I had a date with a celebrity on Friday. Spanish Sparrow. Handsome fellow – you might have seen him on the news. Unfortunately, as is the way with celebrities, I had a rival or two for his affections: at least one hundred other birders, not to mention the local lady house sparrows (with whom he’s been accused of sowing wild oats, as it were). I made sure it was a swift affair, therefore, and made an exit as soon as I had what I needed. That being a clear, unambiguous view accompanied by the diligent noting of key identifying features: chestnut cap, bright white cheeks, strongly black-streaked flanks. And with the rare feat of an impossibly easy twitch behind me and even rarer commodity of time to spare, I headed along the nearby Calshot spit to see what else I could identify.
Naturally, many birds do not afford such close views as do cheerful sparrows, and I soon ran into trouble. Extremely distant grebe diving on the sea? Looks smaller than great crested, black and white sort of appearance. Slavonian? Really too far away to tell. Auk loafing on the flat waters of the estuary mouth? Probably a guillemot, and indeed it was, but I had to wait some time for one to drift close enough to be sure. Then, in the same direction, another small, black and white grebe. This time a little closer, a compact bird with something of a little grebe-esque powder puff rear. Surely a black-necked. I watched it drift nearer until I was catching glimpses of telltale red in its eye and, satisfied, trundled back to the car for a snack.
As I tend to on such occasions, I leafed through the Collins Bird Guide whilst I munched. Memories of the sighting fading already, doubt crept in. Slavonian grebes have a ‘powder puff rear’ too, if less obvious. They have red eyes. They’re black and white. I’d thought I’d seen one earlier out to sea – the same bird may have moved closer in the half hour between. Could I have got this one wrong? I didn’t want to be accused of stringing – that being stringing as in ‘stringing someone along’, or in this case, the birding term referring to stringing a bird along. Making leaps of ID logic. Entirely frowned upon – more so if you think you’ve found something a lot rarer than a black-necked grebe, but for a birder of my thus far limited experience and stature, this was a fairly decent self-found bird (perhaps 100 winter in Britain). I either had to be completely certain, or refrain from both ticking and reporting it.
In other hobbies centred on collecting or listing, laxness of any sort wouldn’t bear scrutiny. You can’t say you ‘probably’ spotted train class 55 #550347; you either did or you didn’t. Stamp collectors either do or do not possess an original Penny Black stamp. Birding, however, especially when done alone, relies much more upon honesty – not just that you saw or didn’t see a bird, but that you were actually sure of its identity. Birders honour. There’s the ‘data integrity’ argument too: I usually submit lists of the birds I’ve seen online via the excellent BirdTrack site. My records, along with those of thousands of other birders, may end up being used in actual research to do actual conservation work, at some expense. Inaccuracies or worse will not help that end.
So, draining my flask cup of the somewhat suspect but otherwise very welcome coffee it contained, and mustering the twin spirits of birding fair play and scientific accuracy, I started the car and headed all the way back along the spit whence I had just walked. Tramped along a previously unexplored path in order to get even closer to the bird, waited for it to work its way back around to my position, and there it was – a black-necked grebe. Peaked head, slender bill, curved edge to its black cap, dusky ring around the neck – barely larger than the two little grebes it fished its way past. A vindication which suggests that your first instinct is generally right, but I’m always happier to be sure than to risk being wrong. A confidently ticked bird on the list is worth two poorly seen in the bush, etc. Besides, I saw a Dartford warbler on the way – close scrutiny and quality time will, when birding, almost always be rewarded.