Monday, 3 April 2017

A Troubling Tern

I've blogged before about the UK Bird ID thread on Facebook, but let me tell you of a tale that unfolded a couple of weeks ago.

It all started when Marc Millman posted "ID on this Tern please.. Today.. Devon" with this photo...

(c) Marc Millman

I had a look at it and promptly posted my reply, which basically said that it looked like a Sandwich Tern to me, and exactly how I came to that conclusion. I always think it's helpful to give reasons behind ID'ing a bird, this can be very valuable for the person who has asked for the ID.

By the time I had posted, one comment had already appeared which was a vote for Common Tern. But following my post there were a flurry of pro-Sandwich Tern comments. All of a sudden though the tide changed, dramatically, with numerous Common Tern votes flooding in. Further blows came when most of the previous Sandwich Tern voters changed their opinion and went to the Common Tern camp - leaving just me and one other flying the Sandwich Tern flag.

When there is such a strong shift in opinion, it's normally for the right reason. And to be honest without looking at the photo any more I presumed I'd got it wrong. ID'ing a bird from a photo should be easy, but so often it really isn't. There are so many factors that can make a single photo of a lone bird look a bit weird, for example the light, the angle of the bird, the camera settings, etc. I think us birders don't always realise just how much the general 'jizz' of a bird that we see in the field enables us to identify it to a species, without even really thinking about it or looking at the finer details.

Anyway, back to the thread, and then came a post that changed it for me. Having accepted that I had wrongly ID'd it, this comment then appeared from someone who I don't know, but do know is an excellent and well respected birder. It simply read...

"Quite worrying that people can identify this as a Sandwich Tern"

I won't lie. This got my back up. Big time.  Everyone who helps on this Bird ID thread regularly will make a mistake, that's part and parcel of always chipping in and offering your thoughts. As I said, even the simplest of species aren't always as simple as they should be to ID from a single photo. But this guy clearly doesn't ever make a mistake, or accept that others can. He was obviously also genuinely worried that people are misidentifying Sandwich Terns all over the country.

I decided I had to reply, so first things first I had another look at the photo. This did not change my opinion though, for me it was STILL a Sandwich Tern. So I decided to send a few emails and do a bit of digging.  Mike Langman emailed me back about half a day later with some absolute gold dust, a link to another photo on Facebook. It was a photo of the very same Tern, taken by a man stood right next to Marc Millman, and taken at exactly the same time. All these points were soon confirmed by both Marc and the other photographer, Nigel Street. And here is Nigel's photo of that very same Tern...

(c) Nigel Street Photography

Oh look at that, it's a Sandwich Tern.  

Do I care that so many people thought it was a Common Tern? No not one bit, couldn't give a flying fluff.

Do I care that I got it right? No not really, makes no odds to me. I will always continue to try and help out others asking for a bird ID.

What I do care is that "Quite worrying that people can identify this as a Sandwich Tern" was wrong. Well and truly wrong. Me and the other original Sandwich Tern voter had some fun with this comment I can tell you. Funnily enough he didn't post again...

I also found it really amusing how after I shared Nigel's photo the 'fence-sitters' then appeared and posted in their droves, saying things like "clearly a Sandwich Tern", "always thought this was a Sandwich Tern", "could never have been anything other than a Sandwich Tern", etc etc...

All good fun! Well it should be anyway...


  1. Nice one Steve! A good read too.

    1. Thanks Mike, and thanks for the big break through! Take care, Steve.

  2. Highlights the dangerous side of "not so" social media unfortunately Steve. Well done for sticking to your guns.

    1. Cheers Chris! I always like to see the positive in things - I am a fan of social media, I think it can be a great tool... if used by the right people the right way.

  3. Sigh! I don't ever dare to speak up in the company of experienced birders anymore as I am a relative newbie (7 years) to the birding world. Why can't people be more tolerant? An excellent blog there Steve, it did make me chuckle a bit

    1. Thanks for your comment Steph. I really don't know what the problem is, but sadly we all know 'grumpy birds' are out there. Have to say though I have noticed a bit of a shift in things, more and more of us are very welcoming and friendly. Especially over here on the Axe :-)

  4. I have to say Steve - You are one of the most positive birders that I know and everyone should take a leaf out of your book!😀

    1. Haha. Spend some time with me just after I've missed a patch lifer - you may change your mind!! :-)