Saturday, 31 December 2016

New Year Plans...

Why is the start of a new calendar year so beguiling? I expect I am no different to most in looking forward to January 1st. If you are one of those who crack open a fresh notebook on that date, you have right there a handy metaphor, because the new year is equally pristine. Oh how carefully you write on that first page. Probably your intention is to maintain that commendable neatness for the next twelve months. Unfortunately though, a quick browse through last year's jottings will soon reacquaint you with reality. Blots, smudges, crossings-out, perhaps even the ripped edge of a page removed in annoyance because you mucked it up so badly. And so it is with life. And so it will be in 2017. Nevertheless, a fresh start is a fresh start, and like everybody else I shall embrace it!

I do have plans for next year, but mostly loose ones. For the first time in many, many years some of those plans are fish-related, and as these are probably the most flexible of all I shan't bore you with stuff that might never see the light of day. Then there is bike. I shall try and keep reasonably fit by cycling uphill a lot. Which reminds me: most of the bloggers I read have mentioned plans for this and plans for that during 2017, but never plans for bike. Why not? Loads of them are, like me, verging on doddery, and I think they are missing a trick. Perhaps they lack inspiration? A quick review of one or two NQS cycling posts might be needed. All of them plainly convey the sheer joy provided by two wheels and a steep gradient. And who wants to go to their grave unable to say that they unashamedly wore lycra in public?

After several weeks of hosting viruses I finally got out for a ride today, and as I cycled the mucky lanes I mulled over a 2017 plan I've been toying with...

Bike. Lane. Muck. Standard winter fare.

During the course of 2016 I notched up a few nice birds from my bike, and I wondered whether I might find it interesting next year to actually list them, as in a 'Birds From My Bike' list. Of course it would all be naked eye stuff, or heard, but this year I would have had Wheatear, Whinchat, Redstart, Corn Bunting etc, plus a Hoopoe that I twitched. I think I shall give it a go. Mind you, if I start falling off due to not looking where I'm going, well...

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Birds, but not Birding

Currently hanging out to dry in the garden are a landing net and weigh sling, while an unhooking mat lies airing on the gravel, damp side uppermost. An angler will know the significance of this. A birdwatcher, meanwhile, will know the significance of this:

A Robin. More specifically, a starving Robin on the scrounge. Look how thin it is. It's late December, deep into that period when our garden birds want us to supplement their diet with nutritious freebies. This garden bird was a very long way from a garden, but that didn't prevent it holding out its bony little hand. "Oi! Where's me maggots?!" Robins know that anglers all fester somewhat, and are therefore likely to harbour maggots. Frequently they are correct, but this one yesterday was out of luck. A few weeks ago I bought some mealworms for just this scenario but had forgotten to pack them. Ridiculously I felt guilty. So guilty that I tore off some of my cheese roll and crumbled it into appropriately tiny pieces. Mildly outraged, the Robin tutted loudly and bobbed up and down a bit. It then cocked an eye at my apologetic offering and checked for anything wriggly. Eventually, with a melodramatic sigh of resignation, it dropped onto the grass and grabbed a crumb.

Ungrateful wretch.

A frustrating highlight of yesterday's trip was a brief view of what I am 99% sure was an eared owl sp. Rob saw it too and even he, with his very unpractised eye, thought it was an owl. It was right on dusk and I had no bins. Anyway, never mind. After all, this is now an angling/cycling blog, so we can allow decent birds to get away from us willy-nilly without batting an eyelid. Therefore ignore that adjective in the first sentence - not frustrating. No, perfectly acceptable.

Well then, for the benefit of the two anglers who read this blog, why the wet net et al? More pike is why. A little jack of 4lb or so plus a nice low double of 11lb 10oz. The little one was absolutely pristine and gorgeous, the most vivid green with cream spots and stripes, while the bigger one had an amazing golden hue, the like of which I have never seen...

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Painting With Light

This afternoon I've been moving stuff from the loft to the man-cave. This is a job I've been putting off, because I knew exactly what would happen...and it did. You see, mostly it was boxes of old photos. Fatal. Whenever I am in close proximity to old photos I seem to lose multiple hours of my life at a stroke...

When it comes to photos the time thing is a problem for me in other ways too. Photography very nearly became a hobby, but I could never give it the time it needed. In fact I deeply resented its temporal demands upon me. "Don't go fishing," it said, "No. Instead take your horrible Russian Zenit B out for the day and compose some arty shots of tree bark or something. Then spend the evening developing up your black and white negatives before booking a session in the darkroom, where you'll be able to fritter a few more frustrating hours being inept with the enlarger."

It all began in February 1979 when I got a job at Kodak Ltd in Harrow. As older readers will remember, once upon a time the name 'Kodak' was virtually synonymous with 'photograph', and the average punter's camera was loaded with Kodak film and his/her photos were printed on Kodak paper. New employees like me were sent on a training course in Hemel Hempstead to learn some basic photography skills. We were sent out with a manual SLR and some B&W film to do some painting-with-light in Hemel Old Town. Predictably a couple of us wound up in a pub, where I took this...

Summer 1979. Even today I don't think this is too shabby. It won 'Best Portrait' category on the course, which went straight to my head and told me that I was a photographic genius in the making.

So that was it. I was - kind of reluctantly - hooked. I bought the awful second-hand Zenit B and began to waste a lot of perfectly good fishing time. Here's one I took a while later...

Summerhouse Lake, Bentley Priory, Stanmore, in 1979 or '80. I did the sepia-toning by hand. At the time I worked in the Kodak Research Dept. I took the B&W print in to work with me and mixed up a sepia-toning solution in the lab when I should have been doing actual work for my employer. I got the recipe for the mix from a book in the department's library. Back in those days everything you needed for a good skive was just handed to you on a plate...

My flirtation with photography didn't last. I was soon back to angling, and then birding took over. However, in the very late '90s I was surprised to be signed up for another company-run course, this one on colour photography. Looking back I'm amazed that the firm could afford it by then. Competition from Fuji et al., plus the looming spectre of digital meant Kodak was struggling. Still, if they insisted on sending me off to play for a few days I wasn't going to argue. Once again we were let loose with a manual SLR, this time armed with a couple of colour films. We were given some subject categories and a couple of days. I got up very, very early the next morning, full of plans, and got stuck in...

The River Chess at Scotsbridge, Rickmansworth. It was dawn - dead still, and only just light. I put the camera on my birding tripod and used a long exposure, which is why the river has that smooth, hazy look. This shot won 'Best Overall' and confirmed what I'd always known - I am actually a genius.

Later that morning I headed for the Grand Union Canal at Harefield, where a stream rushes into the canal through a culvert - so vigorously that a short kayaking slalom is permanently located there. I was hoping to take some action shots of someone using it. I timed my arrival perfectly. A friendly bloke was just getting in the water and was fine with me taking some photos. So I positioned myself at the top of the run, just where he'd have to turn around to head back to the start. I set a fast shutter speed, and waited...

Okay, just in case no one else says it, I will: this is a BRILLIANT photo! Remember this is the pre-digital age; you had no idea what sort of photos you'd taken until you developed the film. In the event I had 35 frames of rubbish...and THIS. Back in the classroom I am convinced that everyone thought I'd cheated somehow, photographed a page in a book or something. Even I was totally gobsmacked, despite the fact that by now I was well aware of my own genius...

Notice how water is involved in all the above? Even my little dabblings in photography reveal that love of wet places. River, lake, canal...and yes, the pub had liquid if I recall...

Thursday, 15 December 2016

The BTO Reply: Dear Gavin, re 'Lies, Damned Lies...etc'

On 11 December I wrote the post Lies, Damned Lies...and Statistics, in which I took issue with a tweet published by the BTO back on 3 December. The BTO has kindly responded.

Here's the original tweet...

My criticism focused on that statistic: '...[cats] only bring 23% of their prey home'

I'll try and summarise my criticism by breaking it into three main points:
  1. I questioned the motive for the tweet, suggesting it was inflammatory.
  2. After reading the research paper which produced the 23% figure I felt that including this statistic in the tweet was not valid or appropriate; disingenuous even.
  3. On first reading the tweet I thought its context implied reference to avian prey items, i.e. that for every single bird killed by a cat and brought home, another three were killed and not brought home. I also thought it was specifically referring to the state of affairs in the UK. I was wrong! It was soon evident that I had read more into the tweet than it actually said. So now I felt misled!
In other words I felt the venerable BTO had rather strayed into tabloidism, with a sensationalist tweet embellished by spurious data. And the BTO is an organisation I want to trust.

Below my original post are several comments, some sympathising with aspects of my view, one vigorously not. The BTO got in touch, wishing to add a comment but finding themselves constrained by the character limit on Blogger's 'comments' facility.

So here is the BTO comment in full, mostly written by Dr. Viola Ross-Smith, BTO Science Communications Manager, with input from four others...


We were interested to see your blog post, prompted by our tweet about a talk given at the recent BTO conference. The BTO is an impartial, evidence-based, non-campaigning organisation. We have no position or agenda when it comes to cats, but we do share relevant peer reviewed science on this topic, as it is of interest to our supporters and social media followers.

We hold an annual conference for our members each December, and our programme always includes a range of speakers from within and outside the BTO. The tweet you are referring to was about a talk given by an invited external speaker, Dr Becky Thomas. Dr Thomas’s research is wider than traditional ornithology, but our conference programme always includes topics that encompass broader issues, as our members tend to have a general interest in wildlife. Incidentally, despite our name, our own BTO research incorporates topics other than birds, and recent publications have included work on invertebrates and mammals. We also work internationally, typified by our recent success tracking Cuckoos breeding in China.

Our BTO tweeters are trained scientists, able to think critically about other peoples’ research and disseminate it appropriately. We aim to make science accessible, but it is of course very difficult to capture the complexity and caveats of a scientific study in 140 characters, which is why we try to include links to further relevant information where possible, and also to address questions any about our tweets. The photo we used in this particular tweet was one Dr Thomas herself presented to accompany the 23% statistic, which featured in the introduction to her talk.

The response to this tweet exposes a wider issue being debated in society at the moment about the validity of the scientific method itself, and whether experts should be taken seriously or indeed trusted at all. All published science goes through a rigorous peer review process. This has been refined over hundreds of years, and although criticism may be levelled at it, peer review is widely recognized as being the best procedure we have for publishing science that seeks to understand the true nature of the universe – whether that be interactions between cats and other wildlife, clinical drug trials or experiments on particle acceleration.

Peer review is the scientific gold standard and, therefore, studies like the one Dr Thomas quoted should not be dismissed out of hand. Having spent several years working on her topic, Dr Thomas is an expert in her field and we invited her to speak at our conference on this basis. She has published several peer reviewed articles on the subject she spoke about, one of which was linked to in the tweet. She herself takes part in the peer review process to critically assess others’ work, and if she considers that another study is worth reporting at our annual conference, we in turn trust her expert judgement and tweet it.

When it comes to sample size, it is important to remember that science is incremental. It’s true that 39 prey items is a relatively small sample, but it doesn't make the research worthless or wrong, it just means we should be careful with extrapolating up to larger samples. If we always waited until we had a sample size of 500 or 5000 before publishing, then scientific knowledge would progress at a much slower rate than it does currently. It's important to publish with the data we have available to help define future questions and hypotheses. The peer review process ensures studies do not appear too often or with too little data, safeguarding against people extrapolating their results or drawing conclusions that aren't justified. By the by, in the study in question, the comments on the blog calculating 2.8 kills a year per cat are not quite correct – the study found an average of 2.4 prey items per 7 days (not over 3 months), so the total number of kills for an average cat in a year would be estimated at 124.8, of which 16 would be birds if the ratios in the overall population are the same as the published sample. Of course, we agree with you that these ratios may vary for cats in different parts of the USA and in other countries such as the UK, where the faunal community is different. There will also likely be variation in prey items for cats in different seasons and habitats. These would all be interesting avenues for future research.

These are some of the reasons why we stand by our tweet, our guest speaker, and by work published by our fellow scientists in general; we hope it underlines both our impartial stance and the thought we put into how we compose our social media content. The scientific method is central to the work that we do and we place huge importance in presenting statistics that stand up to scientific scrutiny. We’d be disappointed to see people dismiss our wider work purely because they take issue with a statistic from peer reviewed research, within the public domain, and presented through one of our communications channels.

Our reputation as an independent and impartial organisation enables us to provide the evidence base that supports conservation and other decision making processes that shape the natural world in which we live. We hope that this reassures you about our intentions in promoting this particular piece of scientific research, taken from a longer presentation, and please do get in touch if you have any further queries about this or, indeed, our other work.


So, had that comment appeared beneath my original post, this is more or less how I would have replied:

Dear BTO,

Many thanks for taking the time to comment in response to this post. I do appreciate it.

First off, thanks for correcting my arithmetic in relation to Karen Woolley's comment. I had overlooked the fact that the numbers were based on one week rather than three months. Mercifully though, that basic error doesn't torpedo my criticism.

The tweet touches on what is an emotive issue for many. In view of the fact that I saw the tweet as somewhat inflammatory I was interested to see what you might have to say about the motive behind it. I note that you say the BTO is 'impartial' and 'non-campaigning' and has 'no position or agenda when it comes to cats' and that the tweet 'was about a talk given by...Dr Becky Thomas.' Fair enough, and I take all that at face value. However, if you were to show that tweet to a few hundred random people on the street and ask them what they thought it was all about I would be interested to know the outcome. I am confident that a fair percentage would see it as I did.

Now I'd like you to imagine those few hundred random people asking you a simple question...

“Twenty-three percent? Where did that come from?”
So you explain there was a study carried out. Cats were fitted with little video cameras so that the researchers could see exactly what happened to anything the cats caught. And that the cameras revealed they only brought home 23% of their prey, roughly a quarter. Which means that three out of every four prey items is either eaten on the spot or just left there.
“Really? That's terrible! So all our cats are out there killing things and we only get to see a quarter of it?”
“Well, no. Not all our cats; we can't apply it to all cats.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the study only involved 55 cats in total.”
“Ah, right, fair enough. But those 55, you're saying that between them they all brought home only a quarter of what they caught?”
“, not exactly. Only 16 of them actually caught anything, and 31 didn't even try. But, on average, each of those 16 brought home only 23% of their prey."
Man-in-the-street is now a bit confused...
“But it says in this tweet: 'Cats hunt no matter how much they are fed by their owners & they only bring 23% of their prey home'. It doesn't say some cats, it doesn't say 16 out of 55...I thought it meant cats generally, you know, all of them! That's what it implies!”
“But it doesn't actually say 'all of them', does it.”
“Well, I suppose not, but I just thought...okay, so you're saying I'm just a bit dense and read it wrong? Ha ha! It's all right, relax – I'm joking! Anyway, 16 cats you say? Just 16? Was that round here was it? Local?”
“ It was in the state of Georgia, USA.”

Personally I reckon man-in-the-street is now giving you the wry look that he usually reserves for numbers he reads in the Daily Mail. How do you think he views your use of that 23% statistic?

And finally, I wonder how many of those random citizens would look at the pigeon in the photo, learn you were from an organisation focused on birds and mistakenly conclude that this must therefore be all about birds.
“Oh dear! So for every little Robin my Tiddles brings home she leaves another three out there to rot, poor things?”
“No, no,” you explain, “There were only five birds killed in this study. The other 34 prey items were mammals, dragonflies, worms, lizards and so on, and the 23% figure was calculated from all of them, not just the birds.”
“Oh, I see. So this tweet's not just about birds? I thought...oh...Anyway, did you say 'lizards'?”
“Yes. You see, lizards are common where this research was carried out.”
“Oh, okay. Where was that then?”
“ Georgia, USA...”

Hopefully my point is clear.

In the penultimate paragraph you state: “These are some of the reasons why we stand by our tweet...”

Sadly I think this statement underlines a fundamental problem.

Let me illustrate by referring to Bob Vaughan's hearty criticism of my original post. He states that in my post I “...attempt to belittle what is a perfectly honest piece of research...” The fact is, I had absolutely no intention of belittling that research; on the contrary, I found it very interesting (I questioned its application in your tweet, but that's different). I have read over my post several times and cannot see how Bob interpreted it the way he did, but nevertheless that is how he saw it, that I was knocking the research. In the light of his comment, if I was to wind the clock back and write it all again I would write it differently. I would make strenuous efforts to word it less ambiguously, to minimise the possibility of anyone being misled. In other words, because of the feedback I would change. Why? Because I wouldn't want the same thing to happen again.

Do you think that would be a wise and sensible course?

Or do you think I should simply write it exactly as before, word for word, because I know what I mean and if he doesn't get it, well then, that's his fault?

Possibly you are correct in paragraph four, in that my response to your tweet exposes the wider issue being debated in society re "the validity of the scientific method itself, and whether experts should be taken seriously or even trusted at all". That is all wa-a-a-ay beyond the scope of this particular post, but I suppose I could say this: if the public felt it had been misled by scientists, and said so, and the scientists' response was "That's how we do things, and we think it's okay", well, trust will struggle to thrive...

That your reply to my post contains only defense of your tweet, no suggestion that you might review your tweet output in future, and conveys only a deep conviction that scientists intrinsically have the high ground, all makes me wonder if you actually heard what my post was trying to say.

So there we are. Once again, my thanks to you all at the BTO for taking the time to respond to what was little more than a "rantette" really, as Bob Vaughan put it. It's been fascinating and I've learned a lot. Clearly there were other points in your reply which I haven't addressed, but this post is more than long enough already. Cheers, Gavin.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Wet Places - a Beginning

I must apologise. Some of my recent posts have been a bit joyless I think. So I'm going to try and write something a bit more upbeat...

Across its various incarnations NQS has changed. It has become less and less a diary type blog, vicarious birding is nowadays mostly off the menu, and cycling, fishing and pitiful nostalgia are regularly in the mix. Fair enough perhaps, change happens. But unfortunately I suspect also that it's getting a bit more moany. So, in an effort to lift the tone to somewhere sunnier I thought I would try and explore my love of watery places, and see where that leads...


In 1964 my mother was a young, divorced single parent living in Roydon, Essex. Providing for two small children meant a hectic life, so she would have appreciated the Sunday invitation from a friend in nearby Broxbourne. While the women nattered and minded the toddler indoors, the little boy could be entertained in the garden. The boy was a handful, but my mother's friend's husband had a plan. Perhaps a spot of fishing might keep him quiet? The garden ran down to the River Lea, and that afternoon I caught my very first fish. Four bleak and a perch.

Or should I say they caught me?

One by one, as each was swung ashore, it was plopped into a bucket of water. I was five years old and, although I can vividly picture the scene, what I cannot do is genuinely evoke the emotions. My mum tells me I was absolutely ecstatic, eagerly dragging her out of the house to view my little bucketful of triumph. I'm sure she's not exaggerating, because I was never quite the same again. From then on, every single body of water I encountered drew me like a magnet. Ditch, pond or stream, all I could think about were the mysteries that lay beneath the surface. Yes, it was I who had been hooked.

Aged six, we moved to Harlow New Town. Hardly an oasis. I remember only the odd netted stickleback. Then at nine, after my mother remarried, we moved to Kenton, near Harrow in the NW London suburbs. Not far away was Barn Hill Pond. To get there involved a twenty-five minute walk, initially through residential estates, then over a railway footbridge, across a field and up a scrubby slope to the top of a modest hill overlooking Wembley Stadium. There lay boyhood heaven...

This is Barn Hill Pond as I remember it, so I'm guessing the photo dates from the mid/late '60s. My favourite fishing spot was half way along the left hand bank. (From the Brent Museum and Archives website)

Hardly an inland sea, is it! Admittedly the water level is very low here. Early '60s? The leaning tree in this photo is just a stump in the image above. I remember the stump. (From the Brent Museum and Archives website)

I spent many a happy day here, fuelled by rampant optimism and marmalade sandwiches. Often there would be four or five boys around the pond, drowning worms and swapping insults. The early arrivals would have dragged out one of the two milk crates to sit on. Very occasionally someone would catch a fish...

A Barn Hill monster. Or two, rather...

With hindsight, Barn Hill Pond was a bit tenth-rate in many ways. On a nice day it would be busy with families out for a stroll, dogs plunging into the water and, if you were unlucky, oafish members of 'the Little Kingsbury' coming to see if they could nick some fishing tackle...

But it was water. And it had fish. It was a lowly but important step along the road that has led me to love watery places my whole life...

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Lies, Damned Lies...and Statistics

As anyone who follows me on Twitter will already know, most of my tweets these days involve shameless, predictable NQS blog post promotion. Yesterday though, I got a bit out of character. It all started with a BTO tweet that appeared on my Twitter feed, and is reproduced in the screenshot below. I'd like to ask a favour please. Before you plough on through the rest of this post take a few moments to digest the BTO tweet. What does the tweet tell you? How do you read it? What message do you think the BTO is trying to convey here? What is the motive for posting such a tweet?

You get the point. I'm just asking for a bit of analysis. I'd be grateful to hear what you think. Anyway, here it is:

Right then, here's what I thought...

First off, I distrust numbers. 23% eh? How exactly did they measure the 77% that were not brought home? That was my initial reaction. A cynical one. I couldn't access the '' link so simply replied to the tweet and asked my question. I received a very quick and helpful reply, thus:

However, before I go on I must mention something else that I thought on reading the original BTO tweet. I thought we were talking about birds. After all, we have a photo of a cat and a bird, the BTO is an organisation centred upon birds, and so surely what this tweet is conveying to us is the concern that for every one bird that is brought home, another three are killed and left. Oh, and I also thought we were talking about British birds (British Trust for Ornithology?).

Yes, I made assumptions. That's why I am curious how others see this tweet. Incidentally Mrs NQS read it exactly the same, without any prompting from me.

Anyway, in another tweet Becky Thomas kindly added that she had given the presentation at the BTO Conference, in case I had any other questions. I replied thanks, but that I'd read the research paper first and come back to her if necessary.

So I read the research paper. Fascinating stuff. And how did they know how many victims the cats brought home vs didn't bring home? By mounting little cameras on their study cats! Of course, why hadn't I worked that out myself?! I read on...

The study took place in the state of Georgia, USA. Not Britain. The cats involved were ordinary pet cats who were allowed outdoors, in various habitats ranging from urban to rural - 55 cats in total. Data were collected over one year. The cats were divided into four groups of 12-15 each, and each group monitored for just one season, i.e. spring, summer, fall or winter. Of those 55 cats, the paper said that 44% displayed hunting activity, i.e. stalking, chasing, etc. As 44% of 55 = 24.2 I'm assuming that 24 of the 55 cats displayed hunting activity. Of those 24, just 16 made one or more successful kills. The total number of creatures killed was 39, all of which were identifiable thanks to the cameras, the vast majority to species. Of those 39 kills, just five were birds. FIVE!

Look again at that original tweet! The tweet is all about birds isn't it?

Ah, but is it? What the research paper does not do is tell you how many of those five birds were brought home; it simply tells you the percentage of prey brought home. Which, in fairness, is exactly what the BTO tweet says too. It's not how I read it though! You?

So off I go again, tippy-tapping away on Twitter like some deranged pedant...

And there we are, the latest storm in my little teacup. I'll be honest, that BTO tweet annoyed me. I thought it was inflammatory. Everyone knows the cat/bird issue is emotive, and I couldn't see any realistic purpose to this tweet beyond stirring things up. Why do that? And after reading the research paper upon which that 23% is based I also feel the tweet is disingenuous.

The BTO tweet was sent on 3 December, and between then and now it has been retweeted 72 times. I wonder what it's achieved. No doubt it has reinforced the views of those who think cats are instruments of Satan, and it's wound up one or two number pedants like me, but what else? We are bombarded every day with statistics designed to uphold a viewpoint or justify some course of action. When those numbers support our own opinion we love them, and when they don't, we point out how they've been twisted and misapplied. Yet nearly all of them are not to be trusted. That tweet does not say reassuring things about other numbers the BTO might publish...

Naughty BTO.

Oh, and three of those 39 confirmed kills were worms. Fact.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Summer Scilly Birds

A few posts back I implied that Scilly in July was birdless. Regular readers will have recognised the hyperbole and ignored it, because Scilly in July certainly is not birdless. As at all times of the year it is heaving with extremely common birds. Millions of them. My point of course was this: in spring and autumn you have to check each and every one of them in case they are accidentally not common. In October for example, you have to make sure that the Wren's head is not attached to a Dusky Warbler's body, and that the Robin which just flicked up into the hedge didn't have a blue tail. All this is massively time-consuming. The difference in July is that you can simply ignore them all and get on with sight-seeing, because not a single one of those common birds will be rare.

However, this is not the case if you head out to sea in a boat...

As we walked ashore from the Scillonian III on 19 July I was acutely aware of two things. One, there was a realistic chance of a lifer on this holiday, and two, that chance was only viable if I was prepared to endure a pelagic.

I'm not a fan of boats. I'm not a good sailor, that's all. I have vivid memories of a boat fishing trip out of Penzance when I was about 14. They haunt me still. Waving goodbye to the rest of my family as they stood on the quay to see me off, I was brim-full of excitement and optimism, just thrilled to be on a proper charter boat with proper grown-up sea anglers. Brilliant! About an hour later I threw up for the first time, and again shortly afterwards. After that it was every twenty minutes without fail, I'd be hanging over the side wretching and gagging and wanting to die. Once you've dispensed with the solids, all you have left to offer are stomach juices and loose bits of duodenum. It's hideous. And exhausting. And something I am anxious never to repeat.

Mind you, I did see my first ever Storm Petrel that day. I expect it was investigating my special chum slick...

Which kind of brings me to the subject at hand. Wilson's Petrel. In truth I had resigned myself to never seeing one, because it would definitely involve a small boat. My good mate @birdingprof has tried a couple of times to tempt me onto a Scillonian pelagic, arguing that this is a big boat, but for me the crossing to Scilly is awful enough. No thanks. My decision was vindicated last time when the weather turned out absolutely dreadful and hundreds of birders were tossed about the ship like so many rag dolls and battered against various knobbly, unyielding bits of superstructure. Still, I imagine a lot of birders got home that night - or perhaps the next week, after they were released from hospital - totally buzzing. And, I suppose, the blood a vomit spatterings would soon wash out, and the bones eventually mend...

Nevertheless, not for me, ta.

So what on earth was I thinking, walking into a shop in Hugh Town and buying two of these:

Ticket for the evening pelagic, 25 July, 2016. On the back is written 'Spectator' which is Scillonian for idiot.

In the event it wasn't as bad as I feared. But I must point out one thing for those who have yet to experience a pelagic. You know those superb, crisp shots of rare seabirds that appear everywhere? And how they make you think "Ooh, they must get brilliant views on those pelagics"? Well, just remember it's a camera which has done that, a machine that freezes 1/1000 sec into something you can peruse at your leisure for several minutes while you analyse every subtle identification feature. What your eye gets - as the boat heaves in the swell and you struggle to keep your bins even remotely steady - is not quite the same...

Here we are heading out from the islands, St. Agnes on the left and St. Mary's on the right. Mrs NQS in full pelagic mode...

There were a few Scilly stalwarts aboard. John Higginson in action here. Note that Higgo is 'braced', with his back against the cabin, feet apart, knees slightly bent. It might look calm, but that boat was going up and down like a fiddler's elbow, believe me...

Shortly after taking that last photo I was scanning ahead, past Higgo, when I spotted two petrels. I called them immediately. Within seconds Higgo was on them too and straight away said "One's a Wilson's!" As we drew closer it was obvious that they were different, and the ID features were surprisingly easy to see. That was my lifer then. Excellent. Later we had cracking views of another, as well as one or two Cory's Shearwaters.

Just as good were the sharks. Most on the boat were either shark fishing or watching the shark fishing...

Shark on! Three or four were caught I think, all blue sharks.
Sapphire skipper, Joe Pender, takes a mean 'at sea' bird photo and knows his onions. Here he is, explaining the finer points of ID: "Note how Wilson's lacks a white bar on the underwing coverts...and look at the yellow webs between its toes here..."

Arriving back at Hugh Town harbour I reviewed the experience. I was delighted to have nailed a Wilson's Petrel with just the one pelagic. Although I effectively 'found' it I wondered if I would have identified it with total confidence? Higgo's quick shout was borne of many previous encounters, and though the species is quite distinctive it is also subtle; it was good to have experienced eyes present. Seeing sharks up close was brilliant too. Impressive creatures. Best of all though was keeping my dinner down. Absolutely superb.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

A Fishy Milestone

As a fishing-mad youngster, pike were what other anglers caught. My encounters with them usually involved a big swirl in the water, a yank on the rod and then a slack, hookless line waving in the breeze. Yes, once again the little roach I was winding in had been ambushed by a lurking freshwater shark. Eventually I made efforts to catch them deliberately, but with limited success; I reckon I've caught probably less than ten double-figure (i.e. 10lb+) pike. But as they were rarely my quarry of choice even in my most enthusiastic angling years, this tally fairly reflects the modest level of application. I never did manage a 'twenty'; my biggest was 16lb 8oz. To catch a twenty-pound pike is to cross a threshold. It's probably equivalent to finding a BB rarity...

Rob and I were away to a slow start yesterday. I am struggling to shake off a virus at the moment, so our intended overnight session was shortened to just a few hours. Static deadbaits was the plan, which meant we needed something to sit on during the inevitable wait. My vintage fishing chair is missing a foot, and Rob's is with a new owner after he kindly left it in a lakeside car park for anyone to take home back in August. New chairs then. So our first port of call was a tackle shop, where we emptied our wallets. Finally, we were tackled up and fishing by a ridiculously late 3:00pm.

The sun set and all was quiet. I'd just brewed our second or third cuppa when my bite alarm beeped, and then beeped again. The bobbin was lifting an inch, dropping an inch, lifting again - a very twitchy, tentative take. I picked up the rod and felt the line; it was tightening gently. Winding down, I struck and the rod took on a satisfying curve. A couple of kicks and then it was coming quite easily. In response to a query from Rob I said "Nah, it doesn't feel very big" and he readied himself with the landing net. The fish took a little bit of line and I had to backwind a couple of turns, but otherwise it was mainly just a weighty resistance. Suddenly there was a swirl right by the net and in the light of our head-torches I glimpsed a hefty lump of pike turn and dive. Oh, I thought, that looks quite decent actually. In a moment Rob had it netted, struggling a bit to get its tail over the cord. I put the rod down and peered into the water. There lay a large pike. To my rusty eye it looked very large in fact. Conscious that I'd overestimated the size of the last one, I said to Rob "How big do you reckon?" "Upper double?" he replied, like me unwilling to voice what we were both wondering: could this be a twenty?

Leaving it in the water for a minute we gathered the necessary equipment: unhooking mat, scales, weigh sling, forceps, camera, even some water to pour over the beast and keep it wet. Not many decades ago a pike like this might have been gaffed and killed. The deep of pocket would have had it in a glass case on the wall. Thankfully, today's trophy is just a few million pixels of frozen memory. The stage set, we had another look at our leading lady. "Big, isn't it..."

Grasping the mesh, I lifted.

That's the moment you know. When you lift a fish from the water and feel that dead weight in the net. The unspoken, optimistic thoughts which you've carefully restrained suddenly come bursting out. It's a twenty! It's got to be! On the mat it looked enormous. Neatly hooked in the roof of the mouth, the forceps did their job and then it was the moment of truth: into the weigh sling and aloft. Allowing for 10oz of wet sling we settled on 24lb 14oz. A twenty and then some! Yesssss!! How did I feel? Elated covers it.

Rob did a grand job with the camera. A few snaps of each side, and then back in the water and away. Supporting the great beast while it recovers, as its gills softly pulse and its fins waft, you cannot help a feeling of complete awe. To catch such a creature and spend a few precious moments thus is a privilege indeed.

So there it is, the tale of my first twenty-pound pike. By 8:00pm we were packed up and off home. Sadly it was the only fish we caught, so Rob has yet to get off the mark. But, we will be back. And therein lies another tale...

Pike that large are rare. In our few visits to this venue we haven't seen many other anglers, and of course we want it to stay that way. I previously pondered the advisability of mentioning the location. My thoughts were: supposing we jammily catch a biggie straight off, and I've been blabbing about where we're fishing? I'll feel a right silly-muffin then, won't I! Well, it's happened, but perhaps I'll get away with it. After all, how many anglers are going to drop in to NQS? Not many I hope. This is a birder's blog, isn't it.

Isn't it?

Anyway, mum's the word...

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Early Success, aka Jam

I can honestly say that this is the first time I have ever felt the need for suppression, but oh my word...

Sunday, 4 December 2016

The Reluctant Conservationist

If you managed to chew your way through parts 1-4 of my recent treatise on records committees you might have drawn some conclusions regarding my view of them. If so, you are probably correct:

Yes, I feel that they are a necessary institution and do a necessary job.

But my opinion is based upon a possibly dubious premise: that accurate record-keeping is itself a necessary thing. Well, is it? Do birds - does nature - really need carefully identifying, counting, measuring, recording and archiving? In a comment on Part 1 Dylan Wrathall made this thought-provoking point: "...the natural world doesn't require judges and juries - it is there to be experienced, enjoyed and embraced." I could so easily subscribe to this view at its most simplistic level. Why not simply enjoy it all without feeling the need to convert what we see into just so much data?

I am not a biologist, not an ecologist, not a scientist of any kind. I am not even what you would really call a conservationist; personally I am convinced that man's arrogant hand is quite incapable of successfully managing this planet or its wildlife. However, I do acknowledge that to many, many people this is vital stuff, and I recognise that sound data is often the driver for thoughtful, well-intentioned conservation efforts from which our environment does seem to benefit. For that and many related reasons I am happy to provide such data when I'm in the mood. And if that includes complying with some sort of vetting procedure, so be it.

So I am probably what you might call a reluctant conservationist.

For example, no one could deny that right here we have a success story...

Cirl Bunting press release dated 17/11/2016, lifted straight off RSPB website

And I imagine that a great deal of careful observation, recording and subsequent data analysis contributed to this happy outcome. As a result, in 25 years we've gone from 100-odd to 1,078 Cirl Bunting pairs. Undeniably a success. I mean, who wouldn't want to enjoy more of these little beauties...?

Male Cirl Bunting with Brambling at Broadsands, Devon in February 2008

While we're on the subject of success stories we could make reference to Red Kite perhaps. Certainly a description species when I was still a London birder, but now a ubiquitous feature of many a skyscape, including some of London's. More controversially though, Common Crane. "Between 2010 and 2015, 93 Common Cranes were hand-reared to release onto the Somerset Levels and Moors - doubling the UK population, and helping to secure the future of the Crane in the UK" says the blurb on the The Great Crane Project website.

"Why?" says the cynic sitting at this keyboard. Were they not doing pretty well on their own?

And how about Great Bustard? Earlier this year I came across some rather gloomy data re. mortality and suchlike that confirmed for me what I've always thought, i.e. that the UK Great Bustard project is a ridiculously optimistic endeavour. Unfortunately I cannot seem to find this data right now, and a careful search of the Great Bustard Group website produces nothing that we might truly call 'results'. Maybe because they are so depressing? Ah well. Anyway, when it comes to reintroducing this species I am once again forced to ask: Why?

Evidently, time, money and massive effort is invested in all these and similar projects, but sadly I can only draw this analogy: to me it is all like polishing the wing mirror on a classic car with terminal chassis rot. Is it just me who sees things this way?

And there, dear readers, I leave you with my joyous Sunday offering...

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Scilly Exercise

I do love the Scilly Isles. And it's not just the birding. It's the scenery, the atmosphere, everything; it's just a beautifully tranquil place to be. But of course our visits are always bird-oriented, and timed to coincide with a decent chance of a vagrant or two, in other words spring or autumn. Never summer. Until this year, that is...

Our younger son got married in July, an event which saw the Haig clan descend from far and wide. My sister Karen and her husband Mark flew in from Sydney, and as we hadn't seen them for years we arranged to go away for a few days together after the wedding. They both enjoy walking but had never been to Scilly, so choosing the destination was easy.

Scilly in late July is a very different place. There are no birds at all. None. So you have to find other amusements. Walking is clearly an option. You know, the same as what you would do if there were birds, but without the lengthy pauses by this hedge or that gateway. But there are other, perhaps less obvious pleasure possibilities. For example, you could rent a bike...

Rental beast-bike at Porthloo. See? No birds.

The same spot at Porthloo, looking towards the harbour at Hugh Town. And again, complete lack of birds.

Some 20-odd years ago I remember hiring bikes for myself and the boys one day during a family holiday, a fuzzy memory that holds images only of carefree delight. Well, my motive this time was different. I was not intent upon some joyous, two-wheeled frolic around St Mary's. No, I wanted the bike more as a means of exercise than sightseeing. So, early one morning I headed out into the familiar lanes...

I admit I have been spoiled these recent years. My bikes are relatively lightweight machines, their componentry slick and efficient. In other words, a pleasure to suffer on. Well, this beast was hideous in the extreme. Its monstrous weight was not the problem - that's called 'resistance training' - no, it was the little orchestra of squeaks, clicks and clunks! And the horribly untrustworthy gear-changing! And that saddle! My backside has never endured a more uncomfortable saddle. Yes, I know, it looks all big and soft and squashy, but that's exactly why it's so painful. It is perhaps paradoxical that the most comfy bike saddles are almost bereft of padding, but it's true. Anyway, I was quite relieved to get my wincing posterior off the thing for a quick photo-shoot at Porthloo.

Lesson learned. Next time I'll take my own bike over.

My brother-in-law Mark is a good runner. In fact in his youth he was a completely mad runner. He completed the South Downs 80 (yes, eighty) for example. Twice. Twenty five years ago he and my sister lived on the outskirts of Edinburgh, and several times we ran together up into the Pentland Hills from their home. Well, the last time I went for an actual proper run was in 1993, so I'm not quite sure what I was doing asking Mark if he fancied going out for a little jog round St Mary's...

We followed the road to Old Town - quite slowly - and then headed out to Peninnis on the footpath. I was doing okay, even looking forward to the climb up to the lighthouse, when suddenly Mark pulled up, limping; he'd twisted an ankle on the gnarly path. So that was that. We jogged/limped/walked back to our digs by the shortest route possible. We'd been out maybe 20 minutes, and I was thinking to myself, "Hmmm, not too bad. I'd quite like to do that again..."

What a fool.

Strolling along Porthloo Lane one day we spotted this...

Mark and Karen would be gone by the Sunday, but Mrs NQS and I had a few more days. Worthy cause, I thought. Five kilometres isn't too far, I thought. Why not? I thought.

Sunday July 24th dawned wet and dull. Perfect conditions, said the veteran runner within, as he peered out the window and nodded knowingly. I lined up, paid my fiver and received a number and some pins. Wow. I hadn't pinned a number on since...ooh...must have been that fateful Harrow Marathon when I knackered my knee. Anyway, at 11.00 we were off...

Alway, always, always, at the start of a race there's someone on the front who really shouldn't be there! There I am, sensibly (and conspicuously!) towards the back of the field. I was fiercely determined to hold on to this position.
Yes, lots of fun to watch before going for a coffee and huge cake. You can just make me out, level with the back of the bus. Notice how lots of very young girls are well ahead of me? That's how it remained.

By about 4k I was struggling. Bike-fit is not running-fit, and my poor old legs were looking for muscle groups they didn't have. A little twinge in my left calf got me worried for a moment, but that quickly eased, so as we climbed the slope past the school I was looking forward to going for it a bit on the descent past the dairy and along the Strand towards the Finish. However, topping the rise I suddenly felt a sharp pain in my right calf which almost stopped me dead...but I kept going, limping pathetically to the line. In the next five minutes my calf seized up completely. Mrs NQS was very quiet, but there are a million ways to say "I told you" that don't involve words. I heard all of them.

I was limping badly for a couple more days, and the muscle didn't heal completely for at least a fortnight. Another lesson learned.

Still, I got a nice medal...

It's the one on the left, obviously. The one on the right is another story...

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 '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, 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 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.