The unsound approach

Autumn 08 - the review


“Success consists of going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm”

                                                                                                            -       Winston Churchill


There's no denying it, autumn 2008 was pretty special.  For a spell in late September, it really did feel like something truly amazing was happening. All our conversations, mainly carried out over the phone from distant corners of the country, revolved around the same things – 

“Holy shit mate, it’s 1985”...

“Sweet jesus, I’m looking at the chart and it’s isobar-freaking-mungus”...

"Have you heard what’s on Fair Isle now? faaaaaaaaaaack!” etc.....

It kept getting bigger and bigger – mega after mega after mega. It was pretty much non-stop wall-to-wall monster from the first week of August until the last week of November. There’s no doubting it was the best autumn of our birding lifetimes.

And with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear we cocked it up.


Rik is always upset when he sees other people's well-toned pecs (JG)


What we’ve learned:

Yes, despite the fact that it was an autumn full of colossal rares from all corners of the globe, we failed yet again to find a mega. And it’s not like we weren’t trying – we went to the right places at the right times and did the right things. Repeatedly.

So the first thing we’ve learned is this:  We’re shit.

Ok, that’s being a bit defeatist. It wasn’t all our fault. Evidently, megas are really hard to find. Shit, even sub-rares are really hard to find. And now we've come to realise that this isn't just true in Norfolk, it's true everywhere. Even on the west coast!


We’ll be honest –in the past we’ve often looked down from our east-coast high horse and thought – “just what the hell are all those west-coast birders doing?” Every year, we see countless stunning Atlantic depressions sweep over from New England, and spend days afterwards vainly checking Birdguides, gobsmacked that no-one has found any yank passerines. Even worse, when someone does finally find a mega, there’s always a follow-up message about a Red-eyed Vireo in the same bush. And nothing reported anywhere else. At this point we’re screaming at our computer screens – “for god’s sake someone go and check the next headland down!”. We assumed that the whole west coast was horribly underwatched. And we figured if we went over there in the right conditions and put some decent effort in, we'd clean up.  

We were wrong. Sorry. Turns out there’s loads of active Jedi-skilled birders on the west coast, and they’re all trying really hard to find yank passerines. And the Irish birders (all five of them) are bloody keen, clued-up and they get everywhere. Yank passerines are just really hard to find. And we failed, despite repeated efforts in some of the best conditions imaginable. Did it put us off? Yes it did. For about ten minutes, until we looked at those Parulid plates by Lewington in Rare Birds. We’ve already booked for next year.



On the lizard, hours after a collosal atlantic wave-front - still can't believe we got this and not chestnut sided warbler (JG) 


What we’ve also learned:

Fair Isle is amazing. We want to go there.


And another thing:

This autumn saw yet more evidence of the fact that most really rare vagrants are passed off, overlooked or ignored, even by top birders. It’s only when someone manages to get a few decent pics and puts them on the web that these birds actually get identified. Just how many megas have been overlooked in the hundreds of years before digital photography? How many more are overlooked even today because they don’t pose for the camera? And the thing is, we’re all capable of overlooking these birds. It's the really rare stuff we're missing – things we’re not expecting and have no search-image for. We train ourselves to recognise birds instantly, and when our brains fail at the first hurdle, we just file them into the nearest category available – be it Redfoot, Little Auk, Olivaceous, Dunnock or whatever.

There’s only one answer: From now on, no-one should try to identify anything in the field, ever. It’s too risky. Just photograph every single bird you see and email the whole lot to Stu Piner at the end of each day. He’s our only hope.


sight for sore eyes (AL)


And finally:

Will it happen all again next year? Using our formidable predictive powers, we know the answer is yes. After ‘75 came ’76, after ’85 came, er, ’88. It’s a pattern. The storm track will definitely stay south for another year. And the mid-September anticyclone seems to be a fixture these days – it only has to spread beyond the Urals and Fair Isle is guaranteed to look like Happy Island. So what the hell, we reckon next year will be even better. And there's still time for that Tengmalm's yet.... 


2008 - the year the bluetail officially became dross (JG)

Nostalgia fans can hark back to our spring review here.