This blog has been rolling along for a while now with no politics/soap opera antics - thank God! But maybe, just maybe, I am about to commit an act of ornithological slander!?
Flashback to yesterday. Tempted by the prospect of more spoonage - and guilty of doing very little seawatching last year, I headed back to Cricieth. A couple of friendly guys from Wolverhampton (who seemed to know what they were looking at) had been present since 0800 hrs and left shortly after Rhys, Eddie and I arrived at 1230 hrs. They'd had around 25 Poms in the morning and we systematically counted (1235-1535 hrs) at least 35 POMARINE', 3 GREAT' & 3 ARCTIC SKUAS, 2 WHIMBREL, 7 RED-THROATED DIVER plus a few hundred Manxies, Kittiwakes and terns feasting offshore on sandeels etc in a classic Multi-Species Feeding Association as it's known in marine ornithology. A good proportion of the Kittiwakes were 2nd calendar year birds and continuing the immature theme were one or two 2cy Med' Gulls and a 2cy Lesser Black-backed. Many of the Poms were loafing then getting up and heading west out past the promenade again - including a fabulous group of 18 birds at a very respectable distance. The majority were pale-phase adults with a few intermediates, dark morphs and sub-adults. A very nice mixture.
Anyway, I get home to find Birdguides reporting 65 Poms and TWENTY BLOODY SEVEN LONG-TAILED SKUAS! Funnily enough, there have been only a handful of Long-tailed reports so far this year via the 'information services'. If you trust everything reported by them - but that's another story!
It did seem somewhat incredible and got me thinking about the vagaries
of identifying birds when seawatching. It really wouldn't surprise me if
the observer(s) were mistaken... those distant Poms can look like they have really, er,
Please don't anyone take this the wrong way. I must stress that I was not there, have never stared into the salty abyss with
the observer(s) concerned and am really and truly not trying to disrespect anyone -
just attempting to process the report in a rational way, assume that a
mistake has been made and hope I haven't been thoroughly gripped off! Maybe a magnificent set of photographs will appear, I will be proved wrong and feast on humble pie once more :-D
But an opportunity has arisen to air some thoughts and seeing as I am in controversial mode and heading down that slippery slope anyway... I may as well attempt to get a few things off my chest and grasp the end of a ball of string that has possibly tied up some of our seabird records for a long time?
Essentially, I have serious doubts about the historical reports of a couple of pelagic birds in particular in Welsh waters. I'll start with the species above. Off the west coast of Ireland and in the North Sea, longicaudus are passage migrants, especially in autumn. Off the Western Isles the spring passage is well known. However, I really believe that most of the reports of immatures in autumn in North Wales are probably just Arctics. This is based on a sample of thousands of hours of seawatching by a small group of trusted friends who don't see them very often!
The other thing that bugged me for many years was Sabine's Gull. Again, lots of time getting battered in the sea breeze by birders I know and trust has resulted in a mere handful of records, while at other sites, especially a particularly famous watch point in Pembrokeshire they are apparently regular. On visiting Strumble Head a few years ago with a crack team from the north I was shocked to witness one of the regular guard there misidentify a Kittiwake as a Sabine's at close range! This got me wondering how many more erroneous reports there might have been of this species from there over the years and, realising that I might not be missing too many of them after all I was relieved and disappointed in equal measure!
I repeat in all honesty, that I am not trying to slander anyone. I know about making mistakes, having made hundreds over the years but I am slowly improving and appreciate any help I can get. Casting our egos aside for a minute one comes to realise that mis-identifications are absolutely crucial steps up the ID mountain. They are how we all learn as birders - especially by sharing our thoughts and experiences with our fellow devotees.
Because when we get to do The Real Thing, having departed from the comfy sofa and neat illustrations on crisp field guide pages to mountainous waves, things can get weird, really weird! There are so many factors to bear in mind: distant birds, species out of
their usual habitat, crap light, salt sprayed optics, brief views, no
size comparisons, rolling seas... never mind the terrible directions (over the wave!) and sensory deprivation.
So here I am, baring my soul and confessing that I still sometimes have problems with the following maritime identification mysteries 30 years down the line; small skuas - especially distant immatures - regularly give me grief, distant divers often trouble me, I can't always separate Razorbills and Guillemots at range, commic terns can be a bloody nightmare, pale Balearics are a pain sometimes and those little flocks of waders buzzing past at Mach speed are a complete bugger. Right, I feel better now after my confession and would appreciate any help with my afflictions!
Admittedly, things are improving these days with regard to ID
resources. There are some great resources on the web. The pioneering Scilly Pelagics team are in the process of producing a
series of multimedia guides that sound great (although I've not picked any
of them up yet).
There is one particular writer who I have long admired. Like a poet/singer describing elements of the human condition that resonate on a deep level with your own experiences Anthony McGeehan can magically describe elements of a bird's appearance that you have never been able to put into words. He is fantastic at both transmitting the feel for seawatching with the subtle ID tips required to separate some of the key species. And his other birding work is brilliant - inspiring, thoughtful and humorous! Anyone remember his brilliant articles in Birdwatch magazine? Fortunately the amazing Sound Approach team have published a great anthology of his work in 'Birding from the Hip'.
Publications like 'Flight Identification of European Seabirds' are also worth picking up (despite the odd blueish tinge to some photos in the first edition). The cutting edge work of Peter Harrison has developed beyond our 80's dreams.
I vividly remember when visiting the coast as a youthful land-locked
birdspotter from Sheffield being completely and utterly baffled by the
distant shapes darting over the horizon. I used to hate the sometimes
boring discomfort of staring out to sea and simply saw it as a means to year tick a few
specialist species but, having wrapped up better and experienced the Zen of Seawatching now have fond memories of many sessions over the
years. Four hours
into a freezing September session at Ysgaden,
with the wind rattling your tripod and thoughts turning to big steaming
mugs of Earl Grey and Chocolate cake... a
tiny Leach's Petrel from distant shores flips over the swell and dances
along the wave crest. This magic is what it's all about!
Sincere thanks to my personal seawatching guru, Rhys Jones. The only man this side of the Irish Sea who can pick up a Sooty clearing customs in Dublin. I would probably still be watching woodland birds without your advice and encouragement over the years. Cheers mate - we will get a local Fea's one day!