Monday 4 January 2016


Perhaps we don't always consciously acknowledge the fact, but a good percentage of the buzz many of us get from birding is directly linked to context. That is, the circumstances surrounding each bird we see. Context makes it special, or leaves it merely mundane. The obvious case is the common migrant that is so out-of-range that it becomes a vagrant, viz. rarity. But there are many, more subtle examples: the notorious skulker seen really well; the summer visitor in the middle of winter; the dirt-common bird in vast numbers; the seabird inland, etc.

Let me illustrate...

Before heading off to work this morning I nipped over to Cogden for a quick look at the sea. Again, the walk from the car park gave me some patch yearticks: Great Tit, Bullfinch and a singing Skylark. A little black blob offshore turned out to be a summer plumaged Guillemot, and fly-bys included 4 Kitts, 2 Fulmars, and singles of Brent Goose and Red-throated Diver. Eight new birds, bringing my total to 44 species and 53 points. A lone Shag was on the sea briefly before flying E, and a 1W Med Gull went W. All in all, a pleasing start to the working day.

Context played a major role in my enjoyment of that hour. The passerines were all yearticks, making each just a touch more notable than normal - the Skylark especially, due to singing its little heart out on 4 January and instantly raising my spirits. Guillemot, a common bird in places, and guaranteed for the year here, but here was one close enough for me to rule out Razorbill without teetering into the dark world that is 'string'. Thank you, close Guillemot, for keeping my conscience intact. Kittiwake, Fulmar, Brent Goose and Red-throated Diver similar, status-wise - all a given here, but not that common along this stretch of coast apparently. Also the RTD was reasonably close compared to the generally distant views I am used to off Seaton. When the Axe was my patch a lone Shag wouldn't have got a mention, but it is scarce here. Med Gull? Just being a Med Gull as opposed to dross immediately elevates the bird to another plane.

I don't think I'd ever quite made the connection before, but birders of a certain age have a system that describes exactly how special the context has made a particular bird. It's the 'value' system. You don't hear it so much these days, but I'm sure we subconsciously use our own version of it all the time...

Jack Snipe, right out in the open, point-blank range...excellent value!


  1. Yes, it's all about location location location. A common bird most places may sometimes be absurdly rare in Wanstead. The opposite is also true - I went birding with FPS in Aberdeen once, and he punched the air and shouted, nay screamed "Patch Gold!!!!" when three Canada Geese flew past. Whilst I spit at Canada Geese, I knew exactly where he was coming from.
    I also hugely appreciate daft birds. I've seen loads of Fieldfares, but I can rarely get anywhere near them for a decent view. That bird a few years ago that just sat for ages in the middle of a small patch of grass in a carpark in Southend remains one of my best birding experiences. And once there was a Jack Snipe in Shetland that walked over my hand.

    1. Exactly! Location is such a massive factor. Also, your comment has reminded me that even the most mundane species can provide extremely memorable experiences, and that I must write a post about Woodpigeons...