Friday 8 November 2019

Dodgy Birders - Part 4: Seeing Too Much

Today we're going to examine the interesting phenomenon of birders who 'see too much'. This is a tricky one, with many nuances, as we shall see. To illustrate, consider this imaginary scenario...

It's late August and you are visiting a popular coastal reserve. As you are about to enter a hide the door opens and out steps a birder.
"Much about?" you ask.
"Couple of Curlew Sands and a Spotted Redshank earlier, but not seen them for a while," he says.
"Nice. Thanks."
Half an hour later you have tallied many Dunlin and juvenile Redshanks, and are wondering if you've just been unlucky, or if the guy is maybe a bit rubbish at waders.
Later, working an extensive scrubby area, you meet him again. He generously shares the fact that he's had four Redstarts, that there's a Pied Flycatcher just around the corner and, best of all, a Wryneck in the clearing. Naturally your step quickens excitedly. Half an hour later your tally is one Redstart, and you are really not quite sure what to make of this bloke.
In the afternoon you meet again. He's on the beach, seawatching.
"Twelve Arctic Skuas and two Long-tailed," is his response to your query. "Plus I had an Ortolan low overhead twenty minutes ago, heading towards the paddocks."

Driving home later, you muse upon the day's outcome. Four Arctic Skuas and a Redstart. That other chap, meanwhile, bagged an Ortolan, two Long-tailed Skuas, a Wryneck, a Pied Flycatcher, four Redstarts, two Curlew Sands and a Spotshank.
"Or did he?" you accidentally say out loud.

A great way to see too much. Seawatch alone. Mid-week.

So, is our jammy friend simply that, or is he one of those birders who sees too much?

There is no doubt that such birders exist, and they can be exasperating, especially when they frequent your patch. But what do we mean by seeing 'too much'? And who decides how much is too much? To answer the first question, let's consider a couple of aspects of 'too much'...

1. Rare/scarce birds.
If you bird an area regularly, you soon get to know the relative status of its birds. If a birder repeatedly claims species that, while not necessarily uncommon elsewhere, are patch gold locally, well, the old alarm bells start ringing don't they? They are seeing too much.

2. Counts.
Let's say you have noted 5 migrant Willow Warblers during a circuit of your patch. You realise there will likely be others you haven't seen, but you don't reason that you've seen perhaps 10% of the actual number present, and therefore record 50. Only dodgy birders extrapolate. They are seeing too much.

What about the second question, who decides how much is too much? The short answer is: you do. And here's how it might happen...

When Derek Stringer first moved into your area and began to publicise his birds, initially you were impressed. Evidently, Derek was a birder with skills, dedication, and not a little jam too. You were delighted when he found that long-staying Dotterel, for example, a nice patch first. But soon you were noticing how many of his quality birds were fly-overs, or unphotographed, and how his counts were always much higher than yours, even when you were there at the same time. Eventually you began to doubt everything he claimed, if it wasn't photographed or in some other way verified.

Yes, that was your choice. You decided to doubt, to label Derek Stringer a 'birder who sees too much'. Why? What made you take that step? Hard to quantify, isn't it? Probably it wasn't a decision made overnight, but rather the result of steadily increasing activity on your dodginess radar. But most likely you won't be alone. Chances are, others will have noticed too, and before long Derek Stringer's 'sightings' are a frequent topic of birdy gossip, and his name added to the long, unhappy list of Dodgy Birders.

So, how do you handle the birder who sees too much? Should they be confronted? Outed? Ignored? Helped? Tolerated with resignation? Hmmm...

The Derek Stringers of our hobby exist on a spectrum, which ranges from the lying fantasist of part 3 to the birder who simply defaults to 'wildly optimistic' when a bird is seen badly and briefly. Add a dash of poor numeracy, carelessness, ignorance of a species' field characters and/or status, plus a host of other variables, mix it all together, and goodness knows what we're actually dealing with.

But how about this? Derek Stringer is simply a red-hot birder. He has vast experience of birding abroad, which has given him an intimate familiarity with countless species that are scarce or vagrants in the UK, including their flight calls and the colour and pattern of their briefly-seen undertail coverts. He has abnormally acute 20/20 vision, phenomenal hearing, a photographic memory, immense stamina, doesn't need to work and is half your age.

Would it be fair to label such a fortunate soul a 'birder who sees too much'?

Absolutely!! The swine.

Anyway, dear reader, I wish to be straight with you here. The catalyst which prompted this Dodgy Birders series was an incident of heinous dodginess that took place locally not long ago. We have a pretty awful stringer in our midst. His dodgy claims are now legion, and to the best of my knowledge nobody ever sees any of his birds. It all came to head a few weeks back when another unlikely (though typically plausible) claim spiralled wildly out of his control when the 'supporting' photos were picked up on Twitter, misidentified as something much rarer and given wide (and, I would imagine, very unwelcome!) publicity. The fall-out was no doubt embarrassing for the bloke, and actually quite sad to witness. At the time I was not sympathetic though. My gut feeling was that Premier League dodgy birders need outing. After a bit of thought I reconsidered. "Well, maybe not, perhaps they're best ignored." Five minutes later, and I'm "No, unmask the blighters!" Evidently I was conflicted on this issue...

It also reminded me that I am part of a wide network of birders of varying abilities and strengths, all of whom wish basically to enhance their enjoyment of local birding by contributing and sharing birdy news when they get the opportunity, and can be doing without all this nonsense. Is there a way to handle it without getting all bitter and twisted?

So, what I did was sit down and begin to write Dodgy Birders - Part 1. The process of getting it down on paper, so to speak, has helped me to be a bit more rational about the matter and get some perspective, which I hope will be helpful to anyone else who finds such folk a bit of a wind-up. However, I still haven't answered the question 'how do you handle the birder who sees too much?' or indeed, any and all categories of Dodgy Birder? Because that's for the concluding installment: Dodgy Birders - Part 5: What to Do About Them.


  1. I find it rather amusing that a series about stringers can be, er, so strung out....

    1. I would have thought you'd expect nothing less from this blog. Never say in one sentence what you can usefully stretch to five :-)

  2. I’m demanding to know who has hijacked Gavin’s Blogger account and is freely posting In his name...

    1. Ha ha! Yes Steve, what on earth is going on?!

  3. Is there any chance this individual could be reading this blog Gav?