Tuesday, 8 September 2015

ID blooper- my white- throated-non-barred-eastern sub- Ruppell's warbler!

I hold my hand up and readily admit I made a howler of an ID blooper near the Butt of Lewis last Friday! I don't feel the need to make excuses- I have never considered myself to be anything other than an average birder with (obviously) limited experience of many tricky species. I still learn something new whenever I'm in the field. However, the way things transpired with subsequent suggestions of mega and rare bird species, coupled with a couple of negative/petty comments suggests that it may be beneficial to put the record straight.....

Having been out all morning looking for migrants at the Butt of Lewis in challenging conditions (Near gale- NNW Beaufort F7/intermittent, persistent rain and very poor light), I worked my way down to the dense cover of the garden at the rear of what used to be the Eoropie tea room. At about 30 metres from the garden I had a split second flight view of a 'sylvia sp.' that I initially thought could be a whitethroat. I saw the bird alight briefly and dive into dense foliage. Later, I managed a few dreadful photos of a pale grey, skulking bird in the swaying and buffeted vegetation. After 20 minutes or so, the bird again showed fleetingly and appeared sluggish and heavy. It was a pale bird against a dark background and in the wet and gloom I fell into the trap of thinking the bird was bigger than it obviously was. Soaking wet and cold and with rain on my 'foggy' glasses, bins and camera I trudged back to my accommodation to dry out. I downloaded some reasonable shots of ruff and black-tailed godwits taken during a 'dry' interlude and sent off a few shots of those to some birder friends and without really thinking I also attached my best 'whitethroat' shot. Later, after a shower and much coffee, I pondered the rest of the photos and realised with some consternation that the bird was not a whitethroat, but that it reminded me of a couple of barred warblers I had seen previously on Shetland during similar autumnal conditions. I sent out photos to some very capable and respected birding friends asking if this skulking bird could be a barred warbler. The photos were not great and they concluded the following morning that it was a 'probable' barred warbler although I must stress that it was my call. Later I met up with a local birder who asked if the 'barred warbler' sighting/photos could be put out to a 'local' email group to which I readily agreed. At the time I was not aware that the email distribution included RBA admin. and Birdline Scotland! I decided to go for a sea watch at the Butt for an hour, enjoyed a few sooty shearwaters, then once again returned to the tearoom garden. As I approached the garden the local birder pulled over and said 'Andy- I have been trying to phone you'! I have good news and bad news....... your bird is not a Barred warbler- it's a probable Ruppell's warbler- yikes! To be totally honest I had to look in a field guide to check exactly what a Ruppell's warbler looked like! I felt excited but also rather sheepish in consideration of the implications of my ID error and felt a strong desire to put my head down a rabbit hole! The rest is history. The weather improved, the bird was seen by two other observers and much better photos. were obtained. With further, better quality, photographic evidence available to the wider birding community, the bird was subsequently re-identified as a probable eastern subalpine warbler. Having now seen the other observers' superior images, I admit to being rather horrified at how different the bird looks from when I first saw it in the field when much of the plumage detail, leg colour and bill size were far from obvious. 

I received two, petty messages, from unknown 'birders' that were childishly rude and very critical of my error- these were immediately consigned to the bin! I also received a number of texts, phone calls  and emails from a number of very good birders from the Highlands, Hebrides, Shetland and Cornwall who have all been very supportive and have pointed out that many birders make mistakes when in the field and that most criticism comes from those armchair birders that rarely get out in the field in poor conditions. The digital age has become a welcome tool in sorting out tricky birds but gives little or no reference to field conditions and in some cases it has become far too easy to look at others'  photographs post sighting, from the comfort of warm, dry rooms with field guides to hand. I made a mistake yes, but it has been a useful learning curve and certainly won't stop me from getting out in the field and continue trying to improve my birding abilities. Hopefully the next time I find a rare bird I'll be able to ID it accurately. I would like to thank the birders who have been supportive - you all know who you are! Many thanks also to those gifted birders (sorry- don't know your details) that contributed to the debate with suggestions of Ruppell's and ultimately eastern subalpine warblers - hopefully a little more has been learned about the identification of these birds by the wider birding community and that can only be a positive. When all is said and done the bird is still a great record for the Outer Hebrides- now I have to sort out what the description criteria are?....

my 'Barred' eastern subalpine

black-tailed godwit


  1. Congratulations on a decent find. It's worth remembering that without your pix this would have stayed a poorly seen Whitethroat . . .


  2. Thanks Mike- I appreciate your positive input- you are clearly a 'glass half full' birder. Hope you are seeing some good birds, cheers, Andy

  3. Just seen this reply Andy. . . and I'm very much a "glass half-full" birder! Actually I've had a terrific autumn on my patch at Hong Kong airport, which has included a fine run of 15 new species for the patch in just two months (albeit the patch is just 3 years old) hosting a Hoopoe in my office, and the bets of all finding Hong Kong's third Middendorff's Grasshopper Warbler!