Thursday, 13 February 2020

When in Doubt, Press 'Record'

So, yesterday I posted a video. It claims to depict a 2nd-winter Caspian Gull on the mere at West Bexington. If you haven't viewed it yet I would politely ask that you do, because I have three questions...
  1. Out of ten, how would you rate it quality-wise?
  2. From the video alone, are you convinced that its subject genuinely is a Casp?
  3. Was exposing my precious camera to the wind, rain and salt spray for 1'50" worth the bother?
Here are my own answers...
  1. 1/10, maybe 2/10 at a pinch.
  2. Er...
  3. Absolutely!
The rest of this post is devoted to explaining my answer to Q3...

While on the Devon Records Committee I was tasked with producing an article on description writing. The premise was simple. Like most (all?) counties Devon has a list of birds considered locally rare, sometimes known as 'description species'. In my day I'm sure we lost some perfectly genuine records because the bird was inadequately described. My brief was to write something that would help anyone reading it to compile a solid, convincing description. It was entitled Tactical Description Writing...or How to Help the Records Committee. I have no idea whether it succeeded in its purpose, but I was surprised to discover that it still resides on the Devon Birds website and can be accessed here. I was even more surprised to note that I wrote it more than ten years ago. Rereading it was also a glimpse of an earlier me, a me who was actively involved in, and encouraged, record submission back then. Hmm. My conscience was duly pricked. Anyway...

Here's the point of all this. On 26th Jan I was fortunate enough to encounter what looked like a scarce gull, a 'description species'. Scope views had convinced me that it may well be a 2nd-winter Caspian Gull. The conditions were appalling: blasting wind, steady rain and the air full of spray. Caspian Gull is tricky. It's one of those birds which you ID not from any single feature, but a combination of several. I basically knew what to look for, so tried to do just that. One feature that did show up well in the field was the little white mirror in p10 (the outer primary) but some others were harder to discern. For example, I could see it had lots of grey, adult-type coverts, but which ones exactly? The underwing appeared to be very white, but was it? My scope and I were getting battered about all over the shop, and so was the bird. I realised that trying for photos would be a waste of time, and didn't fancy exposing my shiny new camera to a rainy salt bath anyway. But what about a quick video? Well, perhaps you've seen it now, and like me wondered whether it was worth the bother?

The answer is yes. Yes it was. Very much. I'm amazed really. It's like someone has just switched the light on, and finally I see the possibilities open to the modern-day birder. Less than two minutes of dire video can turn a 'possible/probable' into a nailed-on 'definite'. Here's how...

My computer gear is basic. A modest Windows 10 laptop, with Picasa 3 for photo editing. I simply uploaded the video from the camera and then accessed it via the standard Windows 10 video player app. By clicking on a little pencil icon ('Edit in Photos') you are then able to go through it frame by frame, and save any useful ones as a still image. And you don't necessarily need sharp images in order to illustrate a particular feature. Nearly all the frames were blurry, but I easily got enough to put together a convincing description. But I'll save that for another post.

Rarely have I been so pleased with an image so utterly awful. Tucked away in this massive smear is an excellent 2nd-winter Casp feature. If you find yourself going 'Ah yes, there it is...' well, gulls are either sucking you in or have got you already. Welcome. 

I realise that some birders have been doing exactly this for years, but for me it is pretty much uncharted territory. Maybe you too? I hope it's not just me...though I do expect there are NQS readers out there going 'Ha! Welcome to the 21st century Gav!' and chuckling a bit...

Getting good photos is great, and I am absolutely delighted with what the Nikon P900 can do, but some tricky birds might demand images which are difficult to capture, like an underwing shot, say, or exposed rump. Pressing the shutter at exactly the right moment is a challenge. This Caspian Gull has opened my eyes to the potential of the video function, because without it I'd have got nothing.

So, in prep and coming soon, description of West Bex Casp...


  1. I can see it Gav, the little white mirror in p10.

    To be fair, if you submitted a Casp to the Records Committee, I can hardly see them doubting it. After all, in relative terms, you are an authority on the things.

    1. You're done for!

      Re 'authority', very far from it Ric! Seriously. I am wearing 'L' plates still. The learning curve is immense, and I've barely started. Every gull-related thing on this blog is just stuff which others have taught me in some way. So I'd hate to think I came across as some jumped-up 'expert', because I'm not. I like to pass this stuff on though, and hopefully enthuse anyone who might read it...

  2. All the stuff you know may have come from others, but you remember it. This is the important part! I've read (and forgotten most of it) about large gull ID. I'm still rubbish at it...

    1. I'm fortunate to quite often get to use what I've learned. Practice and regular use embeds some of this knowledge, that's all really. Having said that, often I still have to look stuff up!

  3. Gav, Blogger is letting me in to leave a comment!! Well, as far as the video function on a camera goes, like you I have sadly neglected this tool. But not any longer.

    1. Yay! Welcome back to the 'comments' area Steve!

      Neglected is right. I can see it's a powerful tool for the birder.

  4. Sure the video's not exactly broadcast standard but it does show some pretty good pro Caspian features: long primaries, whitish underwing, lots of grey coverts and scaps for 2w, tail pattern, and that P10 mirror. I'd have no trouble accepting that even if submitted anonymously!
    Enjoying your now regular posts Gav, please keep them coming and would you mind sending some of your more interesting gulls west 20 or 30 miles?
    cheers, Tim

    1. Thanks for your comment Tim, I'm glad you are able to get that much from it too. It really has surprised me how much detail is visble in even a poor video, but when the bird is closer and the camera a bit more! And the video-grabs can be pretty amazing too! That's 'amazing' in a relative sense of course - we're not talking several grand's-worth of gear.

      Yes, sorry about hogging the good gulls over this way. ;-)