I have never been much into listing except in my annual patch reports to county recorders. Nowadays I struggle to recall my species scores from times and places past. Given travels in three continents, I am probably well past 2,000 lifers, but my British list is well below the current 'par for the course'.
I assign my poor home performance partly to having never lost the truly relaxed attitude to others' finds of the late 1940s. Then, rarities were so unusual that their occasional announcements evoked little or no envy. "Gosh, how nice – lucky you!" we would say, and then plod on in the hope of, say, a Greenshank or in my case a 'Lap Bunt' to leaven early study of bird behaviour.
I suspect that the greater general attention to listing was prompted by the Peterson field guides. From 1954, the European guide's introduction culminated in a systematic checklist which directly invited ticks (and in my serial copies also pregnant question marks). Few will have resisted their placements and sum.
A precious patch tick of Type 2: Pallid Harrier, Holme-on-Spalding-Moor, East Yorkshire, 11 February 1979. My winter, Common Kestrel-mobbed bird was too rich for the British Birds Rarities Committee, but Roger Clarke, late doyen of harrier ID, spotted its correctly long legs instantly. Painting from original field sketches, exhibited at the SWLA exhibition in 2005 (DIM Wallace).
My earliest memory of overt public comparison of list lengths came much later, though. In October 1971, a really wet day confined Bernard King and the other St Mary's regulars to a pub, wherein they somehow assessed the scores of leading observers known to them. Hence Bernard's admonishment of me the next day for having "wasted" my last three years in Nigeria and so "gifted" my prior lead (at 360 species) to Ron Johns (with several more than that number, and still counting!). Struggling painfully on St Agnes with a Booted Warbler that had become a netted Western Bonelli's Warbler, I was unmoved by the loss of an unclaimed trophy!
Later in the 1970s, the rise of the listing syndrome and soon allied competitive twitching came increasingly to the fore. The Twitching / Birding World caucus and their associates were dominant in the popular reporting of rarities and their human consumers. With few regrets, I soon went 'off watch' in order to avoid bursts of flak for alleged, never proved stringing and to concentrate on writing the text for BWP's Field Characters sections. I note, however, my sadness at the non-passing on of the two above-noted mantles of alternative 'rarity speak', 'list contents' and contingent 'intriguing crack'.
Spurred at least mentally in the new millennium by an official British list rapidly approaching half as much again as that in the Witherby Handbook (Vol IV, 1941), I still struggle to discipline my personal version with currently expected zeal. Hence I am stuck with a 'core' list of certain fully vetted ticks and a delicious mish-mash of first also to me certain but either rejected or unsubmitted claims and second other tantalising potential identifications.
Today I find most recreation in the latest work-in-progress group of files, particularly when new relevant ID features are published for the subject species. These prompt careful reviews of my original notes and sketches and resultant revisions into three long-established and one new, irritating types:
- All confusion species seemingly eliminated but no hope of a match to clinching character or behavioural signal – sadly, bin and RIP.
- Clinching character or behavioural signal at last established and matched – whoopee, tick!
- No certain advance to specific identity but still worth continuing retrospective attention – so, wait on.
- Recent laboratory-led genetic systematics are bewildering and counter-intuitive; whatever happened to subspecies? – [expletive deleted] fume!
Messy, ridiculous? Well, maybe, but my reviews also drive my thoughts on related avian and ornithological issues. And lately a refocused, enjoyable search for the specific signals used by the birds themselves, though leaving their voices to the blessed Sound Approach team of exemplary adventure.
The Sound Approach team’s exemplary exploration of voice continues. Where, however, are their rivals in ongoing signal search? Here, Arnoud B van den Berg can be seen sound recording storm petrels at night (Rene Pop / www.soundapproach.co.uk).
To my mind and after 75 years of trying to match them, avian definitions of specific identity may well ignore minutiae (for example, however visible in today's astonishing snaps, primary emarginations) and cannot encompass any ken of DNA, trace isotopes and similar new tools. Surely for truly separate species, the crucial choices of correct breeding males have to be simpler tasks that we are now constructing. Back to watching them more patiently in a shared field?
To return to my list's sanitation, I end with three necessary qualifications of my minimal, committees-vetted list of certain ticks. First, I stubbornly construct it within the undivided bird habitats of all British and Irish isles. Second, I do not count Category C species except for an exhausted Little Owl rescued from Dungeness surf aeons ago. Third, I compensate for my 75 years' miserable score by hugging its history of almost 90 per cent of the ticks having been hunted, not gathered. Hence this last sneaky question: whatever happened to the proposal to make 'self-finds' the only ticks to count in list competition?
Finally, not to be an ingrate, I repeat my thanks to the sadly mostly late original London twitchers and other friends who between 1950 and 1976 led me to 49 first meetings with rarities in Britain. These provided a ready fund of new perceptions, were ticked but did not confer full ownerships – until self-found second encounters.
Keep your own faith; take care!