Friday, 22 November 2019

Dodgy Birders - Appendix A: A Dodgy Birder Responds

Whenever I publish something on NQS I am confident that at least some other people will read it. Quite often I get a comment or two, which is always pleasing, and sometimes a bit of reaction on Twitter, where I usually advertise the birth of a new post. This morning I got a lot more than that. In part 5 of the Dodgy Birders series you will have met Alan Vittery, a man evidently labelled a 'Dodgy Birder' by the BBRC. Well, imagine my surprise when Alan got in touch. I hope he won't mind me snipping out this quote from his email:

'I have written the occasional piece in 'Birdwatch' about single observer records but have never gone to any lengths to defend myself... Your analysis of the dodgy birder phenomenon has encouraged me to state my case in some detail, which I attach.'

I sincerely hope you will find what follows as fascinating a read as I have. It is entirely unedited. Please pour yourself a beer or whatever is your poison, and enjoy...

If you haven't already done this, or similar, please pause right now, and rectify...


‘DODGY’ BIRDER’S RESPONSE   Alan Vittery, November 2019 

As I discovered to my cost, it is quite easy to get on the wrong side of Records Committees. My troubles started with Mike Rodgers who seemed to be suspicious of the reason I stayed on Tresco when I visited Scilly, or was it just jealousy that I was finding more than him on St Mary’s? The real reason was that I was a friend of David Hunt and had stayed in his cottages in Hugh Town until his unfortunate demise. I then tried Tresco (much preferred by my wife, Bonnie) and found it offered great sea-watching as well as the Great Pool and peace and quiet before the boats arrived!

Things came to a head when, after an ‘Iberian’ weather system, I saw a rock-solid, elegant, long-tailed, intermediate phase Eleonora’s fly south past the Great Pool and cross ‘The Road’ to St Mary’s. It was a bird I knew well from Turkey and Greece, and I had even found the first for mainland southern Africa after a cyclone between Madagascar and Mozambique (accepted without question!). I phoned St Mary’s to let them know and eventually got a message from Mike that “two young Cornish lads had reported an unusually dark Hobby, so there was no point in me submitting the Eleonora’s”. Any objective assessor would have concluded that the ‘dark Hobby’ sighting by inexperienced observers actually corroborated my id. I have seen hundreds of Hobbys and have never encountered, or even heard of, a dark individual. Mike knew of my raptor credentials but looked for any excuse to reject my records. The fact that I had several good finds to my credit on Tresco, all duly twitched, (Common Nighthawk, Woodchat Shrike and Britain’s third Sardinian Warbler to name but three), seemed to count for nothing. 

When I moved to Sutherland as a full-time birder (having been medically retired at 47) I immediately encountered the same problem with the Scottish Committee. I quickly discovered that the Moray Firth was a huge seabird trap. Hundreds of hours of observation from Brora (and Strathy Point in the Pentland Firth) produced numerous records of species then considered rare in Scotland, including multiple Balearic Shearwaters. I got the most ridiculous responses from Ron Forrester (who had obviously never done a serious sea-watch in his life), such as “BWP measurements show Balearic could not look larger than Manx” and “a Sooty with a pale belly had been reported off New Zealand”. After a well seen and described male Rough-legged Buzzard was rejected solely on the grounds that “males are very rare in Britain” (which of course I knew), I resigned as Recorder for Sutherland in disgust. 

I later learned that the BBRC and the SBRC would no longer even assess my records so, when I saw a ‘looping’ Fea’s Petrel fly past Brora, close in, it was excluded from the official record even though the same bird had passed Fife Ness and was later seen off North Ronaldsay! ‘Cutting off their nose to spite my face’ springs to mind. I would not claim any record about which I had any doubt about the id, so have been forced to publish my own “unverified” sightings, which are now criticised (e.g BB review of ‘Sutherland Birdlife’ (2018) by the current Highland Recorder) for being outside the verification process. Tough; it was their choice! Let posterity decide, as I’m sure many of my sightings are indicators of trends in this rapidly changing climate and researchers should at least have access to them to judge their merits in the context of future developments. 

So, I probably represent the classic case of ‘someone who sees too much’. There are several factors that need to be taken into consideration, generally ignored by Committees. First, I do enjoy exceptionally good eyesight, further trained from taking up bird-watching at a very early age. My ability to pick up birds with the naked eye when others were struggling with binoculars was legendary in the Teesmouth Bird Club. More recently, friends in Sutherland could also testify to my visual acuity. 

The maxim ‘time + effort in = reward out’ also holds true. I calculate I have spent just over 100,000 hours actively birding in the field since first acquiring binoculars aged 8! To that I am still adding almost 2000 hours per annum. 

Before the days of cheap air travel, overseas experience was of course a major advantage. Although holiday trips do offer valuable experience of birds which could occur in Britain, there is no substitute for living in a country and getting to know the birds intimately. My three years in Turkey and two winter/springs in Greece were particularly valuable in a European context and a boon to a raptor-starved Englishman. In Pakistan I encountered some of the eastern species now occurring in western Europe with greater frequency (such as Blyth’s Reed Warbler wintering in my garden) and in Africa (Gambia, Ethiopia and Mozambique) I saw many interesting Palearctic migrants in, or on their way to and from, their winter quarters. 

The chances of finding good birds are greatly enhanced by other factors. A knowledge of the likely consequences of weather systems, both local and distant, is one. Before ’Google’, I used the shipping forecast to determine where to spend the next day’s birding. At migration times, I kept the daily meteorological charts from the newspaper to assess the causes of any sightings in retrospect, so I could be alert to possibilities when a similar system occurred in future. Some of these charts are reproduced in my book on the Birds of Sutherland (1997). One September in Norfolk, I amazed some fellow birders in Cley by accurately predicting the different source of arrivals on successive days. A classic North Sea system, which duly produced Redstarts, Pied Fly’s, Lesser Whitethroats and Dunnocks from Scandinavia had moved well to the south, so I then anticipated birds from the Balkans. Sure enough, on Blakeney Point the next day, there were Red-breasted Flycatchers, Red-backed Shrike and a juvenile Black-headed Bunting. 

In Sutherland, with its three coasts, I was able to take full advantage of favourable weather conditions in any part of the county. Given the number of rare migrants reaching the Northern Isles it seems obvious Sutherland must get its fair share; they are just more difficult to find on the mainland. I was fortunate to live on a major NE/SW flight-line in the Clynelish valley, Brora which produced many interesting transients (including the celebrated White’s Thrush in 1991), eighteen species of diurnal raptor and some great garden birds, such as Booted, Icterine and Pallas’s Warbler, Wryneck & Red-backed Shrike. I discovered it paid to be alert in the days following major ‘falls’ on the Northern Isles as even some night migrants ‘filtered’ south through my valley. In the extreme north-west, the Durness area is like a Northern Isle cut off not by sea but by its hostile mountainous hinterland. It is now more regularly watched, partly as a result of my finds there, like Daurian Starling and Woodchat Shrike. 

Needing a warmer climate for health reasons, from 2009 – 16 I pioneered the virtually unknown island of Santa Maria in the Azores. When Dominic Mitchell visited, he asked me why I had chosen Santa Maria. The clear inference was that my doubters suspected I wanted to be somewhere where my finds could not be verified. In fact I would have chosen Flores in the extreme west of the archipelago but my wife suffered from arthritis and Santa Maria was reputed to be the warmest and driest island. It was also geologically stable, being more than twenty times older than any of the other islands. I was beginning to regret the choice when I saw only 29 species in a week on an April recce, but it proved to be amazing, attracting birds from Europe, the deserts of North Africa and (mainly) North America. 

A consequence of Santa Maria’s age (over 6 million years) was that it was worn down and had developed habitats absent on the younger islands, such as a large plain. I found that species regarded as very rare in the Azores (like Lesser Kestrel, Pacific Golden Plover, Dotterel, Skylark and Redwing) were regular visitors to Santa Maria, which raised eyebrows again until others came across to see them for themselves. Finding breeding Killdeers finally put SM firmly on the ornithological map. Even this was outshone by the discovery of a relict population of Small Button-Quails, but how could I ‘prove’ a species which has never been photo’d in the wild? I tried recording the advertising call of the female at night but was defeated by the sounds of frogs, dogs and insects. My many other finds there, such as the Wilson’s Snipe which regularly overwintered in double figures, are detailed in ‘The Birds of Santa Maria, Azores’, available free from me to anyone intending to visit the island (e-mail: avalgarve@gmail.com). 

I now live in the Algarve just 20 km from the SW tip of Europe (Cape St Vincent) and again find myself on a major flight-line used by both raptors and passerines. In onshore winds the sea-watching on the nearby coast can be sensational, particularly in spring/early summer, but no-one else seems to sea-watch here, relying entirely on offshore pelagics. On 14 Feb this year, for example, an immature Wandering (presumably Tristan) Albatross flew west, well out, dwarfing the Gannets at the same range. Although this is one species already on the Portuguese list (an immature seen from a British warship 50 km off Cape St Vincent), it is seriously impoverished. Glaring omissions include desert birds from North Africa given its proximity and the fact that the Algarve is a frequent recipient of sand and insect-laden south-easterly winds. I have already seen several such species in my three years here, which is hardly surprising as they regularly reached Santa Maria, almost 1000 km more distant, after Saharan storms. 

Given the number of British rarities I have found, it may come as a surprise to learn these are principally the by-products of regular patch work (although one patch was Blakeney Point!) and long periods of observation watching large movements of commoner species. I am never happier than when witnessing a coastal passage of ‘Poms’ or Little Auks in autumn/winter gales. I also recall an April trek onto Blakeney Point with Tony Marr when, on quite a bird-rich day, he was puzzled by my preoccupation with counting the many Pied Wagtails (well over a hundred) arriving from the east, which far exceeded any of my previous counts. 

I do not claim infallibility and have inevitably made a few mistakes in 68 years of bird-watching. Unlike some, I have been prepared to admit these publicly. In compensation I have also corrected misidentifications made by others. In strict scientific terms the value of ‘unproven’ individual records is, I accept, very limited but when in total they contribute to a better understanding of the changes now taking place on a global scale they arguably assume greater significance. I am not a twitcher or lister (apart from a ‘fun’ World houses list, which has just topped 600), so what would be the point of lying to myself? 

I feel I have made significant pioneering contributions in a number of little known areas overseas and in Sutherland. In ‘The Birds of Greece’ I received the first foreign acknowledgement for my studies of the birdlife of the Ionian islands of Kefallinia and Paxos. Competitiveness, jealousy and personal prejudice leading to suspicion and character assassination and, ultimately, the unnecessary impoverishment of the official record should have no place in ornithology.
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That account, and its covering email, is by far the most touching response I have ever had to a blog post. It was 38 years ago that Alan Vittery came striding up the track at Kelling where Mrs NQS and I were so hopelessly stuck, and rescued us. Providing this modest platform for Alan to make his case is the least I can do to say 'thank you', and I hope readers find it as thought-provoking as I do. Alan is now 76 compared to my 60. We have met just twice in person, and corresponded this once. Our lives and current circumstances are very different, yet we are both still birders. And if nothing else, for me the very existence of this post validates the point I made at the close of part 5. Birders are just people, and birding is not life...

And isn't life rather enchanting on occasion?!

24 comments:

  1. I was lucky enough to bump into Alan in Sutherland once, nice bloke. I remember he told me he was birding at Prawle Point one day and had met Alan Searle and a Bluethroat Alan had just caught and ringed.

    Perry Sanders

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    1. Perry, thanks for taking the trouble to post a comment here, it's really nice to hear from you. DBRC seems like a lifetime ago :-)

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  2. Thank you both so much for sharing this, a wonderful insight into the mindset of some committee men. I've introduced a more rigorous and fair system in Dorset, i.e. each record stands on its own merit regardless of the observers' reputation either way. This hasn't pleased some people but surely for posterity it's the only way?

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    1. Thanks for your comment Marcus. Having twice been on a records committee I appreciate that a White Stork is easier to describe convincingly than a Black Kite, but if you set your required criteria for acceptance by species, and stick to it regardless of who the observer is, well, I should imagine a good level of avifaunal integrity will follow...

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  3. Alan and I both contributed to the original Patchwork magazine when he lived in/near Brora and I lived in West Yorkshire, I enjoyed the monthly competition and reading about his finds. I've never met him in person. This is a fascinating account and I'm disappointed in the strange presumptions of folk who ought to have known better with regard to some cracking finds. Like Alan I will admit to mistakes with ID, particularly when I was younger and over-enthusiastic, but it is disappointing when you are not believed and good records are rejected (or disgracefully in Alan's case apparently not even considered) for no credible reason, it lingers in the mind.

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    1. Thanks for your comment Alistair. I'm not familiar with Patchwork magazine, and feel I've missed out on something there!

      Notwithstanding the undeniable fact that a tiny minority of birders is deeply dodgy, Alan's final sentence puts it in a nutshell for me.

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  4. Gav, I consider that your set of articles which has led; in my opinion to the complete vindication of Alan Vittery, has raised the bar of civilisation up a notch.
    In the context of birding, there can be very few whose contribution has made the world seem a better place.
    You are to be congratulated.

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    1. Well, my friend, I am very grateful for those kind words. I don't know what to say apart from that...

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  5. I agree, heartwarming stuff. Proof of life.
    Also, imagine retiring at 47!

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  6. Gavin I enjoy reading your blogs immensely and have found Alan’s response very interesting. What a top birder and so experienced in the whole subject. I have only been birding for 10 years so I am still a beginner, but lately I have found all the bitching and moaning surrounding it has put me off being around people and participating in social media. I would have liked to met Alan and to listen to all his tales!

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    1. Thanks very much Steph, glad you like the blog. When I'd been birding 10 years I thought I was pretty good at it. I know better now of course! Most of us barely scratch the surface of what is possible.

      Hope you don't let the negativity get to you too much. Thanks again...

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  7. Hi Gav - have thoroughly enjoyed reading these posts. A great response from Alan and can fully understand the frustrations he has endured. Remember seeing photos of his Daurian Starling. Unfortunately Photos are such an important part of today's birding (note-taking is so much better). I wish I wasn't the suspicious type but for me, a birder who finds lots of rares, carries a camera and never has a photo of a 'find' runs a high risk of being called 'dodgy', rightly or wrongly. Equally, birders who refuse to carry a camera, who see a lot of rare birds, are also taking that risk unless all their finds are multi-observed. I never bird without my camera (and it's not an expensive one by the way - I'm sure you can tell!). It's almost as important to me nowadays as my bins. I've had the worst year for non-photographed finds this year with 2 Serins, a Nightingale and Tawny Pipit all avoiding the lens, and I was genuinely gutted with each one. I still maintain that a high percentage of rare or scarce birds should be photographed and/or multi-observed, and I'm pretty certain that rarity committees work on that basis too.
    It's really nice to hear admissions of making mistakes too. Wish more birders were like that. Birders that think they don't make mistakes - definitely dodgy! All the best. Matt

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    1. Thanks so much for your comment Matt. I'm with you on the camera thing these days, and on the off-chance I find a decent bird one day (I live in hope!) that isn't a Caspian Gull, getting a photo will be important to me.

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  8. Funny folk birders. I have been interested, whilst avoiding obsession, for about 60 years and am constantly amazed by the attitude of members of the ranks at birding sites. Secretive - ignorant, competitive and downright deceptive at times. Walking into a hide or cafe on a reserve is like walking into a country pub at times. "You ain't from 'round 'ere" attitude. maybe I wear the wrong clothes.

    I can fully believe the jealousy and negativity described - there are similarities with the fishing world - and find it a pity when, after all, looking for unusual birds is a pass time much better shared than solo.

    A fascinating and thought provoking blog.

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    1. Thanks Dave. Your experiences when among birders are rather typical, sadly. As an adult I've never been quite as deeply involved with the angling world as I have with birding, but the tales from friends who have confirm that the petty jealousies, backbiting etc, are just as rife. Unfortunately...

      You're comment re shared vs solo is a topic that does interest me too. It'll be a blog post one day I hope.

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  9. Gav,
    The best blog post I've read in 2019 - anywhere! Fair play to Alan for having the intellect and personality to stay true to himself during this period of doubt. Reading through the comments is almost as fascinating as the original post. Great stuff.
    Parallels to angling? It might be more accurate that there are parallels with any hobby where obsession overrides normality. What I find most worrying about the situation is that none of this stuff is actually important! - Dylan

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    1. Thanks Dylan, sounds like you've found it all as fascinating as I have. I suppose these matters are as important as you want them to be, or make them. Though of course, in the grand scheme of things we all know where that leaves them!

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  10. As a birder who lives in Sutherland i have had the privilege of knowing AV for many years. Not only is Alan an outstanding birder but also a pioneer in bird recording in many areas of the world where little information was available . This may be a hobby for most birders but for some it is much more than that! I once met Alan at Brora beach car park, we were chatting when Alan called out Laughing Gull!, it was my second as he also found one in Dornoch ten years previous to that. Today i walked out to dornoch point i saw 32 Snow buntings, 54 Twite 2 Grey PLover,1 Shore Lark , 1 Merlin, 4 Stonechat etc.. i met a couple of birder pals later in the afternoon who had also walked out to Dornoch point but they did not see any of the birds i mentioned.did i see too much? No not at all some days are better than others!

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    1. Many thanks for taking the trouble to share your personal experience of AV. Much appreciated. I visited Brora in 1984 and saw a lovely King Eider there, but have never been further north on the mainland. One day perhaps. Envious of your Dornoch birds. I walked a stretch of Dorset coast this afternoon and saw 3 Chiffchaffs, 60+ Meadow Pipits and a few Stonechats. Oh, for a Snow Bunting! Or a Twite!

      In Dorset I'd need a photo of the Twite, or...er...I might be starting to see too much ;-)

      Thanks again. Gavin

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  11. Excellent response from Allen, someone I have never met but remember reading stimulating articles by him a very long time ago. I never realized he was thought to be 'dodgy', and I can't see that he ever has been. I wonder how many other birders' finds are 'outside the assessment system' after similar doubts about their credibility. Back in my Yorkshire coast days there certainly was a very good birder at Bridlington, Barmston to be exact, who was just the same. And then there was Flamborough of course.

    Steve Lister

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    1. Very sorry to carelessly write Allen rather than Alan.
      Steve

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    2. Thanks Steve. Yes, it makes you think doesn't it? Thanks very much for your comment.

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