The following article is reproduced from Stringing magazine by kind permission of the Editor, Mike Hunt.
I often get letters from birders living in crap counties such as Leicestershire complaining that their local records committee insists on a description for Merlin. This is obviously very annoying for the keen county lister. Merlin is virtually impossible to twitch in a county like Leicestershire, so you’ve got to ‘find’ your own. But there’s a problem – it’s quite rare. Fortunately there is an easy solution – Sparrowhawks look a little bit like Merlins if you don’t see them very well, and they’re very common.
But how do you convince the records committee that your badly seen Sparrowhawk was actually a Merlin? Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts to guide you through the minefield of writing Merlin descriptions:
1. Unless you live out in the sticks somewhere, DON’T claim to have seen a Merlin in your garden. Descriptions along the lines of “a Merlin flew across my garden in the middle of Leicester and landed on the fence, where it remained for 10 minutes” will instantly go in the 'bollocks' pile.
2. DO make sure you at least attempt to age and sex it, even if it’s only the convincingly vague “female/immature.” An unsexed, silhouetted Merlin stands little chance of being accepted.
3. For fuck’s sake DON’T mention “barred underparts.” Yes, it has been known! No, really, it has.
4. DO keep it brief. A ‘textbook’ description including the claw and iris colour of a bird that you saw for 3 seconds as it flew over the road in front of your car is going to look well dodgy. Again, it has been known.
5. DON’T try and be funny by saying it had a pointy hat with stars and moons on it. Records committees are not generally noted for their sense of humour when assessing descriptions.
6. DO make sure you fully eliminate Sparrowhawk (see note 3). Even if it was actually a Sparrowhawk.
7. DON’T include a photocopied page of ‘field notes’ from your notebook. Records committees know damn well that no-one really writes notes in the field any more, and they ALWAYS look fake.
8. Finally, DON’T put the names K***h B*****y, R****t M***s or S***e G****r (sorry, I’ve had to asterisk these for legal reasons) at the top of the description, as that’s just asking for trouble.
As always, look at the text in a good field guide, and re-write it in your own words. Unless you use words like “long sticking out bit at the end” for “tail” or “pointy bits that make it fly” for “wings” of course. These will just make the records committee think you’re retarded (or taking the piss) and reject the record anyway. And if you must trace the pictures and try to pass them off as field sketches, at least make sure you’re tracing the right species.
Good luck, and happy stringing!
Next month – 'Three Species for the Price of One': how the humble Sparrowhawk can also double up as a Goshawk...