Monday, 29 May 2017

The Birding Reputation

So you want to be a birder? You've just forked out for some bins, a Collins Bird Guide and maybe a scope, and you're wondering how to go about acquiring a birding reputation? One definition of the word 'reputation' is 'the beliefs or opinions that are generally held about someone or something'. Those beliefs and opinions are of course held by other people, so when you very first head off down the local marsh or gravel pit with your shiny new optics it follows that you initially have no birding reputation at all, because nobody knows you yet. But don't worry; once you begin to interact with other birders your reputation will just come along naturally...

The question is, what kind of reputation do you want?

I suppose there are a few birders out there who couldn't care less whether or not they interact with anyone, and maybe have no interest in what kind of reputation they have. This post isn't for them. No, it's for you, the budding birder who wishes to become a respected member of the wider birding community. Incidentally, don't worry, if like me you do have mildly misanthropic tendencies you can still spend most of your birding time in your own wonderful company and yet still be an active (and hopefully respected) part of that community. Win-win, in my view. Anyway, I digress...

I am going to assume for the purposes of this post that the kind of reputation you wish to acquire is a good one. You would like to be known as a reliable, trustworthy birder. Yes? Okay, this is normal. Please read on.

Your reputation will be based on three main factors.

1. Your Ability to Identify Birds Correctly

First, understand this: everyone mucks up. There is not a birder alive who hasn't dropped a good few glorious clangers. Which is reassuring. And everyone accepts that beginners will get it wrong more often due to lack of experience. Time in the field should sort that out. I say 'should' because if it doesn't, your reputation will suffer. So if you don't want to be known as the eternal noddy, make an effort in this area. It's no surprise that some of the most solid bird ID reputations belong to artists, because they look very closely, they know their feather tracts and bird topography. To illustrate a particular age or plumage phase they have to learn it. Yes, effort. So, if you gain a reputation as rubbish at ID, well, that's probably down to you.

2. Your Ability to Find Good Birds

You will find good birds. Guaranteed. 'Good' = birds that are rare or scarce in your particular birding context. An Avocet or Grey Plover on an inland gravel pit would be decent finds, or a Snow Bunting on the concrete apron of a London reservoir. And so on. And when you find something a little trickier like, say, a Temminck's Stint, and correctly identify it, well, you are laying the foundation for a fine reputation.

Some birders excel at finding good birds, and are most definitely better at it than others. Why? Time in the field is no doubt a factor, combined with a dogged persistence, a robust work ethic and a knack of knowing where to look and when. Such birders can earn themselves an enviable reputation. Do you want one like that? If so you might be tempted to think that the more you find, the better your reputation will be. Well, possibly. Read on...

3. Your Ability to Verify Those Good Birds!

Twitchers love patch birders. Why? Because patch birders find really good birds in obscure little backwaters which the twitchers can then hurry along to look at and add to whichever list applies. Getting others to see your birds is one way to verify them. And let's be frank, sharing your good birds with others is also the most generous and satisfying way to verify them. If you don't agree then you are probably much further up the 'misanthrope' spectrum than me. The second way to verify your birds is to photograph them. Also good, and sometimes the only way.

First-winter Caspian Gull on the Axe Estuary, Dec 2009. Verified both ways.

Okay then. Taking all three factors into consideration gives us...

The Not Quite Scilly Birding Reputation Rule
Find and correctly identify lots of well-verified good birds, and you will certainly build a solid reputation as a reliable, trustworthy birder. That's a promise.

So, there we have it, just follow the NQS Birding Reputation Rule and your future acceptance as a respected member of the wider birding community is guaranteed.

Oh, but before I go, just a few words of caution...

There is another kind of birding reputation, a kind far less desirable. There are several words for it - all of them pejorative - and believe me, you don't want it. As I mentioned earlier, your reputation will be based on the three main factors outlined above, so how exactly do they have a bearing on this exceedingly bad kind of reputation? Is it factor number 1? Is misidentifying stuff going to earn it? No, not really. It won't do you any favours, but hey, nobody's infallible. Is it factor number 2? Will you become a birding pariah if you don't find good birds? No. Lots of good birders don't find much, and everyone finds something. So is it factor number 3?

Oh yes, matey. It is factor number 3.

Now I cannot tell you exactly what kind of birding reputation I personally have, but I can tell you fairly precisely the degree to which my good birds are verified. For example, I just had a scan through the list of Devon Rarity descriptions I've written over the years. Excluding Yellow-legged Gulls and intermedius Lesser Black-backs (honestly, you don't want me to include them) I've written 36 descriptions for birds found and identified by me. Of that total, 23 were verified by other birders (and in several cases photos also) and 4 by photos alone. Of the 9 not verified, 3 were flyovers and 5 were while seawatching alone; the other was a Continental Coal Tit at Beer Head.

So my percentage verified = 27/36 = 75%

Over the years I have been privileged to know some very good birders, a few of them quite well. Birders whose reputations I would say are exceptionally good. I'll name a few. In the W London area: Andrew Moon, Chris Heard, the late Pete Naylor and Rupert Hastings. In Devon: Steve Waite, Phil Abbott, Ian McLean, Mike Langman, Matt Knott. This is not an exhaustive list, but simply intended to illustrate my point. I have known more than one of these birders to make a classic howler ID-wise, but such events do not in any way detract from their reputation (in fact quite the reverse) because the real cornerstone of that reputation is integrity, honesty. So, so many of their good birds are verified, and that is the crucial factor. Their birds are seen by others, photographed, some of them even stick around for a few days. You get the picture...

I would be curious to know their percentage verification, but in each case I would imagine we're looking at around 75% or better. And let's be clear, we're not just talking county or national rarities here, we're talking good birds generally.

An autumn Dartford Warbler on Beer Head. Not rare, but a decent bird in a local context...and verified both ways.

Finally then, let's suppose you are no longer a birding novice. A few years have elapsed and you now have a long and enviable list of self-found and correctly identified quality birds. Well done you! And periodically you add a few more little gems to that list. Marvellous! But how are you doing with factor number 3? What's your verification percentage like? Pretty high? 80% you say? Excellent! You will have earned a sound reputation as a reliable, trustworthy birder.

Or is your verification percentage in fact pitifully low? Like, close to zero? We'll assume for argument's sake that you do interact with other birders in some way, yes? Oh, but there are several good reasons why other birders never see your birds, you say? And your camera is never to hand, you reckon? Well unfortunately - and whatever you might think otherwise - in that case I'm afraid your birding reputation is not the good kind...

Apply forthwith the NQSBRR and avoid such folly.


  1. As a very poor excuse for a birder my ranking must be very low so I shall now enroll myself as a member of the NQSBRR and do my best to improve.

    A wonderful post that really put a smile on my face even if the rain is battering at the window.

    1. Thanks David. I'm glad it produced a smile. Perfect.

  2. Hi Gavin - many thanks for the mention. Don't know what my percentage is but I know I've only managed to photograph 3 out of 15 Devon self-found Lapland Buntings! Doesn't sound good does it! Great post as always.

    1. Cheers Matt. Devon Lap Bunt is a good example. I've found 3. One co-found flyover (heard only) with Steve Waite (nicely verified, thanks Steve!) and the other two on Beer Head during that year there were so many that the DBRC suspended the need for descriptions. Neither of them were verified in any way, shape or form...but then as they technically weren't Devon rarities at the time, I didn't have to include them in my stats above either!
      I've seen one of yours I think (Orcombe, with Skylarks, Dec 2004 or thereabouts?) so if you didn't get a snap, that was confirmed by at least my highly competent mate Paul. He told me that it definitely was a Lap flying around in that flock and I trusted him completely. Solid verification. ;)

  3. I thought I was your only mate called Paul! You have another?
    My notes say 'seen well and calling often in flight, with c.500 Skylark' but that was Dec 2007. So the 2004 one must have been with your competent mate��

    1. This is where I so frequently come a cropper. Of course you are my only mate called Paul, and right there is just one of the many reasons why I can use the adjective 'competent': you have notes! I have none. If I also had notes I would have known it was 2007 not 2004. So thank you Paul, my capable friend.

      And if I had bothered referring to the precious few notes I do have (a spreadsheet basically) I'd have noticed that my total is actually 4 self-found Lapland Buntings in Devon, not 3. The extra one was in a field at Colyford that same bumper year when they didn't count as a Devon rarity (late 2010) among 11,000+ Skylark moving through in freezing weather.

  4. Last year I looked up on account of the noise some crows were making. A very large raptor. Hmm. It wasn't a Common Buzzard or Red Kite or ... anything else obvious. Maybe it was a Honey Buzzard? yes, that'll be it.
    I added it to the London Birders news without adding the element of doubt. Big mistake.
    Months later Andrew Moon rang, asking for a description.
    I came clean and bit the bullet. Told him the story, and that accurate records are more important than some misguided ego.
    Can't imagine what he thought of that. Wouldn't blame him for labeling me a stringer.

    1. Nice one Ric! Most, if not all of us, have got a little over-optimistic on occasion, but proper stringers don't come clean and let it go... :)