Wednesday, 3 June 2020

Birding in the 2020s

In the September 1984 edition of British Birds was a paper entitled 'Field Identification of Blyth's Reed Warbler', in which you will find this fascinating sentence...

'Up to the end of 1982, there were only 11 or 12 accepted records of Blyth's Reed for Britain and Ireland - Shetland in 1910, seven or eight in 1912, one in 1928, one (Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork) in 1969 and one (in Yorkshire) in 1975 - and we respectfully suggest that examination of some of these is warrented.'

So, when this paper was being written, less than 40 years ago, there had been just the one acceptable British record in the preceding five decades, and in 2020 I can tell you that even that 1975 bird didn't survive the respectfully suggested 'examination'. I have an unhappy recollection from 1984. Some of my birdy mates twitched Spurn for a Thrush Nightingale on May 28th, and jammed in on a Blyth's Reed, freshly trapped and in the hand. That one was accepted. I was very envious. A mythical bird back then...

Compare that to now. The BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee) removed the species from its list in 2015 I think, and according to the BBRC statistics (which anyone can access here) there was a peak of 28 acceptable records in 2014. In other words, Blyth's Reed Warbler has gone from mega-rarity to scarce migrant in just a few years.

Of course, I could have used umpteen other examples to illustrate how birding has changed in 40 years, but Blyth's Reed is particularly appropriate for a couple of reasons. One, it is very topical! And two, technology. Perhaps that latter reason has been done to death recently, so forgive me it, but I just wanted to offer some food for thought.

In 1982 I went birding with so-so optics and a notebook, plus a few 10-pence coins in case of the need to phone out news. In 2020 my optics are a bit better, but not fundamentally different to 1982 kit. So no great change there. Of course, a stock of 10p coins is just so much ballast these days, so I don't have them any more. Also, I no longer carry a notebook, and by far the biggest and most profound change in my 2020s approach to birding involves what has replaced it...

In the old days my notebook was where I wrote down the date, the location, the species I saw, and counts. Also - in the event of good fortune - descriptions of scarce or rare birds, and the occasional little sketch. To be honest, if I was less lazy and always had a spare pocket (I really hate having over-stuffed pockets) I would carry a notebook today. But there it is. I don't.

Instead of a notebook I now carry a smartphone...and this...

2020 birding kit, NQS style. Add smartphone and optics. Go outdoors. Done.

Imagine this scenario...

The year is 1982. On 31st May a local birder traipses out on to Beer Head and comes across a hidden, singing bird which he cannot put a name to. It's obviously not a Reed Warbler, but it sounds vaguely similar to a Marsh Warbler he saw recently. And that's about as far as his experience will get him...

In 1982 there are no smartphones. There is no internet. There is no handy resource stuffed with countless recordings of Marsh and Blyth's Reed for the conscientious birder to compare and gen up on in advance, or to call upon in an hour of need. He'll have to phone a friend. He whips out a 10p and heads for the nearest public phone. [Perhaps Kev Hale will know where that would have been in 1982, but I'll bet it wasn't close by!] There are several telephone numbers written in his notebook, and he starts with the most local. The first eight are out, but finally he gets through to a mate in Exmouth, who promises to come over as soon as he can. His mate also saw the recent - very showy - Marsh Warbler, and isn't all that enthused at the prospect of a skulky one on Beer Head. Still, when a friend calls... So, he travels over to Beer Head and joins his buddy. Neither of them has a camera. Obviously. Photography is a specialist's game, with all that megabucks kit. Recording gear? If either of them owned a portable cassette recorder there is a slim chance they might have had the initiative to bring it. But why would they? What's the alternative to Marsh Warbler? Blyth's Reed? Ha ha! Yeah, right. Like that's going to happen! Blyth's Reeds are impossible aren't they? Unless maybe you trapped it, saw it in the hand. Anyway, enough fantasising. They sit on the grass and listen to the bird singing, and they get very bad, brief, subliminal views. As the shadows lengthen and the bird withdraws and goes quiet, they scratch their heads and look at one another.

"It didn't really look or sound quite like that Marsh Warbler the other day, did it?"

And so Devon's first Blyth's Reed Warbler slips effortlessly through the net.

Which illustrates why I now feel naked without a camera. And why a digital recorder has joined it and become an essential accessory.

Re the notebook: I do have pangs of nostalgia, almost guilt in fact. But I sometimes make notes of counts and whatnot on my phone, and though I haven't yet felt the need to do this, if necessary I could record a spoken description.

That 1982 scenario is not exaggerated in any way. I reckon that is pretty much how it would have been. In 2020 the bird was nailed with relative ease, despite a measure of controversy initially. With digital cameras and recording kit you can be as forensic as you need to be. You want to see emarginations on p3 and p4? Done. You want to see a sonogram? Done. Gearing up for this level of forensic ability is relatively inexpensive, and I am jolly glad I've done so. It has added immeasurably to my enjoyment.

The hairy monster. Some birders might be tempted to give it a name, but that would be silly...

Having the facility to relive a good bird visually, and now audibly, on a computer screen, tablet or phone, is a modern-day development I am glad to have taken advantage of. Is it necessary? To me, right now, yes. But of course that's a question for each to weigh up for themselves. One could argue that a camera in video mode negates the need for a recorder, but a camera in video mode is not available for photos. On Sunday afternoon I could lay this furry beast on the grass in front of me and forget about it; I know the batteries are good for a few hours of recording. Meanwhile the camera is to hand for photos, or even video if I prefer. Incidentally, the 'dead cat' wind-shield is vital. I accidentally left it off for a few minutes initially, and the gentle breeze is deafening!

To my mind, the Beer Head Blyth's Reed has fully vindicated my decision to 'move with the times' a bit. Not everything 2020 is good, by any means, but the birding kit is amazing...


  1. The single occasion I was without my camera during 10 mad days birding Cornwall in Aug 1990 was the single occasion a Double-crested Cormorant pitched in alongside a Cormorant. It gave great views, even flew around a bit so I could count the tail feathers (ridiculously, I had a copy of Helm Guides 'Seabirds' with me, so knew what to look for). Of course, no camera = no hope. It remains my single biggest birding regret to this very day.

    1. Oof! That sounds to me like something which needs to be written up as a blog post for the entertainment of others. Something to get out of one's system, have a good cry about... 😉

      Actually, in all seriousness, as a birder with a camera you were probably a bit of a rarity even in 1990. Definitely one of a small minority. What a terrible time to leave it behind... 😬

  2. So Gav, what is that recording thing called and how much was it? Should I get one?

    1. Stewart, it's a Zoom H4n pro and they cost around £200, plus a few quid for the hairy hat. There are cheaper options by Tascam (and other brands I think) but the Zoom gets excellent reviews, so I stumped up.

      Should you get one? I bought it for nocmig, and use it for that purpose with a supplementary shotgun mic. Using it in the field didn't initially occur to me, but now that I have, I wouldn't go out without it. How much action it will see, only time will tell... 😊

    2. I hadn't really thought to carry it out and about, but apparently mine (well, Mrs L's...) has a prerecord function where it will record the previous 2 seconds, so if you hear a funny call you hit a button and hey presto you have that call for posterity. I think for this function to be effective you need to have it pinned to your lapel or something, having to delve in a pocket would mean you missed it. Could be amazing for those thoughtless birds that call only once and where you go "ooooh!" and then it never does it again.

    3. That pre-record thing sounds great! The number of times I've been caught out thinking "if only I'd recorded that...". The trouble is 2 seconds just isn't really long enough for you to react - something like 10 seconds would be fantastic.

    4. Yes, two seconds seems like a bit of a challenge. Apparently you can fit the recorder with something like a Go-pro strap-clip-mount device where you can have it attached to a rucksack strap or similar, and therefore quickly accessible. I have thought about doing this in order to try and take advantage of the 2-sec pre-record function, or rather to see if it's realistically possible to take advantage of it. I thought this might be especially useful in the autumn, for vis-mig in particular. If I get round to doing so I'll obviously report back on here...

  3. The birder of the 20's will soon have bird call activated sound catching technology, 360 GoPro cameras around his hat, a Million Dollar Man fast focus cyborg eye implant, a rucksack full f backup batteries and back ache :o)
    I love a bit of tech but I hate carrying it.

  4. Hi Gavin - what camera / lens combo do you normally use out in the field?

    1. Hi Matt. Just a Nikon Coolpix P900 superzoom, which I've had for about 8 months now.