Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Shooting For the Record

In recent years a camera has become such a vital piece of my birding kit that I would feel naked without it. One obvious benefit is illustrated by the recent Hoopoe post; photos and video make for a nice memento of a special bird. And sometimes everyday birds pose well enough to give you a really pleasing image, which will look terrific on the blog, and in that calendar you never get around to making. But there is more, so much more...

You can record sound with the video function. Witness the recent Cogden Cuckoo, or last year's first-for-Dorset Tree Crickets at West Bex. Useful.

And you can take photos of a distant, unidentifiable dot, enlarge it on the camera's monitor, then relax because it's just a Common Scoter after all. Seriously though, here lies the camera's most exciting aspect: its ability to convert nothing into something. A 'record shot' is often the difference between letting a bird go and a solid ID. Also, on a more prosaic note, record shots confer a measure of authenticity to your claims, helping avoid the danger of becoming a birder who 'sees too much'.

Speaking for myself, I need record shots on a regular basis, otherwise this blog would look pretty bare. For example...

Record shot of a singing Garden Warbler at Cogden this morning.

No spring Garden Warblers at all in 2021, but both this year's Cogden birds immortalised in pixellated ropiness on NQS, thanks to my beloved camera.

But there is yet more it can do...

Yesterday evening the camera saved me from all sorts of embarrassing scenarios. A late visit to Cogden had been very quiet, despite my first ever sighting of Sika (two young males), and by the time I reached the shingle I was not my usual hyper-alert self. So the female Wheatear which popped up on to some beach concrete caught me unawares. It was head-on, at an angle, then turned slightly more side-on, at which point something in my head finally cranked into life...

'Oof! That's pale!'

It also looked rather small. The bird immediately dropped on to the beach and scurried out of view. There followed an almighty to-ing and fro-ing as I struggled to stay with it. The 'small and pale' feeling persisted, but its regularly upright stance seemed wrong for the species I had not dared to say out loud. Surely this was just a Northern Wheatear? Then it would scuttle out, looking horribly rare again. I can tell you, there was panic.

For quite some time I had been desperately trying to get a look at the tail pattern. NOT easy! Eventually I confirmed that it had a solid black terminal bar, but not very deep. What I could not confirm was whether the black extended up the outer tail feathers at all. Throughout all this I had been taking photos when I could. It seemed sensible now to stop all this chasing about, sit down and look at the pics, and finally decide if I ought to make any phone calls. Because the 'phone calls' thing had been worrying me. If this bird really was a candidate for Black-eared Wheatear (there, I said it) - a species with which I have very little experience (three birds, all in the UK) - I needed to make some calls. It was almost 6:30 pm, and the light was already atrocious.

So I did sit down, and I did look at the photos. And I decided that it was a Northern Wheatear. All that fretting over the tail pattern. If I had simply stopped panicking and thought about checking those early photos, I would have seen straight away that the wings were too long. The wings of a Northern Wheatear in fact.

So, a lot of unneccessary cardiac overload. And here is the culprit...

Actually, first, this is what recent female Wheatears have looked like. I have photographed very few this year, so the collage is compiled from 2020 birds...

Quite richly coloured below, strong supercilium, etc...

Here she is, the little tinker!

I hope I'm not the only birder who would have been provoked to panic by this bird. If anyone looks at that photo and goes, 'Can't see what all the fuss was about', well, I truly wish I had such skills!

Some more pics...

Thank goodness it displayed this upright stance early on, otherwise I might well have been tricked into some embarrassing over-reaction.



Looking at these photos now, it is easy to see that the bird is just a pale Northern Wheatear. And perhaps not even especially pale. Late-spring birds are typically bound for Iceland and Greenland, and mostly display the rich colours evident in the collage above. But would last night's bird look so out of place in March? Possibly not.

However, all I can say is that yesterday evening it had me going. Binocular views, never close, gloomy light, etc. Yes, anxious field views of a flighty bird are a very different matter to sitting down quietly with a bunch of photos in which the bird is frozen in time. You can study, analyse, and think about what you are looking at. And - without haste - come to an objective conclusion.

Which is why I would feel naked without the camera.

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