Ed Stubbs: bogey birds


I remember a conversation that I had several years ago with a serious world lister and British twitcher. "It's the ones you don't see that you remember," he said, from the confines of a dimly lit tapas bar on Fuerteventura, where the recent discovery of a Dwarf Bittern was the reason for a small gathering of British birders discussing the ups and downs of listing. I've remembered that line since – and I think it's quite true. 

I love a good list. I think most birders do (even the ones who are too cool for school and claim they don't). While I enjoy adding to them, I've never been majorly fussed by my British or world lists like some hardcore folks are, but I'm super keen when it comes to my county (Surrey) and patch totals. I also keep annual patch year lists and put in plenty of effort with them. And yes, it's true – it's the ones you don't see that you remember.

I write this not long after dipping a local Hen Harrier at Thursley Common, one of my south-west Surrey patches. This is a nice bird to see locally, but I do so virtually annually. This year, though, it's the third one I've missed – and I suspect I've run out of time for another in 2023. I've had a brilliant year of local birding, seeing some great species and finding a few goodies myself, but I can tell you now that I will absolutely remember that I didn't see a patch Hen Harrier in 2023. And I can instantly recount the three species I missed in 2022, as well. Sad? Yes, a little bit! But I'm sure it's how plenty of birders' minds operate. 

This Eurasian Spoonbill, at Holmethorpe Sand Pits on 9 October 2021, is one of several that Ed has failed to connect with in Surrey (Arturas Kundrotas).

Bogey birds are different to bucket-list birds, which are a particular species that you highly desire. In other words, they're not simply a regular or expected bird which you've not seen before. A true bogey bird isn't a species you've missed once, either – bogey birds are those species that, time after time, you have somehow dipped. 'Ultimate bogey' status means that said bird has been seen by your birding pals, typically in a majorly gripping way, be it on your patch while you were away, or a particularly showy individual, and so on.

Bogey birds will linger clearly in the lister's mind, waiting to be avenged. When it comes to my county list, various species have held the title of 'top bogey', before finally falling. The current crown-wearer is doubtless Eurasian Spoonbill – I have dipped no fewer than three (all flew off while I was mid-journey), and missed a handful of others (having been too many beers down at the pub and playing football among the standout reasons for being unable to go). 

Easily the most glaring omission from my British list is Purple Heron – but that's not to say I haven't tried. I've genuinely lost count of how many I've dipped – successive nights of staking out a West Sussex reedbed and being within five minutes of a Surrey bird last year before it flew are especially painful memories.

I could go on. But, despite all this, bogey birds do fall – and it feels great when they do. You're not just ticking off a new species on your list, you're banishing the ghosts of previous misses. I'm sure plenty of Birdwatch readers can offer up bogey birds with far grander tales of woe than I, involving national-level dips and expensive failures. But remember, if (when) that species does eventually fall, it'll be all the sweeter. 


  • This column first appeared in the January 2024 edition of Birdwatch. To be the first to read the magazine each month, take out a subscription to Birdwatch, or get the magazine alongside your bird news by subscribing to either Bird News Ultimate (paper magazine) or Bird News Ultimate Plus (digital access).
Written by: Ed Stubbs