. All his mates on the committee clap him on the back and out comes the rubber stamp marked 'Accept'.

Next question?

Okay, seriously. I've seen it happen many times, and their descriptions go through the process just like anyone else's. It is worth noting at this point that the vast majority of descriptions which pass through a committee's hands are unanimously accepted. A very small number are unanimously deemed not proven, and another small number give rise to a split decision or otherwise come up for discussion. In my experience that statistical outcome was equally true for committee members...with the notable exception of the 'unanimously deemed not proven' bit - after all, I think you'd expect someone on a records committee to be better than that.

So, what occurs when a committee member's description came up for discussion? Well, it happened to me a few years ago. I was asked to step outside for a bit so the others could freely express their thoughts, then I was invited back in - with my fresh pint - and clapped on the back while somebody got out the rubber stamp marked 'Accept'. But of course, this is what you would expect. These were my imperious, high-handed buddies after all, and I was one of their number...

Here is the description that had bothered them...

What do you think? Safe decision? Ah, you're thinking, has the observer conclusively ruled out Pallid Harrier? Hmmm. By the way, nowadays there is a nice electronic form that you can download from the Devon Birds website.

You might recall from Part 2 that in London in the 1980s we didn't get descriptions in advance. Unless they had been posted to us personally, the first time we got to see them was at the next committee meeting. I well remember one meeting when a committee member presented a description of his own for us to consider. Just to be on the safe side I shan't say which county, but I will tell you this: it was a Goshawk. Status in London at the time? Seriously rare. Probably still is. Add to that the fact that Goshawk is notoriously hard to describe convincingly - along with Black Kite it is probably responsible for more 'not proven' decisions than everything else put together. So, the description was read, and there was a lot of coughing and shuffling and looking at the table, while our happy Goshawk observer beamed excitedly at his colleagues...

I'll cut to the chase. Yes, it was accepted **. Yes, I obviously think it was well dodgy. And yes, it probably still happens on occasion. As I said in the last post, what we have here is a subjective, imperfect system. But, as Steve Waite pointed out in a comment on Part 1: if you want to gather and preserve records, what's the alternative?

* Like Sooty Tern at Staines Res, say...

** By the way, that's not a cue for any London readers to reach for their 1980s LBRs...though I wouldn't blame you.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Records Committee. Part 3. The Process - Devon Today

As in London, bird recording in Devon is steeped in history. The county bird club has existed since 1928 and published a Bird Report more or less from its inception. My membership began around 2004, coinciding with revitalised birding urges induced by our move to Seaton. A few years later I was on the Devon Birds Records Committee, once again throwing my weight around in a judgemental sort of way...

How on earth did that happen?

Well, when it comes to recruiting new members onto its records committee, Devon Birds (or the Devon Birdwatching and Preservation Society as it was until very recently) has an actual, proper procedure, the nuts and bolts of which are even published right here on their website for the whole world to see. Talk about transparent.

Following a period of shrewd networking and intensive lobbying I was formally invited by the County Recorder to apply for a position on the Devon Birds Records Committee. To apply! With a CV, no less. Blimey, if there was more than one applicant there would even have to be a vote, which I might lose! What on earth motivated me to go through this potentially humiliating process? Naturally it was a self-sacrificing desire to serve my fellow Devon birders in whatever humble role they deemed me worthy. No ego involved at all. And so it was that my devoted followers elected me to membership of the DBRC.

My tenure coincided with the move from postal circulation to digital. With the former you would receive a fat envelope of descriptions, review each one, then write your decision and any comments on a separate sheet. The idea was that you shouldn't look at the decisions and comments of those committee members who had received the package before you, but of course you could do exactly that if so inclined. Digital circulation did away with such naughtiness! Periodically - maybe two or three times a year, and certainly not monthly as in London - the County Recorder would call a meeting. The descriptions discussed at the meeting would almost invariably be only those upon which there had not been unanimous agreement, and you were notified in advance which they were. Plenty of time to review those descriptions and do some research if needed. At the meeting would be just the five committee members and the County Recorder, who had no vote and acted only as chair.

I thought the system worked superbly. A real effort was made to recruit committee members who were experienced, were respected by their peers, and ideally from different parts of Devon. This resulted in a broad base of understanding of both the county's birds and its birders, and gave the committee a good level of maturity and integrity I think. And by limiting each member to five years it meant that fresh blood was introduced every 12 months; there was absolutely no room for some cliquey little gang of buddies to go on a power trip...

The job even came with a contract of sorts, unambiguously explaining what was expected of you. If you didn't measure up, well...you were out.

This is the last county rarity description I sent to the DBRC - a gorgeous Caspian Gull on the Axe estuary, 9 April 2013. Hardly a text-book description, but at the time of submission (early 2014) I had been off the committee for more than a year and was going through a bit of a birding trough. I couldn't be bothered to write a proper description and simply used this annotated photo which had appeared on NQS MkII. I emailed it to the County Recorder along with a couple of other pics. I assume it didn't give cause for much debate. Oh, but if only all records were so easy...

Record assessment is a subjective affair and therefore inherently imperfect. However, if you insist upon keeping a county or national database of birds, bees, butterflies - of anything - it is obviously going to need long-term credibility. Some kind of vetting process is a logical necessity in my view. But a truly successful vetting process needs to do more than just ensure that the database contains trustworthy, dependable records; it also needs to encourage a maximum number of submissions. To achieve these dual aims that vetting process must have two vital things:
  • An efficient system of record assessment (obviously)
  • As trusted and respected a records committee as is humanly possible
To be frank I would be surprised to learn of a county that does it better than Devon. Though of course, you may know different...

I enjoyed my time on the DBRC. Particularly the bit following the meetings, when we would all go down the pub for a bevvy and a have good laugh about the field sketch of a so-called Hoopoe that was clearly a parrot.

No, I'm kidding again. As in London, we never laughed.

Next up: Part 4. The Decision.

The Records Committee. Part 2. The Process - London in the '80s

Although I was interested in birds from a young age I didn't get the bit between my teeth as a truly keen birder until autumn 1981. Mrs NQS and I began to travel far and wide in search of new birds, guided - obviously - by the sage words found in Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book. And then, in October '82, I was jammy enough to find a Baird's Sandpiper at Staines Reservoir. To execute such an audacious move right under the noses of the Staines regulars inevitably brought my name to their attention. One of them was editor of the London Bird Report, and three others were London Recorders...

The London Recording Area is somewhat idiosyncratic. It is simply a circle of 20 miles radius centred upon St Paul's Cathedral. Consequently it includes bits of Bucks, Herts, Essex, Kent and Surrey, along with the nonexistent county of Middlesex. This must be a right pain for those neighbouring counties! And for Berkshire, in fact, part of which falls within the 20-mile circle, but isn't recognised as Berks by London...if you get me. Oh, I almost forgot: there was another bit called 'Central London', the definition of which I cannot remember. That's seven discrete zones. Each zone had its own recorder.

As an observer in 1982, what you did with your bird records was divide them up by zone and send the resultant lists (which might number anything from one to seven) to the relevant recorder. Each recorder then transferred your records - by hand - on to file cards. A laborious undertaking, especially for the late Pete Naylor, who looked after Middx for many years. As an observer you were hopefully aware of London Rarities that required a description, and duly sent one in with your records. If not, the recorder was responsible for sending you a request for a description, by post of course. And eventually your description would wind up before the London Records Committee.

Let's go back 80 years...

The first London Bird Report, compiled from the records of 83 observers, all of whom were no doubt members of the London Natural History Society. Within the pages of the report there is no list of London rarities for which a description would be required, but note the existence already of a record-vetting body: the Recording Committee of the Ornithological Section.

I can't tell you exactly how Messrs Homes, Bayne, Morgan, Parmenter and Paulson came to be members of the Recording Committee, but I can tell you how I did....

In the early '80s the London Records Committee comprised the seven zone recorders, the LBR editor, and two or three others whose reason for being there escapes me. Around 1983 or 1984 the Bucks zone lacked a recorder, and I was asked if I'd like to take it on. My memory is a bit ropey, but I think it was Pete Clement, then editor of the LBR, who asked me. Bucks was easy. It was the smallest zone, with a correspondingly small number of records to worry about. To be honest I was flattered to have been approached. Here I was, in my early twenties and a proper birder for about 5 minutes, being co-opted into the London Birding Establishment.

Your job as a London Recorder was to collate records, correspond with observers and in various other ways push paper. It's interesting to note that membership of the Records Committee was actually a secondary role, and simply a consequence of your primary, administrative one. Which explains how it came to be that a young, rather inexperienced birder could wind up sitting in judgement on the rarity descriptions of his much older, much more experienced peers. It seemed fair enough to me at the time, but with hindsight...er...not ideal.

Once a month we would meet in central London, each recorder bringing along whatever descriptions he'd recently received. They would be read out and discussed, maybe handed around, and then judgement would be passed. To be fair, there was a great deal of experience around the table, and I'm sure we almost always got it right. But even in those days the British Birds Rarities Committee had postal circulation, whereas the first almost all of us would know about any description was when it was read out at the meeting. No opportunity to research, or even to think about it much.

Anyway, we'd plough our way through the descriptions and then several of us would adjourn to the pub to eat, drink, and have a good laugh about the field sketch of a so-called Hoopoe that was clearly a parrot.

No, I'm kidding. We never laughed.

I have absolutely no idea what London's recording arrangements are these days, or how their records committee currently works. But it's easy to see flaws in the old way. For example, I was on the committee for about five or six years until I resigned my recordership, but it was theoretically possible to be on it for decades. In fact, for the same people to be on it for decades! Heaven forbid...

More recently I was a member of the Devon Records Committee. In the next post I shall compare and contrast...

PS. I would just like to say thanks for all the comments on the last post. To be honest that came as a surprise, and I am grateful when something I write is enhanced by a bit of robust, but friendly discussion. Cheers.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

The Records Committee. Part 1. The Request for a Description.

Chances are, if you're a birder, you will on occasion have submitted a list of sightings to your County Recorder. However, it may well be that your efforts to make an altruistic contribution to the local fund of avifaunal data met with a response like this:

Dear Mr Archer,
Many thanks for your 2015 Ambridge records, which are of particular value from such underwatched farmland. I note that on Oct 26 you saw a Lapland Bunting at Brookfield Farm. This species is one of those on the Borsetshire rarities list, for which a written description is required. Therefore I have attached a rarity description form and would be grateful if you could fill it out and return it to me at your earliest convenience.
Thanks again.
Kind regards,
Timothy Decent-Chap (County Recorder)

Ah, the request for a description! The wording so polite, the grateful acknowledgement of your efforts so disarming. Naturally you complied immediately, filled out the description form and sent it in with sentiments only of willing cooperation. Or did you?

It is true to say that to some birders correspondence such as the above would be like the proverbial red rag. In fact they would fail to see the actual words, but only the imaginary subtext:

Dear Mr Stringer,
Lapland Bunting? Ha ha! Yeah, right... Go on, give us a laugh and fill in the description form so we can pass it round the Borsetshire Records Committee and make fun of your rubish speeling. Before REJECTING IT!!
No thanks at all.
Unkind gestures,
Timothy Pedant-Nazi (County Bird Police)

So, which scenario do you identify with? Your answer likely depends at least in part upon your view of the whole records committee institution. You might feel that although imperfect it is a valid, indeed necessary arrangement, and gives a measure of integrity to local and national bird records. On the other hand you might feel that records committees are nothing more than writhing pits of prejudice and favouritism, populated only by oily, sneering buddy-buddies.

And how might you have come to adopt your particular view? Probably through your dealings with such bodies, and the positive or negative experiences gained thereby.

Scattered throughout the land there must be dozens of records committees presiding over their respective fiefdoms and sitting in judgement on our rarity descriptions. There are many questions we might ask. For example:
  • What gives anyone the right to such authority?
  • What motivates a person to assume such a responsibilty?
  • Where do they learn how to fulfil it properly?
  • Why was my record rejected?
These are tricky questions. Except the last one of course. Your record wasn't rejected, it was 'not proven'.

I thought it might be interesting to explore the world of records committees a little bit. And amusing possibly. I am slightly qualified to do so, having submitted several rarity descriptions over the years, both at county and national level. Oh, and I have been on the other side of the fence also. Twice. But I'll save that for Part 2...

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Forty Years

Last Wednesday I went pike fishing with my son, Rob. I think this was the second time in about 15 years that the nation's pike have been troubled by my attentions. I doubt they worried too much though - I am no expert in their pursuit. In a few hours we covered about a mile or so of water, thrashing it to a foam with plugs, spinners and twitched sprats. Just one fish was daft enough to fall for this unsubtle approach. Thankfully it fell to me...
14lb 8oz of freshwater shark, with a liking for sprats

This venture comprised the first step in our Exeter Canal campaign. Next week we're planning another go, on a different stretch. Eventually we'll settle on somewhere and give it a protracted effort with assorted deadbaits, and see what happens.

By the way, if you're a birder reading this, please excuse the slightly arcane terminology. I realise that plugs, spinners, twitched sprats and deadbaits have no place in the birder's lexicon. In case the context didn't give it away, they're just things you chuck in the water to tempt pike to come and join you on the bank.

Pike have serious teeth and are truly impressive creatures. As we watched the fish swim majestically away it was difficult to appreciate that this fearsome predator is actually quite vulnerable to careless handling and needs treating very gently on the bank. In my youth it is probably fair to say that the majority of coarse anglers viewed pike with contempt and it was not unusual to come across the occasional dead one, callously killed by some ignorant idiot. I'm glad to say I never felt anything but respect for pike, and though I didn't often target them specifically I was always up for an opportunist dabble if one appeared in my roach swim, say. Like this fella...


It's the summer of '76 and the earliest photo I can find of me with a pike. The fact that it was taken 40 years ago is very sobering. A lot has happened in that time. On a personal level, my specs have gone from cool and optional to quite the opposite; my hat, from silly to...er...to red.

And what about the bigger picture? Well, on a normal workday I will often listen to Radio 4 as I toil away, so I was mighty glad to be fishing last Wednesday because Radio 4 would have been wall-to-wall US presidential election that day. Trump, Clinton, up-to-the-minute news and analysis...I'd have been bored rigid. In the summer of 1976 Gerald Ford was the incumbent. Ford had fallen into the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned following the 1974 Watergate scandal (which is, incidentally, younger readers, where we get all our 'xxxxx-gate' event-of-infamy terms from) but lost it to Jimmy Carter in the November '76 election. After Carter the US populace decided they would like a retired Hollywood actor to lead the free world for eight years...

I think I caught a few pike during that period also.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Why Stringing is to be Avoided

Veteran NQS readers might recall the following strange episode...

On Thursday, 11 November 2010 I experienced a rare twitching urge and headed to Turf Lock (adjacent to Exminster Marshes) to see the American Robin that had been found the previous afternoon. Jammily I got quite a decent photo.

1W American Robin at Turf Lock, 11 November 2010

All very nice.

Shortly afterwards I stumbled upon another blogger's account of his own twitch to see this bird. He too was thrilled to have got photos, and showed two of them to his readers. Unfortunately one of 'his' photos was actually mine (reversed, to show the bird facing left) and the other was of a completely different individual (an adult!) and likewise lifted off the internet.

Of course I had heard of various birding frauds perpetrated over the years, but this was the first I could recall being personally affected by. At the time I was pretty annoyed, but to be honest that feeling was quickly overtaken by bafflement. Why would anyone bother doing it? What was wrong with them? Soon I just found it all rather sad.

To be honest I'd almost forgotten about it, but recently it came to mind again in a different context.

Stringing.

Of course, passing off someone else's photo as evidence of something you have seen isn't stringing. No, it's just plain lying; it's fraud. But I can easily imagine it's the kind of dark place the stringer is in danger of ending up if he isn't careful, actually committing this kind of fraud in order to back up a stringy shout. Maybe after years of patient tolerance, someone has finally challenged yet another of his dodgy records, and in a desperate attempt to save face....

And once you do that - and are caught - any shred of integrity you might ever have had as a birder is gone. Who wants that? No one. So how can we make very sure that we never, ever end up in the Land of Pariahs?

Okay, let's start at the beginning.

What is stringing? Well, it's easier to describe what a stringer is: a birder who repeatedly claims dubious sightings. Dubious species or dubious counts, often flyovers, or 'passing through' in some way, and characteristically NEVER seen or witnessed by any other birder.

How, or why, does it happen? Well, I can only guess. There are probably various reasons, but a logical one might be this...

I suppose we generally identify birds by weighing probabilities, perhaps subconsciously for the most part. A Robin perched on a garden fork at 10ft for half a minute will be easy - the probability that it's actually a Robin is clearly 100%. But what about a Starling zipping past as a silhouette at 50 yds, seen for just a second or two? Well, that might be just 10% or so, due to the potential number of other species it might have been, like Waxwing for example. But as a birder we are totally safe calling it a Starling, and even if it wasn't one, there is no danger of us ever being labelled a stringer in this scenario. But what if we did call it a Waxwing? If we were in North Norfolk in the late autumn of a true 'Waxwing Year' we would easily get away with it, but in South Devon in July we'd be laughed out of town. And tucked away in that last sentence lies the reason stringers wind up with the label, I think. Because between the extremes of those two examples there is a wide spectrum of relative probability, and I wonder if some birders are simply bad at weighing that probabilty in a way that brings them to a reasonable conclusion. Perhaps they are incorrectly calibrated in some way, their needle already set way off into the 'optimistic' quadrant before they even start? I don't know, I'm guessing really, and trying not to be too uncharitable.

I'm kind of hoping that a birder might be able to recognise in himself the insidious rot that is the tendency to string, and do something about it before it's too late. Asking oneself a few searching questions might help.
  • Is caution your watchword when it comes to ID?
  • Are you acutely aware of the relative scarcity of species in the area where you bird?
  • Are nearly all your decent birds single-observer jobs?
  • Have you noticed that your sightings are in a different league (a much higher one!) than everyone else?
  • Do you find that other birders no longer bother going to look for goodies you tell them you've seen?
  • Etc...

Whatever the case, winding up having no one believe any of your records unless they've seen them with their own eyes is a sorry state of affairs. Please avoid.