Why oh why?
The request to be guest editors for this issue of the birdspotters’ favourite monthly magazine British Birds (incorporating the Spiggie Observer) is a great honour and was a huge surprise, especially since none of us lives in the Northern Isles. Recognising a cry for help from a fellow birding journal, we were only too pleased to rise from our comfy sofas and hobble into action. Roger, we understand, wants us to formulate an affordable action plan. It was unclear whether his answer ‘ASAP sucker’ was in response to the question ‘When?’ or to ‘What bird do you most want to see on Shetland?’.
The facts are stark. For several years, it has been apparent that this prestigious publication has gradually ceased being hilarious. A recent questionnaire confirmed as much, with many responders asking where the laugh-out-loud typos are and what happened to the regular pictures of the editor, glass of Chardonnay in hand, at some birding shindig. You can see that the editorial team at BB do their best, but how did it all go so wrong? Last month’s cover typifies the problem – a nice enough picture, but where was the humour? It completely lacked the characteristic dry wry wit of days of yore, so wry in fact that there were many reader reports of wry-neck. And we don’t get many of those now.
You may well ask how a bunch of washed-up has-beens could turn the situation around. Well, coincidentally, we asked ourselves that very same question. Yes… it has been some years since we were at the cutting-edge of the birding scene and, yes, we are getting on a bit – but, never fear, we’ve kept up to date. Some of us have cringe-watched box sets of Springwatch and Autumnwatch, although we all miss the inimitable Tony Ropey (where’s that yellow-billed tern? … it’s behind you!).
On reflection, we felt that our experience and exalted status as past editors of Not BB gave us unique insights into… err… something or other, and would enable us to lay a clutch of new ideas in the BB nest. When enacted, as they surely will be, these strategies should freshen up the brand, tipping old ideas onto the editorial office floor, while avoiding the temptation to throw out the few remaining golden eggs. We’re confident this will leave BB as refreshing as a crisp morning in a Rothiemurchus forest while the Crested Tits twitter, Scottish Crossbills chatter about their status and Capercaillies cavort and cackle. [Thought you were getting on a bit, not actually senile – Ed.]
The ’80s – where were you – were you there?
A lot has changed since those heady birding days of the 1980s. Those were innocent times, when the phrase ‘farmland birds’ wasn’t a contradiction in terms, and long before the interweb transmitted over vibrating eye-phones in our pockets and the tech-savvy amongst us trialled receiving ‘back of camera’ shots via twitter alerts sent to our Google specs. They were simpler times indeed – days when you raised your bins for a Little Egret, when Slender-billed Curlew wasn’t on the British List, written descriptions with drawings were accepted by BBRC, and Caspian Gulls hadn’t even been invented. Back then a little Norfolk eatery called Nancy’s Cafe was the place to call for news – eating there meant fielding endless telephone requests for ‘Anything about?’ while interrupting Ethel’s gourmet delights of beans-on-cheese-on-toast-on-bread-pudding, all washed down with a mug of tea and three straws. [Is this right? – Ed.] Great days indeed!
Revamping BB – new contents (and avoiding discontents)
We are pleased to present our groundbreaking new vision for the contents of this and future issues of British Birds. Our aim is to address subjects that will attract a wider range of readers, particularly the hard-to-reach younger demographic. Initial feedback from young birders down at the local gravel-pit complex was highly positive, with comments ranging from an enthusiastic ‘WTF?’ to a whole-hearted ‘Whatever!’. This has justified our confidence that we’re on the right path.
- • I’m a Celebrity Birder, Get Me A Lifer! In this new series, we sign up minor birding celebs to engage fledgling birders with our groovy new style. Calling all birders who are almost famous in the world at large – we need you! We’ll let you make rank fools of yourselves, stalk you on social media and shamelessly copy your posts while, of course, ROFLing at your mis-IDs.
- • NEW series! Frontiers of Bird Identification II. Starting with that ultimate identification challenge – Schrödinger’s Stonechat – notoriously difficult to nail in the field, we explain the physics behind a taxon that has now been shown to belong simultaneously to both Saxicola maurus and Saxicola stejnegeri – only the act of observing the bird’s mitochondrial DNA causes it to become one or the other (see pp. 517–534). Next month, we may possibly look at Heisenberg’s Stonechat. Or we may not.
- • Upcoming regular feature – I’ve Seen this Funny Bird in the Garden – all the strange ways it’s possible to describe a Green Woodpecker, Jay, Goldfinch, Dunnock, or even an ’80s classic, the common Golden-winged Warbler.
- • As that august and much-loved institution – News & comment – finds itself increasingly under fire for being insufficiently impartial in its reporting of issues related to the natural world, we redress the balance with a new series, starting with Wildlife Legislation – the Egg-collectors’ Perspective. What could be a more harmless hobby? – collect the eggs now, preserve them for posterity and watch their value rise as the species inexplicably dwindles to extinction!
- • Bird Species New to the British List Since the 1980s. In this series, we relive the finding of Snap Chat, Westwing, Red Bullfinch, Satellite Turkey-Vulture, Disgraced Bank-Tanager, Social Mesia, Brecks Tit and that memorable influx of Fake Smews.
- • Inspired by the removal from, then recent readmittance to, the British List of Norfolk’s Canary Islands race of Citril Finch, BB recommends exposing and removing several dubious species from the British List after re-examining the historical records. In Part 1 in this issue, we demolish many a young lister’s pencil-ticks of old – so it’s goodbye to Gutter Snipe, Cockney Sparrow, Leddid Petrel, Laidiga Diver and of course Murdamost Fowl (predominantly claims from the Lerwick area). Then, in Part 2 in next month’s issue (if you haven’t already cancelled your sub), readers can look forward to deleting from their lists any 1970s records of Thamesteevee’s Magpie and Clipped Accentor, and the Long-haired Plover from Liverpool is also under review. [This last record just has to be unacceptable – Ed.] After long consideration, and despite recent LGRBT legislation, we’re reluctantly agreeing to shut that door on the Wotta subspecies of Gray Jay. Finally, and delving even further back, we’ll be throwing a searchlight on suppressed wartime records of Looe Stork...
- • To fill the gaping holes left by Bird Illustrator of the Year, not to mention Bird Photograph of the Year (whatever happened to that?!), we announce the start of a brand-new competition: Rare-Bird Selfies of the Year. Rare birds are invited to enter their best photographic self-portraits. T&Cs: the competition is limited to occasional-breeding residents of the UK, in at least their second calendar year, and the submission must be the entrant’s own work. For the sake of decency, please do not send images showing courtship or breeding dress, and please remember to check the background for any less-than-photogenic twitchers. The competition will be judged by Simon Gink.
- • This month in another new section – BB Politicks – we report the shock news, passed on to us by our roving reporter Frank O’Lynn, of the BOU’s declaration that, after a snap poll, the UK will indeed unilaterally leave the Western Palearctic promptly in October… some year in the future. ‘Palxit means Palxit’, insists BOU Chairman ‘Ibis’ Tubborn.
This decision has left many big listers worried that they’ll have a problem, and Hazel in the office asking ‘Will breeding Bee-eaters still be welcome after Palxit’? Happily, we’ve consulted the Daily Excess, which confirms that your LIFE LIST will be even BIGGER after Palxit!
So, what really lies ahead for BB readers’ lists post Palxit? Suggestions of new zoogeographical alternatives to replace the WP, such as the Eastern Nearctic or the Western Eastern Palearctic (this journal’s favoured option), are proposed to be in line with the avifaunas of Scilly or the Northern Isles, respectively. Others prefer a completely new, purely Britcentric zone (known as the Least-sun Dampgraearctic).
However, the rest of the WP, dismayed at the loss of Scottish Crossbill, is considering tit-for-chat retaliation, with the committee of the French Rarity Ornithological Group believed to already have its eyes on the 1975 Channel Islands’ Siberian Blue Robin. And, of course, it remains to be seen whether the British List actually leaves the WP without a teal. [This is pathetic, you’re all sacked! – Ed.] Finally, bonkers BOU claims that the fund to rebuild fire-ravaged FIBO will now be £350 million better off post Palxit have gone up in smoke.
We conclude our revamp with a new section of Short Notes, keeping BB readers up to date with what’s happening on the patch.
- • We investigate the dark art of NavMigging, which for many is a quick way to add Ortolan to your garden list.
- • We launch a campaign to help breeding Hen Harriers in England. Our aim is simple – to stop the satellite tagging of these raptors – research shows that this means almost-certain death. As does merely flapping a wing over the horizon within range of a moorland estate. We are sure that Chris Packet and Mark Aviary would approve.
- • In ‘Tech product reviews’, we test the new avian DNA analyser mobile phone app. This revolutionary AI technology generates a DNA histogram by simply holding a 7G phone against a telescope trained on a bird. This is then automatically uploaded to a database in the Cloud for an almost instantaneous identification. The app is fully BBRC compliant. The makers claim that the IDs are 110% reliable but that the app doesn’t work with stonechats.
- • Contents Preview of Not BB January 2050: ~ EIBO – the first ten years of the North Sea Bird Observatory on the Isle of Ely. ~ Saving Britain’s last breeding Meadow Pipits on Cairngorm. ~ Habitat preference by Common Whitethroats wintering in the UK – mitigating the effects of desertification. ~ Raptor persecution on driven sandgrouse moors. ~ Best reservoirs for finding storm-blown Inca Terns and tropicbirds.
Conclusions and lesser undertail-coverts
Well it’s evening now, and nurse says it’s time for slippers and a nice cup of cocoa, before reading another page from the Observer’s Book of Birdspotting that got us started all those decades ago.
This hasn’t been an easy assignment, and not all our brilliant ideas have been implemented. It’s not been helped by having to type through the tears, as we recalled Roy’s dulcet delivery on the BirdLime answerphone service as he pioneered tips for twitchers, and glimpses of DIM Witted’s hairy legs as updrafts caught that familiar kilt on winter prion watches at Flannelborough. We’re still desperately seeking a sponsor so the journal can again feature retro black-and-white images, while our proposal to change BB’s name to the Shetland Times has been abandoned owing to opposition in Lerwick.
This issue represents a work-in-progress, but we are proud to have initiated the first step in restoring the reputation of the great British Birds. We hope you enjoy the innovations and the new-yet-incredibly-dated look of this issue. Finally, let’s promise to keep in touch on social media, because we all know that birders can’t get enough tweeting.
As soon as our work here is done, we are confident that this fine journal will still be gripping reading in 10 years’ time. [Don’t you mean 100 years? – Ed.]
The Not BB team
Daniel G. Duff, skulking in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
David H. Hatton, recently reported from a site with no general access in Hertfordshire
Simon A. Stirrup, occasionally visible in Cambridgeshire
Martin Williams, currently showing well in Hong Kong, China