Red-necked Stint string

It’s still quiet as the crypt here, and Shetland’s birders are all reduced to trying to find American waders. Without, it has to be said, conspicuous success. Some sort of rare peep would certainly kickstart the so far moribund autumn. So with rare peeps in mind, and reading Gavin Haig’s most recent post regarding birding japes on the always splendid Not Quite Scilly blog, I have a tale of Red-necked Stint stringing to share with you. 

Once upon a time (I forget precisely when, but it’d have probably been the late 90’s) my good friend Jeff had been to the Birdfair at Rutland Water, and had availed himself of Rare Bird Alert’s free one week trial of their fledgling text message system, in which all the news they usually broadcast to their pagers was piped directly to your mobile phone. Despite it being late August, this nevertheless meant that Jeff’s phone was rather busy – so busy in fact that I rather doubted he would be looking too closely at precisely who had sent him any given message.

The scene was set, and come the weekend I found myself stuck at work on one of the hottest days of the year. It was blisteringly hot, and needless to say nobody was looking to buy a new car (I was gainfully employed to flog cars back in the day) – preferring instead to sit in the garden and drink beer, take the kids to the beach, or in the case of Jeff, go to Dawlish Warren in south Devon for a spot of light birding. I was bored, and as the showroom got hotter while the day ground on, the devil found work for idle hands. I sent a text message to Jeff, reading thusly:

“***MEGA ALERT*** RED-NECKED STINT Adult showing well at Lodmoor NNR, Dorset 11.50am at least”

Now, I fully intended to follow this up with a phone call to Jeff, pointing out the deficiencies of using a mobile phone to take rare bird messages, pointing out how open it was to hilarious abuse by so-called friends, and pointing out how real birders had a pager. Unfortunately at that very moment the first punter of the day chose to walk into the showroom, causing an unseemly rush as 4 salesmen all on 100% commission-only pay sprinted to intercept her, and salvage something from a day hitherto spent leering at passers by from our un-air-conditioned prison. I was nearest, and some 30 minutes later she left the showroom the proud owner of a new car, leaving me smugly calculating how much I’d made from the deal.

The smug grin faded somewhat when I remembered Jeff. I dialled his number. He took the call, and from his hoarse, shuddering wheezing I gathered he might only recently have been running. For about half an hour. Carrying a heavy telescope and tripod. Over shingle and soft sand. On the hottest day of the year.

gasp-gasp-wheeze have you heard? Red-necked cough-cough-wheeze Stint at Lodmoor gasp-gasp-retch“.

Oops. I broke the bad news. After a stunned silence, he regained the power of speech with a wonderful and colourful eloquency, and sitting at my desk with an dew-spangled can of ice-cold Coke I felt truly sorry for my exhausted, angry and overheated friend standing beside his car in sunny Dawlish. Now, some 10 years on… it seems funnier again, somehow.

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The burden of proof

Steve Gale’s latest post on the North Downs and Beyond blog (http://northdownsandbeyond.blogspot.com/2009/05/duff-gen.html ) has got me thinking more on what makes a ‘good’ record. Back in the 70’s, poor Steve twitched a Laughing Gull that turned out to be a fiction – beyond the initial report that inspired him to twitch it, nothing more was seen or heard of the bird in question. Was it ever real? Who knows.

Going back half a century again from Steve’s dip, it turns out that the Dorset Wallcreeper record from the 1920’s I poked fun at a day or two ago appears to be on the historical record as genuine. Or at least, it’s referred to as legit in a couple of recentish books (i.e. Morrison’s “Rare birds in Dorset” & LGRE’s “Rare birds in Britain 1800-1990”) and shows up in RBA’s online Past Records database. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so quick to pour scorn on it… or maybe not. They all refer to the record being just 1 bird, and as we saw in the secondhand finder’s account, there were allegedly 2 birds involved. In somewhat questionable circumstances…

The point I’m skirting around is how we could ever judge these old records. This one appears to be accepted as legit in the current literature, but looking back to the only reference I can find to it at the time, the evidence for the record was pretty scanty and (that word again) questionable. What’s an acceptable level of proof for records from the mists of time? A photo is unlikely, as camera ownership, technology and use at the time mitigate against there being in-the-field shots. Field shots back then were more likely to involve bird powder and a shotgun – so is a prepared specimen enough to prove a claim of a vagrant bird? The Hastings rarities scandal says not, and Richard Meinertzhagen’s many fraudulent specimens prove that there needn’t even have been commercial gain involved for fraud to take place. Kudos was enough of an inducement. All of which leaves us with a good old-fashioned description, and field sketches where possible. Rather like today…

Is the Dorset Wallcreeper’s description good enough to pass muster? On the basis of what I’ve seen, I’d say not, and certainly not by the standards of today; the BBRC quite rightly expect a convincing level of proof.  A good description is still enough, but for how long?  With technology (and cynicism) moving on apace, how long will it be before single observer records are unacceptable without supporting digital photos and their revealing EXIF data?

Hmm… I wonder what the standard of rarity description is like today compared to say 20 years ago…

On string’s power to brighten a dull day

Got back to Shetland yesterday morning after a weekend down south (ooh, the exotica I saw from the car! Red-legged Partridges, Magpies, and more Buzzards than you could shake a shirty gamekeeper at) to find the weather  had returned to normal for this time of year. In other words, wind and rain. Nothing unusual there, and for a mercy I’d missed nothing unusual while I was away. Which was nice.

While being kept abreast of what (wasn’t) being found back home, I amused myself by browsing through British Birds Interactive. Still available for the incredibly good value price of £96.95 for a fully searchable database of 100 years worth of British Birds (http://www.birdguides.com/products/BBi/default.asp)  the amount of entertainment you get for 96p per year (8 pence per issue!) is vast. I bought it a while ago, and have rather neglected it ever since. Spending 26 hours of my life on a ferry in the course of last weekend was a chance to remedy that.

It’d be nice to pretend I went straight to the identification papers, the mystery photos, the educational stuff… (and that’s all there, and very good it is too)… but the truth is, I went looking for the more, ahem, entertaining claims of yesteryear. Here’s a sample gem:

itchy chin

Given this was some 90 years ago, announcing your rare bird news in BB was de rigueur. Nowadays it would be rather different:

Rare bird hotline – Hello, rare bird hotline. What’ve you got?

A. Stringer – I’ve found a Wallcreeper! In Dorset!

RBH – Wallcreeper?! Bloody hell!

AS – That’s right! In Dorset!

RBH – Okay… where exactly in Dorset did you have it?

AS – Climbing round an old elm tree! At Chilfrome, near Dorchester!

RBH – An elm tree? I see… and how well did you see it?

AS – Oh, really well! It was remarkably tame, and I got within six feet of it!

RBH – Um… mate… are you sure about this?

AS – What are you trying to imply? I am familiar with our wild birds, and especially noticed the crimson shoulders and slightly curved long bill! I immediately identified the species by referring to the Collins Field Guide, and it is safe to say that at such close range there could have been no mistake!

RBH – o-kay…. and it’s still there, is it?

AS – No, I’m afraid it eventually flew away with another bird, which seemed to come from the other side of the tree and was apparently of the same species!

RBH – You’re now saying there were two Wallcreepers?! Six feet away from you? On an old elm tree?

AS – Yes! There could have been no mistake, you know!

RBH – Yeah, right. Goodbye.

Spotting blatant string – it’s just so much fun.

Bird porn

God bless America. Where else would you find this sort of high-calibre fruit loopiness?

Still, maybe they have a point. Maybe birding is a sex substitute… (bear with me… Benylin For Flu does this to me). Which would make the various tribes of the UK birding scene what exactly? Twitchers are easy (fnar) – they’d be the ones that should be on the receiving end of some good old-fashioned electric baths and shock therapy to cure their selfish addiction. Dudes – simple enough too, they’re the ones for whom birding supplements a once a year shag on their birthday to get their kicks. Stringers – they’d be the ones who’d use the whole chicken rather than just the feather, the deviants of the birding scene, and in complete denial that their take on what they’re doing is in any way unacceptable to the rest of us. General run of the mill birders? Oh, wankers probably. I’ve certainly come across a few…

God, she’s so earnest it hurts. Right up until the flappy wings bit…