Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The plight of the solitary patcher...

Sixth Sense (1999) Bruce Willis is sitting by the bedside of Haley Joel Osment.

HJO - “I wanna tell you my secret now...”

BW – “OK.”

HJO – “I see dead people.”


I see dead birds...

There. I’ve said it. And I don’t mean road kill. No, I see birds... that other people don’t see...

Now you’d be forgiven for thinking, for the love of God cut that lunatic’s mushroom ration (!) but I’m not talking about ghosts of birds past. I’m talking about ghosts of birds present. Birds that I see. Birds who’s whereabouts I text to fellow patchers. Birds that are not there when said fellow patchers arrive. Tick Phantoms! Now if it was me being haunted by these ghouls, I’d begin to doubt the veracity of some of those sightings. Wouldn’t you? I have mixed emotions about this, but have accepted its inevitability, because for me, patching is predominantly a solitary pastime – the Yin to my metal Yang, ho, ho \m/ As a result of this self-imposed hermitude I’m resigned to coming across stuff that, with the best will in the world, others will miss. Now short of staking everything to the ground until the cavalry arrive, there’s not a whole lot I can do about it – so why the fuss? Well, firstly because I’ve seen more than a few fallings out and one or two feuds that have come about as a result of birds being 'missed' - ah, the fragility of the birder ego. Secondly, because it’s symptomatic a wider issue; namely the acceptance or rejection of county and national records.

Q – When is a Great White Egret NOT a Great White Egret?

A – When it’s seen by a solitary patcher.

Now you can substitute your own species in there if you like, patch year tick or mega, it doesn’t matter - you’re up against the same problem. Doesn’t matter how ‘unmistakeable’ the bird is, if you’re a solitary patcher, you’re up against it if you’re to make that patch tick stick in the eyes of the birding world.

To succeed, you’ll need one or more of the following:

(1) A fellow patcher who is not working shifts and lives close enough to get their ass down to the patch quick enough to confirm your sighting.

(2) A good photo

(3) A good description

My own first choice is always a fellow patcher. That’s because (a) there’s a certain amount of good natured quid pro quo amongst Moore patchers and (b) most of what I come across are not national rarities but patch birds and so are unlikely to be of interest to anybody other than locals. It’s important to understand, however, that the principles here are exactly the same as they would be if you were submitting a record of a Temminck’s Stint to the County Recorder or a Semi-palmated Sandpiper to the BBRC...

Somebody at some point will need convincing that what you saw... was indeed what you saw!

Now fortunately, some of the time, Moore birds hang around long enough for patchers to get on them, but UNfortunately, a lot of the time, they don’t. This year I’ve put various fellow patchers onto a variety of patch birds (and vice versa) only for them to be left chasing a phantom tick and me feeling a little guilty about wasting their time. It’s a shame too, because you should never underestimate the power of a pair of patchers (plural) relative to the lone stalwart when it comes to convincing the unconvinced about a bird. Let me give you an example.

I used to live in Scotland and one year during the 80s (I forget which), I submitted TWO records to BBRC: Alpine Swift and Greenish Warbler. Now given that I wasn’t carrying around a fast shutter camera with a stonking great lens on the end (nor do I now!) the chances of getting a definitive snap was precisely zero. That left only the dreaded ‘description’. I was REALLY crap at these then... I’m pretty crap at them now tbh (or lazy maybe) and so neither of the two descriptions I submitted, were up to much. Despite this, one of the records was accepted! The reason, I’m convinced is that TWO people (me and my mate...Derek - Oi Oi Derek if yer out there) saw the Greenish Warbler and only ONE (me), saw the Alpine Swift. You’d have thunk it was pretty well impossible for the Alpine NOT to be accepted wouldn’t you? I mean how bad does a description have to be?? But oh no! Epic fail on the Alpine - result on the Greenish. Or to put it another way, Solitary Patcher 0 – Pair of Patchers 1.

My solitary powers of description failed me again somewhat more recently. Well maybe not THAT recently, but certainly locally. I was coming home from work on the train and going over the Runcorn Bridge when what should I see on the mud below but a Great White Egret – happy days! I’d seen Grey Herons in the same spot practically every commute, so had no problem with judging its size and promptly posted it up. As this was a County Rarity (and possibly still at that point a BBRC one), I was asked for a description. To say I am embarrassed by the one I sent in is probably an understatement, but where do you start with a GWE? It’s white – all over ffs! Sure I got some colour on the bill and the bird’s size, but as I was looking down on it, nothing on leg colour which I presume was the clincher – or rather proved NOT to be the clincher as it didn’t rule out Little Egret, and size, as we all know, can be difficult to judge. Or maybe the committee were thinking albino heron – I have no idea. SO, my GWE wasn’t accepted. SO, it does not appear anywhere on the county books. SO, it was officially never there. Except that it WAS there, because I saw it. What’s more it could so easily have ‘been there’ officially too, had my description been a bit better. HOWEVER *sits cross-legged and hums* whether I submitted a cracking description (which I certainly didn't) or a crap one (which I certainly did) - nothing changes the fact that there was a Great White Egret haunting the the River Mersey that day. Whether I submitted the record at all (!) or not would not change the fact that the bird was there. Simply reporting a bird neither confirms nor negates its existence. 

The Great White Egret still stands on the mud. (As Mr Yamaguchi might say)

Or, to put it another way,

Absence of proof, is not proof of absence.

So what IS the solitary patcher to do when faced with a positive ID but no confirmation from fellow patchers and bugger all by way of notes? To make a legal analogy - you know the bastard is guilty but don’t have enough evidence to send him down. How might justice be best served? Consider the following...

TEST– how quickly can you recognise a female Chaffinch? A fraction of a second, right? How long would it take you to write a description of one from memory that was good enough for somebody to categorically identify it AS a female Chaffinch from your description? A little longer I suspect. I don’t think I could do it at all off the top of my head tbh – not categorically. And just what is it that you would be describing anyway? The mental image in your head of A Chaffinch or THE actual ‘Chaffinch’ you saw for that split second. Now imagine that what you saw was not a Chaffinch, but a small American vagrant – one of the Sparrows or Warblers that you recognised from your visit to New York and one which lots of people might find very interesting indeed. Yep...there it is... page 365 in Collins... White-throated Sparrow... Shit! It’s flown!!! NOW what are you going do? Tricky business, descriptions...

Well you COULD simply describe the identifying features the bird SHOULD have (books are great, aren't they) rather than the features it DOES have which you couldn’t get down because you either didn’t see it for long enough, OR, the light was too poor, OR, it was miles away. In other words... you could create a retrospective description. Of course, nobody would dare do that would they?

OR, you could... Post it up. Submit a ‘quality’ description along the lines of – ‘small sparrow with grey plumage and some black, white and yellow on its head’. Get it rejected and say...

Thanks for that, but it’s MY patch list. I know what I saw, your approval isn’t necessary - I’m having it!!!”

Happy Days :-)

PS Good Will Hunting (1997)

Matt Damon: How d'ya like THEM apples?   ;)


  1. right,so are we claiming a; Great White or b;white throat Spadger?

    and what has Mr.Yamaha got to do with it?

    If its 'a' check out my post 'UFO in Runcorn?' on 'BirdForums'and cross reference date...

    cheers and keep away from what DR TK McKenna would call 'a reasonable amount'

  2. LOL Mr Y was an obscure nod in the direction of Zen ;)

    GWE yes, absolutely :) WTS Nooooo! It was just 'an example'. Only one I've seen over here was the one in Richard Smith's garden back in... 200?

    No idea what yer UFO was... but I doubt it was the ghost of my GWE - that was a good few years earlier :)