Sunday, 13 October 2019

How the Birder's Mind Works

On Twitter today I spotted a screenshot that someone had posted a few days back. It was a bit of negative bird news re a Siberian Stonechat on Unst, Shetland: 'earlier reported individual was a Whinchat', it said.

I suspect this is a prime example of what happens when birders let a natural process run away with them. What natural process? The subconscious analytical machinery that grinds into life every time a birder claps eyes on a bird. It goes something like this...

Bird hops into view, in deep shadow.
   "Hello. What's this?"
Unbeknown to the birder, his mind is already on the case, and makes him say:
   "Another poxy Robin?"
Bird hops out of view. Nothing more than a silhouette was visible.
   "Hmm. Looked a bit slim. Didn't call..."
Yes, the birder's mind is already working hard to elevate a rubbish view of nothing into something.
   "Was there just a hint of pale throat there? Eye-ring even?"
Birder's mind is now just unashamedly inventing stuff.
   "There was a Bluetail up the coast yesterday..."
And there we go, the birder has given free rein to his deceitful thought process, and the door to a very dark place is creaking open...
   "Nah. Just a Robin, surely."
Phew! Birder has regained control.
   "Let's just give it a couple of minutes though."
Safe ground still.
Nothing further happens. Birder walks on, slightly more alert, reputation still intact.

Something like this probably happens hundreds, or even thousands of times a day around the country. Mostly without mishap, I'm sure. Go somewhere like Shetland, though, and you need a firm grip on those reins. If not...

Pale, chat-thing perched on fence, in full view.
   "Hello. What's this?"
Unbeknown to the birder, his mind is already on the case, and (because it knows he's on Shetland, rather than down the local patch) makes him say:
   "Aaargh!! Got to be a Sibe Stonechat! Get in!!!!"
Reason and Logic were both left behind at home, so the birder is now at the complete mercy of his deceitful mind, which is having quite a lot of fun...

So anyway, this all became quite relevant this afternoon when I ventured out once again to East Bexington, because...

Ooh look! There's a pale chat-thing on the fence!

Admittedly, knowing that I was in coastal West Dorset, my mind had already picked 'Whinchat' from the list of options, but it still made me examine the Siberian Stonechat possibilty before I'd even raised my bins. This is healthy enough, and I was grateful to it for doing so. If it had been the latter, I like to think my mind would not have allowed me to overlook it.

Here it is, a little closer...

A nice juv. That supercilium has a life of its own.

This was the most pleasing bird I came across, though 20+ Med Gulls were also superb, as always.

However, the most intriguing event of the afternoon involved something offshore. I am scanning the choppy sea with my bins, roughly in line with Portland Bill...

A low, dark shape on the surface, gently curved, quite distant, and frequently vanishing into troughs...
   "Hello. What's this?"
Unbeknown to the birder, his mind is already on the case, and makes him say:
Yes, my mind was remarkably blank for a few seconds. It looked like a creature rather than flotsam, and then, as it heaved into view again, I could see that it had a head, visible to the right of the low, dark mound of its body.
   "Must be a seal, surely?"
My birder's mind had defaulted to the most likely candidate. Very safe, just how I like it.
   "But why is it lying horizontal on the surface like that?"
I can count on the fingers of two hands (maybe even just one) the number of times I have seen a seal in this eastern part of Lyme bay, so they're scarce as it is, but I'm pretty sure I've only ever seen them 'bottling', with their head poking out of the water, body submerged and out of sight.
   "Hmmm. Strange..."
And then my birder's mind was off! It reached deep into the realm of fanciful nonsense, and made me say:
   "Could it be a turtle? Leatherbacks can be big."
It was big, for sure. And something about it didn't look right for a seal...but it was distant, in view only intermittently, and I was being buffetted about by the strong wind. I needed a better look. I quickly walked 20 yards to a big stone and sat down, resting elbows on knees to steady my view...

It had vanished. I looked and looked, but never saw it again. I actually gave it about half an hour. My birder's mind had by now got quite excited about the 'Leatherback Turtle' possibility, and wanted me to put in some proper effort. I figured that if it was a seal I would likely see it again; I wasn't so sure about the chances of seeing a turtle again once it had dived.

So there we are. Clearly you're not getting any 'Leatherback Turtle in Lyme Bay' string from me. But if one is spotted from Portland or something, well, obviously I saw it first.

And if not, well, my birder's mind certainly had quite a bit of fun with me this afternoon...


  1. You must be reading my mind when I am birding! Exactly what I say to myself. But it does make a dull day more interesting....

    1. Yep, it certainly does Steven. Which is probably why we all do it :)