Tuesday, 15 June 2021

The Rarity Tree

Slaty-backed Gull is a large, dark-mantled species of the north-eastern Palearctic coast. It breeds or is resident in an area covering some 5.08 million square kilometres and has a Red List status of 'Least Concern'. Globally speaking, Slaty-backed Gull is a common bird. In Britain though, it is a colossal rarity. There has been just the one.

I was keen to illustrate this post with a real-life example of a stonking rarity, and the 2011 Slaty-Backed Gull which Dominic Mitchell discovered at Rainham fits the bill nicely. I would be the first to admit to entertaining fantasies of outrageous rarity finds, and imagine I have that in common with a good percentage of birders. Rarities - their discovery, identification and worship - consume a phenomenal amount of our collective attention. This, I would argue, is probably to the detriment of far more deserving recipients. I shall now try to explain why...

An essential reference for this post has been Dominic's BB paper...

Published in British Birds 110 - July 2017, pp 205-213

Thursday, 13th January 2011
I can only imagine how Dominic must have felt when first setting eyes on this bird. Having previously encountered the species abroad, he knew instantly what it was. Or should I say, what it probably was. The inevitable adrenalin rush must have been tempered somewhat by the pressing need to clinch the identification, and Dominic managed a few photos. That evening, a couple of expert contacts provided positive feedback, but reinforced the need to get photos of the spread wing-tip.

Friday, 14th January
More sightings, including by other observers, and definitive wing-tip photos captured.

Saturday, 15th January
Massive twitch. Upwards of 1200 line the entire perimeter fence of the Rainham landfill site. Several claims, but no mass sightings.

Much online discussion about the bird's identification. I remember all this. Were the upperparts actually too pale for a pure Slaty-backed? Was it in fact a hybrid? And so on. Correspondence with observers familiar with the species provides positive feedback. Eventually the BBRC sits to evaluate the record submission and deems the bird correctly identified. As a potentially new bird for Britain, the BOURC now has its say. Eventually it gives the thumbs-up, and six years and five months after its first appearance at Rainham, Dominic's Slaty-backed Gull has its moment in the BB limelight, all eight-and-a-half pages of it.

If you follow the manufacturing process from raw ingredient to finished product, that first-for-Britain Slaty-backed Gull was a mighty labour-intensive affair. I'm sure a great deal of work went into ruling out the hybrid possibility and compiling a watertight description. Next, ten eminently qualified BBRC members then had the responsibility of confirming that the identification was sound. Next, the BOURC. As keepers of the British List, BOURC members have the unenviable task of making sure that a taxon not previously recorded in Britain has a valid claim to that hallowed ground, particularly if it's looking for a spot in category A.

And what about all those birders who went to try and see it? I can genuinely claim to be a gull fan, but I wonder how many of the 1200+ on the first Saturday were gleefully pressed against the fence of a stinking landfill site because of their love of gulls? I wonder how many had to go twice? Or more?

I shudder to think how many man-hours were expended on that Slaty-backed Gull. A single, wandering, out-of-range, globally common bird.

At this point I want to be clear. I am not aiming to knock any of this. I am merely trying to highlight the extent to which our British birding culture venerates rarity. In effect this frequently results in the relatively trivial being elevated to a status akin to iconic. When you stop and think about it, there is something almost Python-esque going on here. And the whole infrastructure of British birding is involved, in fact is geared towards it. Witness the monetising of rare bird information; the many pages of birding publications devoted to rarities, including a whole issue of British Birds each year; the very existence of the BBRC and BOURC. And collectively we lap it up, encourage it, perpetuate it.

One might legitimately ask, 'So what?'

Well, the upshot of this amazingly skewed focus upon rarity worship is an almost instinctive resistance to any suggestion that it might be a little unhealthy. So when a few birders - in the context of a world in which climate change appears to be causing us a few issues - quite reasonably question pursuit of the high-carbon birding which rarities often encourage, they don't get much in the way of mainstream backing. I'm thinking of stuff like this, and this, for example. Laudable stuff, if you ask me.

There is a whole wood requiring attention, but the rarity tree is kind of getting in the way of seeing it, perhaps...?


  1. The Victorians would have just shot the bugger. End of!

  2. Great post, and one that ought to prompt lots of your readers into leaving a comment. I suspect most folks will fall into two camps here; those that agree and will say so and those who think, "hmmm, I'll quietly take a backseat and say nothing". Be iteresting to see which way it goes.

    1. Thanks Seth. I'll be surprised if there are many comments though. I suspect the fixation with rarity is so deeply entrenched in birding culture that this post will just seem daft to many. Hopefully they'll be polite enough to keep that to themselves! 😄

  3. Are a few birders going to destroy the planet?

    Are birders to all buy electric cars that are made at great expense of natural resources and limit you to a stuttering journey that will likely see your target fly to pastures new?

    Are we all to fall i behind the verbal 'woke' brigade that see only a cause and not necessarily the logic?

    I'm all for saving the planet but if all that is left is a bunch of pious hippies - give me death.

    That's me taking a quiet backseat ;o)

    1. Ha ha! I am idly curious about the environmental impact of electric car production, also wind turbines, solar panels, etc, etc, and don't really trust any of it.

      I sometimes wonder why I write posts like this one. It's not like I'm some eco-zealot, and to be honest I cannot see mankind fixing things any time soon, if ever. But I enjoy the mental exercise involved in writing them. Analysing my motives for pursuing birding, or fishing, or any hobby - including writing - and coming up with something other than 'selfish pleasure' is quite tricky. So if a post like this makes someone think, or provokes discussion, well, that'll do. 😊

      Though I do sometimes worry that I'm little more than stirrer...

    2. Sorry if I came across a bit harsh Gav. My tongue was heading for my cheek but I was suffering from too much heat and exercise and the fingers just rattles away on the keyboard ;o)

      I do like your probing posts as they cause my own brain to stir for a while, can you do one a vegans?

    3. Not at all Dave, your comment made me laugh! When I was 17 or 18 I quite fancied the idea of being a hippie. But never a pious one! 😄

      Re the vegan post... My wife has been vegetarian for many years, and 99.9% of the time I am too, but we only managed about 3 months of a let's-go-vegan experiment. The idea appeals though.

    4. Veganism is the answer to world over population and food shortages all in one. We should eat the vegans, after all, they are corn fed.

      Enjoy the match.

  4. That just seems daft to me.... ;)

  5. Lets face it. Twitching success is mainly a function of time and money. Easy to find alternative reasons to pour scorn on the activity when tied to a job and skint!

  6. Excellent post this, Gav. Keep up the great work! I take issue with some on here who say twitching is all about having time and money, as I would also suggest it is also about addiction. In that regard a twitcher will take any measure necessary to add a rarity to an all-important list to sate their craving.

    1. Thanks Neil, appreciate your kind words. Agreed, rarity worship can be a bit addictive. I am well aware that this is the birding culture that held sway when I first came to the hobby, and to me it all seemed quite innocent. But the subsequent 40-odd years have seen such a catastrophically awful environmental decline that we really ought to be thinking - or rather, acting - a bit differently these days.