Saturday, 27 February 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 3: Mistrust

This post has taken an age to write, and before it gets going I just want briefly to say why. In a UK birding context alone, A Date With a Bird documents many sightings which will provoke a raised eyebrow in even the most credulous reader. It would be all too easy to focus solely upon those records and thereby add fuel to the 'dodgy birder' fire, but I am at pains to avoid any such possibility. In sending me a copy of his book and agreeing to my request to write about it, Alan Vittery invested in me a measure of trust, and I have no intention of betraying it by stitching him up. At the same time, I wish to be candid. I am not a credulous reader, and Alan's book has worked my eyebrows pretty hard. In part 2 I listed a few examples of birdy joy resulting from a thrilling find or exciting passage movements. Believe me, they barely scratch the surface! However, I hope I am open-minded enough to see the bigger picture that this fascinating book paints...

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So, then. Mistrust...

'I have been informed via a local recorder that the British Birds Rarities Committee refuses to consider my 2003 Fea's Petrel record for Brora, or any other single-observer record from me unsupported by a photograph.'

Thus begins an open letter to the BBRC from Alan Vittery, as published in the article 'A Single Mind' in the January 2005 edition of Birdwatch magazine. The bird in question features also on p127 of A Date With a Bird, in the entry for 29th August:

'In 2003, after 2 Cory's Shearwaters had passed, a Fea's Petrel flew slowly north-east, very close in, with that exaggeratedly looping flight action which seems to take it almost back to its point of departure. I later discovered the same bird had been seen off Fife Ness and then reached North Ronaldsay in the Orkneys, yet the BBRC, cutting off their nose to spite my face, refused to acknowledge it had also been seen from Brora!'

The Birdwatch article adds further details. For example, that rather than driving north to the next headland for another look at this 'close-in gem' as he puts it, Alan had gone home to telephone observers in Caithness and on the north coast of Sutherland to alert them to its approach, and that the first he had known of the bird's appearance at other locations was from the recorder himself when Alan later rang him about it.

This one bird neatly illustrates an unhappy thread which runs right through Alan Vittery's book: the evident mistrust of his sightings...

Having taken up birdwatching in 1951 at the age of seven, it became the raison d'etre of his life, dictating his choice of careers and retirement addresses. Imagine what a foundation of foreign living and birding in the 1960s and '70s would do, not just for your familiarity with species very rare in Britain, but also for your approach to the hobby in your home country. Is it any wonder that Alan chose to plough his own furrow, shunning crowds and the burgeoning twitcher ethos? I guess it would be safe to say that AV has not been a part of the contemporary birding 'scene' since his youth.

So, having chalked up 70 years of largely pioneering-type birding, and by his own estimates 100,000+ hours in the field, is it surprising that the man has likewise tallied a huge number of rarities? Obviously not. But his solo approach has undoubtedly contributed to the plague of mistrust. In the book's introduction, Alan writes:

'Seemingly suspected by my doubters of 'seeing too much', I am a victim of my own success.'

Earlier, in the book's preface, we get some idea of the motivation behind its publication:

'As one enters the twilight of life, thoughts turn to the practical.'

And then, after admitting that the nomadic nature of his life perhaps reduces the value of his records in terms of monitoring a single location over many years, he writes...

'Nevertheless, I have made major discoveries in several little-known countries and even some British 'firsts' will die with me unless I publish them now. Some of these are almost certainly indicators of new trends in our rapidly changing climate, further emphasised by several extraordinary (but new norm?) sightings in southern Portugal in the last four years.'

So. Here we have a serious birdwatcher who has dedicated a very large portion of his life to the hobby, and yet is forced to operate 'outside the system' because he is not trusted. I find this immensely sad. Alan Vittery is clearly a skilled, knowledgeable, experienced, very sharp observer. Reading between the lines, to me his integrity is obvious. This is not a man who makes stuff up or embellishes a description with details that...er...would have been nice to see.

I have written previously of meeting Alan on Tresco in 1987, and how that encounter led to my seeing a Spotted Sandpiper which he had found on the Great Pool. And how Mike Rogers asked me to submit a description of the bird because Alan Vittery was dodgy. In the cold light of 2021 I have to ask myself what exactly Mike meant. Did he mean that AV had misidentified a Common Sand? No. Because it seems Mike trusted my skills sufficiently to believe that the bird was indeed a Spotted Sand. Rather I suspect Mike meant that any description from AV - no matter how diagnostically complete - would get nowhere without verification from another observer. Just think about the implications of that...

I have tried hard to put myself in Alan Vittery's shoes. He is all too aware of how he is regarded by the birding 'establishment', but to some extent downplays the consequent effect upon himself, instead lamenting how the official record is now somewhat impoverished by the absence of his records. However, I do not think many readers will be fooled by this seemingly unemotional, matter-of-fact view...

Ask yourself: how would you feel to come one day to the horrible realisation that people didn't trust your sightings? How would you feel to have what is surely a watertight description rejected, with no explanation as to why? How would you feel to be told that basically your records won't even be considered without photographic evidence or the corroboration of another observer? Personally - and this is an understatement - I would find it hurtful. Anyone would. And no amount of shoulder-shrugging matter-of-factness will persuade me otherwise. Which is why, as I read A Date With a Bird, I was not surprised to see the hurt showing on occasion. How could it not? I'm not going to make a big deal of it, because the main thrust of the book is essentially a celebration of a lifetime's birdwatching adventures, and I don't wish to detract from that too much. But Alan Vittery's book has had a profound effect on how I view so-called dodgy birders going forward - a subject I want to address in a future post.

In the meantime, allow me to test your eyebrows...

During Alan's 19 years in Sutherland, seawatching (his 'addiction'!) features prominently, and many epic seawatches are documented in the pages of this book. Rarity-wise, among the highlights are Giant Petrel (twice), Crested Auklet (three times), a Cassin's Auklet, and a putative Short-tailed Shearwater. Incidentally, both auklet spp are illustrated by notes and sketches. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Alan has not invented these birds, and is convinced of their veracity. And as far as the integrity of this book is concerned, to me that is all that matters.

One type of dodginess which can be a trap for the unwary is the inability to let a bird go. You know what I mean. You didn't get enough on it for a solid identification, but just force it into a box regardless. Is that Alan Vittery? Have decades of solo birding sabotaged his self-appraisal system? No, and no again. I don't think so. In one account he relates how he lets a probable Bonelli's Warbler go because he cannot clinch it, and in another he withdraws a claimed Lanceolated Warbler because he realises he's made a mistake.

As I said at the beginning, this post has taken a long time to write. There have been a couple of drafts, and much tweaking. A better, more succinct writer would skillfully have persuaded you to read A Date With a Bird, but I hope you do anyway because the book deserves a wide and thoughtful audience. I will leave you with a final quote. Not from the book, but from one of its readers, a bloke called Ian Wallace. Ian Wallace (DIMW to many) is a birder whose enthusiastic writing has inspired me through the years. Interestingly, he too has been judged a dodgy birder....

This is his take on A Date With a Bird:

”A Date with a Bird” came yesterday and I have not been able to put it down. So total thanks and frequent cheers . . . it really is a splendid romp with Vittery spirit and effort, hence avian harvest fully distilled and intoxicating. And as a personal statement about birding ethos like no other that I can recall, except some of my own logs and note files - to which it is sending me to check like experiences and attitudes . . . constantly!

Do let me know how other readers react to its freedom of perceptions, so refreshing compared to e.g. the Jan 21 issue of ‘British Birds’ with ever more bureaucratic nitpick but little joy or interpretation.

In part 4: Lessons


Postscript: There have been technical problems with the Kindle version of A Date With a Bird. In connection with that issue, on Wednesday 24th February Alan wrote:

My Printer, Nick, is still trying to sort the problem. Amazon's technical support (or lack of it) not helping.. He assures me that the people who were unable to access the book will either get their money back, or a free copy from him.

4 comments:

  1. Ask yourself: how would you feel to come one day to the horrible realisation that people didn't trust your sightings?

    Gav, I think that depends on how much the opinions of people; in particular, certain people, matters to you? If of course you were a liar who one day discovered that your lies weren't being accepted at face value, despite the reactions you had received up until that moment of reality. Then I guess that could be upsetting. Tough! But if you were always honest? I'd say that could be rather empowering.

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    1. If you were honest and sincere, and those opinions negatively affected how you wished to operate, that would matter I think. However, if you were indeed a bare-faced liar, well, serves you right!

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  2. When I think of any committee that adjudicates over the bird sightings of other or maybe the record fish mob, I am always imagine a smoky room in a pub, old men in jackets, pipes and pint glasses, frowning at the evidence whilst harking back on their old days and young upstarts. Their mutual goal is to keep the lid on excess and restrain the pace setters. That image may now be outdated but I feel, some attitude persist.

    Of course, unlike British law, the submission is deemed false unless proved viable and the weight of evidence must therefore be overwhelming. Why is this so? It's because too many have tried to cheat the system too many times. We are all viewed as cheats and liars unless we have a truck load of indisputable evidence.

    The fact is that some cheats beat the system and some pioneering and successful guys fall short and are damned for eternity. It's just the way it is. Remember, Chris Yates' record carp was at first disqualified on account of the rules saying that it could not be positively identified as a true carp without one of the record committee seeing it or it's body.

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    1. Your first paragraph took me straight back to fishing club meetings of my youth, and the upstairs room at the Black Horse in Greenford! You forgot to mention the liberal profanities - a shock to my innocent young ears!

      Seriously though, yes, outdated attitudes can hinder progress. And cynicism can masquerade as caution. Was Chris Yates' carp anything to do with the NASG ( or was it NASA?) setting up their own record fish list? Whatever the case, I do vaguely recall a rebellion against the old guard...

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