Wednesday 4 November 2015

On Finding Rare Birds

It's been many years since I last found an official BB rarity. Not for want of trying I might add; it simply hasn't happened. I'm a pretty okay birder, I would say, and have a reasonable record when it comes to scarce/locally rare birds, but I'm probably a bit lazy. Other things being equal, someone with a bit more oomph will cover more spots and rack up a correspondingly bigger tally. Of course, time spent in the field is a factor too; during periods of phasing I have unsurprisingly found not much!

Things are different whenever I visit Scilly. For some reason the islands are very good for my work ethic. Perhaps it's the increased level of expectation? I'll generally be out from early and will cover a lot of ground, peering over every wall and from every gateway, scanning, searching. Pleasingly, I fairly often find something good. Short-toed Lark seems to be my speciality - in about eight spring visits I've found six. Usually a good find is rewarded by a little squirt of adrenaline, or sometimes - like when a Grey-cheeked Thrush popped up in front of me on St. Agnes - a big one! However, that is not always the case...

Tuesday, October 13, 2015, and @birdingprof and I are out all day. Most of it is spent on St. Agnes. We spot many good birds, but so far there is no real finding as such. Returning to St. Mary's there is still plenty of birding time left, so I propose a trek up Peninnis. The Prof is, frankly, a bit knackered, and wants to do the track along the top - King Edward's Road. I will have none of it and press firmly for the coastal path skirting the western flank, all of which is bathed in a moment of gorgeous late sunshine. I can just picture the many vagrants gratefully perched up in its warmth. Some way along, a Short-eared Owl has been located on an offshore rock and we spend a bit of time with it, before turning once again to the sloping fields. I stand on a bench to get a good vantage point. A passerine comes bouncing across from the right and, as I get it in the bins, calls. I think my cogs are already on the point of churning out "large pipit" so it is no surprise when "Richard's Pipit!" comes blurting forth. Admittedly the call is rather clipped and quiet compared to what I remember of the "shreeep!" of Richard's. The Prof is on it too and immediately moots the possibility of Blyth's. I am sceptical, partly because of the Prof's tendency, but especially because Blyth's Pipit is dead rare and not on any of my lists at all! I don't find lifers much. We quickly locate it in a field of short grass and grill it. It is yonks since I've seen a big pipit on the deck, and the pale lores dictate that it must be Richard's or Blyth's...but which? Well, yes, I suppose it does have a spiky bill, and yes, it does seem to have a shortish tail. But this is all so subjective; I need something a bit more unequivocal. About this time there is an urgent arrival of puffing birders. Amid the clatter of tripods I hear an authoritative "Oh yes, definitely Blyth's!" echoed by several other experts/acolytes. I'm not sure whether I am more disappointed with my failure to nail the ID or my slight resentment of their glib confidence, but I soon find myself leaving them all to it and wandering some distance along the path.

You can probably guess where the Blyth's Pipit is...

With only some 22 accepted records, Blyth's Pipit is one of the rarest birds I have ever found (or, more accurately, co-found) but far from the most satisfying. For me, finding rare birds is still potentially one of the most exciting aspects of the hobby but it isn't always the straightforward thrill it ought to be!


  1. Can't agree more. It can start with wondering what on earth you're looking at, then wondering if/when you should be putting out the news ("probable" vs certain, breeding records), worrying about not getting the clinching features (amazingly, with my first Fairy Pitta! - Blue-winged needs to be excluded in Hong Kong), getting others onto it, then nailing the pic, then stressing over the description, and finally the myriad ways the records committees contrive to reject records. A real barrel of laughs!

    1. That's it Mike, you've nailed it there! Just a load of stress!