I like crag martins. In my limited experience of two individuals, they enter my world with a touch of drama and pazazz, bringing moments of exhilaration and joy, satisfaction and stress, all in varying degrees depending on the circumstances. My first was 'that' bird back in 2015 that took to hanging around a wonky cathedral in Chesterfield but perfected a disappearing act for hours at a time. It took days for some wily birder-football-fan to realise it was splitting its time between the town centre and the local stadium.
My second occurred just a few weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, on Scilly. It was overcast and a bit chilly. The tide times made it difficult to access the off-islands throughout the middle of the day, particularly Bryher. Take a guess where the news came out from? Eurasian Crag Martin. A first for Scilly, a mega-mega for many local or resident birders, fittingly found by John 'Higgo' Higginson, unofficial birding king of Bryher. Logistics were a nightmare, husband was inconsolable, toddler was hyped up on her umpteenth Easter egg of the day.
I won't go into detail about the four-hour wait for the tide to come in, the circuitous journey we had to take to Bryher Quay as the boat inched through the painfully shallow water, the smug grins from the cheeky handful who had made it to an earlier boat at a moment's notice, the frustration at 'no sign' for a couple of hours, the confusion caused by a possible sighting on Tresco. In the end, the bird was re-found from the deck of MV Sapphire halfway between Bryher and Tresco; we were all steaming merrily in the wrong direction, but a beautiful handbrake-turn plonked us neatly back on the correct island – Bryher, after all. Phew.
But, dear reader, you've joined this story halfway through. It begins a few days previously, when husband accosted a dapper chap in a Barbour jacket, flat cap and pair of Swarovski binoculars, innocently asking: "Seen much?" Without skipping a beat: "Yes, a crag martin and Woodchat Shrike yesterday on Tresco."
And he strolled away. Husband was left stationary, torn between exasperation and scepticism, but being a firm believer in public service, reported the sighting. Derision from some quarters, polite curiousity from others. No one was rushing to Tresco. Let's be explicit: this initial 'sighting' took place a full three days before the Bryher bird was found.
Aside from the obvious questions (did he see a crag martin? Is it the same bird? etc), what feels more interesting is the lack of any instinct or desire to report it in a timely manner. A birder who can correctly identify Eurasian Crag Martin must know that it is rarely seen in the UK; even if they didn't know this was a first for Scilly, at least the bird would be of interest to others.
So, was this suppression? That's tricky. The sighting was shared although without any urgency, a passing comment to a stranger, but without immediately notifying any rare bird news channels, social media or the local bird group. He never would have mentioned it unless specifically asked. Also, none of the usual reasons (whether you agree with them or not) for suppression apply here: he wasn't the landowner, there was no risk to habitat, no relationships that could be upset, the area was publicly accessible, it wasn't a breeding bird. Intriguing, and galling.
Why then would a birder, with the skills and knowledge to recognise a significant rare bird, choose to keep quiet? Certainly, we are not obliged to put out our sightings, but it is somewhat against the spirit of the hobby and the community. This seems yet more stark when done by a visitor, a slap-in-the-face to islanders. The psychology baffles, fascinates and infuriates me. Oversight or obtusity, indifference or intentional? I can't fathom this one. Oh, and husband found a/the Woodchat Shrike on Easter Monday. Either way, I'm delighted for Higgo, the 'finder' in our eyes of a very special bird.
- This column was first published in the July 2022 edition of Birdwatch magazine.