The unsound approach

Some concrete rules for self found listing



We all know that UK twitching is rubbish these days. Blockers don’t exist anymore, because everyone sees everything so easily. The information services make it practically risk free. Each year, former “mythical megas” turn up and give themselves away to anyone with a passing interest and a few spare pages in their cheque book. A million photos appear on the web, and another once-amazing species is immediately consigned to the bin marked “useful year tick” for the rest of time. And worst of all, every time you go for a rare bird, you have to share it with five hundred chumps who routinely identify dunlin as spotshanks.


Ok, so it’s not quite that bad. In the right circumstances, twitching can be more fun than running down Walsey Hills in a zorb, especially if it involves an overly aggressive competitive year-listing element. But it’s not quite the same as it used to be. Rarity finding, on the other hand, is still as exciting today as it was 30 years ago. There is little to rival the enjoyment gained by getting a new self-found tick.


However, unlike conventional listing, self-finding does not readily lay itself down to comparison and competition. Twitching is a yes/no operation, either you scored or dipped, but different people define whether or not they “found” a bird by differing criteria and standards.  Traditionally, birders have used the rules laid down by the now defunct UK250 club. However, we always found that these rules were a little grey in some areas, and often lead to confusion.


Owing to this potential for debate/confusion/physical violence, we have taken it upon ourselves to have a bash at some concrete, non-ambiguous rules for self found listing. These are the rules we use – we’re not particularly bothered whether anyone else adopts them, we just reckon they may be of interest to other find-orientated birders. They may be a little long winded, but bear with them – we think we’ve covered everything.


We have rules to account for seven major issues:

  1. Rarities committees
  2. Joint finds
  3. “Clinched later on”
  4. News ignorance
  5. Re-finds
  6. Re-identifications
  7. Members of the public
  8. Rare breeders / winterers


We’ve also illustrated the rules with some examples, broadly drawn from our own birding experiences. Observer names, species and places have been changed to protect the innocent...


TAXONOMY NOTE: Obviously, you can only count species that are on the BOU LIST. No dodgy imaginary caspian subspecies here thank you very much.




  1. Accepted records only

As with any list, species can only be claimed if they were ratified by the relevant authority at the time – either the national rarities committee or the local recorder. We believe this rule is the only way of making sure everyone is on a level playing field with self found listing. This may seem harsh. Certainly, it is massively frustrating when a genuine record gets rejected – and it happens to all of us – but we all have to play by the same rules.


We reckon your name does not have to appear when the record is published, provided you have grounds to claim it as a joint find or a re-find (see below). Likewise, just having your name in the report for a bird doesn’t always mean you can tick it as a find.



  1. Joint finds

If more than one person is present at the discovery of the bird, the following people can count it as a find:

      1. Whoever first noticed the bird
      2. Whoever clinches the identification
      3. Anyone who notes an important id. feature, any time between the initial finding and the eventual unequivocal clinching (i.e. contributing to the correct identification of the bird). 

IMPORTANT NOTE 1 – these conditions ONLY apply if you were present (i.e. within ear-shot) at the time of initial discovery. If you hear about the bird and travel to help identify it, you’re not involved in the find, you are just twitching it.


IMPORTANT NOTE 2 – If more than one person fulfils any of the points above simultaneously, they can all claim the find (e.g. if the bird is first seen by two people in the same instant).


See examples A to D


  1. “Clinched later on”

The problem:  you find a potential rarity, but don’t get enough to clinch it, and it’s later found and clinched by someone else. Can you count it?


A true rarity-finder’s greatest strength is perseverance. You can ONLY count these birds if you have not given up the search when the bird is found. If you think you’ve got a rarity, but after a few hours of searching you sack it off and go birding somewhere else, you cannot claim it when it’s clinched later on. Stay there until dark. Be there at dawn the next day. If you turn your back, you don’t deserve the find. If you’re still on site, searching, when someone else gets the clinching view, it’s still your bird.


IMPORTANT NOTE – if you have to leave the site for legitimate non-birding reasons, e.g. important job interview, surgical operation, date with hot celebrity etc., you can still just about claim the find, as long as (a) you go back to the site as soon as you can, and (b) you alert the birding community to your “possible” or “probable” rarity before you leave the field. The crime here is to leave a potential rarity, say nothing to no-one and continue birding elsewhere.


See Example E.


  1. News ignorance

What if a rarity has been found, and news has been broken, but for some reason you haven’t heard about it, and you stumble on the bird yourself? You are “genuinely surprised”, and you identify the bird correctly. Is that a good case for a find tick?


The problem here is that this loop-hole is open to abuse. You’ve got a much better chance of “finding” rarities if you actively avoid the news services or talking to birders, so that basically any rarity could count as a personal find. We think the answer here lies in a compromise.


Our rule: You can count something as a find ONLY if the news of its discovery broke on the same day that you found it, and you didn’t hear the news yourself. (See Example F)


Justification: In the modern age, bird news is freely available from all sorts of sources, particularly the internet. There is no excuse not to check what has been found before you go out birding. If you want to pursue a self found list, it is your responsibility to check the news services every day. Fair enough, once you’re out in the field, it isn’t always possible to keep abreast of what’s been seen. But everyone has the capacity to find out the latest news before they head out. Just check Birdguides, or phone Birdline. If something was found at a site the day before you visit, you have no excuse not to know about it.


Many birders may prefer not to know the latest news. They get more excitement out of their birding if they aren’t aware of what’s around. Absolutely fair enough – enjoy it. But please don’t then claim a huge self found list and make it public. You’ll be playing by different rules to everyone else.


IMPORTANT NOTE: Sometimes while out birding you come across a crowd of birders looking intently at something. You follow their gaze and find yourself "genuinely surprised" to be looking at a rarity. This DOES NOT COUNT as a find. Looking where other people are looking is the same as twitching, even if you don't know what they are looking at. (NB One exception: If you are present at the moment of discovery of the bird (see rule 2), you can count it as a find even if you were directed to it by other people, provided you identify it independently or contribute to the identfication). 


  1. Re-finds

Perhaps the trickiest issue - a major grey area. If there is a chance your rarity find was just the re-discovery of an “old bird”, does it count?


There are two ways in which potential re-finds can be countable as self-found:


Situation 1) You find a rarity, but you’re at a place which has hosted that same species in the recent past. However, sufficient time has passed since the last record, so you are genuinely surprised by your find.


Situation 2) You find a rarity at a new site, but the same species has just disappeared from a nearby site. However, you are sufficiently far away from that site to be genuinely surprised by your find.


The age old problem is – how do we measure this “genuine surprise”? It will vary between birders and, in particular, between different species.


We think the answer is assign species to categories. For each category, we have set a rule for the time (situation 1) or distance (situation 2) required in each case to count a sighting as a find.


If you find yourself in situation 1, all you need to do is check the time re-finds categories to see if you’ve got a self-found tick.


Time Category 1: highly transient species. These are species which are almost always on the move. When individuals are seen, they usually disappear fast. Once disappeared, you don’t really expect them to re-appear in the same place. We therefore reckon you can count these species TWO DAYS after a sighting at the same place.


Time Category 2: Medium transient species. These can be counted FOUR DAYS after a previous sighting at a given site.


Time Category 3: Everything else. Most species can occasionally disappear for long periods, and then re-appear at the same site. Your birding behaviour will change if you’re at a site where you know a rarity was present recently. You’ll be specifically looking out for it. It wouldn’t be a pure find. We therefore think that SIX DAYS is a sensible time period before you can count one of these species.


IMPORTANT NOTE: In some cases, long-staying rarities may not be reported very regularly, for example wintering ducks on remote Scottish lakes. Discretion may be required in these cases, but generally speaking we think a gap of at least a month is required before a sighting of such a long-stayer could count as a self-find. For rarities that return to a known site each year, the first person to find the bird in a given season can count it as a find.


If you find yourself in situation 2, you need to check the Distance Re-finds categories to see if you’ve got a self found tick.


Distance Category 1: Large and mobile species. You’d probably start scanning the sky as soon as you hear one of these species has been seen nearby. Consequently your birding behaviour has changed, thanks to the news. There is an extra complication here: many of these species follow the coastline when migrating, making it possible to track their movements along the coast. On a given day, it may be possible to "pre-emptively twitch" a bird by guessing a point on the coast that it will pass.We therefore have two thresholds for claiming these species as self found: for birds which are being tracked along the coast (i.e. seen previously at another site or sites on the day of your sighting), you must be at least 50km from the most recent report. For birds that are not being tracked along the coast, you’ve only got to be 25km or more away.


Distance Category 2: Intermediate species. Again, these species may follow the coast when migrating, though they are less predictable. The threshold for counting birds that are being tracked along the coast on the day of your sighting is 25km, and 10km for other records.


Distance Category 3: Small, cryptic and less mobile birds. For the species listed here, we reckon 5km is enough to constitute a find, and they are almost impossible to track along the coast so that situation is irrelevat.


See Example G.


NB. None of this is relevant if you can prove your bird is a different individual!


Similarly, if you twitch a bird and find another individual of the same species with it, you can count it as a self found tick. Just don’t expect people to give you any mad respect for it…



  1. Re-identifications

This is a relatively simple one. If a bird is found and identified as species X, and you twitch it and re-identify it as species Y, you can count it as a self found. Note this is ONLY the case with birds which have been confidently identified as the wrong species. Twitching a bird which has gone out as “possible” or “probable”, and then clinching the identification yourself, does not constitute a find.

See Example H.


  1. Members of the public

Some birders (usually high profile ones) get lots of tip-offs from members of the public about rarities in gardens etc.. These are ONLY countable if, when contacted, the member of the public does not mention the name of the species it later turns out to be. If they say “we’ve looked in the book and it looks like a white’s thrush”, and it indeed turns out to be a white’s thrush, we reckon that’s pushing it as a find.


  1. Rare breeders / winterers

Some rare breeders (listed here) are extremely sedentary and are almost never seen away from breeding sites. In order to minimise the risk of disturbance, everyone can tick these species as self found even at known sites.


Other rare breeders (also listed here) are more easily found away from breeding sites, e.g. on migration. For these species, birds cannot be counted on the breeding grounds, unless you locate a new site which is a sufficient distance away from any “known sites”. The distance required is the same as that for a re-find of that species. Known sites are any that are published in books, magazines or internet, or any you have heard about through word of mouth. Know sites can be large areas - e.g. the whole of the outer hebs count as a known site for corncrake, so in order to get one self found you really need to jam in on a migrant...


The same applies for the rare winterers, which are also listed here.


Those are all the rules. Let us know if you think we're missing anything.