Thursday 25 September 2008


Wow! Just look at that pressure chart! It doesn’t matter which one, as they all seem to agree at the moment – there’s a MASSIVE high pressure centred over Scandinavia, with the vectors (that's wind to you and me) coming all the way from eastern Siberia, and possibly even further east. Hence the appearance yesterday of Brown Shrike and Brown Flycatcher, along with plenty of other less rare stuff. The last time the charts looked as good as this, Fair Isle had Rufous-tailed Whistling Veery-Robin and Chestnut-arsed Bunting, so anything could turn up!

Now that the Punks have stopped doing their rare-ometer (boo!), I feel it’s my duty to carry on their tradition of over-the-top and wildly inaccurate predictions. So, over the next few days expect anything with ‘Brown’ in its name: Brown Dipper, Brown-streaked Flycatcher, Brown-throated Treecreeper, Brown-breasted Bulbul, Brown Prinia, Brown Bear, Brown Bread, Gordon Brown – the list of possibilities is literally endless!

Newly arrived migrants in Rob's garden

Friday 19 September 2008

Two weeks to go

Another prediction for you – it will be mostly dry on Shetland this October. How do I know that? Easy – I’ve just spent a ridiculous amount of money on a new coat!

As usual at this time of year most birders get obsessed with the weather. I have a whole Firefox folder full of bookmarked weather sites, and I know that I will look at every one of them several times a day from now until I walk out of the front door to leave in two weeks’ time. A couple of sites do a 14 day forecast, and predictably they totally disagree at the moment as to what it’s going to be doing over the next two weeks. is showing it being almost constantly between north-east and south-east; Metcheck, on the other hand, reckons it will be mostly westerly or southerly, then going northerly at the beginning of October and westerly again by the 3rd!

I don’t know why they bother doing the 14 day forecast to be honest – it is completely impossible to predict the weather that far ahead. For instance, for the 3rd of October, Metcheck is currently saying it will be 18mph westerly on Shetland, whilst netweather says 5mph easterly. I know which one I’d rather believe...

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...