Thursday, 31 December 2009

Year lists and newsgroups

(Beware - long and rambling New Year edition!)

End of year and time to tot up the species lists! In fact, mine is already done for me on BUBO, as per banner in right menu, a flexible and user-friendly list management service which we debated on LBN about a year ago. My only serious year list is my Lothian self found (BOU) and, hey, I'm the winner (!) - but in truth the only other participant, Geoff, was not able to continue with his list beyond May :( Would have been nice to have others to compare with, though being based nearly entirely on the local area, with zero effort made to go find needed species outside "normal" birding, I couldn't compete e.g. with those who regularly go to the east coast in migration. Indeed I have only two species not seen in East Lothian (GCG – seems very scarce on the sea here, and Green ’Pecker – also apparently now extinct in large areas of northern East Lothian). Two records are included pending acceptance, by LBRC (Gos) and SBRC (YLG). Incidentally, the definition of (the increasingly popular) “self found” may be tricky at times, though the element of “genuine surprise” seems to be key and the punkbirders have laid down some useful ground rules.

On the year list most pleasing for me was finding the family of young Long-eared Owls, having got onto these birds the previous summer but having to abandon as unconfirmed. Stumbling upon the mass arrival of Quails during an owl hunt on 4 July will live long in the memory too, and certainly the number of those fascinating little creatures heard was outstanding, though despite having been within a few yards of a calling bird still haven’t seen one in Scotland!

Worst omissions - Whinchat in summer, of which I had an unconfirmed probable on Garleton (now much regretted!), and Glaucous in winter, plucked out from under my nose on what I consider as my gulls "patch" by Norman (very well done!); indeed I would probably have been able to see it from where I was standing at the time he found it, but it had gone from that spot when I arrived over an hour later, unaware of its finding. Did not feel as bad as it would have were it not for last year's bird at the same location! Closely followed by the second white Snow Goose which had been found twice spanning my visit to the large goose flock at the same place, and moreover would have been a prized “self found” lifer.

In addition to self found, I saw 4 additional species - the regular BNG, the first white Snow Goose, the Yellowlegs and the North Berwick f/imm Black Red last January, so 165 species in all. There is one more list to compare with there, though Tony clearly does not count Feral Pigeon and I suspect has omitted some others (Common Tern?!), so I suspect is the actual winner in that category. Perhaps next year more might join in - all good fun and all the more so if it was a real competition!

Some thoughts on mailing lists and use of information/spammers etc further to recent discussion on LBN. My own view - BirdGuides are a great service, and if you subscribe the searchable records archive is second to none in usability, and I really value access to it (hence I subscribe). And since their basic BirdMap is free to all I have always used them as my main bird info reference - there cannot have been many days in the last few years that I've not checked that map one or several times for info - and whenever I post to LBN any news that had not merited calling in or texting from the field (e.g. after roost observations, or phone had failed) I'm very happy they pick this up, saves me filling in the submission form! The bird info services have all done this for years, ever since the inception of yahoogroups, and there's nothing underhand about it in my opinion - the more news the better, and moreover it is give and take - we all benefit from their info real-time, to some degree, and we also, for example, use the records archive to assist with the Lothian Bird Report species accounts. I’ve always been impressed with RBA who are a highly professional service and always seem to have an excellent understanding of local significance; but sadly I gave up my subs as the web-based records searching facilities were much more limited. Birdline Scotland I would call if I found something good (not too often!) but to the likes of me who is interested in what birds are about but has no need for real-time info to go to see them (the 2004 LSP was my last “twitch”) I don’t feel any need for their telephone news service, and I've never called the hotline since I was a teenager, before there were any alternatives. However, we now have the excellent birdinglothian which provides even more news that is often not accessible on the UK news services (perhaps because some only goes to Birding Scotland?) and personally I welcome that and will support by providing news direct if I can get any. Lothian BirdForum is yet another arena, where good news is shared, and forum groups definitely have an advantage for more discursive stuff, ID queries, (gulls discussion, even – shhhh!!!), etc. Nevertheless my own feeling is that LBN still provides a better focus for all major news, and I prefer to get that by direct email (though you can also "subscribe" to the Lothian BirdForum thread and get any new posts sent by email, in just the same manner; that's fine until it becomes too chatty; no great problem with that on the Lothian forum thus far, it has to be said!). Yet another source of independent local news is provided by the Seabird centre wildlife sightings, a recent example being a Red Kite reported for Peffer Burn, Aberlady, on 23 November, which seems not to have reached any of the other news providers. Finally, news is also kindly provided by text by helpful local birders, and I would hope to reciprocate whenever I can find something worth passing on.

May seem strange I have such an interest in bird news if I’m a non-twitcher type – but to me this info the part of the arsenal of the modern birder – far better to go into the field armed with the knowledge of what’s about, and hence what to be looking out for, than completely unawares. A current example – winter redpolls are presently about in our areas again but the latest gen nationally (UK) is the numbers of Mealy (Common Redpoll) are rather low this year, so perhaps they will be harder to find for now. Likewise with Waxwing. Knowing there are Woodcock around in great numbers is a prompt to get out and tick them for new atlas tetrads. Course on the flip side there is a danger in being too aware of what rarities might be around, if it prompts jumping to wrong conclusions, but on balance it has to be an advantage. Another minor hazard is you can potentially undermine your own self-found list if too aware of local news – indeed I would not be able to count the Yellow-legged Gull (if it gets accepted) had I known that Keith had already found it before I arrived a couple of hours later! But not too much of an issue in practice.

Final reflections on “news provision” and whether it’s working – certainly it's better than it used to be but with so many places to look there is potential for confusion and fragmentation so I think it would be great if everyone made an effort to spread news widely, i.e. not just to a single source others might not check. Whilst I fully accept that no-one has an obligation to pass on news – it’s entirely up to them and no-one should feel any pressure to do so - there are still frequent instances where interesting local birds are not flagged up *at the time* on any of these many fora - for example the Hobby at "Longniddry/Seton" for 2 days a couple of summers ago, would have been very interesting news had it been successfully disseminated but it was not mentioned on LBN and does not appear in the BirdGuides archive. I only became aware accidentally over a year afterwards, far too late to be on the look-out and checking the neighbourhood! To be clear, there may have been good reasons why it did not come out, and indeed if the record was withheld as deemed of possible breeding significance then I apologise and withdraw these comments!!! But personally, had I heard of it at the time, I would have been on the alert, and alert observers can only be a benefit. Others still may consider species like Med Gull too “common” to be worth reporting now, and perhaps we are reaching that point, but when submitted and accessible to others via record searching such as the BirdGuides archive then more info just provides a more complete and meaningful picture. Equally with Quail. On a related point many may not share my enthusiasm for colour rings but again more complete info is definitely of value. For example, we now have a decent series of records for Med Gull green-3LV5 which has been at Seton mid-Sept to mid-Dec but there are several other records of “Med Gull” in the same period and it would be interesting to know if others have been seeing the colour ring and ignoring it, or were they different birds?

Regarding harvesting of LBN messages by the newshound (Neil Rigby) for the UK birding forum - I was aware of this - they come higher in web searches than LBN itself, presumably because Google is discriminating free from subscription info – but I don't have a major issue with it. All it's doing is putting the messages in the public domain - it's clearly an automated service and the (remote) hound is not intending to "claim authorship" of the messages. To me, it's just the equivalent to having LBN as an "open access" yahoogroup so all can share (as some others are run), which may in fact be an attractive alternative, but again I'm just happy for news to be out there. Personally.

As for yahoogroups themselves, their service in fixing the message search bug (now ongoing since last March) has been very poor and I have already wasted lots of time looking for messages by other means, including google. So do they deserve to keep our support or should we be upping sticks and using a better-supported service?! This all relates to blogging too - I put all details of stuff I see, e.g. colour rings, ring numbers, plumage variants, on my blog in the knowledge they are Google-able. Blogs are very highly ranked on Google, I can find my own posts via search nearly instantly after they go up. And often enough I find interesting info on other blogs via Google, but you can't find the details if they aren't ever posted anywhere. The advantage of blogging this type of stuff, with tedious details, is you spare newsgroup readers extraneous information they may not be interested in.

Now Mr Engblom, Kolibri Expeditions Peru. I had been getting news from him intermittently for several years, and never had a problem with it. I appreciate that in general unsolicited stuff is not kosher, but personally I welcomed this info on birds from Peru. Indeed, following the recent unsolicited email to some LBN subscribers, and contrary to other responses, I had deliberately opted in to the newsletter to find out more. If this was true spam and purely for profit I would have avoided it, but it seems clear to me the man is passionate about his birds (albeit rather eccentric in his modus operandii), he's working in a tough part of the world, so I'm more than happy to support him and read his news. Benefit to me in fantastic pics from Peru, as well as topical issues! Not quite the same, but others like Birds Korea also provide an excellent regular news service which you can sign up for, flagging up both important conservation issues and bird news, and there are many more equivalents. Others clearly have a different view, but each to their own :)

Now, it's time to start planning the New Year's listing and atlas visits. Perhaps it’s time to try a “non-motorised” (aka “green”) list, with an eye on environmental impact of car-based birding? Much of my summer atlasing and nocturnal birding was in fact done by bike, but in winter with children accompanying this is always going to be less feasible, so that will be the challenge.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year to all, and any comments on above can of course be posted direct on the blog here for further discussion, by any who are interested...

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