One from the archives… this stunning spoonbill was at Old Moor in June 2008. For once I was actually on-site when something rare arrived, and got good views of this amazing bird. I’ve not seen one since, and would love to catch up with another before too long.

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Dealing with rejection…

Pectoral Sandpiper - Lower Rio Grande Valley_H8O5207-71

(Not my photo… would have been a lot easier if it was! See credit below at bottom of page).

Well, my pectoral sandpiper report from Saturday has been mulled over and rejected based on lack of evidence. While you always dream of finding your own rarities, I’ve always also dreaded doing so as you’ve then got the hard work of persuading others you’ve seen what you’ve seen.

This post is no disrespect to anyone involved in the process of assessing the report. Reports have to be assessed fairly and on the evidence given, and hard-lines should be taken when there’s lack of evidence. A bird report is meaningless if you include any old report from any Tom, Dick or Harry without question.

The report I sent in had many problems. Firstly it came from my co-finders and I, unknown birders for the area with no track record in ID skills. Secondly no-one refound the bird at any point further down the coast. No photo was taken. And finally… well I’ll put my hand up and say the report probably wasn’t the best.

The notes we took were hasty. The bird was about to be flushed by some playing children, and we were sharing a scope to view it, so had to take turns to see it in detail. We jotted down a host of features that were pro-pec (such as the chest pattern, bill-shape, leg colour, supercilium, lack of obvious wing bar in flight) but failed to note certain other clinchers (bill colour, back pattern, primary projection). And while we tried hard but failed to turn it into something more common and likely such as wood sand, curlew sand, ruff or dunlin, I fully appreciate we may not be able to fully convey this to the relevant authorities.

We were also very careful in what information we sent in, and that it was what we noted in the field rather than “remembered” after looking in the field guides. For example I’m almost sure the bird had a partially pale bill… but as I didn’t note this at the time, I cannot be certain it’s not my brain filling in the blanks afterwards.

It’s been a slightly disheartening experience, but also one to learn from. If you find a probable rarity I would recommend the following, some stages of which we missed.

  • Call over any passing birders and get them on to it immediately to back up your claim.
  • Note down everything you can see about the bird, whether you think it’s relevant or not at the time, because it’s quite likely you don’t know all the salient features off by heart.
  • Make field sketches of the main features.
  • Always presume it’s something common first, even if you suspect it’s a rarity, and work through why it isn’t each confusion species. Make sure you have a good knowledge of the salient features of all common species you’re likely to see. You may be confident in telling common species apart, but how are you at the differences between common species and closely related vagrants?
  • Do not look in a field guide until you have written down your notes, so your brain doesn’t fill in any blanks with the illustrations.
  • Try and get a photo, however poor.
  • Always be honest in your report. If you’re only 90% sure say so. Don’t add in features you didn’t record in the field and have copied from field guides just to make it more plausible.
  • If you’re really not sure, you don’t have to report it at all. Put it down as one of those question marks in your note book. You’ll have a lot of these over your years as a birder.

I’ve often realised my note-taking skills aren’t the best, and this encounter has spurred me on to improve them. Hopefully next time I find a rarity I’ll be a bit better equipped!

And finally don’t take rejection to heart. It’s not personal, and you have to appreciate recorders have to be very strongly persuaded, especially from people they do not know, otherwise bird reports are in danger of becoming a collection of spurious claims with no rigorous editing, rendering them useless as sources of information. You still know what you’ve seen, have a cracking bird for your personal list, and just work harder on your notes next time… that’s what I’m going to do!

Photo credit – By Francesco Veronesi used under the Creative Commons licence (See here).

Pec Sand!

Today I had my first trip of the autumn to the Spurn area, spending the day doing laps of the Triangle. Due to the westerly winds I wasn’t expecting miracles, and we had a fairly uneventful morning, although we did have a brief view of a barred warbler in flight by the Canal. Plenty of whinchats, yellow wags and wheatears around, and one of my birding posse got a probable female redstart, plus I got whimbrel for the year list among the many waders present. Sadly the reported firecrest was nowehere to be seen, and as expected it wasn’t the rarity frenzy we were originally hoping for!

However our luck changed considerably at lunchtime… we sat on the edge of the path by the stretch of beach by the Blue Bell cafe car park, looking out to sea while we ate our sarnis, my scope half-arsedly set up by my side. While we were munching away we saw a long-winged wader, without obvious wing markings, fly down the sea from the N, veering inland landing on the large flat piece of sea defence opposite.

We quickly scoped it, realising it was something out of the ordinary, and we saw a small, but tall-looking, bird with a distinct beige-coloured supercilium, yellowish legs, a straight bill with a slight curve at the end, a long-necked, alert posture (recalling a cross between redshank and ruff), and (most tellingly) a chest pattern of vertical streaks with a distinct cut-off, tapering into a central point, contrasting with a plain, pale belly and flanks.

I recognised it as a pectoral sandpiper, a species I’d watched at Wombwell Ings last autumn, but we carefully ruled out all confusion species first (including sharp-tailed sand!), before being 100% sure we actually had a pec. We scribbled down the notes above quickly, as there were some children playing very close to it ready to flush it any moment, but it gave us a good two minutes to scruitinise it before it buggered off down the coast towards The Point.

Looking on Birdguides there was a pec sandpiper in Northumberland over the last week or so, that hasn’t been seen since Thursday, which may be our bird here moving down the coast (we didn’t know this when we saw it).

Afterwards we had a quick trip to Patrington Haven, where we added grey plover and marsh harrier to the day’s tally, but sadly couldn’t make out any curlew sands among the distant dots of the waders.

Badgers

Badger-Female

A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to have nightly visits from badgers in my garden. We have a plum tree in our garden, which starts dropping its fruity bounty around this time of year, and every night a badger was snuffling around the garden, doing a very efficient job of cleaning up. Leaving a trail of peanuts eventually lured it to the French windows, where it would snuffle so close it left marks on the glass, oblivious to watchers on the other side due to its poor eyesight.

Sadly these forays into more urban areas took its toll, and we eventually found two badgers dead by the side of the road, obviously the victims of vehicles. Last year we didn’t see a badger all year, and without our garden cleaner (and something of an apathetic attitude to gardening from us!) the plum pile mounted up, and our laziness punished with a vertiable plague of wasps that were attracted to the rotting fruit and made the garden a no-go zone during daylight hours!

Wasps!

Last week we were lucky enough to see a badger dart across the road (and yes, they do move faster than their dumpy looks suggest…) a short distance away from the house. I’ll be keeping my eyes on the garden in case we’ve finally got one of these very handy, and very beautiful, plum-hoovers back!

Badger photo credit – Stan Marston, used under the Creative Commons Licence (See here)