Wednesday 27 March 2024

The Problem with Self-Found Listing

I have a love/hate relationship with 'self-found' listing. There is an appealing purity to the idea of keeping a list of birds which are all your own work, so to speak, but for me that idea is notional at best. There are a thousand reasons why I struggle with the whole concept of self-found, and here are a few of them...

First, the term itself. I mean, self-found has more than a whiff of tautology about it, surely? Why not simply keep a list of your finds and call it a Finds List? Why add the 'self' bit? After all, who else's birds would you include in your finds list? The term 'self-found' conveys a teeny bit too much 'Look! I found that bird! Aren't I clever!' for my liking, and doesn't sit comfortably.

Right, that's my Pedants Corner soap-box issue dealt with. So let's get on with the practical problems of keeping a self-found list.

Over the years I have noticed that the main concern of birders interested in keeping a self-found list is this: what exactly can you count?

This is such a burning issue that a whole set of rules was once compiled to address it. It must be almost 20 years ago that the fabled Punkbirders published their self-found rules, to wide acceptance at the time I think. If - like I did just prior to writing this - you google 'punkbirder self-found rules', you will be disappointed. There is no active link, and I suspect the old website may be defunct. However, there is a ton of other stuff on self-found. Hampshire Ornithological Society has its own self-found rules, three-and-a-half pages of them. Various scenarios are dealt with, illustrating what you can and cannot count as self-found. The writer points out that it is just a bit of fun and acknowledges that some birders will choose to be stricter with themselves, or more lenient. And this is one reason I struggle, because when it comes to rare and scarce birds I simply know if I found it or not, and a load of rules (to bend or not bend) are superfluous.

For example, if I am birding in company and someone else claps eyes on the Calandra Lark three seconds before me, then I didn't find it, did I? Or, suppose I walk up to someone peering at what they think is a male Pied Flycatcher, and I happen to realise that it is actually a Collared Flycatcher, well, I didn't find that either. Of course, chance would be a fine thing, but honestly, how could I in good conscience add either bird to my self-found list? Yet the rules allow both.

And then we have the grey area of scarce breeders and winter visitors, where the rules state that your bird must be well away from known sites in order to count as self-found. How well away? I have no idea. Rock Dove must be tricky to self-find. And I do struggle with the notion of self-finding common birds. 'Yep, I managed to add Coal Tit to my self-found year list today', said nobody, ever, puffing out their chest a little. I suppose these birds just have to go on the list in order to inflate it as much as possible, so that when you compare your list to someone else's...

And it is here that I completely lose interest. The whole idea of competitive self-found listing seems pointless to me, no matter how much 'just for fun' it is claimed to be. With all sorts of rules being applied - or not applied - at the whim of each individual, how can any comparison be valid?

Still, I am well aware that some birders consider their self-found list to be a sacred document, and totally get that.

Stone-curlew at Cogden, definitely on the finds list that I don't keep.

Obviously, the main reason for my stance on self-found listing is so that no-one ever asks me what my self-found list is.

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Avalon Awayday

Yesterday we enjoyed a guided tour of Somerset's Avalon Marshes, courtesy of friends who live in the area. It is hard to believe that this collection of reserves is mostly less than 30 years old. What was once an industrial wasteland of peat extraction is now home to a ridiculous number of quality marshland birds. A quick photographic summary of the day's highlights...

Great White Egrets are a common sight on the Avalon Marshes. This one has the black bill of a breeding-plumaged adult.

Hen Harriers are definitely not a common sight, especially pristine males like this one. Its close pass was totally unexpected, and I was way too slow with the camera. The first 'grey ghost' I have seen for many years.

Two Snipe, probably resting up until nightfall.

Drake Pintail. Always a winner.

Spotted Redshank at Catcott Lows. Sheltering from the wind, it was almost always partially hidden by tufts of sedge etc.

Spotshank is quite a scarce bird locally. Occasional on the Axe Estuary and marshes, but I have yet to see one in West Dorset.

Great White Egret, sporting the more familiar yellow bill.

Marsh Hariers were everywhere; frequently there would be more than one on view at a time.

Another Marsh Harrier...

...and Marsh Harrier again, a 2nd-summer male I think.

This pair of Ring-necked Ducks was accompanied by two other females. Haven't seen many of these locally either. Well, none actually.

We had a great day out. The accompanying soundtrack of booming Bittern was a regular reminder that we were somewhere special. At one point, a tight flock of 50+ Cattle Egrets whisked distantly past like a tattered sheet in the wind. Totally surreal!

Back to reality today, and a local lunchtime walk. A couple of West Dorset buntings...

Lovely male Yellowhammer.

Female Cirl Bunting, showing rump nicely.

In order to separate female Cirl Bunting from female Yellowhammer, field guides helpfully point out that you should be looking for an olive-grey rump. In the photo above, the bird certainly has an olive-grey rump, but it clearly has warm, chestnut upper tail coverts too. I've only checked two field guides (the ubiquitous and excellent Collins Guide, plus the oldie-but-goodie MacMillan Field Guide to Bird Identification) but the Cirl Bunting illustrations in both depict a totally olive-grey area from tail to lower back, including the upper tail coverts. When a birder relatively unfamiliar with the species (like I was a couple of years ago) comes across a putative female Cirl, I guess it might be a bit discouraging to see a bunch of chestnut feathers where the Collins Guide is telling you there shouldn't be any. All I can say is: don't be put off.

Finally, there were three Wheatears. So of course there's a photo...

Thursday 21 March 2024


Locally, nothing quite says spring like a Wheatear on the beach, preferably in the first half of March and not too long after sunrise. And nothing quite says idle slacker like waiting until March 20th to make your first effort, and turning up at 2pm. Yep, it's taken a while to get my birding act in gear, but finally I made it to Cogden yesterday afternoon to hunt Wheatears. And amazingly I found three. No, of course they weren't still on the beach...

It was a calm, grey afternoon, and the rather listless mood was deepened by some woefully half-hearted Chiffchaff song. Deceitful flotsam littered the shimmery sea, most of it lifting momentarily into view at the corner of your eye and looking exactly like a scarce grebe. I walked miles and miles without seeing a single proper bird offshore. Drossy gulls don't count.

The Wheatears were good though. As they always are.

Tuesday 19 March 2024

Bluesky Social

It is now seven months since I ditched X (formerly known as Twitter), which is more than enough time to ponder the pros and cons of such a move. Almost the only aspects I miss relate to bird and moth news/information, and admittedly I do feel rather out of the loop in that regard. Still, I was coping okay. And then the other day I noticed that a couple of tweet-like links on the Portland Bird Observatory blog were not actually tweets - in fact they were nothing to do with Twitter/X at all - and soon found myself investigating something called Bluesky Social.

Bluesky Social looks rather like the Twitter I remember, and appears to work in similar fashion. Several of the birdy contacts I once followed on Twitter now feature on Bluesky, which was enough to get me dipping a toe at least...

So this is me on Bluesky Social

Setting up my Bluesky profile was fun, especially choosing photos for the banner and avatar. Soon I was reminiscing about my almost nine years in West Dorset, and reliving some of the natural history highlights. It has been something of a blast really, with many top-class birds - and not a few moths - but one of the events with which I am most pleased is undoubtedly the accidental discovery of West Bexington's little colony of Tree Crickets. Hence my Bluesky avatar.

First impressions of Bluesky suggest that it is advert-free. It can't last, but yippee while it does. Also, the few birders I have thus far connected with seem largely to post snippets of news and information, links to new blog posts, etc. Great. I will do likewise.

I have no idea whether the birders I have found on Bluesky have likewise ditched Twitter/X, or are simply doubling up while they test the new waters. Back in 2022 I tried a social media platform called Mastodon, as did several other Twitter users. I found it awkward and clunky, and closed my account ages ago. Perhaps Bluesky will go the same way. We'll see. But in the meantime, find me here: