Tuesday, 9 May 2017

How to Count Birds. Lesson 1: Flocks

There were waders on the beach early this morning. Quite a few. Three different sorts too. As all birders know, it's not just the species name that you make a note of but also how many. Counting is important. In fact counting is vital. Why? Because the accurate counting of birds is an identifying mark of the true birder. Witness the three seawatching buddies faced with a writhing flock of Common Scoter going past. The true birder will rise to the occasion...

- What do you reckon guys? About 60?
- Yeah, something like that, maybe even more. Derek?
- Sixty-seven.

Yes, Derek is a true birder. But just in case there was still doubt, he adds:

- Including twenty-eight adult drakes.

Don't you just hate him?

I am not a true birder. I am in fact Mr Ballpark. If a flock of 67 Common Scoter flies past me I am usually busy trying to detect the flash of white secondaries. My count will be extremely circa. Mind you, if the flock numbers 20 or less I will do the best I can to count it properly; I'm not completely useless. So, when faced with a flock of waders on a beach, what does one do? What do I do? Well, it depends, as the following #recordshots illustrate...

Ringed Plover. This was in a flock of one. Even I was untroubled here.

Sanderling. This was one of several. They were running about a lot, rather quickly, and I was struggling. Eventually I settled on nine. They then flew along the beach together of their own accord. Much better. There were ten.

Whimbrel. Lots of them. When I first arrived this morning a flock of 23 Whimbrel took to the air off the lower beach for some unknown reason and then drifted back down in the same area and landed out of sight. I thought to myself "23 Whimbrel. Nice. I must check them out later and see if I can get a #recordshot." Upon my return I found this lot, considerably more than 23. Actually this is only some of them. The others are out of shot, or hidden behind shingle ridges and bigger, fatter Whimbrel. Nightmare.

I thought perhaps if I got closer to them, the hidden ones would be visible and I could count them properly. I could see there were more than 40. I tried it...

As you can see, it doesn't help to get closer. The hidden ones just crouch right down, and your field of view is restricted to just a few birds at a time. Dreadful.

I know what you're thinking.
"Make them fly! Boot 'em! Get them up, UP! Then you'll see how many there are."

But it's not as simple as that, not when there are loads of them...

See? Awful!!

There had to be another way...

And then I remembered a trick I'd pulled in order to count a huge flock of Golden Plover back on the Axe. Get them up properly. Right up. Make them dots.

And then take a photo. Take a photo, blow it up, and count the dots at your leisure.

So I ran down the beach, screaming, and they all fled inland...

Exactly 60 Whimbrel.

So yes, 60 Whimbrel. And I'm glad I have the evidence too, because no one believes counts that end in zero. Obviously you struggled with accuracy, and rounded up. Not a true birder.

PS. I'm sure the following caveat is unnecessary, but just in case: before anyone comments adversely on my seemingly questionable birding ethics, don't believe everything you read on NQS.


Not a Barwit. Rubbish photos can lie.


  1. Yes, but how many of those dots were Barwits? ��

    1. If you're thinking what I think you might be thinking, well, the photo is deceptive. I'll add an edited version as a PPS.

      If that's not what you're thinking, then I couldn't say exactly. But approximately none.

    2. What I'm thinking is that most patch Barwits occur 'carried' by Whimbrel flocks. I'd be amazed if a flock of 60 didn't have at few in there...but there doesn't seem to be any tucked away does there...

    3. Mike, the highest count I got while they were still loafing on the beach was 52 - all Whimbrel - and I was pretty confident I'd seen every bird. When the were eventually pushed off a handful of others joined them from the upper beach, again all Whimbrel. Perhaps surprising, but the flock held no Barwits.

  2. I think we've all met a Derek or two in our birding careers, fascinating people! To be fair to Derek, Bird Reports need people like him more than they need the many Mr Ballparks.

    Derek would be appalled at your last post btw.

    1. You're right. As far as Derek is concerned, extrapolation is for the weak.