Friday, 8 November 2013

You find a rarity - what next?

The following is borne out of recent discussions with birding friends:

Scenario One
An elderly neighbour tells you that she has seen a strange bird feeding on her back garden lawn each morning for several days. You are invited into her house the following morning as it has appeared again - it is an American Robin. It is only viewable from her sitting room window. You cannot view the garden from anywhere else. You know that she values her privacy.

Scenario Two
You are monitoring breeding Ringed Plovers on a shingle beach. A spanking male Black-eared Wheatear appears amongst them. It is still there two hours later. To reach the spot from where you are watching it, you needed to walk across several Ringed Plover territories.

Scenario Three
You are at an east coast migration hot spot that is very busy with birders. You flush a bird that flies into a thicket of hawthorn. You have brief views. From what you've seen, you are highly suspicious that the bird was a Desert Warbler. A birder approaches you shortly afterwards and asks you if have seen much.

Scenario Four
You are a walking through a field when a bird calls from above. It calls just the once. You cannot see it but you recognise the call as that of a Trumpeter Finch. It does not call again.

Scenario Five
You come across a large pipit. You suspect that it might be a Blyth's Pipit but you have no experience of the species. You have three birding friends that you could call on who live close by. Two of them are the height of discretion. The third is a manic tweeter.

Each of these scenarios opens up different dilemmas. The most obvious is - should the news be released? And if the answer to that is yes, then should such a release of news be selective?

One question that needs to be asked in all of this is "who owns the observation"? When a 'good' bird is found there is a great assumption that the details behind such a sighting should immediately be placed in the public domain. Why? Where is there a written understanding that an observer has to be compelled to share such information? And if a birder decides - for whatever reason - to not release such news, should they expect immunity from castigation for not doing so? In most cases, the immediate accusation from those who are annoyed by a news black-out is one of suppression - but it is rarely the case that reluctance to release news is down to a deep-seated wish to grip others off.

But we live in times when instant news is the expectation. Five minutes delay is five minutes too much. And just to know what species has been seen and where it was seen is no longer good enough. Who saw it? For how long? How well was it seen? What did it do? Where did it go? Is the observer a stringer? Did they see the under-tail coverts? The inquisition, whether realised or not, is always there. If you don't believe me, just look at a twitter feed (which can be knee-jerk instant reaction without any time being spent thinking about what words are being released into the public domain - or their possible effect), or a forum (you know what the score can be here, mud-slinging, half-truths, witch-hunts).

Is it any wonder that some birders prefer to withdraw from the arena and either NOT release news under certain circumstances or at least release the news SELECTIVELY.

We also a need to look at the 'stage' of the birder's development when considering all of this. A keen, young (or beginner) birder will want to curry favour with their more experienced congeners and so get news of finds out there as quickly as possible with the expectation of praise and kudos. They might also be chasing lists and so not as understanding of the 'reluctant releaser'. Older hands might be laid back about garnering praise (they may well already have proved themselves in the birding arena) and possibly wiser about the possible ramifications of an influx of birders into a habitat or the affect it might have on local people, or the chance of vilification if the identification is proven incorrect. Of course, birders do not easily fall into such clearly defined groups, but these groups do exist and can handily represent differing takes on the subject.

One tweet - just one - concerning news of a rare bird, will have alerts going off on several hundred phones within minutes. Then the conversation begins. If the news is not straightforward, then the fun starts. It didn't used to be like this.

By the way, of the five scenarios that I gave above, one of them genuinely happened to me...


  1. Steve

    At the risk of being pompous, I have never understood the "I have a right to see" brigade. If there was a chance of any disturbance to wildlife (almost by definition a twitch would cause one) I would not bother to tell anyone.

    BTW I am a bit worried about a Red Cage twitch :-))

    1. The irony of me twitching some exotic fungi is not lost on me John!

  2. Scenario One : Ask her straight out if she is happy for others to see it or not.

    Scenario Two : Inform the conservation body responsible for location and leave it to them.

    Scenario Three : "Possibly. Seems to be a candidate for a goody in the bushes" and leave him to watch bush for hours and hours.

    Scenario Four : Ignore it. Ain't worth the hassle and what good will the record do?

    Scenario Five : Call one discreet birder over. If solved, let other two know before the masses.

    Scenario Six : Bang, bang. Stick a pin through it and whip it's genitalia out. Sorry, got that mixed up with diptera.

  3. This is all very pragmatic and correct Andrew. By the way, my real life scenario was the Trumpeter Finch!