My decent(ish) finds in Feb 2012: 1 Yellow-browed Warbler Carnon Downs 04/02, 1 Water Pipit Carnon Downs 04/02, 1 Smew Loe Pool 01/02

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Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Sour grapes or field craft?

Before I start, I should probably make it clear that the following is undoubtedly the former, as I haven’t got round to buying a decent lens for my camera. Stay with me take on one of the prevailing arguments in birding:

Birders these days, exercise their hobby in an era of digipics and instant news. Sometimes I wonder what it must have been like back in day when, if you found a rare bird, the best you could do to get the news out would be to sprint to a phonebox and call a few birding mates, who would probably be out birding anyway. If you wanted to silence the sceptics, you had to hope that news filtered out and that the bird would stick around for fellow birders to see it. If you lived on Lewis, that probably meant about six months later. The only real way to get around that problem was to get pretty handy at taking field notes. Well, you could blast the bird in question out of the sky or bush, but for some reason, that became unfashionable about the turn of the century. These days though, nobody seems to bother with notes. One call to RBA or Birdguides and the pagering masses arrive and digi-snap and the entire country can see your bird, so why bother? Why indeed? The human brain is more subjective than the camera lens, and more prone to error.

I suppose there isn’t a need really, but I can’t help wondering if birders are losing some of their field craft and not looking at birds as closely as in the good old days. I wonder how many modern-era birders could actually sit down and accurately describe the entire plumage of a Blue Tit? OK – doesn’t really matter – easy to ID, but what about a Gropper? They’re pretty common down this way, but in all honesty, I haven’t attempted to track-down that many reels to their source and bar the classic diagnostic features, how well-equipped would I actually be to deal with a Lancy or a PG tips in the field? I find that drawing a bird and taking notes helps we look at birds more closely, which brings me on to the real reason for this post:

Yesterday afternoon, after a good thrash of the Lizard, I stumbled across an Ortolan. Almost certainly the one seen previously about a mile or so away, but nevertheless, the incident had that element of surprise that one normally associates with finds. It was a very obliging bird indeed, sitting out in the open for long periods, permitting close scrutiny, even though when it did to decide to fly it didn't like returning to the same place. A great bird to enjoy out in the sunshine on my own and so much better than twitching one at Cley. I could have got a mediocre digipic through by bins with my phone, but to be honest I really didn’t see the point. Even an Ivory-billed Woodpecker researcher could have put it to shame and much better ones already existed. It did offer a really good opportunity to get back to ye good olde days of taking field notes though. I’ve attached my best efforts with the view that, even if a bit grubby, public airing of laundry isn’t entirely bad.


  1. bloody good sketch mate, congrats on your Corn Bunting ; - ) - no seriously keep it going, its a dying trend and i say bring back the good olde days - i don't even own a mobile phone at the moment!

  2. Cheers mate - Corn Bunting much rarer than Ortolan on the Lizard, so would have been quite happy with that.

    Been much in Naarfolk?

  3. A better effort than all but my very best field sketches, Ilya, and even those would only just about draw level with your drawing.
    I agree completely, drawing a bird forces one to critically examine it in a manner which aids the learning process immensely...I find I retain detail which I note on a given bird a lot more effectively than that which I read from the literature. Sure, the human eye is a lot more subjective than a camera's precision, and the vocabulary used to describe what one sees can lead to even more uncertainty to anyone reading a description, but, as you say, with most birds these days, the 'big lens brigade' will come along anyway, to sort out any images that need taking, so someone may as well take some notes as well. Taking notes on birds that are never going to attract a twitch is also something to be recommended, noting, say, age and the extent of moult on large gulls forces one to look really hard at these birds, which then leads to greater familiarity, greater retention of detail, and a greater chance of noticing when something is sufficiently different, at a later date, to possibly be something rare.

  4. Thanks Harry - seems like we agree. Just wonder if the Brown(ish) Shrike might ut pay to my theory though....

  5. I'd just like to echo what Harry said about drawing birds in the field. I used to constantly draw at one time and it's something I do little of now but must get back into the habit of. I rarely see anything these days that requires extensive field notes to get it accepted by BBRC and probably wouldn't submit it anyway but it taught me so much about birds that I would never have learned any other way. I used to do all my birding in the Lizard and Falmouth areas at one time I now bird only in St Ives and don't twitch at all, except the Snowy owl if you can call that twitching.


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