Sunday 4 December 2016

Birding Blunders

It's mid December and there's a storm blowing. A howling south westerly gale is battering the south coast of Devon, with frequent heavy downpours, but that doesn't put off the dedicated patch birder from skipping breakfast and heading down to the coast. He sets up his scope which he struggles to keep still in the wind, but for the first twenty minutes sees very little passing. 

All of a sudden a small white gull flies into view. It's flying into the wind but its clearly all white and small, no bigger than a Kittiwake. The bird remains distant as it flies west but it's clear the bird has some small black flecks along its wing, but otherwise it's really is pure white and is flying almost like a tern. Ivory Gull!!  Mega!  It turns more south and the observer watches it fly away... did that just happen!?  

Still shaking with excitement the birder grabs his phone, manages to send a text out to other birders, and quickly fires of a tweet "Distant 1w Ivory Gull off xxxxxxx, seems to have flown off out to sea!"

But as he puts his phone back in his pocket and continues to scan with his telescope, he picks it up again and it's flying back into the bay.  Fantastic! It keeps on coming, and coming, before dropping on the the sea where it joins a lone adult Kittiwake. Immediately something doesn't look right. It has an all yellow bill, it's the same shape as the Kittiwake, and the 'black flecks' are actually splodges of oil.... it's an albino Kittiwake.

Just as a sinking feeling tugs on the observers stomach, an adult Great Black-backed Gull knocks the albino Kittiwake on the head, and proceeds to swallow it.  It's at this point that cars begin to arrive and the first birders are running over...

Hypothetical Person A   

The birder immediately gets his phone back out of his pocket, begrudgingly sends the tweet 'sorry folks, the Ivory Gull was actually an albino Kittiwake' and sheepishly apologises to all the birders that have already arrived.  He then spends this next 24 hours with his phone turned off and consumes the advised maximum monthly intake of alcohol in one evening. 

Hypothetical Person B

As the first telescopes arrive the birder exclaims "sorry guys, no further sign". Alas there is no more sightings of the 'Ivory Gull', but then again it did fly back out to sea so that's not a surprise. To pull off his lie he needs to carry it all the way though, so submits a remarkably good description of a first-winter Ivory Gull to the BBRC, which sails through. The birder goes down in history as the finder of the first Devon Ivory Gull since 1853!

As an outsider not knowing the truth, who is the better birder?   Well it's clearly not the Muppet that is Person A who can't even tell the difference between a common seabird and one of the most obvious gulls in the world. What a complete stringer.  Person B however, what a star, a complete legend. Managed to nail a flyby Ivory Gull, which he deserved after spending so much time out and about....

Birders are humans. And humans make mistakes, in fact mistakes are what makes us human. When first learning about birds I think you kind of learn through mistakes, and you will probably make many of them, but however experienced and knowledgeable you become as a birder, blunders will still happen. 

It's the birders that never admit to making mistakes that concern me. Thankfully I am confident all the birders I know are like Person A, honest. But I'm sure there are some out there like Person B. Their egos so ballooned and with such (deluded) high standards to uphold, their pride would just not let them back down from their first call. They simply cannot be seen to make a mistake. So, who is the better birder?

Person A. All day long.

Even the most thorough and expert birders make mistakes. The best field birder I know and have ever birded with once spent the day counting an impressive Arctic Skua passage. He returned back to base only to find out all the sea watching locations both north and south of him recorded almost exactly the same numbers of Pomarine Skuas. He immediately knew he'd ballsed up. And admitted it. Everyone makes mistakes, it's how you deal with them that counts.  

It's important to learn from your mistakes (this does make you a better birder), and you have got to expect some flack, but move on. Deal with the error like my dog dealt with the cold water that had soaked into her fur after a swim in the River Coly this morning...

Writing this post got me thinking about my biggest birding faux pas, and three spring to mind...


It must have been about 2001 or 2002, before Colyford Common had a hide and was just a slope and a platform. The previous day I'd had an Osprey fly through south at dusk, and I was stood there with Phil A and Dave H. All the Estuary birds had taken flight, and I was frantically looking around through my binoculars for the reason. As I lowered my binoculars my eyes saw a bird flying very close to us, with a dark breast band, broad wings and a slow flap. My mouth said "Osprey" about half a second before my brain said 'Lapwing'.... there was no excuse!

A Redshank on Steroids.

On 16th August 2010 at Black Hole Marsh, although I was looking into the sun, I could see a long-billed, large and elegant looking Redshank-type. I didn't have to think twice about putting the news out that a Spotted Redshank was with a Greenshank on the marsh.  Here is the bird...

That evening Phil went down, and saw it again, closer and in flight. It was a Redshank. I still maintain it was a bloody weird looking Redshank (possibly of eastern origin?), but it was a Common Redshank.

But I'm good with Gulls.

At dusk on 25th January 2010 I was watching the gulls on the Estuary when a white-winged Gull dropped in north of Coronation Corner. It was so white I was worried it was an albino or leucistic thing, but when it was settled with Herring Gulls it looked smaller, cuter headed and longer winged. A second-winter Iceland Gull, nice. Here it is...

This bird stayed for months on the Estuary. And it was a Herring Gull. This one I took particularly hard as I do consider myself a 'guller'. I thought I had checked all the salient features, well I had, yet I concluded wrong.  Am pleased to say it never put me off gulls though :-)

So folks, I've been open and honest, now it's your turn. Let's have a birders amnesty, I'd love to read about your biggest gaffs and greatest embarrassments in the world of birding. Whether via a comment on this blog, a tweet, an email or a text.  Let's celebrate the fact we are human...


  1. Why does it matter - that's the bigger question?

    1. Hi Dylan. It doesn't at all - it's just fun! All the best, Steve.

  2. Ah Steve, if NQS MkI was still extant my number one faux pas of all time would be right there for all to see. Truly, I am quite happy that it isn't!

    1. Haha, nice one Gav and we were all guilty that day! One of the quotes that has always stayed with me is "at least I didn't think it was a Sanderling"...

    2. Would have been a lot less public if I had!

  3. Always good for a laugh is leading your local bird clubs field trip and offering a confident identification...

    'Only a wood Pigeon out on the spit!' er... no, that was a Peregrine Falcon. But they are used to me by now!


    1. Hi Ed. Yes I totally get that. When guiding there's an extra pressure to call an ID maybe sooner than you would if you were alone. And pesumptions are the mother of all cock ups!
      Take care, Steve.

  4. Hi Steve - I used to worry about getting stuff wrong but I don't any more. I see it as one of the 'hazards' of bird-finding. I do it all the time. It's the birders out there looking that put their necks on the block - not those twitching the birds. I got too cocky after finding the American Herring Gull in 2009 and went on to f**k up gull after gull after gull. A necessarily humbling experience! Totally agree you should always admit to mistakes and move on. All part of the fun! Cheers. Matt

    1. Hi Matt, great comment and thanks for taking the time to write it. Forever learning when it comes to larids without a doubt! All the best, Steve.

  5. Hi Steve - shout first, ask questions later has always been my approach when birding with others. You have more time when on your own so can be more considered but then the questions are even more important.

    Using this approach I've made plenty of mistakes but fortunately few have got beyond questioning - a 'Citrine' Wag on Scilly sticks in the mind & there are a couple of Ring-billed Gulls that no longer make the grade. I also remember being happy with at least one of Matt's f**k ups, which just shows you shouldn't only question your 'own' birds! ;-)

    Cheers Kev

    1. Hi Kev. Completely with you on the 'shout first' approach, and the question others' birds. Anything I twitch now (pretty much always on patch!) I run through the ID points on the bird as though I had found it, whatever the species (however rare/common straightforward/tricky). It's a good habit to get in to. Many thanks for the comment, best wishes, Steve.

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  7. Great post, Steve. Makes me feel so much better! I make a few howlers, but the one that springs to mind was when I called seven Goosander on my local Surrey patch (very rare for the patch), and put the word out, when in fact they were Shelduck (not that rare for the patch). They were quite distant though!

    I've been present when more experienced birders than myself claim birds that I just don't agree with. At Thursley Common once someone announced a sighting as a female Hen Harrier, when it looked clearly to me like a Common Buzzard. And at Spurn about three years ago a local, very experienced birder claimed a Sabine's Gull - it went past the seawatching hide very swiftly – when a friend of mine who was also present only saw a Little Gull.

    It would be interesting to work out how many rare sightings are, in fact, errors in any given year...

    1. Hi 'Factor' great to read your comment, a great comment it is too thanks for taking the time to write it. It always pays to re-ID birds that have already been 'IDd' in my opinion, it's just a good attitude to have. Take care and all the best, Steve.