Monday, 8 March 2021

A Dodgy Birder's Book - Part 4: Lessons

A very long 16 months ago I wrote a post entitled Dodgy Birders - Part 5: What to Do About Them. At the time I did rather skirt the issue: '[do] whatever you feel is appropriate' was my conclusion. In defense of such a wishy-washy verdict I should tell you that the whole 'Dodgy Birder' series was my way of processing the very real frustration that troubles me because of their antics. Having written it all down I hoped to emerge in a zen state of tranquility which no amount of dodginess could thenceforth disturb. Well, it didn't quite work.

It did help though. Reminding myself that birders - no matter how dodgy - are still people, with all the complex implications of that fact, was a good move. But I still found myself irked by them. It has taken Alan Vittery's book to finally get some much-needed perspective on the matter, and hopefully lay it to rest. Let me explain...

Alan Vittery first entered the NQS 'Dodgy Birder' narrative in part 5 because of his appearance in the British Birds Rarities Committee page of Wikipedia. As mentioned in that post, it seems the BBRC had in effect told AV they thought he was dodgy and would therefore no longer consider any single-observer submissions from him, unless supported by photos. As I typed that post I remember thinking that their approach seemed harsh, but fair. Here is what I said:

'You can argue the rights and wrongs... But if you (or a body you are part of) has similar concerns about your patch, county or regional records, isn't this the proper way to handle things? Be straight with the person?'

Well, that is no longer my view.

Sure, as an individual I might still feel at liberty to deal with any perceived dodginess in whatever way I feel is appropriate, but supposing I was part of a body, a records committee of some kind? Do I think it's okay to tell an observer: 'Sorry pal, we won't accept any descriptions from you without photos'? No, I don't. Do I think it's okay to keep silent instead, but stamp them all 'Not Proven' anyway, no matter how detailed and unequivocal? No again. I would go so far as saying that doing either without actual proof of fabrication is morally wrong. Once an individual enters a committee room I firmly believe they should leave personal prejudice at the door, and not allow it to influence their assessment of a record. If the description falls short in some way that could be communicated to the observer as a justifiable cause for non-acceptance - and I don't mean some trivial nit-pick - fair enough. But if not: accept. How could it be otherwise? Without proof, who are you or I to adversely judge another's honesty in even a pseudo-official capacity? The job is to assess descriptions, not character. To believe otherwise would be gross presumption I think. Am I wrong?

In September 1987 Mike Rogers basically told me that Alan Vittery was a dodgy birder. That was the first I knew of his reputation, but it stuck with me. Because that's what mud does. It sticks. How many others have judged him on hearsay? As I have already intimated elsewhere, Alan's book is a lot more than just a bunch of diary highlights. It has a depth, and reveals a great deal about the person, including a measure of frustration at his effective banishment. I could speculate about why he fell foul of the birding establishment, but let's just leave it that he gained the 'dodgy' label in a time long before mobile phones and digital photography. I have received one or two comments from birders who have spent time in the field with AV and it is telling that they have only praised. Obviously he will be as fallible as any of us, but had he been dealt with differently years ago, I wonder how things might have turned out...

In A Dodgy Birder's Book -Part 3 I quoted from an open letter which Alan Vittery wrote to the BBRC, as published in the January 2005 edition of Birdwatch magazine. Two months later, the March edition contained an article by Ian Wallace, entitled 'Questions that won't go away'. He wrote:

'Record committees have, in part, thankless tasks, but having suffered [and survived] increasing rejection by them over 46 years, my sympathies are stronger for the outcast observers. Currently I know of only three such unfortunates in Britain. In order of 'conviction' they are myself, John Holloway of Stronsay and now, astonishingly, Alan Vittery of Brora. Presumably there are more. So, without naming any more names, can we know how many? And the forms of their falsities? And are these deeds just alleged, or fully proven?'

DIMW goes on to pose some other 'questions that won't go away', and the article concludes with an editorial comment:

'Birdwatch asked Colin Bradshaw, chairman of the British Birds Rarities Committee, to respond to the points raised in this article. Our request was declined.'

And in the magazine's editorial, Dominic Mitchell pointedly noted:

'In a response which will not go down in history as earning maximum points for accountability or public relations, The BBRC declined to give you its views through our pages.'

Admittedly, this was all 16 years ago. I am sure the BBRC approach is less aloof today, and indeed its current constitution states that observers whose descriptions are deemed 'not proven' will be told the reason. My purpose here is not to poke old wounds, rather to illustrate an attitude that once was. Arguably one or two of the observers judged so dodgy in times past have contributed far more to this hobby than many who felt themselves qualified to make that ruling and sentence accordingly. Pretty sad if you ask me.

Anyway, food for thought I hope...


  1. Hi Gav, great post. DIMW is right, it is a thankless task. The National record would be choked with string if records were solely judged each on its own merit. This hobby we do is filled with human foibles and frailties that cant really be viewed as if the records came from a computer. I have real examples in Northumberland that Id never share here but I believe the integrity of our historical record should override an individuals feelings.Might be a bit controversial to say, but not everyone can be trusted...

    1. Cheers Stewart, many good points there. It's a few years since I was last on a records committee, and at the time I would mostly have agreed with you. But I think differently now. And my reasons why might be controversial too! They're for a future post... 😊


  2. Gav, my feelings about the submission and verification of bird records are that they operate in the realm where the players have not just the intellectual capacity to formulate detailed descriptions of birds, but also the inclination towards using such ability as a tool in a competitive sense as well.

    From my perspective. As I have neither the pre-requisite mental capacity and lack interest in direct competition, the submission of records is beyond me. Even if I was interested, I simply lack the ability to deliver the message. So, I just don't bother.

    I see a bird, good! It is what it is, or I believe it to be. I'll put the news out if I am certain a bird is what it is. But submitting an official record will never happen. No more than sitting down and knocking out an academic 'paper' on some subject or other. I just can't do it. And that goes for quite a few others as well.

    That doesn't invalidate the submission of records. But it does make the accompanying skirmishes as much a mystery to me as reading about Scientists and Mathematicians feuding over who really deserved 'that' Nobel prize.
    That said, of all things to lie about. Choosing to do so with birding records? Incompetence perhaps, but dishonesty?
    I’ll leave things there. I’ve confused myself enough for a day.

    1. Thanks for your comment Ric, it's good to get a different take on all this. The whole process of writing descriptions of rare birds is undoubtedly intimidating to many, and you're not the first to say as much to me. And your point about the perplexing nature of fueds resulting from this process is a thought-provoking one. Immersing myself in this topic during the last few weeks has made me think hard about the subject of rare birds and the recording thereof. Hopefully it will all untangle itself into a blog post at some stage...

  3. Cheers Gav.
    I could have been more succinct by saying I don't submit records because I'm both lazy and thick.

  4. I have enjoyed this series of posts (and the ones last year too). Reputation is everything, it must be so hard to have an unjustifiably bad one. I avoid the problem by finding nothing.

    1. Thanks Jono. Sorry for tardy reply, but I've only just spotted your comment.

      Finding nothing probably doesn't mean that one avoids any reputation 'issues'! 😄