Birdspotting – a Bluffer’s Guide

Last summer the Coffey family (UK division, plus temporary assignees from New Zealand) spent three weeks tramping around bits of northern and western Scotland. A great deal of this time was spent standing on assorted promontories, peering at the adjacent cliffs and trying to identify exactly which bits of the local fauna we were currently looking at. (“Are those puffin balls?” “Yes, I believe they are.”)

Birdspotting - the inverse law

Not being keen twitchers might be considered by some to be a disadvantage, but for us the opposite was true; being blissfully unaware of anything resembling a bird-related fact merely increased the breadth and implausibility of our sightings. In just one afternoon we spotted seventeen species on the endangered list, not to mention eight officially extinct ones and three that were new to science (puffins in particular owe their ability to fly solely to a cartoonesque ignorance of physics).

Starting with the arctic skewer (a bird rarely sighted off any British coast, but apparent to us in suspiciously seagull-esque numbers), we moved swiftly on to yet more exotic finds. At great remove we unquestionably spotted a Madagascan Serpent Eagle, and while for most people the Gunnison Sage Grouse is only to be found in a remote part of southern Colorado, we were blessed with several.

Emboldened by these early finds we were delighted to find lowland gorillas lurking in the mists of the Western Isles, even if the freshening breeze did tend to alarm these timid creatures, causing them to flee on our approach. So successful were we, in fact, that I was able to derive an empirical law of wildlife observation, which I share with you now:

The further away it is, the rarer it might as well be.

Birdspotting graph

Edit: For those of you who arrive here searching for “arctic skewer,” I’m reliably informed it’s actually spelled “skua.” Searching for that might get you slightly better results than this nonsense.

4 Responses to “Birdspotting – a Bluffer’s Guide”

  • The only reason I’m not deleting that is because it’s 25% of the comments I’ve ever received at this site.

    Now that’s standards.

  • At the risk of exposing myself as a twitcher, arctic skuas in seagull-like densities may not be so scandalous, depending on where you were in western Scotland. Handa Island, just off the very-north west of Scotland, has masses of the things. They’re particularly fond of dive-bombing, a charming greeting involving wacking the subject in the back of the head with their full weight behind taloned feet. Other than that they’re quite nice though. Your picture looks an awful lot like Great Stack on Handa, but then one sea-cliff is kinda like another really, red pandas aside.

  • It’s not Handa, I’d remember a name like that; I forget where it actually is though. Judging by the order of my photos it has to be somewhere on the Orkney mainland.

    And yes, I’m pretty sure we did see some genuine skuas, although perhaps not quite as many as were claimed at the time. Fortunately they just gave us the evil eye and occasionally went “arrk.” I’m not sure I would’ve got out of the car if I’d known about the divebombing.

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