Thursday 31 October 2019

Dodgy Birders - Part 2: Getting it Wrong

Today we'll be dealing with honest mistakes. I mention this because the generic catch-all 'Dodgy Birders' encompasses all kinds of really weird stuff, and in this chapter we're not quite opening that door yet...

One spring in the early 1980s I was invited to join a London Bird Race team. Being a relatively new birder I was flattered, because the rest of the team comprised three pillars of the W London birding scene back then, much better and more experienced birders than me. At my suggestion we were trying a place called Bentley Priory for Hawfinch, but after slogging around for quite a while it looked like we were on a loser. There was one final spot to check, and to do so we had to climb a slope and scan the treetops. I hurried up the hill to look. Amazingly, there was a Hawfinch! Perched right up on the highest twigs of a distant tree, like they do. A bit far away for bins, and just a silhouette really, but definitely a Hawfinch. I called to the others, who were trudging up the slope much more slowly than I had, no doubt resigned to the blank. They stopped, turned, looked, and asked: "Where is it in relation to that Greenfinch, Gav?"

When it comes to bird identification, every single birder gets it wrong sometimes. Over the years I've dropped some right clangers, occasionally as embarrassing as that one was!

Does that make me a dodgy birder? I sincerely hope not. You earn that accolade not from a few mistakes, but from a catalogue of persistent dodginess built over time. Every birder makes mistakes. What marks a birder as dodgy is how he deals with them.

Take my not-a-Hawfinch debacle. Let's replay it...

"Where is it in relation to that Greenfinch, Gav?"
  • Option 1: "My bad! Sorry lads, I thought it was a Hawfinch!"
  • Option 2: "Oh no! It's just dropped out of sight, about 6 feet to the right of the Greenfinch!"
Let's not be coy. Option 2 is a big fat lie. In part 3 we'll explore this area a little further, but for now, let's consider why someone would even consider lying.

Basically it's to save face, isn't it? The shame and embarrassment of looking like a total noddy is simply too much to bear, so we'll just employ the two-bird theory to wriggle out of an awkward situation. Perfectly understandable. Trouble is, look at what happens next...

"Oh, that's a shame. Never mind Gav, at least we know there's a Hawfinch here, so let's stake it out for a while."

Then follows an indefinite period of weasely squirming.

"About six feet to the right, you reckon Gav?"
"Where that tall, forked twig sticks up?"
"Yes, near there."
"By that dead branch?"
"Yes, yes. That's the spot."

Three more lies. If my conscience wasn't in torment now, there would really be no hope for me.

"Dropped down, you say? To the right? To the left?"
"Neither really. More like immediately behind that forked twig. Can't have gone far..."

Strewth! Another whopper. And now I'm dressing them up with tinsel and glitter. I am truly loathsome.

This is called digging a hole, and the moment I chose option 2, I picked up the spade. Let's say we gave it another ten minutes. No Hawfinch of course, and as we walk back to the car I might be  thinking I'd got away with it. But you know what? My three companions would have clocked it. They were pretty sure there had only ever been the Greenfinch. Not quite one-hundred-percent sure, but close enough. They would compare notes in my absence, remember and discuss all my deceitful wriggling. From that point on I would be marked. Perhaps dodgy birders do not appreciate that fact? Do this kind of thing frequently enough and your name will be mud.

Anyway, in the event I thankfully chose option 1. I held up my hand and my three companions, with the wisdom of their own experience no doubt, put it down to over-enthusiasm and laughed it away.

True, it takes humility to own up to mistakes. But needing to be right all the time is a fatal flaw, and will a dodgy birder make.

In part 3 of the Dodgy Birders series, we'll examine the topic of trust, and why its betrayal is dodginess of the most heinous kind.

Derek Stringer has just claimed the Scarlet Tanager...


  1. St Levan, must be the Scarlet Tanager twitch... and no I didn't see it!

  2. I remember a Jan 1st day list we did Gav. William Girling Reservoir for Common scoter. After a run along the bank we see a couple candidates asleep. I pointed to one and said that must be it. At which stage you said, 'Tell me why it isn't a female Pochard'? Ah! (I couldn't)

    This happened after the incident with the Grawfinch, so the lesson of over enthusiasm must have been well learned.

    1. I remember that day well. 1990 or '91? Sounds like the clever-dick kind of thing I'd have said back then too. Sorry about that, Ric... :-\

  3. No apologies required Gav. Quite the opposite. From my perspective I was really really impressed.

    Even then I knew my ID knowledge base was sketchy. An obvious ID I can cope with, but awkward stuff is more a case of 'I know what it isn't but can't even say why'. Rest assured at that point I knew I was in good hands.

    Such attention to detail should not be underestimated, and was a reminder to me not to play fast and loose with ID.

    Tbf, I felt my position was better suited as a back up driver or support crew for those like you who actually understood what they were doing. Good fun going along for the ride.

  4. Been there - I claimed once I'd seen four Goosander on Mercer's Lake on my local patch one morning - in my defence they were not seen with bins – only to be told later by Gordon Hay and Graham James (two real birders) that they were, in fact, Shelduck. Horrible.

    1. Ha ha! Such moments are little starbursts of delight aren't they?!