Saturday, 31 October 2020

#BWKM0 - it's sort of back

So the government have spoken. We are entering the second lockdown. We are being asked to make essential journeys only. Unlike lockdown during the Spring, I am not going to suggest the way that birders should act on this advice, but my personal response will be to only bird from home by foot. There is no scientific rationale behind it, but I will not be getting into a car to carry out my birding. I will start tomorrow (November 1st) and stop on December 2nd, when the projected lockdown will end. During this time I will keep a list of the birds that I record. It will be my way of helping out to the cause of slowing down the virus. During the 6-week spring lockdown I recorded 70 species that were seen just from the garden. Can I match that? Let's see...

#BWKM0 became a bit of a thing back in March - started by an Italian ornithologist to gather some camaraderie amongst locked-down Italian birders, it gathered pace and was adopted across the world. This very blog hosted over 60 garden's efforts to support the cause. Our final results can be seen here. It is fair to say that all those who took part got an awful lot out of it - new species for the garden, surprising observations and the feeling of belonging to a brother- and sister-hood of shared aim. We were supporting each other and flying the ornithological flag. I will never forget it.

The notebook is blank. The weeks stretch ahead. What will come my way? 

Friday, 30 October 2020

A stink in the woods

It's late autumn, it's been raining, therefore logic suggested that there would be a lot of fungi sending fruiting bodies up above ground. My morning visit to the beech woodland close to Mickleham was a partial success - yes, there was fungi, but not in the numbers that I was expecting. Maybe it will be better in the next couple of weeks.

I'm not anything other than a mycological dabbler, so I was quite pleased to identify (within reason) twenty species: Orange Bonnet, Lumpy Bracket, Porcelain Fungus, Southern Bracket, Turkeytail (below), Beech Woodwart, Candlesnuff Fungus, Green Elfcup, Oak Pin, Toothed Crust, Marasmius cohaerrens, Fairy Inkcap, Lemon Disco, Flat Oystering, Burgundydrop Bonnet, Lilac Bonnet, Stinkhorn, Ivory Woodwax, Inky Mushroom and Cabbage Parachute. Haven't they got fantastic names?

The Stinkhorn is always a highlight - foul smelling and covered in flies (but which species?) Today's three individuals all lacked the black goo (spore mass) that normally covers the 'head' - it wears off - but still managed to smell a bit and attract insects. As you can see from the accompanying picture above, disturbing, suggestive and erotic in equal measure...

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

PSL clean up

Dryad's Saddle

Yesterday I had the bright idea of spring-cleaning (or should that be autumn-cleaning) my Pan-species list (PSL). If you want to find out more about this PSL madness have a look here. My PSL 'career' has been one of bursts of enthusiasm, followed by troughs of neglect, but the list has always been steadily maintained even if not actively pursued. Even before Mark Telfer launched the PSL initiative, I had already been keeping such a list (all taxa species personally recorded in the UK), and it was a pleasant surprise to find out that others were also doing so. My Top Ten listing in the first 'league' table was a false dawn as I soon started to fall down the ladder as others joined in  - many of them professional ecologists. Even now, hovering around 40th position, is not a true reflection on who has seen what in the UK, as I know of many naturalists who have recorded far more than I but who do not appear.

I do not keep an all-encompassing database of what I have recorded. My written notebooks will never become bytes in a computer. All my lists are, likewise, formed of paper and ink/pencil - checks against  printed checklists. For some orders (such as birds, plants, butterflies and moths) this is easy to keep up with, but for most of the other orders my totals are but a tiny fraction of what is on offer, so I have written down what I have seen on various bits of paper or in a number of guides. If I'm being honest these notes were strewn all over the place. It was time to consolidate this mess.

It took a whole morning. I cannot for the life of me find where my Annelid Worm list is - I know that I have seen six species, but which six? I gained a few ticks in some groups and lost a few in others. I am also slowly transferring my plant list from Stace 3 to Stace 4 which may alter the numbers as there has been much splitting and lumping going on.

It was an enjoyable exercise. To spend a bit of time looking at different orders reminds you that there is an awful lot of life out there that we normally ignore as we blindly trample the vegetation to get a better look at a bird. Even a modest back garden will supply you with a conveyor belt of delight. This summer, in an uncharacteristic burst of PSL enthusiasm, I spent an hour looking in our back garden and added several new species to the list. They may have been common, but that is beside the point.

A few autumns ago, and because of PSL mania, I spent quite a bit of time hunting for fungi. It was an eye-opener, not just because of what beauties were found but also because there was so much to learn. It soon became apparent that there was only so much a beginner could hope to achieve with accurate fungi identification. I did put me off looking. But after all this rain, the conditions must be good for a bumper fungi autumn. I might be tempted to look for them again.

Monday, 26 October 2020

Autumn colours

Sheffield Park in East Sussex is famed for its autumn colour, so Katrina and I paid it a visit this morning. The gardens were largely laid out in the 18th-century by Capability Brown. The overall effect was quite stunning, if a little saccharine for my taste, but there is room in this world for a classically-influenced wet-dream garden as much as there is for a bit of decent birding habitat I suppose.







Saturday, 24 October 2020

Wonder of the day

The Merveille du Jour is a striking species of moth, as the photograph of the individual above, that came this morning to the Banstead MV, attests. The direct translation of its French common name is 'wonder of the day' - most apt. The first one that I laid eyes on was at Spurn Bird Observatory in October 1985, when birding legend John Cudworth walked into the common room with one perched on the end of a finger. A 'wow' moment if ever there was one, as he was crowded by a mob of appreciative birders. For some it would have been the first time that they had ever taken notice of a moth. Here in Banstead they are not quite annual, so when one comes along they are rightly treated with reverence.

As we get to the back end of the autumn the number of moths, both individuals and species, drops off. But the lepidopterist cannot pack up the MV yet! It is a good time to jam in on a migrant or two, especially if a plume of warm air comes up from the south of Europe. There are also a number of new colonists that are on the wing now, species that I am more than keen to record here - Oak Rustic and Black-spotted Chestnut to name but two. And as we experience milder winters, there is never really a time when moths are NOT on the wing. It would take a big freeze and a couple of feet of snow to deter the most keen from switching on the trap.

One of the rarer migrants that I have recorded in Surrey arrived one late October, just under 30 years ago  - this Blair's Mocha. Apart from a single at Dungeness it is the only one that I have seen. But tonight the MV is staying indoors, as a strong SW and heavy rain is dictating events.

Friday, 23 October 2020

Natural history books of the year

The following three natural history books were published during the year and deserve as much publicity and praise as they can get. If you haven't read them then I can whole-heartedly recommend each and every one. Greenery by Tim Dee is part travelogue, using the season of Spring as a framework on which to hang a series of essays covering much more than the awakening of the natural world. It is a thought-provoking book that ends with the author pondering his own life's journey, the fall into autumn being mirrored by his own bodies frailties. Powerful stuff and, as always from Mr Dee, superbly written. 



His Imperial Majesty by Matthew Oates is the author's love letter to the Purple Emperor butterfly. For a book that is dense with intrinsic information it is nothing but a joyful read. The insect’s life cycle, distribution, abundance and a site gazetteer is amalgamated into the story of all those obsessives who spend each summer in HIM's presence. 





Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C Slaght follows the author's studies of the rare Blakiston's Fish Owl in Far Eastern Russia. You can feel the biting cold, share in the triumphs (and the failures) of the fieldwork and join him and his team in the field as they slowly build up knowledge of this enigmatic owl, with months of relentless searching of the riverine habitats. 

Thursday, 22 October 2020

A Stonechat. Discuss.

Yesterday afternoon, in dull light and rain, I came across a strikingly pale Stonechat in a grassy paddock at Little Woodcote in Surrey. It had something of the Whinchat about it, all creamy peaches and obvious supercillium, but it was distant and flighty. My schoolboy error was in not having my scope with me, and seeing that I needed to get home, the bridge camera came out and I took a couple of dodgy shots. These were enough to elicit interest from a few birders, one of which, Peter Alfrey, met me shortly after first light this morning to try and see if the bird was (a) still present and (b) a wanderer from further east.

Thankfully the bird had stayed overnight and had remained in the meadow, and not only that, it was an awfully lot closer than yesterday. A ‘typical’ female Stonechat was keeping it company, highlighting the striking paleness of ‘our’ birds underparts, lacking the orange-russet tones of its typical hibernans companion. Again, the supercillium was marked and obvious. Peter fired off a number of shots with his camera while I obtained some video. Our initial observations revealed chestnut upper-tail coverts that exhibited some dark streaking, but maybe not in a neat regular pattern. Underwing coverts were not easy to see, although they did not appear to be black, which suggested that if our bird had indeed wandered from the east it would be a female.

Those upper-tail coverts, with the streaking, initially sent the ‘eastern trail’ into a dead-end, as we expected both eastern species, Siberian (maurus) and Stejneger’s (stejnegeri) to exhibit unmarked upper-tail coverts. We had still yet to scrutinise the photographic evidence of the state of the rump. I did remember something about Stejneger’s Stonechat sometimes exhibiting upper-tail covert streaking, and dug out a paper that appeared in British Birds (November 2014). In it, the authors state that out of c200 stejnegeri Stonechats handled, 60% showed some dark streaking on the upper-tail coverts (these being birds that had already moulted the all-white juvenile upper-tail coverts). Were we right in assuming that our bird must be from the west of Europe after all?

Here are three video extracts from this morning. The bird appeared paler in some angles, any change in lighting exaggerating or lessening the effect.




When Peter got to look at his photographic efforts, he was able to answer our questions about the underwing and upper-tail coverts/rump.

The underwing coverts and axillaries are light grey, certainly not any black to be seen. What should be expected of female maura/stejnegeri? Does this conclusively rule them out?

A chestnut rump and upper-tail coverts blessed with plenty of darker streaking, certainly not maura and maybe the streaking is too evenly spaced for stejnegeri? 

We have both come to the conclusion that, as striking and interesting as this bird is, it will not win any prizes as an Eastern Stonechat tribute act. So what is it? Pale hibernans? A rubicola? Whatever its true identity, we now both know an awful lot more about Stonechat identification.

My thanks to Peter for his use of images and superior input.

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

2021. Too early?

I love having natural history projects on the go, future plans and aims in which to get motivated and add a level of order to my wanderings. 2020 has, so far, been a year of being diverted, largely governed by COVID restrictions and moral choice. Three holidays/trips were cancelled and my searches for new species of micro-moths were severely restricted. However, this forced me into spending far more time in my immediate area and this had many positive results - the end of year round-up will heavily feature these. Is mid-to-late October too early to start planning for next year? I don't think so - in fact I've already started. So here are my initial thoughts on what 'ND&B 2021' might look like. And yes, things beyond our control might just alter them at short notice...

I'm blessed that I can still get so much out of the wildlife on my doorstep. It does help that I live on the edge of suburbia that then quickly becomes chalk downland, farmland, heath and woodland. It is wonderful for plants and insects (if not so much for birds) and, being in the SE of England, is regularly at the forefront of colonisation by species from the continent that are making their way north and north-westwards. So, the large part of my time will be spent on the Uberpatch with the following targets:

Birds (140 species); Plants (700 species); Moths (500 species); Butterflies (38 species) and Dragonflies (18 species). None of these are anything other than a bit of fun and a means with which to motivate me to keep on trying to identify those tricky micro-moths and difficult plant groups. And, as a frivolous aside, I will keep a record of how many steps I take in the search of them all - the aim is of completing 1,000,000 of them. That should be a doddle.

I had identified a number of plant species within the SE of England that I was going to target this year, but restrictions meant that it was not advisable to travel and try and see them. Hopefully, this can be resurrected next year.

My dabbling in certain orders of insect (shieldbugs is one) will continue. I'm far removed from being competent with them, so a bit more reading and fieldwork may take me from 'absolute beginner' to the heady heights of mere 'beginner'.

And finally I will try and get in the odd break so that I do not go stir crazy locally. Katrina and I have booked time in Scotland next summer (close to the Perthshire botanical wonders) and I will visit the Sussex South Downs and Kent shingle again. They supply what I need to reinvigorate a jaded soul should that scenario become reality.

Monday, 19 October 2020

GB35

The past couple of days has seen me mooching about the place locally, counting thrushes, hunting chats and just being content with my lot. I did nip over to Beddington SF this afternoon to pay my respects to White Stork GB35, a Knepp release. I cannot get too excited about this project and I really don't know why it was started in the first place - my loss. The bird was loafing on the 'wet grassland', more mud and water than vegetation, but hopefully the area will develop into something special. Also present was a Great White Egret, not unexpected these days, even up here on the edge of London.

Yesterday (and today) I finally got around to visiting Little Woodcote, an area of horse paddocks, small holdings, nurseries, hedges, copses and rough grassland. It has an ornithological history and is currently being checked regularly by a number of birders, including Peter Alfrey, Ian Jones and Arjun Dutta. Considering that it is only three miles from my home, and I like to think of myself as a birder of local places, this has been remiss of me. It was a delight to wander around, the area bisected by two paved tracks giving plenty of opportunity to scour the mosaic of habitats. I hit it lucky first time, with a female/imm Ring Ouzel (Ian Jones later photographed it, shown here, with thanks to him for permission to use it). Also present were three Stonechats - and if a site has chats it gets my vote - all females. Today there were still three in the same grassy paddock, but one was a male. Turnover then, but how many? This afternoon I also walked the countryside due south of here, not as birdy but one or two interesting corners were committed to the memory banks for further investigation. Even on my doorstep, and having lived in the area for over 30 years, there is still much to discover.

Saturday, 17 October 2020

A strange place

Mark Davis's evocative shot of Box Hill being photobombed by London

I do find myself in a 'strange' place. 'Strange' because I have, after 46 years of birding, finally come to a place of contentment. 'Happy with my lot' kind of contentment. This after years of 'stop-start' twitching, adopting patches that were over 90-miles away from home, taking on limiting projects with grandiose ideas of what they would yield - I could go on...

This year of COVID-19 did force us (well, most of us) to stay closer to home, limit travel and take on-board the 'new ornithological normal' of walking into a garden or looking out of a window and actually birding - proper birding - as opposed to the pre-COVID19 habit of half-heartedly looking up into the sky as we walked to the car to travel elsewhere. The results were truly unexpected. 'Hidden in plain sight' passages of birds, nocturnal waders and wildfowl and all-day raptor streams that made us get up in the morning (or sit out in the gathering evening gloom) full of anticipation and excitement. When lock-down eased, the return to what we once did ornithologically had subtly shifted.

I can clearly remember the sense of adventure in the summer when I returned to local patches that I had not visited since March. These were places that, if not summarily dismissed beforehand, had been taken somewhat for granted. In this 'new normal' I was seeing them through a clearer, brighter lens. They promised much.

My first birding foray out of the county post-lockdown was to the West Sussex South Downs in early September. I spent two days exploring the hills either side of Washington and had a brilliant time, full of Redstarts and Spotted Flycatchers, Whinchats and Warblers. And then, last week, I had a whole week in the Dungeness area, a place that holds a special place for me, and once again provided some memorable birding. But strangely, when I returned home from these excursions, rather than get depressed about my inferior local birding opportunities compared to where I had just been plying my optics, it did the opposite. My efforts closer to home were energised - I'd undergone the ornithological equivalent of a blood transfusion! 

This week I have witnessed some brilliant thrush migration from the garden. Thousands of Redwings and Fieldfares have streamed westwards with the odd Crossbill and Hawfinch thrown in. Had I still been at Dungeness I would have been able to spend time with a Red-flanked Bluetail, but I would have missed the thrushes. Now, as much as I would have liked to have seen the Bluetail, I will share something with you that you may not believe. I wouldn't swap the thrush experience for the Bluetail. Why not? The thrushes were mine. Nobody else saw them. They were of national numerical relevance. They meant something to me. The Bluetail did not.

I have spent most of the day looking at images of the Norfolk Rufous Bush-chat and the Kent Masked Shrike. I've read accounts of birders tripping over Dusky and Pallas's Warblers. I have not had one pang of envy. I am happy for the finders, and, even though I do not understand why grown men need to drive long-distances to see a bird somebody else has found, I respect their freedom to do so. What do I get from keeping up with this glut of rarities gumming up my media timeline? Hope. Hope that I might be lucky enough to be tossed just a crumb from the birding Gods. As much as my local birding is not about rarity (and how could it?) I am not impervious to the excitement of the chances of it happening, even if those chances are very slim indeed.

After many years of optic abuse, and having dined (maybe just briefly) at the top table, it is a blessing to be able to get so much out of birding in places of modest means, close to home. There is a perverse sense of 'trailblazing' and trying to prove a point that 'local and dry' can be rewarding. When it comes right - and it often does - it is exhilarating. 

This week, as I have stepped out of the back door to wait for dawn to break and the thrushes to start passing overhead, I have chuckled to myself. How lucky am I that this, the simplest and purest form of birding, can still float my boat after so long. I don't need a Bush-chat or a Bluetail. If I start to get a bit ornithologically leggy I just need a quick trip down to the Sussex downs or the Kent shingle to recharge the batteries, and then it's back to my modest scrap of Surrey. Even on the edge of London, there is much to see. And who knows, there might be a chat with a blue tail waiting for me...

Tuesday, 13 October 2020

Flight-lines

The past three Octobers has seen my birding effort dedicated to finding decent visible migration spots in Surrey. My search has been deliberately confined to within ten miles from home. So far, and largely with good return, I have tried Box Hill, Colley Hill, Denbies Hillside, Epsom Downs, Canons Farm, Priest Hill and last, but not least, my back garden in Banstead. It is the latter that I will expand upon for this post.

I am on (for Surrey) fairly high ground, a northerly spur of the North Downs. The garden is of moderate size and is north-westerly facing, looking up and along a slope. Neighbouring roof tops and a mature Ash tree cuts down visibility somewhat, but I can position myself to be able to see most of the sky, with the southwards views quite good and, looking across to a slightly higher ridge some 600m away, far-reaching in places.

Back-garden vis-migging was born out of convenience, but it soon became apparent that it would repay my efforts. Big hirundine and thrush movements were forthcoming, with the odd unexpected highlight thrown in (such as Woodlark, Hawfinch and several Crossbills). Yesterday found me outside at dawn, and it turned out to be a memorable session, with a west to north-westerly passage of 7,724 Redwings, 419 Chaffinches, 30 Fieldfare and a Brambling. 

Over the past three years I have come to the conclusion that thrushes have a particular liking for ‘my’ area - there does seem to be a clear flight-line that runs east-west, being visible above - and to the south - of my house. Passage to the north is not as heavy, although it must be admitted that my views are a little compromised in this direction. This flight-line can move further to the south, so that the birds are closer to the higher ridge. I have often wondered whether or not I’d be better off on this ridge, where Nork Park is situated, which handily affords far-reaching views.

Today I was, once more, in the back garden and was delighted to find that the thrushes were again on the move. Redwings did not reach the heady-heights of yesterday, with 3,203 being recorded, but Fieldfares came to the fore, a magnificent 1,558 passing overhead. One dramatic flock of 300 birds contained both species. As the morning wore on the thrush flight-line moved further south, but was still in view and countable. But when I started to pick out distant dots by the ridge I made my move - all of 800m - and spent the last hour of the session on the open slopes of Nork Park. I was at once vindicated as several large flocks moved directly over me, facilitating accurate counting of birds, particularly those of mixed species (some including a few Chaffinches).

This got me into some unhealthy thinking. What if I had stood here yesterday? How many more Redwings would I have recorded? Without doubt, the distant birds of yesterday would have been closer here, and surely the stream would also have covered the top of the ridge. If that was the case, they would not have been viewable from home. These additional birds would have, no doubt, been countered by a number of birds that would not have been visible from the park, ie those which had passed directly over (or to the north) of my house. So where best to stand? Stick or twist? Tomorrow may have the answer, although the thrushes may decide not to turn up...

It is incredible to be able to witness such migration at home. It can be seen above any dwelling in the country. It’s free and spectacular. If you haven’t already, give it a go!

Monday, 12 October 2020

A week on the shingle

The last seven days have been spent birding the Dungeness area. Weather-wise it was largely benign, with just one speedy wet low giving as 24-hour period of moderate to blustery south-westerlies and rain. The rest of the time it was sunny and warm, the wind normally getting up by the early afternoon.

Among the suite of semi-resident birds were two Glossy Ibis, up the three Great White Egret and a small number of Cattle Egrets that appeared and disappeared like rabbits out of a magician's hat. Other highlights were: Pale-bellied Brent Goose, Merlin, Stone-curlew (out in the open shingle beyond the Water Tower), Short-eared Owl, Woodlark, Dartford Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Red-backed Shrike (Littlestone Golf Course) and Lapland Bunting (fields NE of airport). There were a couple of days of hirundine movement, lazy clouds that fed as they circled down towards the point, the best day being 9th October with 5,000 outgoing Swallows. Incoming were Redwings, with a concentrated arrival of 900 during the mid-morning period on 11th. A total of 117 species were recorded with little effort.

Non-birdy notables included a Golden Twin-spot (below, courtesy of Martin C) and a number of Mottled Shieldbugs (above, via the directions of Dave W).

I must thank my very good friend Mark H for allowing me to stay with him throughout. His hospitality and companionship were of the highest order.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Red-backed Shrike

It was an absolute delight to bump into this juvenile/first-winter Red-backed Shrike at the northern end of Littlestone Golf Course yesterday afternoon. It was showy and confiding, taking little notice as the local birders gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Cars brushed past the bird's roadside bush without bothering it, and some birders were able to turn up, momentarily stop the car, wind down the window and to watch the bird just feet away. It was feeding well, and, at the end of the afternoon once having regurgitated a pellet, was observed to roost deep inside its favourite bush. Still present this morning.

A full account of my week's stay at Dungeness will appear later.




Sunday, 4 October 2020

Rarity and COVID

The east coast of Britain, plus a rash of Scottish Isles, is/are playing host to a stellar cast of rare vagrants - Masked Shrike, Tennessee Warbler, Pallas’s Grasshopper Warbler, Siberian Thrush, White’s Thrush, Eye-browed Thrush, Two-barred Greenish Warbler - I could go on... plus a mouthwatering back-up courtesy of multiple Red-flanked Bluetails, Radde’s Warblers and more Yellow-browed Warblers than it is possible to accurately count. For many birders the knee-jerk reaction is to head straight to the hot-spots where the rarity - and the action - is taking place. And who can blame them.

But, things are different now. Joining the ‘to be expected’ moral conundrums that usually accompany such a birding scrum (trespass, toggers and carbon foot-print) there is a new concern in town, that of the COVID-19 virus. A rare bird = a birding crowd. When something as modest as a scarce migrant can gather 20-30 birders within minutes, what chance do we stand of conforming to health guidelines? There is also the differing detail within those guidelines - such as how many people are allowed to gather at the Tennessee Warbler as opposed to the Masked Shrike? What about the Red-flanked Bluetail at Spurn? 

According to current information, the Tennessee Warbler can welcome six birders from no more than two households who can stand 2m from each other. The Masked Shrike is at Hartlepool, a region under ‘special measures‘ where all but essential travel is banned. At Spurn, no more than six people should stand together, whilst maintaining social distancing. Establishments such as bird observatories and reserves, really have had their work cut out. Apart from the problem of how to manage visitors (whether staying guests or day-trippers, to the opening of centres or hides) there is the spectre of a rare bird turning up that WILL draw a crowd. And, without wishing to suggest that everybody in such a crowd would not be conscious of the social responsibilities that go with safe COVID-19 behaviour, if you are willing to put yourself into a birding scrum for the sake of seeing a rare bird, then the chances are that your compass will be a little bit off.

But then I need to take a step back. What if I were at Dungeness and somebody had just found one of those rarities mentioned above. Would I refuse to walk a few hundred metres to see it? No, of course I wouldn’t. I’d toddle along and have a look. But what if I arrived and the bird wasn’t on show. And half-an-hour then passed by. The crowd would have built up way past six, well beyond 20-30. What then? Abandon? Miss out altogether? It isn’t as straightforward as it might seem.

There will be plenty of birders out there finding rare birds and not releasing the news. Not out of malice or old-fashioned suppression, but out of not wanting to risk a large gathering of birders. Such gatherings run a high risk of becoming rat-runs for the spread of COVID. Not just between birders but also others who will subsequently come into their orbit. And many in such rarity gatherings then travel on to the next one, and the next...

The image above was taken this morning at Spurn, of a crowd of birders appreciating a Red-flanked Bluetail. It was taken by John Sadler (@jpsadler) who has kindly given me permission to use it. I would also like to point out that I am not accusing any recognisable birder in the image of poor behaviour as a frozen moment in time does not tell the whole story. But what can be gathered is that social distancing seems to be a little lax, there doesn't seem to be a face mask on show and there are certainly more than six people together. It is when confronted by such scenes that the finders of birds, or the custodians of the land on which the rarity has appeared, need to think long and hard about whether the news needs to be broadcast at all. Spurn Bird Observatory, on seeing this image, did tweet out "we implore birders on site - please behave sensibly, and please think how your actions may reflect on the hard work of those at the Observatory".

Do we need to take a good, long, hard look at our birding-selves? Is there a need to forgo twitching at this moment in time? Is it best to not announce rarities or scarce-migrants if we are lucky enough to find them?  They are, after all, just birds.

Thursday, 1 October 2020

Social dilemma

I have just watched the Netflix documentary 'The Social Dilemma' that deals with the algorithms and business models behind monetising social media, in particular Facebook. It is a sobering watch. Whenever my attention is turned towards such things I find myself thinking very hard about my own use of social media. Here is where I currently stand...

FACEBOOK Binned it a few weeks ago, mainly down to the volume of incoming posts from the (few) natural history groups that I was a member of. Also friend and family pressure lead me to 'friend' people who then gummed up my timeline with vacuous and pointless images of their latest meals, pouts and 'look at me' moments. I have not missed it at all.

INSTAGRAM A very short membership of this platform, which I joined to access a local Art Group account and I left due to - you've guessed it - pressure from friends and family to 'befriend' them who then gummed up my timeline with vacuous and pointless images of their latest meals, pouts and 'look at me' moments. I have not missed it at all.

TWITTER My God this platform infuriates me. It is my number one method of gleaning instantaneous news of what birds, moths, butterflies and plants are being seen. It has become an indispensable way of getting my information out, and other's information in. It has also become my number one method of being shown how little I am seeing and how much others are. This, of course, is grossly slewed in favour of the lucky few - 99% of us are those whose noses are squashed up against the shop window looking in at the lucky ones who are feasting on success - and don't they like to rub our noses in it! And all of that congratulatory nonsense dished out to people who have jumped in a car to follow directions to see a bird that somebody else had found - yeah, top birding mate (ironic face emoji). I see 2,200 House Martins zip through at Priest Hill and punch the air. Within minutes my bubble is burst by news of the 13,000+ at 'nearby' Leith Hill. I bird all day for a few crumbs of migrant delight to be assaulted by images of Siberian Thrush, White's Thrush, Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler, all found by birders - just like me - but who have had the good sense to position themselves in a better position. Maybe not 'just like me' after all... Still hanging on, although the increasing number of adverts is annoying.

WHAT'S-APP Sounds simple this one. Groups of like-minded people disseminating information, pure and simple - until you get a stream of banal chat going on that would be boring and out of place across a garden fence. Still hanging on.

BLOGGER Still here, at least I have some control over input and frequency. Maybe a dying platform populated by older people. The long-form narrative has little place in our sound-bite times. But I'm old-school and will keep on blogging.

The way these platforms are being manipulated is frightening. Society is suffering, what is true and what is false are being blurred. What I really should do is delete the lot. Live in the now. Converse with those that I have a real connection with, by actually using my voice or sending an e-mail. Drastically reduce my time looking at a phone or tablet. Am I brave enough to do so? At the moment, just a bit. Just a little bit.