Monday, 8 September 2008


We humans do like trying to predict things, and most of our predictions are bollocks. The fact that there is a multi-million pound industry based on complete and utter bullshit (it’s called astrology) is ample proof of that. We like to try and predict things because it makes us feel we’re in control of the universe, when of course nothing could be further from the truth. Many of the things we try and predict (e.g. the weather, Nutcracker invasions or whether we’re going to meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger) are beyond our understanding, let alone our control.

Anthony McGeehan once wrote an article in which he said that a ‘psychic’ friend of his claimed to have divined the presence of a Pallas’s Warbler on some island off the east coast of Ireland by using a pendulum held over a map. He was unable to verify the truth of this claim though, and I’m not even sure whether the article was meant to be serious or not.

However, when predicting rare bird occurrences, using a pendulum, or a crystal ball, or consulting the entrails of a weasel is probably just as likely to be successful as the average birder's pseudo-scientific method of ‘looking at the weather forecast and seeing what breeds or might be migrating where the wind’s coming from’. This approach is especially flawed because a) it assumes that vagrancy is largely dependent on the weather, and b) it relies on something which is itself notoriously unreliable – the weather forecast. OK, meteorologists are usually right when it comes to the next 24 hours, but beyond that it’s almost not worth taking any notice of.

But we still do it (predicting rare birds), mainly because it’s something to talk about, but also because we know that every now and then we will be right, and then we can feel either slightly smug or dangerously omniscient, depending on our particular personality disorders. Most of the time, though, our rare bird predictions are hopelessly wrong; it’s only because we make so many of them that any are right at all. To take it to the extreme, if you only make one prediction in your life, and that is that you’re going to go out and find a specific first for Britain in Leicestershire on a specific day, you will be wrong (and everyone will think you're a prick). But if you constantly fire off predictions of what might turn up in the next week based on the weather forecast and time of year, you will probably get one or two of them right.

Now, before the Punks start thinking I’m having a go at them again, I’m not – I enjoy the ‘rare-ometer’ and all the banter that goes on in the chatbox, and I’m sure it gets people enthusiastic for getting out there and finding stuff. But it does highlight just how hard it is to predict what might turn up, which as far as I’m concerned is a good thing. After all, birding would be completely pointless and exceptionally dull if we knew exactly what we were going to see every time we went out. A bit like having a pager in fact.

Right, now for my predictions (fuck, that’s a bastard word to type – I keep typing predicitions) for Shetland next month:

The wind will mostly vary between south-west and south-east, but some of the time it might come from other directions. Most of the birds we’ll see will be common, with a few scarce ones every now and then. The commonest warbler will be Yellow-browed. On the 5th of October at 10.37 I will find a Lanceolated Warbler at Quendale. Or it might be a different species. Or it might be somewhere else. On a different day. Or I might find nothing at all this year. There, I think that’s most options covered – we’ll see if I was right in a few weeks’ time...


Earl Gray or Dave for short! said...

Yes Please Andy,a Lancy would be very nice on the 5th!

Mark said...

PG Tips would be better.

Mark said...

Of course I meant Pallas's Grasshopper Warbler :)

Andy Mackay said...

Yep, that would do. There are three species I'd particularly like to find, as I haven't seen any of them: Lancy, Pallas's Gropper & Blyth's Reed. The latter's probably the most realistic as they seem to be annual on Shetland in October these days.