Monday 11 November 2019

Dodgy Birders - Part 5: What to Do About Them

This is my third attempt at writing this post. It's strange really, because the title question is very easy for me to answer. You want to know what to do about Dodgy Birders?

Answer: whatever you feel is appropriate.

Simple as that. If you encounter a Dodgy Birder some day - and you will - the decision about how to handle it is obviously going to be yours. And who am I to presumptuously suggest you ought to do this or that? But as you might have noticed in part 4, I have wrestled with this question myself and struggled to decide what is 'appropriate'. So in this concluding post I simply want to offer some of my thought process for your consideration.

We live in a 'name and shame' culture these days, and on social media we regularly see it in birding too. The twitchers in the Forbidden Field, the flushers caught mid-boot, the photographers too close or blundering where they ought not. Naming and shaming might appeal to our baser instincts, but is it right? And is it an appropriate way to deal with Dodgy Birders? Well, you decide. Personally I've come to the conclusion that I don't like it, and I could make a strong case against it on moral grounds, but that's not for this post.

But there is another way, and to illustrate it I would like to tell you about Alan Vittery...

If you visit the Wikipedia page on the British Birds Rarities Committee you will find Alan Vittery referenced several times. Here's an example:

'One of the observers who Wallace claimed was blacklisted, Alan Vittery, also contributed to the debate, stating that he had been informed by the BBRC that they would not consider any single-observer record he submitted, unless supported by a photograph.' 

It's pretty obvious from this and other references, that the BBRC had judged Alan Vittery a Dodgy Birder. And reading between the lines, probably a birder who sees too much.

As far as I can discover, Alan Vittery now lives in the Azores, but for some years he was resident in a remote part of Scotland. In 1997 his book The Birds of Sutherland was published. He is in fact responsible for a good deal of serious ornithological writing going back several decades. And not just about birds within our shores; his output includes much on birds in the Middle East too, for example. Could it be that Alan Vittery is simply the archetypal red-hot birder? Perhaps. I don't know. However, I do know that I met him on Scilly in September 1987...

It was on Tresco, and he told Mrs NQS and me he'd recently seen a Citrine Wagtail and Spotted Sandpiper by the Great Pool, and suggested where we might try for them. Neither is an easy bird to identify, but having no reason to be suspicious we duly went and had a look. Although we never found the wagtail we did see the sandpiper. It was quite elusive, but eventually we had excellent views and as it was only my second or third Spot Sand I took quite a lot of notes. Later, to my surprise, I was asked if I'd kindly submit a description of the bird know...

Well, I didn't know, but the nudging and winking made it plain. He wasn't trusted. Anyway, in the BBRC report for rare birds in 1987 you can find this entry...

I don't know whether AV submitted a description, but know from my own experience that for your name to appear in a BB Rarities Report you don't necessarily need to have submitted one, or, as in my case here, to have actually found a rare bird.

However, I want to go back to the Wikipedia reference. And here's the point. I don't know exactly when it was done, but at some stage the BBRC grasped the nettle and actually told Alan Vittery they thought he was dodgy. Maybe not in so many words, but nevertheless the message was evidently clear.

You can argue the rights and wrongs, and while I am only surmising here, I would guess the BBRC was concerned for the integrity of its records, and AV most likely felt hard done by. But if you (or a body you are part of) has similar concerns about your patch, county or regional records, isn't this the proper way to handle things? Be straight with the person?

In my experience the worst Dodgy Birders tend not to submit records. Perfect! And as mentioned in part 3, if they're truly awful they effectively excuse themselves from the birding community anyway. But if they're kind of bad but not that bad, but still they keep telling you about stuff that never gets seen by you or anyone else, then what? I dunno. I'm afraid you'll have to decide.

Anyway, before I leave this firmly in your court, here's a final thought...

In late December 1981, Mrs NQS and I were in North Norfolk on our first proper birding holiday. One afternoon I stupidly drove down a remote track and got us stuck fast in muddy ruts. We were in the middle of nowhere, and more than an hour later we were still there. By now I was sweaty, exhausted, and a bit panicky. The daylight was slipping away rapidly and we were still buried up to the axles. Unbeknown to us, a birder walking the distant shingle ridge by the sea had spotted us in trouble, and came striding up the track to offer assistance. It turned out he'd lived abroad, was familiar with this kind of predicament, and knew exactly what to do. Looking back, basically he rescued us. I was an impetuous 22 year-old. This guy was in his 30s I would say, perhaps the age our sons are now. Before we parted ways he introduced himself. His name was Alan Vittery.

I guess he must be 70-something now, and no doubt blissfully unaware of how deeply grateful for his unsolicited help we were that day. And I still am. Dodgy Birder he may be in the eyes of some, but the name Alan Vittery means something very different to me.

My point is this. Birding is a hobby. It is not life. Birders are just people, with all the potential complexities that fact implies. I don't know why some birders are dodgy. I don't claim to understand what drives them, how they are wired. It's a total mystery to me, if I'm honest. But outside of my hobby - and their hobby - they have a life, same as I do. I hope I've learned enough in 60 years to remember that, and treat them appropriately.


  1. A difficult post to write Gav, but you've covered the issue well.

    I put the situation to others in my household and fielded a set of options starting with putting the miscreant in the stocks, to hanging and finally to strapping them to the business end of a cannon and firing.

    I meanwhile settled for maybe having a quiet word.

    I assume the other two were joking.

  2. What a wonderful post. Treat people as you find them.

  3. Great Post Gavin. I do like a stringer and the philosophy that goes with it all. DIMW, Vittery and Holloway are all great reads, knowledgable and very interesting blokes, even if their work is fiction rather than fact!

    1. Agreed, Stewart, fascinating topic. I can remember my shock and surprise at first meeting a bare-faced fantasist as a new birder in W London. I didn't get it then, and all these years later I still don't!