Wednesday, 5 March 2014

The case for mistakes - an ultimate birding badge of honour

Let me begin this post with a story, if I may indulge my whimsy. It was October 2012, and I was wandering around my patch on a gorgeous autumnal day. The kind where flocks 
of finches fill the sky, there’s a Chiffchaff in every bush, and Skylarks dance out from 
beneath your feet as you walk along the grassy verges. The best kind of days in my 
opinion. If Keats were a birder he would surely approve, it’s as romantic as the hobby ever gets. However, this day was blackened for me for some time, and I still shudder to think of the one that got away.

A flock of five hirundines nonchalantly swooped across one of the grazing fields on Seaford Head, and, seeing as it was a day that had that ‘rarity feel’ in the air, I duly raised my binoculars. I was treated to something clearly out-of-the-ordinary. A pale rump, but long streamers like a Swallow, and a certain type of clipped wingbeat, which I was very familiar with, having seen 100s of them only a month previously in Bulgaria. I was sure this had to be a Red-rumped Swallow!

However, being an arse and a panicker, I let that peculiar drunkenness of finding a rarity swoop over me before I could see other details on this bird. The panic was so instantaneous, the self-conscious realisation of the gravity of the find (it would have been my joint rarest alongside a Cattle Egret from a few years back), meant that my brain froze. If my eyes were seeing any other features, they certainly weren't processing them back into my Cerebral Cortex! Such is the pure elation of finding a rarity, but in this case it was a poisoned chalice. I failed to see a single other feature of the bird in question, not the pale collar on the nape, nor the black vent. The early morning sunlight was so strong that I hadn't even determined if the rump was orange, or just the trick of a panicked imagination.

Still, I wasn't sure what else it could have been, I knew I hadn't seen a Swallow or a House Martin, so I put news around. I was congratulated by many for my sighting, and once things had calmed down again, I got into the business of writing a description. And here was where my hopes for the record fell flat on their head. What I had, in terms of a description, were;
  • hirundine with pale rump, strong back-lighting meant it was difficult to really tell if it was orange or not
  • had very long outer tail feathers, a la Swallow
  • clipped wingbeats, strongly reminiscent of a Red-rumped Swallow…

You don't have to be on a committee to know that's not going to cut the mustard.

On the balance of probability, I still think that bird was a red-rumper. Seven had been seen on Guernsey only a week before, a record-breaking flock for October. But the fact is, it never showed its underparts, it was in poor light, and the poor old fool looking at it was too busy, palpitating like a hummingbird on cocaine, to really focus on what he was seeing. I knew from experience that Records Committees are, quite rightly, rather hard to impress. This would not stand up to their scrutiny. So with my tail between my legs, I scuttled on to the SOS sightings board and formally posted a retraction, attempting to explain the reasoning behind my doubting a sighting of what is, to be honest, a rather straightforward ID in most circumstances.

I actually got some credit for admitting my mistake, which was rather heartening. But I still felt a knot in my stomach every time I remembered that Swallow. It haunted me for months. This is probably an extreme example of a monumental cock-up, but now, hopefully most of you young, up-and-coming birders of the new day will have your own mistakes put into perspective! And make no mistake, we all make mistakes in this game.

But that's not a bad thing, it's a brilliant thing. All the best birders have got to where they are by trial and error, by making countless cock-ups, before stumbling into something approaching knowledge of their subject.If you never made mistakes, you'd never learn. Ipso facto, the more mistakes you make, the more of an expert you become (though some of us will always remain the exception to the rule!).

If you're reading this, and you're a young birder, you probably know that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. I sympathise with all my heart, as it's much harder to cope with when you're young, unproven and eager to impress. Once you leave your pimples behind, and adolescent angst starts to ease, it's easier to pass it off with a shrug of the shoulders. You start to realise all the best birders make them. But I remember how anxious I could get when I was 15 or 16, and the possibility I'd got an identification wrong would raise its ugly head.

But, my advice (whether you want to take the advice of someone who's never seen a Willow Tit is your call), is to embrace your mistakes whole-heartedly. Some birders class another's ability by the birds they've found, the size of their list, the number of Birdforum threads they've commented on... All admirable pursuits I'm sure, but for me, the ultimate judge of knowledge, and most importantly, character, is the number of times you've been wrong, and admitted it. Once you've made that high-profile howler once, you'll never make it again. I can now honestly say that I'm pretty well-versed in Red-rumped Swallow ID! Mistakes should be worn like badges of honour or battle scars, a symbol that you're wiser now than you once were.

Always put news out, if you're in a position where it's feasible to do so. Don’t worry if you initially got it wrong, other birders would far prefer to chase to after the occasional red herring than to hear news of a genuine mega that eluded their grasp. And while you might feel a bit of humiliation if you've gone wrong, it’s far better than the guilt of seeing something genuinely exciting, and lacking the confidence to phone it out. And what should you do if another birder, presumably forgetting their own unholy omissions as they cut their teeth, should berate you for an honest mistake?

Simply remind them that Garner, Shirihai, Grant, Hunt, Sibley, Kaufmann, Pyle, Snetsinger and every other notable, well-loved figure all started out as exactly what you are now. An eager, enthusiastic young birder.

After you've kicked the offensive offender as hard as you can in the Bushnells, of course.

-Liam Curson
Liam fancies himself as a jack of all trades when it comes to nature, but his longest and most dedicated fascination is with the Order Aves. He's based in East Sussex, but also loves travelling to other countries when he can. His favourite bird is the Wallcreeper. He likes patching and seawatching, and spends his summer months delving into the murky waters of entomology.

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