Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Eye-ring or i-ris?

An insight into the minds of modern birdwatchers

There has been a Red-necked Grebe at Ferry Meadows Country Park since December 28 (pictured above, below the surface). This is the first 'twitchable' bird to occur in the Peterborough area since 1998, so celebrations all round. It disappeared for a while over New Year but has now reappeared and today was showing better than ever.

Birders are a strange lot. There is currently a heated, no, enthusiastic debate about the bird's age (once upon a time, I suspect it would have been enough to have assigned the bird to species, but today's modern birders, armed with better-than-ever optics and digital cameras, need to be able to go that bit further). We are having an anally-retentive discussion about the bird's eye.

I have to stop every few minutes to remind myself how absurd this must seem to the outsider. I think it's pretty absurd.

There has been much scrutiny of digital photos. Some participants say that from the pictures, it looks like the bird has a yellow iris, which would age it as a first-winter (one hatched in spring last year). Others say that the yellow visible is in fact an eye-ring (ie. the edge of the bird's eyelids), and the eye itself is dark, which would make it more likely to be an adult bird.

I fall into the latter camp. I don't really care what age it is (it's still a Red-necked Grebe, either way), and I have no great insight to offer into the ageing of the species. I just think it's an eye-ring and I can't understand why some people think it's an iris. Any bird with a pupil that big in bright sunlight (or any light at all) would be in big trouble. Bright light = small pupil.

[Isn't that what they're talking about on Casualty when they say sternly: "Pupils fixed and dilated"? Then they get the defibrillators out and the patient's a goner.]

The bird's age has no bearing at all on its 'value'. Why do we care? Because these days we have the technology to be able to see these things. I suppose you are a superior, better-educated birdwatcher if you are able to offer informed comment on things like this.

Some of the commentators haven't been to see the bird, but I can feel all smug when I say I've been to see it several times, in different light conditions. One low-res digital photo can be all it takes to change your mind. It's highlighted how much faith people put into photos they see on the web, how digiscoping/digital photography is revolutionising modern birding, and how your opinion can be swayed by the appearance of a few pixels in a picture.

We should all read Simon Barnes' excellent new book, How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher and get things in perspective.

I'm enjoying the debate, in an anoraky kind of way. I suspect that only the participants have any sort of interest in the topic (though perhaps others are looking on with amusement from the sidelines?). It's quite funny, though I suppose that makes me as big an anorak as the next person...

Today's beautiful light didn't help my digiscoping, since the bird has moved to a narrow channel and it was too close, really! I'm not grumbling too much. Though the picture at the top typifies my luck when it comes to photographing this bird (it dives a lot and has usually done so by the time my camera takes its picture), the result below it is probably the best I've managed yet. Still not very good but it doesn't really matter.

photos taken with Nikon Coolpix 995 + Leica Apo Televid 62 with 16x eyepiece

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