28/09/2005
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It's Autumn - are you having as much success finding (rare) birds as you’d like?

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Yellow Warbler: Quendale, Shetland Just what are the techniques used by rarity finders? Is it purely luck, or skill? (photo: Michelle Spraggs).

I'm glad August is over.

All you British birders out there who have read Owen Foley's two pieces on Irish seawatching (Losing my head at Galley Head and Buttock cramp, sleep deprivation and jamminess) this summer and who have found yourselves a teensy bit jealous, take heart. I live in Ireland and I haven't seen a bleedin' seabird of note in four years! A combination of events relating to bad luck and outstanding Test Match cricketing excitement have led me to miss out not only on things like Fea's Petrel and Wilson's Storm-petrels, but also the many thousands of Great Shearwaters and Cory's Shearwaters that have passed the south and west coasts these last two months — I've seen not one. Even a much-anticipated pelagic trip, ten miles out of the Cork coast, produced an excellent look at 30 European Storm-petrels, but nothing of note in the rare or unusual bird department.

Which is why I am glad it's later in the autumn...and I can return to what I enjoy best.

Like most of us who watch birds, I'd hope, my interest in our fine feathered friends covers many levels. I like common birds; and, as anyone who has read some of my articles on BirdGuides will know by now, I can, at turns, be unabashedly sentimental and poetic in my appreciations; I twitch (on occasion: not nearly as much as I used to); and I value the rare bird hunt as much as the next man (or woman.)

It's this last modus operandi of my birdwatching being I am concerned with here. I am well aware, as I write, that some of you are not at all concerned about how many 'rare' or 'unusual' species you might find in a year. If you are a 'scientist' or a 'conservationist' or a 'garden-bird spotter' you may well be piqued at the attention given to all this rare-bird nonsense that goes on up and down the country as increasing numbers of birders turn what ought to be a passive hobby in to something of a sport. I am not altogether inclined to disagree with you.

However, I do contend, that any interest in birds whatsoever, is agreeable; and hunting down birds for the satisfaction of being able to find and identify them is surely far more acceptable than the old-style hunting to kill? Catch me on a loquacious evening with a couple of pints inside me and I might go on to tell you how I think the very act of observation of birds is a testament to the evolution of man's consciousness (bringing meaning to creation, or something equally far-fetched!). But for now, I'll just say that those of us who do go out looking for rarities are usually involved, or go on to become involved, in actual concrete ways of helping to preserve places for birds and other wildlife.

But for now, let me assume you are looking for some tips on how to get more out of your birding. Let me confess...much of this article was written last September soon after I came across Ireland's second Booted Warbler at Ballycotton (and found a Citrine Wagtail the same day!) and my confidence was high. Then, having manoeuvred the whole of last October off work I went on to find...nothing; and decided I was best off keeping schtum! Thanks to the timely appearance of a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper at Ballycotton recently (more on that later), I am able to cast off my inhibitions and, hopefully, give (some) readers the benefit of my experience.

I've been a rare bird hunter for the last twenty years — ever since I bunked off school one spring afternoon and had four Cranes flying low over my head on my old patch in Whitburn in the northeast of England. As well as twitching, and enjoying local familiar birds, I've put a lot of time and effort, and engaged in numerous conversations with other 'finders' about how to get the most return out of 'The Search'. Recently, I've moved to Ireland — Cork City, to be precise, with its access roads to many of Ireland's most famous birdwatching destinations: Ballycotton, the Old Head of Kinsale, Cape Clear and so on — and what has surprised me, personally, is that although I get out a lot less than I used to in England, my ratio of scarce birds per hour in the field has increased quite dramatically.

Is it just Ireland or is it something to do with me? Or could it be both?

The latter, I assume.

Now forgive me here if it begins to sound like I'm blowing a trumpet of any sorts, because it's not what I intend to. Remember, finding rare birds, in the long run, is not really that much of any grand importance at all and it's just a bit of fun, really. Serious fun, maybe...but definitely just Fun.

Or it should be.

Aha. I think I've just realized one reason why maybe I do find more stuff nowadays. You see, in the past, I used to try really hard. Too hard, I'd say. Back in the 'old' days in Whitburn, I used to be out in all weathers, at all times of the year. I suffered: backache, knee-ache, headache, shoulder-ache, sunburn, flu, boredom, depression; you name it, I got the lot. And I thought it was Noble, I really did. Granted, in my time, I found a fair share of what you might call 'birder's birds': Greenish Warbler, Radde's Warbler and Dusky Warbler; Red-throated Pipit; White-rumped Sandpiper and Buff-breasted Sandpiper; Little Bunting and Rustic Bunting, not to mention goodly numbers of things like Yellow-browed Warblers, Wryneck, Red-breasted Flycatchers, etc. But I suffered.

Now I have a friend — Paul Cook. Some of you may remember him from Kaikoura Seabird Spectacular. He's found Red-flanked Bluetail, two Pallid Swifts, Isabelline Shrike, Red-eyed Vireo, Booted Warbler, and so on. I've learned a lot from Paul's approach to rare bird finding. Paul doesn't suffer. Some of us who used to take ourselves too seriously in Cape May where Paul and I lived for a couple of years thought he wasn't really a proper birder because he wasn't out every day, but he is...when he wants to be!

Here are some of Paul's tips to help you become a better birder, or shall I put it this way, a more satisfied birder.

1. Most important: IGNORE THE GROUPS OF BIRDS YOU AREN'T INTERESTED IN

Caspian Gull: Southwold, Suffolk If searching out Caspian Gulls is not for you, then concentrate on a group of species that does interest you (photo: Mike Buckland).

These days, it seems, we are supposed to know everything about every bird that has ever turned up in the British Isles. We're concerned about our reputation as 'good birders'. 'Have you read the latest paper?' 'Do you get Dutch Birding?' 'What colour were its lesser coverts?'

Not true. Stick to what you are comfortable with. By all means, seek to expand your knowledge and the frontiers of your identification skills, but be reasonable. Paul's favourite groups to 'diss' are gulls, seabirds...and ducks. "You'll never hear me say I've had a Fea's Petrel, Graham...or a Caspian Gull," he tells me. (I agree with him on the ducks and the Caspian Gulls, but I wouldn't mind a Fea's Petrel myself.) Paul likes his passerines, and he likes May and October (understandably), so those are the groups and the times he focuses on.

Which is the second point.

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2. Save your energy and hunting instincts for the most 'profitable' time of the year

Great Spotted Cuckoo: Worthing, W. Sussex A bit of a long shot for the northeast coast of England in March; perhaps more profitable to focus on something more likely? (photo: Marc Read).

Which seems obviously, really. But I can remember myself rummaging around for hours and hours in mid-March and trying to find, say, a Great Spotted Cuckoo, or an Alpine Swift, which was hardly likely, really, in northeastern England at that time of year (well, perhaps, the swift was, but it never happened).

3. Never mind the weather

Bobolink: Prawle Point, Devon During migration periods anything is possible, anywhere, and you'll always see more in the field rather than sat at home! (Photo: Paul Nunn).

Now this is Paul's instinct, in October, it's not necessarily mine. An equal and opposite approach might be to go out only in certain weather. It's a personal choice. What Paul is saying here is not 'go out even if it's lashing down with rain' — he doesn't like that, at all — what he means is 'don't get too disheartened if the conditions don't seem just right.'

Like I said, this is a purely personal point. If you're going to ignore certain groups of birds, and you're picking and choosing your months, you can't really afford not to go out just because it isn't easterlies and drizzle. If you want to find something, you've got to go out some time.

Because I've tended to look at the wider picture of the rare-bird-finding thing on an annual basis: in other words, imagining something can turn up at any time (with a greater deference to May and October, of course; also August, September and November), my choice would be to:

4. Keep an eye on the weather

Pallas's Warbler: Crossley, Cheshire Easterlies on the east coast in late-October — more than a fair chance of connecting with this super sprite (photo: Steve Round).

Obvious, really, isn't it. East coast...easterly winds (anywhere, in my experience...easterly winds: even the Aran Islands off the extreme west coast of Ireland have turned up Red-breasted Flycatcher and Yellow-browed Warbler for me, in direct response to easterlies); South coast...southerlies. What I'm saying is, all else being equal, you could conceivably base your entire birdwatching year, on choosing the 'right' conditions. I've certainly done it before. You might end up kicking yourself when somebody else finds something interesting on your local patch when you've decided to stay indoors, but in the long run? There's something especially magic, I think, about finding a bird turning up, just as you 'imagined', in response to certain conditions. Better than 'jamming' in on a dull day, I'd say?

I used an important word there.

5. Imagine

Rufous-tailed Robin: Fair Isle, Shetland Sometimes picturing the bird can turn into reality (photo: Deryk Shaw).

This is a personal favourite of mine. I don't mean 'imagining' in its looser form of 'stringing', what I'm saying is that, I think, you have to have a certain belief or a desire to want to find certain birds, in order to keep you concentrated or motivated. As someone who has found a decent list of rarities over the years, I'm not thrilled when someone who has found one or two birds (or someone who has found none) telling me it's all down to luck. BECAUSE IT'S NOT DOWN TO LUCK...IT'S BLEEDIN' SKILL AND PURPOSE, MAN! I'm not saying that no one single bird find ever is not down to luck (if you'll forgive all the double negatives!). What is interesting for me, here, is the whole philosophy of luck, as a concept. This, of course, is entirely outside the scope of this article and is a discussion better suited to the halls of academia, but, briefly, what I enjoy, myself, about rare bird finds, sometimes, is the undoubted element of Fate or Destiny which sometimes seems to accompany them.

Okay, maybe I will labour this point a bit! When I say 'imagining' birds in order to find them, what I'm (sort of) talking about is daydreaming. I think the more you think about finding certain birds, the more likely you are to actually find them. This system is not foolproof. There are examples I know of (from friends who have actually told me) of people saying 'today I am going out to find a California Gull' (on the Canadian Great Lakes, where it's very rare) or 'tomorrow I am going to find a Chimney Swift' (in southern Ireland, where it is as rare as California Gull on the Great Lakes), and have then proceeded to go out and do it. My own best example is when I turned down a lift for a 'tick' I needed for Britain (Penduline Tit at Minsmere, October 1989) on the basis I was 'definitely going to go out and find something tomorrow.' 'Something' turned out to be a Radde's Warbler.

We all have stories like these. They're too infrequent to be classed as anything other than coincidence. Long term, my point is that: if you want to fulfil the desire of enjoying the lingering satisfaction of finding, say, a Melodious Warbler feeding conspicuously on the outside of a sunlit fuschia-hedge on the day after blasting south-easterly winds and rain (it happened to me at the Old Head of Kinsale, County Cork, two years ago), you've got to want to do it, you've got to imagine you will do it. It might be a Wryneck instead, or a Bluethroat (that's the beauty of this wrestle with the elements and a long list of 'possible' finds: it's unpredictable) but it feels like an accomplishment, when you achieve it. Because you imagined it. You believed it would be so.

Now the mathematics!

("Mathematics? Philosophy? I thought this was about birds?")

6. Calculate the odds

Pied Wheatear: Newbiggin, Northumberland The more late-autumn fields you can cover, the greater the odds of chancing upon a rare wheatear (photo: Tom Tams).

There is a way of fine-tuning, I think, that can help us in our approach to finding birds on any one given day. Like most things in life, it's not foolproof either, and to an extent, we do these things subconsciously anyway, but again, I'm offering my thoughts on my approach to birding, after a number of years of experience, in order to offer you a few tips on how to go that extra couple of yards. This is something I used to discuss with the late Peter Grant, on the Scillies. Peter's approach to bird finding was a bit like my friend Paul Cook's, and differed in a way from mine at the time, although I can say I've gone on to adopt some of their policies in the field in recent years.

How long do you stand staring at one late autumn sycamore tree? Do you scan painstakingly across every ploughed field hoping, perhaps, to come across a Short-toed Lark? These are questions you might ask yourself when you're out in the field. Personal observation coming up here...I don't think I can ever remember seeing a bird appear in a tree more than two minutes (a minute in some cases) after I've first looked at it; I can rarely remember times when I've scanned empty-looking fields, or distant hedgerows, and come up with anything more than a Blue Tit, some House Sparrows, and a couple of hunkered-down Grey Partridges. Most birds I've found have been right there in front of me, out in the open, as easy as you like — or flying, flushed up (accidentally) as I've been walking along. It seems an obvious statement to say 'if you see it, you see it' and 'if you don't, you don't' and in a way, I'm kind of working with my own impatience at half-seeing something flit in to cover (or seeing something distantly that requires me to bother setting up my scope) but my own preference, most of the time — certainly when looking for passerines — is to COVER THE GROUND.

Let's say you're short of time. An hour after work before it gets dark on a foggy September evening. Are you going to spend it hoping something's going to pop out of a particular favourite clump of trees, or are you going to walk along expecting it to jump out on to the path in front of you? I think I've already given you my answer. That doesn't mean to say you won't trump me, and pull something out of the trees, and maybe I'd give them at least five minutes myself, but again, in the long run, which of us will be better off? The mathematics I'm working on (at least in the areas I've birdwatched) is that it's not likely there's going to be something unusual in this particular garden, or that particular garden, or the one next to it, but overall, assuming you're in the right location, in the right conditions, at the right time of year, the chances of there being something good there are actually pretty high. So which garden is it going to be in? Best cover them all, and quickly, if you want to find out.

I'll pause here to acknowledge that the process of bird finding is, again, of course, purely personal. We birdwatch in different ways, in different places, at different times of the year. That is the abiding beauty of our wonderful pursuit. I would hate anyone to think I birdwatch by a certain set of rules that I adhere to strictly at all times and that I don't have my moods and inconsistencies, because I do (the latter, that is!) If you're looking for rare gulls, for example, or geese, or sandpipers, then, obviously, you're not going to move on within minutes of stopping to look at a large flock. That is different. The passerine approach is, however, at least partially related to an article that was featured in British Birds many years ago, on how to approach birding in a rainforest. I've been talking mainly about 'finding' rare birds in Britain (and Ireland) but this slight diversion might give an indication of how this current article could also be subtly expanded to incorporate aspects of birdwatching abroad.

Like most birders when I first visited a (Thai) rainforest, I tiptoed around in hushed silence like a Tai Chi practitioner sporting binoculars, squinting into impenetrable darkness, trying to visualize megas hopping into view. Fair enough, some of them did. In two or three days in Khao Yai forest I managed to see the much-desired Blue Pitta, a Siberian Blue Robin or two, and a number of other specialities of south-east Asian lowland rainforest habitat, skulking in the undergrowth alongside me. One afternoon, when one of my companions got caught out a long way from camp an hour before sunset, he fair sprinted back along the path in order not to get 'lost in the jungle'. The result? Moving at top speed he managed to see five Blue Pittas, six Siberian Blue Robins, and a number of other ground-dwelling species we'd all been struggling to see thus far. It wasn't just the fact that birds were venturing out into the forest more towards dusk, because we tried it out again at various times of the day and, indeed, in essence, this was the nub of the piece Phil Round and Tim Sharrock had written: "Keep moving, don't worry too much about disturbing birds (because you won't always), and cover the ground."

Again, more than one approach can work in the same situation. If you are having trouble finding birds when moving patiently and slowly: stop! Let fly! Try moving impatiently and dynamically.

There are other factors that can help you find more birds.

7. Learn calls

Yellow-browed Warbler: Outer Skerries, Shetland A sibe with a very distinctive call, which once learnt is never forgotten. An invaluable aid to picking up the species among tit flocks and in wooded ravines (photo: Michael McKee).

I'm fortunate, in some ways, that I spent a lot of time learning bird calls when I was younger, because I notice now that nothing new seems to stick with me. I'm pretty much stuck at knowing the calls of most of our 200 'regular' birds and a small number of vagrants — but that in itself is enough to tell you when something is 'unusual'. I used to spend a lot of time with cassette recordings which, I think, is as equally valid a way of learning your bird sounds as the old-style tramping through the field and chasing up every odd sound you came across. A number of birders I know still get away without knowing many bird sounds at all (but then, they're far better at many other things than me...) and still find birds, so that's their choice. One personal tip I have in learning calls is to decide whether you think a sound is 'pleasant' or 'nasty'! Do you like it, or don't you? I've succeeded in picking up two Citrine Wagtails in Ballycotton in the past two years (a call I'd never previously heard) because, to me, the Yellow Wagtail's call falls in to that 'peaceful, pleasant, pastoral' category. The Citrine was never that. Too many 'zeds'.

8. Read the book before you go out in the field...and take a notebook with you

This is elementary stuff. Basic birdwatching lore. I'm not going to go into detail on the subject here because I'm assuming BirdGuides' readers are beyond that stage? But I've lived in America for much of the last ten years, and it, famously, doesn't happen there! Is there still the same tradition of birdwatching from the beginning in Britain, as there was when I lived there? Someone please write and tell me there is!

9. Choose your location

Cot Valley: Cornwall Geography dictates that the life of the rare-bird finder is easier for some than others (photo: Len).

As someone who was lucky enough to have been brought up on the northeast coast of England, and who is now living in southern Ireland, I've always been (sort of) close enough to places that have consistently provided good bird-finding opportunities throughout the year. (I take my hat off to inland birders who do their local patches religiously in the hope of a Leach's Storm-petrel or a Black-throated Diver, because I probably couldn't.) The first location was by accident; the second is by design. Even still, in County Cork, there is the perennial problem of where to go on any one given day that sometimes leads to hours of discussion with friends before deciding which place to go. I'm not giving any guidelines here. In Ireland, I suppose, many areas are underwatched, and there certainly appears to be more scope than there is in England for one individual to find his or her own birds.

But there is still the problem — arguably more so here — as to whether one should undertake to watch one particular area, or whether to flit about and cover as many different locations as possible. I personally have chosen the former approach, concentrating my ambitions primarily on Ballycotton (where I've had some notable successes), and secondly, the Old Head of Kinsale (which I've 'dipped into' and come away with a reasonable collection of what we call 'sub' rarities), but it's still not always that straightforward. One thing that has helped me here — and this is something that harps back to that idea of birding being 'fun' — is the question: "Can I have a good time simply enjoying the scenery, the exercise and the commoner birds without necessarily having to find anything unusual?" I think that's very important. Even in recognizing the pitfall that as birders we don't always enjoy the landscape as much as we ought to, I seem to have ended up finding more rare birds. Maybe there's a clue there? I don't know.

So that more or less concludes this current piece. Just to finish by reiterating what I mentioned at the start: that this particular article was shoved forward by my discovery of a juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper at Ballycotton earlier this month. I may write about that soon under a separate heading, though my primary ambition for this autumn is to write you a story incorporating The Old Head of Kinsale as centre stage for some memorable days' birding. Both these sites — Ballycotton and the Old Head — are stunning birdwatching locations: the former you presumably know much about; the latter far less well-known.

Semipalmated Sandpiper: Ballycotton, Co. Cork The regular finding of rare and scarce birds is an art form, and that's why some birders can do it again and again (photo: Michael O'Keeffe).

It was after the conclusion of yet another fabulous day's Test cricket recently that Andre Robinson (now only a handful of birds short of posting the highest-ever Irish year-list) and I found ourselves with two-and-a-half hours of light remaining to tackle the aforesaid Old Head of Kinsale. Using at least half of the points I outlined above, we darted positively from one garden to another, and though we came up with nothing extraordinary — a Pied Flycatcher, a Reed Warbler, several phylloscs, and a super array of juvenile waders (including forty Curlew Sandpipers) — it was testament to an enjoyably efficient sweep of the area. As I've said, The Old Head is still a story waiting to develop for me.

In the meantime, please let me (or us all, if you fancy writing a piece about it) know if you find anything noteworthy this next two months as a result of employing the tips outlined above.

Written by: Graham Gordon