Monday 21 November 2016

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.


  1. Gav, I was always of the view that despite you being a relatively inexperienced birder. The other recorders recognised talent when they saw it, and duly fast tracked you into their ranks.

    As Bucks recorder I also remember you had free rein to drive a motor vehicle around (Wraysbury Res I think). Status indeed. Impossible to report anything now from places like that as evidence of viewing stands as evidence of trespass.

    Handy London Leach's Petrel you found. Cheers.

    1. Ric, I reckon the other recorders recognised a willing admin assistant when they saw one, and a handy pair of shoulders upon which to offload a nice chunk of LBR section-writing! Thankfully though, I managed to avoid ever taking on a county bigger than Bucks. As you say, it was dead useful being able to drive around the top of Wraysbury Res. Can you imagine that nowadays?!!

  2. Yes Gav, I imagine that now, due to the demands of national and personal security, you would need to be wearing the full day glo gear, safety glasses and steel toecap boots. A vehicle (4 x 4) decked out with flashing warning strobes (amber obviously).
    And then; for reasons of H & S, in close attendance, Police, Fire Brigade, Ambulance, and just in case, the Coast Guard.

  3. I remember when you were Bucks recorder, you sent me a very nice letter telling me the Golden Plover with black armpits I'd seen in a flock of Grey Plovers was a 1st summer Grey Plover, the only Bucks record that year. I saw your Baird's Sand as well - I was 12!

    1. Ha ha! Cheers Dave, it's reassuring to know I did actually get my finger out and send some correspondence occasionally. My memory tells me I was a bit slack with the paperwork!