Thursday 28 January 2021

Dodginess Revisited

Cirl Bunting is a rare bird in Dorset. Any observer claiming one in the county had better write a convincing description. A female? Ha! Nice try, sunshine. Show me!

Yes, I can imagine that an unphotographed, single-observer female Cirl Bunting in Dorset would have quite a rough ride. However, at West Bexington there are currently two. The first was independantly found by Mike Morse, Alan Barrett and myself on January 1st, and Mike and I both got a photo. I'm sure nobody doubts the record for a moment.

In this photo is just one female Cirl Bunting, not two. Tricky.

But supposing the bird was a female Pine Bunting. And suppose it was just a single observer. And no photos. And the bird was never seen again. Even if views were astounding and the description absolutely bang-on I cannot imagine many reputations surviving something like that 100% unscathed. Or am I just a cycnic...?

In October and November 2019 I wrote five posts about the 'dodgy birder' phenomenon. For a variety of reasons I find the topic fascinating. Whether they like it or not, birders do seem to acquire a reputation. I've written before about the reputation thing, and it's interesting how much it relies on a birder's ability to find and identify scarce or rare birds, and - crucially - on other birders believing that they have genuinely seen what they say they've seen. A birder's rep does not appear to stand or fall on their ability to accurately determine the local population of breeding Robins, or stuff like that. No. It's all about finding, and about identification, and about oddities. And about trust.

So, dear reader, let me ask you a rhetorical question: Do you care what kind of reputation you have?

I expect you do. A few might not, but most of us do. I do. I would not like to think that I had a dodgy reputation.

I happen to live in a fairly well populated part of the country, with other birders not too far away. I also carry a camera, and try to photograph any decent birds I see. So when I am fortunate enough to find a bird worth sharing, frequently I am able to do just that. But if its stay is brief, chances are I'll have a record shot to corroborate my sighting anyway. I post stuff on Twitter too. In other words, in the main my birds are out there in some way, either multi-observed or photographed, or both.

That said, on occasion I have boobed. For example, last year I tweeted a Hobby photo that was actually a Peregrine, and a gull which was probably just a first-winter Yellow-legged I originally posted as a part-Casp hybrid thing. Annoyingly I knew the 'Hobby' was a Peregrine when I was watching it, but changed my mind after looking at the photos. However, the gull definitely had me fooled. My point is this: I am clearly fallible. On occasion I misidentify birds. That fallibility is bound to affect how others view me. But I have absolutely no idea what sort of birdy rep I have, because nobody ever tells you! Still, in a couple of simple ways I make efforts to minimise the possibility of too much scepticism about my records...

In 2020 my best finds included 5 Caspian Gulls, a Red-backed Shrike, a Golden Oriole and 2 Wrynecks. Of that lot only a single Casp was seen by anyone else. Thankfully I got photos of everything except the Golden O. But suppose I hadn't? Suppose I didn't carry a camera? Some of those birds were searched for by others - the shrike, the oriole and at least one Wryneck - but in vain. Would my reputation have been affected? If I wasn't me, how would I have viewed observer?

To be fair, most of my decent finds through the years have actually stuck around to be seen by others, but as 2020 shows, that's not always the way...

The undoubted high point of 2019's Dodgy Birder series was Appendix A: A Dodgy Birder Responds, in which Alan Vittery, a birder evidently labelled dodgy by the British Birds Rarities Committee, offered a case for the defense. Here was a very sharp birder, who had found many multi-observed rare birds, having his records not just doubted, but discredited. I know that I am not the only reader who found Alan's account fascinating and thought-provoking...

Well, in a sense there is a sequel. Alan has written a book. It is entitled A Date With a Bird, and is a 12-month, day-by-day summary of his birding diary highlights from 1955 to the present day. It is a beautifully bound, 280-page hardback, illustrated with many photos and one or two paintings. There is only one drawback: the book is not for sale. Although it is intended to be available as an Amazon e-book in the near future, Alan has had just 100 paper copies printed. However, he has been kind enough to send one to me. It is, as he suggests, a book for 'dipping into' rather than reading cover to cover, and I am in the process of doing just that. A small number of entries are relevant to my own birding history, in that I either saw the bird or experienced the event. But the vast majority are not. It is a superb read, and at some future time I will devote a post specifically to it. Every single one of Alan's major finds and discoveries is listed. It is jaw-dropping stuff.

There is no question that circumstances have led to Alan Vittery's reputation being irreparably damaged in the eyes of some. However, I take my hat off to his determination nonetheless to make so many of his significant records available for posterity. And simply as an anthology of amazing days in the field the book is a brilliant read.

As I say, A Date With a Bird will be the subject of a future post...


  1. Gav, I'd never heard of Alan Vittery until you wrote about him. A piece of work that led to his reputation being lifted from sullied and doubted to restored and enhanced. Quite a feat.

    And from my perspective, a suitable reward for you. A book that is of limited supply. Unavailable for purchase, but given to you by the author himself.

    I'm sure that there are many birders wishing to lay claims to a copy of Alan's book. But after the way he was treated by the birding establishment, I wouldn't blame him for being really selective over who gets one.

    1. The book should eventually be available as an e-book on Amazon, but I guess it takes a while to make that happen. And yes, receiving a copy was a very nice surprise! 😊

  2. Despite being a long standing Vol Warden of a nature reserve I would guess my reputation is that of a miserable git who sometimes keeps rare bird sighting to himself to avoid twitches. If when reporting said rare bird it gets turned down by the experts, quite frankly I couldn't give a toss, I'd know what I'd seen and that would be good enough for me. I do chuckle when I see birders desperate to announce a rare bird the second that they see it so that they can continue to be praised and envied by other birders.

    1. Interesting, Derek. I'm usually very quick to try and get news out whenever I chance upon an unusual bird. I've always thought my motivation was simply a desire to share something good with friends, though I expect there is an underlying psychological aspect too. Even if we don't consciously acknowledge the idea, I guess it's fairly normal to want a measure of approval/appreciation/commendation from fellow humans. At least, I hope so...

      That said, these will be individuals I know personally. I do not feel the same way about the 'faceless' twitching crowd.

  3. Hobbies have a wide catchment area of humanity - except golf of course - and all of human nature is represented. As an angler, I have seen self promotion from the egotist, bragging and lying from the insecure wannabe's or downright cads and the people who spend a lot of time and money trying to look competent. Then there are the genuinely modest types that just get on with it and the greedy that want it all to themselves. Just human nature.

    Anything that involves a list will bring out the bad in people so birding, for the competitive minded, is a breeding ground for all of mankind's less pleasant traits.

    If you want to share then share. If you want to keep your head down - duck. If you want to trail around claiming kudos for each tick then do so. Ultimately it's just a bird that happens to be at a certain place at a certain time when you were fortunate enough to be looking in that direction.

    I've been called a liar (behind my back) over fish that I have caught and I've been slagged off for not revealing to others fish they think I have caught. You can't win. Follow your heart and let the children play.

    1. Wise words Dave. And yes, what a mixed bag we are! When I write a post like this I am very conscious that I too am part of the tableau, and it makes me think about where I fit in. I cannot help being fascinated by the 'human' aspects of birding, which inevitably means posts like the above will regularly feature in this blog.

      By the way, having dipped into your blog on a regular basis I have recently taken the plunge and started reading it from the beginning. Love it. Of course, most angling blogs include an account of the author and his wife tackling flower thieves in have-a-go hero style, but yours is easily the best I've read! Hats off! 😄👍

    2. I'm blushing, thanks for the words. As you progress there are less heroics and much more moaning about health and aging so, you may want to quit whilst you are ahead ;o)