There comes a point in any community where you earn a reputation, something you are associated with. No, not like that. On Scilly, I am known as 'seal girl'. As a Marine Mammal Medic, I am one of the people called upon to wrestle sick baby Grey Seals into bags and help the vet stick thermometers up their bums. This reputation has expanded, and I have assisted an injured Peregrine Falcon and a Short-eared Owl, two feral cats and assorted nestling passerines. Most recently, I was asked if I could stop a territorial Blackbird from attacking the owners of the flat on which it was nesting.
With so many amazing birders on Scilly, for years I avoided questions about identification. This has, worryingly, been changing of late. 'It was sitting on the fence and looked sort of yellow.' 'It was black and white and hopping along the ground.' 'Here is an indistinct smudge on my phone, what is it?' My only proven triumph was a cracking male Snow Bunting on St Agnes this spring, described by the owner of the Turk's Head and subsequently refound a few days later. But I feel the pressure rising. On Scilly, anything can happen. I'm going to mess this up at some point.
So, I cast out the net and asked birders for their stories of ID woe. Everyone has them. The moment you pick up your binoculars, you will be bombarded with elaborate descriptions asking for help. There's a famous one from the RSPB where someone reported a bird with red on its head feeding on the bird table. European Robin. No, it's feeding on the bird table while standing on the ground. Eh? It turned out to be a Common Crane.
One county recorder recounts a chap who got in touch about a Eurasian Dotterel in his back garden in Widnes: a plump bird with a chestnut body with some white speckling, white stripe above the eye and brownish cap, short dark bill, longish yellowish legs. Yes, that does sound like a dotterel, except: it's running in and out of the greenhouse. It turned out to be an escaped Northern Bobwhite. Another phoned to report a large, white-chested bird with dark brown wings in her garden, sat next to her fishpond. A sparrowhawk perhaps, but no, she was adamant it was the size of a Labrador. It turned out her garden was an acre in size, the pond was a lake, and it was an Osprey.
A lot of the time, the internet is to blame. Fledgling European Robins become Twite, Common Swifts become 'baby falcons', Common Buzzards are almost always Golden Eagles, and Tufted Duck is easily mistaken for Smew. There are lots of descriptions of supposed parrots that turn out to be anything but parrots; apart from when your friend, who has recently moved to London, is complaining about the loud green birds outside her window. They are indeed Ring-necked Parakeets. Hoopoes are reported at a worrying frequency, although half the time they've been photographed in Greece. Occasionally people strike gold, and uncover something rare, like the Green Heron in Pembrokeshire found by an MP in 2018 or the American Robin in Sussex in early 2022, which was initially seen by a birder's partner.
Often, birds are exactly as described. 'It was a smallish black bird'. Blackbird. 'It looks like a crow.' Crow. Bill Oddie famously said that puzzling birds were almost always Jays, but I'm inclined to agree with Tom from Twitter: 81% of the time it's a leucistic Blackbird. In these circumstances, it is imperative to respect a learning process for people who are not familiar with birds. I will never laugh at anyone who asks me a birding question, although I will desperately wish they had asked someone who knew what they were talking about.
My favourite story by far was a polite exchange between a birder, acting in a professional but unnamed capacity, and a woman who was convinced she had photographed a dead juvenile Common Kingfisher. After several painfully courteous yet argumentative emails, the woman finally concluded, in line with the consensus, that this was in fact a bag of dog poo hanging from the tree. I would laugh, but birders on Scilly once stared for hours at a motionless Common Nighthawk, only to discover it was a cowpat. You see? We all make mistakes.
- This column was originally published in the July 2023 issue of Birdwatch magazine.