Saturday, 20 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 1: Introducing Alan Vittery

Some years ago I was researching the rare bird adjudication process for this blog when I came across references to Alan Vittery in the BBRC (British Birds Rarities Committee) entry on Wikipedia. I quote:

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.

This refers to a Birdwatch magazine article written by Ian Wallace, entitled 'Questions that won't go away' (2005 - Birdwatch 153:19-20). There are references also to three Birdwatch articles by Alan Vittery: 'String theory' (1996 - Birdwatch 47:13), 'A Single Mind' (2005 - Birdwatch 151:22-23) and 'Give lone birders a chance' (2005 - Birdwatch 157:22-23).

It seems clear that the BBRC had judged Alan Vittery a dodgy birder.

Back in October and November 2019 I wrote a series of NQS posts about the dodgy birder phenomenon, in which I mentioned meeting Alan many years ago. I want to begin by revisiting our first encounter...

It is December 1981. Sandra and I have been married just over a year and are in North Norfolk, enjoying our first birding holiday together. We are little more than beginners, so Norfolk's winter regulars are giving us superb value. Exciting times. We decide to try Kelling Quags, and our OS map suggests there is an access track off the coast road through Kelling village.

In those days I drove a 1972 Bedford van, which was based on the Vauxhall HA Viva. It was an 'estate conversion' with rear side-windows and a fold-down back seat - spartan, but perfect for two young adults and a black labrador. And I was quite happy to take that rugged little thing down all sorts of bumpy lanes. Which is how the Kelling Quags access track started out. However, it soon morphed from a bumpy lane into a rutted bog and we became stuck fast. Sandra didn't drive so was lumbered with pushing duties, but her then seven-stone frame didn't get us anywhere! We badly needed help, but no one was about. In the distance we saw a birder walking west along the shingle ridge towards Salthouse. Slowly he faded into the distance, and we laboured on...

Nothing worked. I tried to build a ramp out of random bits of wood and some old carpet we found somewhere, but the rear wheels just buried themselves deeper and deeper into the mud. Eventually we were up to the axles and I was a bit desperate. The short afternoon was heading rapidly towards dusk, we were hot and sweaty, covered in mud and now very tired. The birder we had seen earlier - an hour ago? two? - was retracing his steps now, heading homewards we guessed. How surprised we were to see him again a while later, striding up the track towards us.

'Can I help?' he asked. Or so my memory imagines...

I was 22 years old, this chap was in his late 30s. He had lived abroad, he told us, and was familiar with this kind of vehicular predicament. However, even the extra weight and muscle he brought to bear could not shift us. Not to worry though, he had a couple of tricks up his sleeve. His first suggestion was to empty the van of everything possible. Out came my heavy toolbox, the spare wheel, the jack, the ton of other stuff I used to carry 'just in case'. Obvious really, but I hadn't thought of it. His other suggestion was to deflate the rear tyres a bit. I cannot recall whether or not we needed to do that in the end, but it's immaterial - we were quickly out of those hellish ruts and back on firm ground. Our rescuer bade us farewell and headed off, but not before introducing himself. His name was Alan Vittery.

So my first encounter was with Alan Vittery the man, the person, not Alan Vittery the birder. His thoughtful act of kindness made a lasting impression.

In September 1987, Sandra and I met him again, on Tresco. I don't know whether he recognised us initially, but he did remember that December afternoon in North Norfolk six years earlier. He told us about a Spotted Sandpiper he'd found on the Great Pool, and we managed to see it later that day. Back on St Mary's, Mike Rogers asked me to submit a description and inferred that Alan Vittery was not a trusted observer. I really didn't know the half of it...

That 'dodgy birder' label makes its presence felt many times in Alan's new book A Date With a Bird: A birdwatcher's life. Alan is in his late 70s now, and the book documents a lifetime of birding - seven decades of it anyway. I first mentioned A Date With a Bird in this post a few weeks ago, and that a Kindle e-book edition was planned. Well, that has now happened - it was published on Amazon three days ago. 

Alan sent me a hardback copy, and I intended to write a post about it. However, having read it in dribs and drabs I found myself going back to the beginning and starting again, this time with a notebook to hand. This book has struck an unexpected chord with me, and I want to give it a few posts, not just one. Hopefully it will become clear why.

In the meantime I would like to publicise its availabilty. Firstly through Amazon, and this link will hopefully take you to the relevant Kindle e-book page. [EDIT: Link currently broken, presumably due to technical problems with the Kindle version. I'll aim to restore it when the issues are fixed]

In addition, Alan has told me that 50 original hardback copies are for sale on a first-come, first-served basis, directly from him. I can highly recommend the book in terms of 'build quality' as well as content. The price is £25 including post and packing, with all sale proceeds going to OSME (Ornithological Society of the Middle East). You will need Alan's email address in order to contact him, which I can provide via a direct message on Twitter (this link should take you there) or by text/email if you already have my contact details.

Alan has mentioned that a paperback edition might be in the offing at some stage, but that's all I know right now.

If the Amazon link takes you somewhere that looks like this, my work is done.


Finally, I shall leave you with a taster...

The book is arranged in month-by-month order from March, with an entry for every date on the calendar. Here is August 13th...

August 13th 1996. From a moving vehicle in Dornoch, Sutherland, Alan identifies a first-summer Laughing Gull on the roof of a mobile home.

Exactly ten years later, on August 13th 2006, Alan spots a Laughing Gull flying towards Brora from the south-west. It lands in the river-mouth and has a wash.

Classic dodginess right? Poor bloke hasn't even got the sense to choose a different date or species! However, both birds hung around until October, to be enjoyed by many. And both were last seen on exactly the same date! 

In part 2: Joy!


  1. Gavin, among the many qualities that I value in your blog is that you are a steady voicee of sanity in the increasinly discordant babble that is modern-day birding. I shall certainly read Alan's book in some form. Thank you for publicising it. – Malcolm

    1. I knew Alan slightly and indirectly through "Patchwork" a birding magazine of patch birding that he and I contributed to (me in a very slight way), years back. He contributed some very interesting sightings, re numbers and species. Your story of him helping you get out of the Kelling ruts cements an impression of someone who is a decent human being as well as a very good birder. The whole thing about rarity committees and records is tricky (my own view is that whilst it is fun to find rare vagrants they are not very important in the scheme of things, long term trends of common/breeding/wintering species is the thing). However, every record should be received on its merits, to scrub records because of who submits them undermines the validity of BBRC decisions more generally. Thanks for the info about the book which I'll download, looking forward to Part 2.

    2. Ha ha! Thanks for your kind words Malcolm, though I'm not sure my wife would agree with the 'sanity' bit! 😄

      Alistair, many thanks for your comment. I couldn't agree more with your point re the importance of long term trends vs rare birds. Interestingly, Alan's book got me thinking more about birdwatchers than birds - the human aspects of our hobby. Hopefully that will come out in subsequent posts...

  2. I look forward to your follow up posts Gav, and I'll certainly be reading the book.

    1. Thanks Dave. Sounds like the e-book has some teething troubles at the moment though - see below...

  3. Have bought Kindle version but seems to be a technical problem. Unable to alter font size and "allwordsruntogetherwithoutgaps" currently unreadable

    1. I have the same issue. Thought it was due to my old spec Kindle but it seems not. Unsure who to contact to try and resolve the problem?

    2. Oh dear, I've just downloaded a Kindle copy onto my Kindle for Android app, and it has the same issue - there are no spaces between the words. Likewise, I have no idea how to resolve the problem, but have emailed your comments to Alan so that he can pass them on to the publisher, or whoever might need to know in order to rectify. Hopefully all will be resolved asap...

  4. Gavin - I knew Alan in my early teens when we both lived and birdwatched on Teeside - he was older than me so he must be late 70’s - I have a copy of his book on Birds of Sutherland , would like to buy his latest tome - I don’t have an email address for you , can you let me have his email details on
    Many thanks Mike

    1. Hi Mike, thanks for getting in touch. I've sent you an email. Cheers.

  5. I contacted amazon directly last night. They are looking into it and hope to get back to me in a couple of days. Here's hoping they can fix it

  6. Updated by amazon to say they had done some alterations and sent me a new copy. Unfortunately book itself now replaced by 7 pages of technical wordage. Again I have let them know. Howard