PATRICIDE

As I grew up and became fascinated in birds I fell under the spell of forebears who communicated, through their writing, news of great Irish discoveries. Three giants hailed from Cape Clear Bird Observatory in County Cork: Clive Hutchinson, Ken Preston and JTR (Tim) Sharrock. Their finest hour came when they unravelled the identity of an obscure warbler of a species that, as we know now, passes through Ireland and Britain each autumn. Armed with nothing more than post-war binoculars and their own experience of similar species, the trio cracked the code. The euphoria of the event is captured in the attached letter sent by Tim Sharrock to DIM Wallace, a lead voice in bird identification at the time. Although the milestone was instrumental in opening minds down subsequent decades, an ambush awaited. Elements within the Irish Rare Birds Committee attacked the written record. Like Islamic State’s desecration of built heritage, the IRBC has attempted to destroy a priceless piece of Ireland’s ornithological history.


A letter sent by Tim Sharrock to DIM Wallace, a fellow major player in bird identification at the time.

Glossary for lay readers: in much the same that ducks, geese and swans differ in looks but are all wildfowl, the various tribes of warblers can also be subdivided. The terms ‘acrocephalus’, ‘phylloscopus’ and ‘hippolais’ refer to groups of warblers. ‘Sylvia’ is yet another warbler group, many of which make a hard ‘tack’ call (referred to in the article). Blyth’s Reed Warbler is sometimes listed by its Latin name, Acrocephalus dumetorum. Also mentioned in Latin are Reed Warbler (A. scirpaceus) and Marsh Warbler (A. palustris). In topography, the part of plumage above the eye (and especially behind it) is referred to as the ‘supercilium’. In fact, ‘eye-brow’ would be an equally acceptable word. On the other hand, an ‘eye-stripe’ is any defined darker line that runs through the eye.

ACT i

From 13th to 19th October 1969 a warbler on Cape Clear Island, County Cork, baffles three of Ireland’s best observers, each of whom is familiar with Reed Warbler. The bird’s discoverers are practiced scrutineers — not simpletons or greenhorns — who had, over the previous decade, put Cape Clear Bird Observatory on the map as a seat of learning in field identification. Hence, the stranger is watched thoroughly. Given the era, no one possessed a telescope or camera. Minds were concentrated and sketches made. The outcome was a remarkable discovery, supported by overseas experts: the bird was a Blyth’s Reed Warbler, a first Irish record of a species whose characters were thought to be so similar to Reed Warbler (and also Marsh Warbler) that field identification of an out-of-range migrant was deemed impossible unless the bird was trapped. The distinctions stood the test of time and led JTR Sharrock, when he became editor of British Birds, to facilitate the publication of identification articles from others who became acquainted with the species. Until the digital era, progress was slow and sometimes the waters were muddied by contributions that were somewhat flawed, including field guide illustrations wide of the mark (some still are). Nonetheless, with the passage of nearly half a century, the material evidence remains valid. The observers got the facts right and also the meaning of the event. That is, the typical autumn date, the bird’s behaviour and the context that a different species, superficially similar to Reed and Marsh Warbler, was slipping unnoticed through Ireland and Britain. The original field notes are a kind of first-hand journalism that holds up a true and intelligent mirror to the field identification of Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

The following is a transcript of all field notes written by JTR Sharrock, CD Hutchinson, K Preston and PGR Barbier.

JTRS:

‘[Initially] from 70 yards away it was clearly a brown and white warbler with a most peculiar action — crouching low and moving very sluggishly. From 70 yards no details could be seen of structure, but the bird looked a Willow Warbler or Chiffchaff in size and shape and it was assumed to be a brown and white Phylloscopus with a strange sluggish action — and Dusky Warbler crossed my mind as I shouted to KP and CDH that there was a strange warbler and we rushed to the wall surrounding the Priest’s garden. We had no views of the bird until it flew into an Escallonia bush overhanging the road and then we watched it (mainly as a silhouette) as it slowly hopped around in the bush. These views showed an extraordinary bird quite unlike anything any of us had seen before. It seemed tiny — only a bit larger than a Wren — but with a gigantic long, thin, pointed bill, very slightly decurved and an immensely long tail (held tightly closed) sticking straight out behind (i.e., not cocked at all). The crown was peaked like a Dartford Warbler. It had no obvious supercilium. It was clearly not a Phylloscopus and various possibilities (American wren, Hippolais caligata, etcetera) were considered but ruled out. The bird then flew out to the Escallonia and back into the bracken and ivy of the Priest’s garden. As it dived into the ivy, the tail was clearly seen to be rounded — quite markedly. As it moved through the undergrowth, it was now quite obviously an Acrocephalus, but with a tiny body, huge bill and very long tail. The upperparts apparently had little or no rufous tinge; the underparts (especially throat) were white, with flanks washed warm buff. The legs seemed grey. The feeding action — slow movement by means of hops from frond to frond and looking around in between — was quite unlike any Reed or Marsh Warbler. It had none of the ‘sliding action’ of those species. When in the Escallonia it took no notice of three excited ornithologists three to ten feet away and just lethargically hopped around — remaining still for several seconds at a time. It uttered one call quite unlike Reed or Marsh Warbler. This was a very harsh trill, rather like an exceedingly angry Wren crossed with a frightened Blackbird. The following field notes were written: ‘Very long bill. An Acrocephalus warbler. Tiny — Chiffchaff-size body. Vast long tail. Short rounded wings. Peaked crown. Throat white. Flanks washed warm buffish. Upperparts earth-brown — not like Reed Warbler. Very rounded body. Like Wren with huge long bill and very long uncocked tail. Moved by a series of hops. Very confiding and not shy. Ignoring us. No eyestripe, or supercilium. Very sluggish movement. Whirring flight. Legs appeared grey. Possibility of Dusky Warbler, Booted Warbler or even American wren considered on inadequate views before positive identification as Acrocephalus. When settling, tail fanned and clearly rounded — so that Cetti’s Warbler brought to mind for moment — but bill quite wrong. Compared with Wren in flight — much the same. Very much smaller than Robin — which looked huge by comparison. Legs held flexed and close to the body when moving. [Field sketch made. Added to CCBO log.]’

ADDITIONAL NOTES

JTRS added these extra notes based on subsequent views:

‘Three very brief views of the bird in the ivy where it was first seen yesterday. The exceedingly long bill and tail were again noted, although the size was possibly not as small as it was at times thought yesterday. In bulk it was less than a Reed Warbler or Marsh Warbler (perhaps Chiffchaff-sized body) but the long tail and bill might have given it a length equal to Reed/Marsh even though it was a slighter bird. Even though this bird was quite clearly an unstreaked Acrocephalus there were the following very marked differences (not in order of importance): (1) Exceedingly long bill, (2) shorter, more rounded wings and, hence, more whirring flight, (3) proportionally very much longer tail, (4) progression by hops from frond to frond, with long waits in between, instead of sliding through vegetation, (5) completely lacking shyness, (6) colder brown upperparts, lacking rufous tinge of Reed Warbler and without any greenish tinge, (7) extraordinary harsh call (heard only once), and (8) bill not merely a continuation of the head, and tail also a separate entity, so that bird less stream-lined in shape. [Field sketch made of bird in flight. Added to CCBO log.]

Clive Hutchinson’s notes follow. His copies of field sketches of the bird’s head — showing distinctive head shape and bill shape — were entered into CCBO log.

‘Primaries extending slightly beyond secondaries — possibly longer than Melodious Warbler but definitely shorter than Icterine Warbler. No wing panel at all. Wings, mantle and crown uniform brownish — possibly faint olive tinge but not evident in flight. Later in open — no olive tinge, in flight very brown, slightly rufous brown. At rest dull brown — no rufous. Long tail apparent in flight — not as long as shrike but just about comparable to Barred Warbler. No eyestripe at all or supercilium. Tail same colour as upperparts in general. Rounded when fanned briefly. Call a harsh churring ‘zzzick’ or ‘zzuc’. Small size most striking — body about Chiffchaff size or a little larger. But not phylloscopus-like due to long tail, large bill and actions all wrong. Bill long, a little longer proportionate to head than Melodious Warbler’s, but shape quite different. Not dagger-shaped. Upper edge and lower edge pararallel, then suddenly meeting at tip. Seemed dark brown; lower mandible possibly greyer and paler. In quick flight towards observer, underparts were very pale — creamy-buff with slight with slight yellowish flush at throat. Legs dark. Actions: slowly moving about tree. Almost unnoticeable. Ignored observers who watched it appear and disappear into bush. Moved about slowly, not stumbling. Once darted out and caught a fly in the air. Bill snapping. Then flew to brambles at 20 yards. Hopped about innocuously, disappearing and appearing on bramble stems. Slow and deliberate apart from sudden jerks into flight. Much smaller than Robin in body size but larger (slightly) than Wren — only comparison possible! In brief the bird was a small warbler with a long, thinnish bill and long, rounded tail. Upperparts broadly speaking a dull brown, underparts creamy-buff and no supercilium. Movements were very deliberate, hopping from branch to branch but once fly-catching in a manner reminiscent of Phylloscopus. Occasional flitting movements also suggested Phylloscopus. But the structure and other actions ruled out this genus. Bill shape seems wrong for Hippolais if all have similar bills to Melodious and Icterine — this bird’s bill was long and straight, not dagger-shaped and broad at base. Acrocephalus seems the genus to which this bird belonged but it was not one of the Reed Warbler type regular on CCBO. Head shape was wrong, the crown was too peaked; the body was too small, the tail too long in proportion to the body and rounded also; above all the bill was longer and shaped differently.’

CDH also made further notes when the bird was seen again on 14th October 1969:

‘Obviously an Acrocephalus, but small in body. Wings short. Body size as Chiffchaff nearby. Perhaps very slightly larger, but in length distinctly longer than Chiffchaff on account of long tail which again showed clearly rounded. Plumage — brown above, creamy below, paler throat — not seen as yellowish today. Yesterday’s view in less good light. Upperparts reminiscent of Wren in basic colour, although rather paler. Bill long, very striking. Dark with lower mandible perhaps paler at base. Dumpy shape — rather like Wren. Not like Reed Warbler at all. Legs flexed as bird crouched on bramble, then jumped on top of wall amongst ivy and brambles and bracken fronds. Hopped twice and disappeared. Legs seemed darkish — exact colour did not register in brief view. [A field-sketch of the bird showing shape and stance was traced into the log. Sketch shows (1) long bill (2) peaked crown — so that bill and head did not run into each other as in Reed Warbler but were rather ‘joined’ at base of bill (3) dumpy shape (4) short wings (rounded in flight, which was direct, fast and with quick beats) (5) long, rounded tail (6) flexed legs.]

Ken Preston’s notes follow. They relate to 13th October. Extra notes for 14th October are attached in their wake. KP copied eight small sketches into the CCBO log.

‘The main features … were the huge tail, very long bill and tiny size. We discussed and dismissed many possibilities, including Phylloscopus, Hippolais and even American wren. When it eventually flew out of the bush and landed in the bracken it was obviously an Acrocephalus. Quite unlike a Reed Warbler in actions or proportion of bill and tail. It hopped and jumped about in the bushes appearing at the edges only very rarely. In the Escallonia bush it moved about slowly and quietly appearing as a silhouette to us watching from below. The body looked really minute with a very long bill and long tail held tightly closed sticking straight out behind and not cocked like a Wren. At that time I would have said it was only slightly larger than a Wren, as a Robin nearby looked much larger. The movements were the most outstanding feature, lacking the smooth gliding quality of a Reed Warbler or Marsh Warbler. It moved sluggishly, hopping from twig to twig and stopping to look around it. Eventually it flew from the bush to a patch of bracken. The flight was Wren-like with whirring wing beats. When it landed it fanned its huge tail which appeared to be distinctly rounded. The upperparts were a dull brown, probably what is called ‘earth brown’, and definitely not as rufous as a Wren. All seemed fairly uniform but primaries possibly darker. The underparts were off-white with a warm buffish wash on the throat and flanks. There was no superciliary or eye-stripe. The eye was dark. The bill looked dark grey, possibly with the lower mandible being lighter. Legs also looked dark grey. In shape it looked rather odd, not resembling any warbler closely but being something like a Wren with a huge tail. The bill was very long and thin with a very slight decurvature at the tip. The crown was steep. Body fairly portly with a deep belly. Wings short and rounded, the primaries appeared to extend only slightly beyond the secondaries. The wing went nowhere near the tip of the tail, probably stopping just below the rump. When moving [the wings] were held up close and not drooped. No tail-flicking was noticed, although on one occasion it was held up above the horizontal. A call was heard once and was quite extraordinary. Hard to describe, it was something like a Wren churring furiously with a Blackbird going at the same time. Very skulking bird moving about in the bracken and making rare appearances. Views were very short. It usually hung sideways on the stems with legs held close to the body, looking around between each move. Once it stood in the middle of a bush munching what appeared to be a blackberry.’
‘14th October. During five hours …only appeared for a total of one minute in brief views. The most important fact noted today was the size — which appeared larger than thought yesterday. Compared with a Chiffchaff nearby after it had disappeared its body looked similar in size to that of the latter, but it was longer overall due to the extraordinary length of the bill and large tail. The colouration appeared to be similar to last night’s view but the throat clearer than first considered. The whole of the underparts were creamy white with a buff flush confined to the flanks. Actions as yesterday … once it was seen to run along the top of a wall among bracken. It sped along looking like a mouse. The bill was held straight out in front and the tail stuck out behind giving it a superficial resemblance to a Treecreeper. The body was held low and it moved at a steady speed and not in jerky movements. [Two sketches copied into CCBO log.]’

PGR Barbier saw the bird briefly on 14th October. His notes are minimal for that date but he saw it much better five days later. Reading between the lines, the bird was very secretive and eluded attempts by others to see it again until PGR Barbier managed to connect with it on 19th October. On that date he recorded the following:

‘The bird was watched on a Sunday morning with no disturbance from passers-by, tractors, car or school children’s playtime. It was in the same area as on previous occasions, and many good views were obtained, some continuous for over a minute, partly in sunshine, sometimes in open at rest. It was possible at times to compare it with Chiffchaff and Garden Warbler nearby. Colouring: underparts — creamy off-white, slightly buffier at sides, especially white on throat (as seen when throat stretched up facing). Upperparts dull brown, browner, darker and much less green than Chiffchaff, much darker than Garden Warbler. In some lights a very slight olivaceous tinge. Very uniform, including wings and tail. But wing outer edges at rest forming darker, very dark brown line. Brown of upperparts went down on cheeks to below eye level. Eye dark. No trace of reddish or russet in the brown. No noticeable eyestripe or superciliary. Structure — marked by long thin straight bill; longish rounded tail (proportion to body as Red-backed Shrike or Barred Warbler). Body much less portly than Garden Warbler, rather more rounded (tubular?) than Chiffchaff, rather pear-shaped above, narrowing gradually at neck and throat to the long thin bill (from below, the lower mandible continuing the curve of the throat). Above the bill was at angle to forehead owing to rounded head with highest point in the middle. Legs of moderate length. Soft parts — legs light greyish brown. Bill darker brown above, lighter below. Movements and posture — sometimes very sluggish, remaining at rest for considerable time at times. At other times continually hopping for short or longer distances jerkily through bracken, ivy or brambles. Before a hop, seemed to look around from side to side, when watcher prepared for sudden perhaps up to three feet or so jump, so as to keep following bird in glasses behind bracken for its next appearance. Once seen when facing observer to stretch up its longish narrowing mobile very white throat. Occasionally seen flicking tail from slightly above level to level with body. Sometimes moved fast, taking two or three hops without much pause. Usually perched with flexed legs, or with feet one above the other around bracken stem, more uprightly and facing sideways to direction of feet. Centre of activity brambles in top of ivy, with number of ripe blackberries, although never actually seen taking one. Seemed to circle around this by various devious set paths through bracken and ivy, along one of which could usually be found again after disappearing. Flight straight with whirring short rounded wings, tail straight out although once seen slightly drooped at tip. Also seen once thrusting long bill here and there, a very manoeuvrable instrument. Size — from tail tip to head not including bill nearly as long, but slenderer than Garden Warbler; longer than Chiffchaff owing to longer tail.’

THE EXPERTS’ COMMENTS

Dr Kalervo Eriksson, Helsinki, Finland:

‘Dr. Bergman sent me your letter of 19th November 1969. I have read it very carefully. My previous experience of A. dumerotum is as follows: I have studied the breeding biology of A. dumetorum since 1962 (see: K. Eriksson: ‘Uber die Brutokologie des Buschrohrsangers Acrocephalus dumetorum’ Ornithol. Mitteil., 21:91–100, 1969) and the occurrence of the species in Finland (Ornis Fennica, 1969, in press). In my study area, A. scirpaceus and A. palustris also occur as breeding species. For example, I have on about ten to twenty occasions caught all three species at once for comparison. I agree completely with your suggestion to determine the species as A. dumetorum. Especially good identification marks are: the long and thin bill, which looks dull grey. The crown really is peaked. Wings are short and rounded. Especially good points for identification are its huge and rounded tail, totally and very uniformly brown upperparts with little rufous tinge, which is seen only in straight sunlight and mostly in flight. As you see, most things are really in complete agreement with your observations. The only thing in contradiction is the colour of the throat, described by one observer as ‘warm buffish’, but this is corrected in a later description. To my mind, the underparts of A. dumetorum are mostly greyish-white, with a slight brownish wash on the flanks. The voice you describe is its typical alarm note.’

HG Alexander:

‘As to your Cape Clear Acrocephalus: it may interest you to know that, as I read your description before I got to your identification, I said to myself: that can only be A. dumetorum. I think I can claim a good deal of first-hand experience of the genus Acrocephalus; and I really do not think that your bird could be any of the others, whereas at every point — colour, shape, and behaviour — it fits dumetorum perfectly.
Plate 1

ACT ii

In 1969 I (Anthony McGeehan) was a 13 year-old rookie and could scarcely pronounce ‘Blyth’s’. Tim Sharrock, Ken Preston and Clive Hutchinson were father figures in the eyes of my generation. They hovered close to apotheosis. I read the published descriptions of their Blyth’s Reed Warbler so many times that passages acquired a Koran mantra. During the 1980s I got to know Clive Hutchinson and asked him about the bird. He said that credit was due to JTRS for realising that it was not a regular Acrocephalus warbler (meaning Reed Warbler). Once alerted to its novelty, CDH and KP quickly realised that they beheld an Acrocephalus which they had not seen before.

I was keen to see the species. I saw several in Sri Lanka in 1983 but the views were fairly meaningless due to the quarry’s foliage-dwelling habits. Fast forward to the new millennium. Over recent years improved insights have clarified understanding to a point where the species is regularly identified. Indeed, in 2015, Blyth’s Reed Warbler was removed from the British Birds Rarity Committee’s list of rarities requiring a description. Key breakthroughs included ‘Identification of Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the field’ by Mark Golley and Richard Millington in BIRDING WORLD vol 9, no. 9, pp. 351–353); text and annotated photographs on the Punkbirders website; and Hadoram Shirihai’s robust criteria in the Macmillan Birders Guide to European and Middle Eastern Birds (dating from 1996). Just the same, when I discovered a Blyth’s Reed Warbler on Inishbofin, Co. Galway, on 5th October 2012 I was prepared for a stiff exam. Yet I found the identification process straightforward. Much more important was the opportunity to re-live the Cape Clear descriptions of 1969. Suffice to say that I was overcome with a sense of deja vu.

Now for the bombshell. In 2003 the Irish Rare Birds Committee reviewed and REJECTED the 1969 record. I was aware of the decision but because I had no experience of Blyth’s Reed Warbler I could not comment. Having watched the Inishbofin Blyth’s Reed Warbler as intently as possible, I re-read the published descriptions. I also contacted Tim Sharrock who, curiously, had not been informed about the record’s demise. Similarly, KP had not been contacted by IRBC. By not informing the observers about the review and its outcome, basic manners seem to have been forgotten by IRBC unless, of course, the striking-out of the record was Mission Unspeakable.

Before adding my comments about the reasons for the record’s rejection (with which I disagree) here is my description of the Inishbofin Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Unlike the Cape Clear individual, the Inishbofin bird was photographed. In short order it was accepted by IRBC. In many ways the original descriptions from 1969 fitted the Inishbofin bird perfectly.

‘On Inishbofin, County Galway, Friday 5th October 2012 was a sparkling day with a light northerly breeze. Conditions were ideal for finding migrants but the occupants of the island appeared to consist of only local birds. Migration had stalled. Such had been the case during the previous three days. News of an Eastern Kingbird on Inishmore, about 50km away, meant that hope was far from extinguished. By late afternoon I had reached the southwest extremity of the island where rows of potatoes and root crops adjoined an extensive waist-high bed of nettles. Seedeaters were on my mind. I scanned for Linnets and House Sparrows and dreamed of finding a stranger in their midst. Zilch. I was on the point of leaving when a warbler flitted from among the nettles. My only view was of it skimming low and dropping out of sight. The bird’s colour temperature suggested a Willow Warbler — but a pale one, possibly a ‘northern’ Willow Warbler, some of which turn up on Inishbofin in October. It went to ground and made no attempt to perch. On the other hand, given the lack of trees or even a solitary bush, any Phylloscopus warbler would probably be quite content to feed among a forest of nettles.
I walked to the lee of a dry-stone wall and waited. Nothing stirred. I got out an Audubon bird squeaker and cranked out a few notes. That did the trick. Stems twitched and I peered among the morass. What I saw was fragments of face and body. The bird was approaching like a stalking feline. I was electrified to see a spiky bayonet of a bill that, from this angle, looked broad across the base (echo of Spotted Flycatcher) and dark along the sides of the upper mandible. Wren-like, the distal portion of the bill tapered and appeared to curve towards a thin tip. The lower mandible was clean, bright and colourless. The fore-crown was flat and, if anything, concave. Initial impressions forged a notion of a long-billed warbler. In truth, the attenuated effect was produced by a combination of a ‘stretched’ forehead and a spiky bill. In effect, the face had a muzzle (or snout) and it was this that added the true-life, ‘long-faced’ expression. Especially when the bird looked slightly downwards, the breadth of its snout was wide enough to shield a view of its face. Between bill and eye there was a neat pale handlebar — the fore-supercilium or ‘supra-loral’ stripe — bordered below by darker lores. Blob-shaped and slightly arched in front of the eye, the stripe narrowed, straightened and petered out beyond the eye. Its extension past the eye was variable. Sometimes it morphed to become elongated and tapering, although it was never bright. The frontal bulge of the fore-supercilium was further emphasised by a somewhat darker fore-crown. Where fore-crown met fore-supercilium, there was a delineating furrow. The apex of the crown looked domed and the throat was creamy and slightly puffy. The feathers of the fore-crown were ruffled as though uplifted in agitation yet the upraised plumage formed part of the bird’s standard look. A diffuse pale arc encircled the underside of the eye.
Over most of the upperparts there was an absence of any strong swatch of Phylloscopus olive or Acrocephalus rufous. Fundamentally neutral brown, the hues were neither pallid nor warm. Among other warblers with which I am familiar, I failed to find a good match to the upperparts colour. It was as though brown upperparts had been desaturated of colour until they started to hint of olive, not brown. Light and vegetation exerted a further influence. The plumage radiated the hues of the surroundings. Among sunlit, verdant nettles, the back looked olive-brown; perched in the open in overcast weather, olive was purged and replaced by cold grey-brown. The underparts were clean and, for plumage that was whitish buff, they often appeared ‘silvery’ like the chest of a seal. In strong sun, the underparts looked stony-white although, in reality, they were underlain by grey on the fore-flanks and sandy-brown at the rear flank. In dull light the underparts could look a grubby impure shade that was almost grey on the flanks, particularly when the flank plumage cloaked the folded wings. Unlike Reed Warbler, the flanks did not show a rufous wash. In that split-second of gut reaction that commits lifelong memory, a further shock was the intermittent gleam of bronze from the folded wings. Seeming to depend entirely on body angle, coppery edges across the base of the folded secondaries and greater coverts caught the eye. Once I got over the surprise of an intermittent bronze gleam from this part of the bird, I came to accept it as a regular component in most field views. By now, nothing else mattered. Finally, I had encountered my Holy Grail. This was a Blyth’s Reed Warbler.
I tried to work out my next move. The bird had already defaulted to skulking. I needed better views and, if possible, photographs. Insect-rich runnels ran among the nettles and it was feasible that such redoubts met all feeding needs. I might never see it again. Gulp! I readied the camera and decided to play contact notes from my iPod. I debated if I should sacrifice views for images. A horrible dilemma. However, the chance of bagging digital proof won. I pressed ‘play’ and prayed. It worked. Due to entanglements cloaking the subject, finding focus was fiendishly difficult. So the images were rubbish. But still acceptable as corroboration. And there was a silver lining — the wraith had clearly been attracted to species-specific calls. Several weights had lifted. Now I was in for the long haul. I wanted to see and hear everything. The sleuth was foraging among the nettles and gleaning insects while balancing horizontally or facing forwards or upwards as it peered for prey. At no time did it ‘slide’ up or down stems in the manner of a Reed Warbler. On the other hand, nettle stems are not conducive to sliding! Feeding actions were edgy. It progressed by measured vaults, intermittently gathering pace when it slimmed into a long-bodied and dart-headed posture, when the head’s contours look ‘bony’. Frequently the short wings hung partly spread and the longish tail was carried in a gentle cock above the line of the body, which came across as pot-bellied. The tail was also twitched downwards in a shallow arc. Generally, the legs looked long. The silhouette resembled a fairground swing-boat, akin to the oft-quoted likeness to a banana. Despite longish legs, the centre-of-gravity was low, while the head and tail were uplifted. However, the proportions were never podgy (in the style of Garden Warbler) but streamlined with an overall spool shape recalling Grasshopper Warbler. In afternoon sunshine, the underparts varied between buff to grey — dingy on the flanks, whitest on the belly and vent. During total overcast, the flanks turned ‘smoky’ and abutted an off-white chest. The rearmost undertail coverts were café-au-lait. Along the rear flank, a wedge of dun impinged upon and almost separated the white rear belly from the long undertail coverts. If the wing was drooped, the ‘whorl’ of dun was hidden. The tertials showed contrast. Sunlight set off a dappled look at the tips of, especially, the two innermost tertials. The rest of the wing was plain. When the wing was tightly folded, the exposed primaries formed a short point (clearly shorter than the length of the tertials). The shortness of the folded wings made the tail appear long. The ratio of exposed primaries versus tertial length reminded me of the short wing point of a Blackbird. The bill’s lower mandible always looked pale. Views were not good enough to detect a dusky tip to the pale lower mandible (if indeed there even was one). The legs and feet were a bland, variable shade; their colour fell somewhere between grey and ‘dusty’ pink.
During approximately eight hours of waiting over three days, five single calls were heard. The utterance was a tongue-clicking (recalling Lesser Whitethroat) tet. Perhaps thik or tsuk better conveys a certain ‘splatting’ quality that is hard to describe in words. Once, two deliveries were made in fairly quick succession. The note was underwhelming. At no time was the caller visible, yet the syllable was a sure bead to whereabouts.
Occasionally the phantom lingered for up to 20 minutes within clumps of nettles no larger than a kitchen table. Rare flights were made from one block of nettles to another. Airborne, it was a totally plain warbler without any plumage contrasts, such as a rusty rump. Flight views were too brief to form any meaningful impression of looking long-tailed or round-winged; both are cited as attributes of the species. Subsequent examination of photographs revealed tightly bunched primaries, at least six tips being (just about) discernible as opposed to seven or eight on Reed Warbler. In addition, the tips on Reed Warbler have a slightly wider spacing that increases towards the wing tip. The tips on Reed Warbler are also made easier to see because the folded primaries are darker, making the fringes stand out. Often the Blyth’s Reed Warbler held its wings tight against the uppertail coverts. When this happened, due to the short extension of primaries beyond tertials, the wing tip was almost ‘lost’ against the uppertail coverts, attenuating the bird’s rear profile. The position of emargination on the wing of the Blyth’s Reed Warbler produces a cut-away irregularity on the edge of the outer primaries (difficult to see clearly in photographs). Flight photographs show a gently rounded shape to the tail and no paleness on the outer tail. Had the bird been a Hippolais (confusion has arisen between some members of this genus and Blyth’s Reed Warbler), the tail would have been square-ended and the outer edges would have been pale. Fairly short undertail coverts are a further feature of Hippolais, not Acrocephalus. The bird was still present on 7th October and may have stayed beyond that date. However, its secretive nature frustrated attempts to confirm presence over subsequent days.’

ACT iii

In rejecting the 1969 record, IRBC had not only discarded the efforts of the bird’s observers but also that of the two experts who had adjudicated on the evidence. The announcement made by IRBC is available on the IRBC website [www.irbc.ie/announcements/announce30.php]. It reads as follows and is placed in italics to aid cross-referencing in further discussion.

‘The sole Irish record of Blyth’s Reed Warbler to date concerns a bird seen at Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork, from 13th to 19th October 1969. The descriptions have been published in full in the Cape Clear Bird Observatory Report No.11 (1969) pp.34–38.

This record has attracted considerable attention over the years, as it was the first record of a Blyth’s Reed Warbler in Britain or Ireland identified solely on the basis of ‘in-the-field’ views; it was neither trapped nor photographed, so the record lacked any of the biometric data which at that time would generally have been considered a prerequisite to safe identification of an autumn vagrant anywhere outside its normal range. It is testimony to the then growing confidence in new, often ‘jizz-based’ identification criteria that not only was this record accepted, but that the observations of this particular bird provided the material for a note boldly entitled ‘The identification of Blyth’s Reed Warbler in autumn’ (Sharrock et al 1970). Since then, much has been written about Blyth’s Reed Warbler and the complexity of its identification e.g. (Harvey et al 1984), (Harrap 1989) and some authors have questioned aspects of the identification of this bird and the validity of some of the features regarded by Sharrock et al as diagnostic of Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Of the 29 records of Blyth’s Reed Warbler in Britain up to 1995, only one was of an autumn bird that was not trapped (Rogers et al 1997; Evans 1994). Indeed, it was not until as recently as 1996 that there were signs of significantly increased confidence in the field identification of autumn vagrants (Golley & Millington 1996; Rogers et al 1997).

Blyth’s Reed Warbler is actually very similar to both Reed Warbler and Marsh Warbler in the field and conclusive identification of autumn birds in the field requires very critical and close attention to vocalisations. Key features that aid in the identification of Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the field can be summarised as follows (adapted from Golley & Millington 1996):

Short primary projection

Sylvia-like call

Prominent fore-supercilium

Emarginations on third and fourth primaries

Greyish toned legs

Comparatively little contrast in wing feathers

Lack of contrastingly ginger rump

A number of features noted on the Cape Clear bird do, it has to be said, correspond with what are now regarded as significant indicators of Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the field; namely the longer bill, colder brown upperparts lacking rufous tones and the short wings. On the other hand, it is disturbing that the bird is described as having been so different from a typical Reed Warbler when, in reality, the two species are extremely alike. The descriptions all emphasise the prominence of the tail (described as ‘huge and rounded’) and bill length (described as ‘gigantic’) and while it seems likely that there is an element of exaggeration in these accounts it nevertheless adds to the difficulty in reconciling what is described with the undeniably subtle character of Blyth’s Reed Warbler. In addition, the repeated emphasis on the lack of any supercilium suggests something other than Blyth’s Reed Warbler, while the inconclusive descriptions of the bird’s call (unfortunately, it was heard to call on only one occasion) do not lend significant support to the identification.

The IRBC concluded that while it was quite possible that the bird was in fact a Blyth’s Reed Warbler, that there was insufficient firm evidence to support the identification of this notoriously tricky species. Consequently, Blyth’s Reed Warbler has now been removed from the Irish List.’

ACT iv

At the beginning of 2013 Tim Sharrock writes to Kieran Fahy, the IRBC secretary, asking for a review of the record and raising questions such as: had the field sketches been examined and why were the two expert opinions over-ruled? AMG emailed the following submission to IRBC in February 2013.

‘AMG: Although I am aware that Tim Sharrock has asked for the record’s rejection to be reviewed, I feel that I am reasonably well qualified to express my own opinion. No need to mince words. I am certain that the bird was a Blyth’s Reed Warbler. It is obvious that most of what impressed the original observers also struck me, 43 years later. Rather than outline blow-by-blow similarities I will address the reasons given for rejection in the IRBC announcement.

Repeated (below) is the IRBC’s selection of seven ‘Rosetta stone’ criteria. Of course, the criteria were not formulated by IRBC; rather they are copied, verbatim, from BIRDING WORLD. It is important to query the experience of those among the IRBC who reviewed and then rejected the Cape Clear. This is not stated in the IRBC announcement. Conversely, the two referees who accepted the record were very experienced. Kalervo Eriksson from Finland had seen and handled many individuals and, even in the light of knowledge in 2015, his comments are accurate. HG Alexander was a major contributor to Witherby’s ‘Handbook’. A birdwatching prodigy from age 8, Horace Alexander lived in India from 1927 until at least the late 1950s. He travelled and wrote extensively about the birds of the Indian subcontinent and was especially interested in identification, notably warblers. For example, he published papers on Dusky Warbler (1948); Phylloscopus warblers in Kashmir (1950); Asian phylloscopus warblers (1955) and wrote a small book on Asian phylloscopus warblers (1969). Although a modest man, he would have been totally familiar with Blyth’s Reed Warblers from its Indian winter quarters. It seems peculiar that IRBC should see fit to gainsay such experienced referees without recourse to qualified contemporary opinion.

All IRBC comments are in italics.

Short primary projection

Sylvia-like call

Prominent fore-supercilium

Emarginations on third and fourth primaries

Greyish toned legs

Comparatively little contrast in wing feathers

Lack of contrastingly ginger rump

AMG: Taken together, the points are deemed to clinch identification. While all are highly pertinent, not all are diagnostic. Nevertheless, the CCBO record scores very highly. Five out of the seven criteria are met. Specifically, (i) short primary projection; (ii) Sylvia-like call; (iii) greyish-toned legs; (iv) comparatively little contrast in wing feathers; (v) lack of contrastingly ginger rump. Indeed, the two other features are not found wanting. One is the ‘prominent fore-supercilium’. The significance of this element in Blyth’s Reed Warbler head pattern did not crystallise until years after 1969. Perhaps the field sketches might actually depict this subtle feature? Even if hindsight cannot be applied, the lack of description relating to the fore-supercilium does not undermine the field descriptions. The final point of the seven is the presence of emarginations on the third and fourth primaries. Normally this would be an in-hand biometric feature. Even today it is very difficult, in the field, to distinguish such subtlety. The worth of such a diagnostic feature would probably have not been known in 1969. In life, some trapped birds do not show emargination on the fourth primary. So, rather than two ‘fails’ out of seven, the CCBO record has five out of five passes.

IRBC: A number of features noted on the Cape Clear bird do, it has to be said, correspond with what are now regarded as significant indicators of Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the field; namely the longer bill, colder brown upperparts lacking rufous tones and the short wings. On the other hand, it is disturbing that the bird is described as having been so different from a typical Reed Warbler when, in reality, the two species are extremely alike.

AMG: At the outset, it should be noted that the IRBC’s review of the CCBO record was published in 2003. Since then, almost a decade has passed and I think it is fair to say knowledge of the field identification of Blyth’s Reed Warbler has improved immeasurably. From my point of view — having finally observed the species properly — the identification process is not difficult. The bird’s skulking habits are a pain but that should not mask the fairly straightforward nature of establishing identity. In fact, I was surprised at how ‘easy’ the Inishbofin individual was to identify even before it called (and I didn’t hear it until its second day). My contention is that Blyth’s Reed Warbler is no more difficult to tell from Reed or Marsh Warbler than a Willow Warbler is from a Chiffchaff. So I do not agree with the IRBC’s summation. I would suggest that the present IRBC may feel that, in terms of identification ‘awareness’, we all have been re-educated. To this end, I think that the observers’ detection — particularly JTRS, its finder — of distinctions should be applauded. Especially as they all stack up as valid for what we now know of Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

IRBC: The descriptions all emphasise the prominence of the tail (described as ‘huge and rounded’) and bill length (described as ‘gigantic’) and while it seems likely that there is an element of exaggeration in these accounts it nevertheless adds to the difficulty in reconciling what is described with the undeniably subtle character of Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

AMG: Yes, if the descriptions were to be evaluated by referring to a thesaurus, then reviewers would baulk at terms such as ‘huge and rounded’ for the tail and ‘gigantic’ for the bill. By pushing these evocative terms to the front of the case against the record, much more accurate descriptions are being overlooked. In fact, any fair-minded interpretation of some of the photographs in the attached plate, notably Robert Vaughan’s images from Tory and one of my own from Inishbofin — arguably looking long-billed, long-tailed and with no appreciable supercilium — gives credence to the CCBO observers’ characterisations of the bird. The following excerpts are in a different league and put the bird’s proportions into a realm that is not at all inconsistent with it being a Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

BILL SHAPE

CDH: Bill long, a little longer proportionate to head than Melodious Warbler’s, but shape quite different. Not dagger-shaped. Upper edge and lower edge parallel, then suddenly meeting at tip. Seemed dark brown; lower mandible possibly greyer and paler … bill shape seems wrong for Hippolais if all have similar bills to Melodious and Icterine — this bird’s bill was long and straight …

KP: The bill was very long and thin with a very slight decurvature at the tip.

TAIL SHAPE AND OVERALL SIZE

JTRS: Long tail and bill might have given it a length equal to Reed/Marsh Warbler even though it was a slighter bird. Even though this bird was quite clearly an unstreaked Acrocephalus …

CDH: Long tail apparent in flight — not as long as shrike but just about comparable to Barred Warbler.

PGRB: From tail tip to head not including bill nearly as long, but slenderer than Garden Warbler; longer than Chiffchaff owing to longer tail. [NB: PGRB was able to make fairly direct comparisons with other warblers.]

IRBC: In addition, the repeated emphasis on the lack of any supercilium suggests something other than Blyth’s Reed Warbler …

AMG: Facial expression in Reed, Marsh and Blyth’s Reed Warblers is subtly different. With the benefit of hindsight, we know today precisely where those small differences lie. Unless the several field sketches that were made in 1969 depict something more tangible, the words used to describe the supercilium are not necessarily wrong or even inaccurate. We are dealing with semantics. Unless there was a ‘proper’ brow extending back and over the eye, maybe the observers felt that the definition of ‘supercilium’ did not apply? In fact, JTRS states ‘It had no obvious [italics added by AMG] supercilium’ and PGRB said ‘no noticeable [italics added by AMG] eyestripe or superciliary’. Furthermore, both the Inishbofin and Tory Blyth’s Reeds (and many others in web searches) seemed to habitually raise the fore-crown plumage (see Robert Vaughan’s images). This tends to dilute the contrast across the ‘fore-face’ and, in fact, it is not unreasonable to argue that, back in 1969, inexperienced observers of a Blyth’s Reed Warbler might describe a bland face.

IRBC: … while the inconclusive descriptions of the bird’s call (unfortunately, it was heard to call on only one occasion) do not lend significant support to the identification.

Surely the IRBC needs to hold its hands up and say that this pro-rejection comment is plain wrong? Although the IRBC is incorrect, the language is cleverly constructed and implies that some kind of King Solomon vat of knowledge forms the basis for the ‘do not lend significant support’ conclusion. Weasel words indeed.

CDH’s states: Call a harsh ‘zzzick’ or ‘zzuc’. My transcription for the Inishbofin bird reads: ‘tongue-clicking (recalling Lesser Whitethroat) tet. Perhaps thik or tsuk …’ All observers make a stab at describing what they heard and nothing in their words undermines the case for Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Dr Eriksson, based on breeding birds in Finland, found the call to be a typical alarm. Indeed, recordings on www.xeno-canto.org match the 1969 descriptions: such as Vir Joshi’s recording from India in January 2012 [XC 98673]. Voice transcriptions in the Collins Bird Guide state: a clicking ‘zeck’, often repeated, and a rolling ‘zrrrrt’. The similarity between the Collins Bird Guide text and description of the call could hardly be better. [Vocalisations apart, several Irish observers, AMG included, with recent experience of autumn Blyth’s Reed Warblers are of the view that the text and illustrations in the Collins Bird Guide are poor and have contributed to clouding the alleged difficulty of identifying the species.]

Back to notations of the CCBO call. CDH described it as ‘a harsh zzzick or zzuc’; Tim Sharrock opined ‘this was a very harsh trill, rather like an exceedingly angry Wren crossed with a frightened Blackbird’; Ken Preston wrote ‘a call was heard once and was quite extraordinary. Hard to describe, it was something like a Wren churring furiously with a Blackbird going at the same time.’ Anyone who hears a strange utterance and is asked to describe it will come up with a personal recollection. Put several people together and the chances are that renditions of the sound may differ in a small degree. It strikes me that CDH is describing a much shorter phrase than JTRS and KP, who invoke ‘trill’ (JTRS) and ‘churring’ (KP). No matter what sound was made, none of the three recollections are at cross-purposes. Blyth’s Reed Warblers issue alarm notes in short, Wren-like bursts and also broadcast shorter tetchy monosyllables. A possible scenario for the CCBO bird is that its outburst contained both types of alarm notes. The Vir Joshi recording is precisely that. The clip is nine seconds long. During the first seven seconds, three Wren-like churring calls are made. In the eighth second, churrs are truncated (or replaced) and a single ‘zzuc’ note is interjected. To access the recording quickly, enter its number in the ‘search recordings’ window but be sure to preface it with ‘nr:’ Hence: nr:98673.

Robert Vaughan, who has seen Blyth’s Reed Warblers in India and Ireland, read the CCBO descriptions and made the following comment:

“I agree that the [CCBO record] sounds good and that there are several features in favour of Blyth’s Reed Warbler, particularly …‘immensely long tail (held tightly closed) sticking straight out behind (i.e. not cocked at all).’ I have seen several Blyth’s abroad (and Tory bird) and found that the banana posture was very noticeable. I have identified nearly all the birds that I have seen on this posture, confirmed with details when I used binoculars to get a comprehensive view. [On Blyth’s] the tail is definitely more obvious as it is often cocked above the short wings, whereas Reed and Marsh [Warblers’] tails continue out from the longer primaries.”

It need hardly be said that JTRS, with considerable post-1969 experience of Blyth’s Reed Warbler, has no doubt that the CCBO bird was this species.

ACT v

Exasperation. Having started the ball rolling in early 2013, AMG and JTRS were prepared to wait for machinations. On the other hand, AMG, JTRS and KP are former members of IRBC and are familiar with assessment processes, none of which are necessarily obliged to incur a massive delay. KP also served, over many years, as the committee’s secretary. Time, having happened between February 2013 and 2014, precipitated a fresh attempt by AMG to establish what, if anything, was happening. A year had elapsed with no communication from IRBC, although Kieran Fahy, acting as secretary, was good enough to keep AMG and JTRS appraised of the lack of progress.

Email from AMG to Kieran Fahy (copied to JTR Sharrock) 11th March 2014.

“Dear Kieran, I suspect that you feel as though you are in a no-win situation here but perhaps you are being too kind to the members of IRBC. On committees that I have sat on, the secretary usually has a role on a par with the speaker in the Dail [Ireland’s parliament]. If I was you, and I am not telling you your job, I would, at this stage [over a year on] suggest issuing a rocket. Furthermore, as you are a kind of ambassador in how correspondents are dealt with, do you not think that Ireland (meaning its chief ornithological body) is being rude to Tim Sharrock and Ken Preston? The 1969 CCBO Blyth’s Reed Warbler record is not mine and I have no right to ask for it to be reviewed — except that Tim is elderly now and he is glad that I am fighting his corner as he finds it too sapping. So, for now, I will wait while you await a progress report. Of course, I was on IRBC for several years so I know that there is no real logistical reason for the delay. This is bluster. Maybe you are too nice to push matters and are being fed platitudes or some other excuses? Have you any idea when there might be a decision? Are you asking members to deal with the record by a certain time? I am only asking in order to ascertain if there is any organisation in the paperwork chain.”

Reply from Kieran Fahy to AMG and JTRS, 13th March 2014:

“Hi Anthony & Tim. The reality is that I AM [capitals used by KF] in a no-win situation. I fully accept that I am the public face of the IRBC. Unfortunately, the cold reality is that I am absolutely dependant on the return of batches in order to discharge my duties in a timely and appropriate fashion. Return of batches (or, more accurately, non-return of batches) is the bane of my IRBC life. No matter how often I chase batches, no matter how often I ‘throw my toys out of the pram’ (and I have done this on multiple occasions), no matter how many deadlines that I try to impose, the batches are returned only when the lads decide to finally get around to returning them. On foot of this, I cannot give you a commitment that the record will be assessed by a particular date … I’m sorry that I cannot be any more specific than this. … I have no problem dealing with Anthony on this record; it is clear, Tim, that you wish Anthony to champion this on your behalf.”

ACT vi

Inaction continues. By March 2015 — another year since KF’s email of 13th March 2014 — nothing had been done by IRBC, inasmuch as KF had nothing to report on several occasions when AMG emailed him to enquire. Then, in March 2015 (two years after AMG and JTRS had asked for the record to be reviewed) KF resigned from IRBC. An idea of the growing frustration felt by AMG, JTRS and KP is provided in the following two emails.

From JTR Sharrock to AMG, 14th December 2014:

“Dear Anthony, I am pleased that you are still pursuing the Blyth’s Reed Warbler, although I would not do so myself. If people have made up their minds, there are two blocks to reversing a decision: first, they have to admit to themselves that they made a mistake, and secondly they have to face up to the fact that this will be exposed to the public gaze. For these reasons, it can take years and a judicial review by some higher body ever to get anyone to admit an error of judgement.”

From Ken Preston to AMG, 9th February 2015:

“Dear Anthony, the IRBC never contacted me about the record, either to say it was being reviewed or that they had decided to reject it, but, by all accounts, that is how they operate. I have not had any subsequent experience of the species, but going by items read and photographs seen, I have never doubted the original identification. I have long since lost all confidence in the committee and no longer take any interest in their work. Their treatment of your request is fairly typical of what I hear said about their disrespect for people.”

AMG: In my view, the dark heart of the matter is that the record was consigned to the bin due to a long-standing grudge disguised as an attempt to uphold identification ‘standards’. Had the late Clive Hutchinson still been alive, it would not have been shafted. Without Clive, there was no obstacle to implementing a review that, like a compass needle settling to find its point, homed in on a target. I had hoped that personal agendas among past and serving members of IRBC might have yielded to a fresh look at a famous record. In the past, before I saw Blyth’s Reed Warbler for myself, the instigator of the review informed me that the record was, to put it mildly, substandard. While everyone is entitled to personal opinion, imposing it requires power and hubris. Hence the smoking gun is obvious. Despite his retirement from the committee, the serving members still behave as supine functionaries, either faithful butlers to their departed master or a bunch of Mafia omerta, maintaining a code of silence to uphold his will.

In rewriting an important piece of Irish ornithology, the IRBC has turned life-giving field notes into a lifeless cadaver. By concentrating on touches of exuberance within the words of JTRS (such as his description of tail length and attempts to stress the bird’s uniqueness by wondering about a possible likeness to some kind of American wren: depending on species of American wren, the analogy would even be apt) the IRBC used speculation to bend the quality within the descriptions and undermine their worth. The review uses dissembling language to suggest that errors existed in a body of honest and accurate observations. In short, IRBC folded the evidence into a file of rejections that would never henceforth see the light of day. By reviewing the record and rejecting it, the intention was to put it on a high shelf and kick away the ladders. You can count on the dead staying dead.

Glittering innocently throughout the announcement are phrases inferring that a balanced view is being taken. Mild reproaches such as ‘adds to the difficulty of reconciling’ come across as reasonable and create an illusion of objectivity. The anticipation is that the observer who is about to take a hammering is expected to swallow deeply and, like a Kamikaze pilot, graciously accept a pair of goggles from Emperor Hirohito. In a nutshell, the tactics are truly Orwellian: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ (George Orwell, Nineteen eighty-four).

When it came to adjudicating the record, the collective experience was no better than ‘undergraduate’ yet a committee purporting to represent Irish ornithology chose to disrespect the opinion of the referees, reducing the latter’s experience to slurry. On 15th October 2009, a serving IRBC member who endorsed the decision to reject the 1969 record misidentified a Blyth’s Reed Warbler on Achill Island, Co. Mayo. Thanks to a video clip (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vIOFlAk6kXA) the bird’s character can be seen to echo the testimonials from Cape Clear. In conjunction with watching the video, it is worth referring to PGR Barbier’s description of the 1969 bird’s behaviour, which reads like a commentary for the Achill Blyth’s Reed Warbler.

Plate 2

The behaviour of the IRBC has been, to put it mildly, disappointing. Members of committees are there to discharge duty with integrity. They are expected to honour the efforts of observers with something approaching due reverence. In Ireland, with a small observer corps, what about the ensemble of brotherhood that is supposed to be served? Looking for rare birds and hoping to experience the thrill of discovery is the last contact most of us have with childhood. At the hands of the IRBC that dream has soured. But things can change. In spring 2015 a new secretary arrived and three new members, none of who are probably aware of the IRBC’s stratagem, be it lethargy, stonewalling or outright suppression of requests to revisit the record.

Act vii

In June 2015, almost two-and-a-half years after contacting IRBC and querying the reasons for the record’s rejection, JTRS received the following reply. Mark Carmody, the new IRBC secretary, copied the reply to AMG. In turn, AMG copied the news to Ken Preston.

“Dear Dr Sharrock, the IRBC have completed the review that you requested of your October 1969 record of Blyth’s Reed Warbler from Cape Clear Island … this record is still considered not proven. While some of the features described are consistent with the identification as a Blyth’s Reed Warbler, just one of the critical reasons that the committee feels the record not proven is the consistent description of the bird as lacking any eye-stripe or supercilium. All of the descriptions make reference to this with quotes such as ‘no eye-stripe at all or supercilium’, ‘it had no obvious supercilium’, ‘there was no supercilium or eye-stripe’ and ‘no noticeable eye-stripe or superciliary’. The field sketches present in the file are absolutely consistent with these statements. A strong white fore-supercilium is one of the most obvious plumage features of a Blyth’s Reed Warbler in the field. A less distinct continuation of the supercilium behind the eye along with a pale eye-ring would also be expected to be noted on close observation, such as those of this bird. The fact that all four observers noted that it had no supercilium whatsoever is strongly at odds with Blyth’s Reed Warbler.”

Act viii

The fight goes on. Reading the IRBC’s long-awaited reply raised more questions. By June 2015 the main plank of the case against the record is the alleged fact that “all four observers noted that [the bird] had no supercilium whatsoever”. The tactic smacks of someone thrashing around in deep water and making incoherent sounds before going under. As shown in images of Blyth’s Reed Warblers in the accompanying plates (such as Plate II and Plate III), the IRBC’s main argument is easy to refute.

Seeking clarification, AMG emailed Mark Carmody (who has been most helpful since becoming IRBC secretary) in late June 2015 and made the following three points.

(1) The IRBC stated that “just one” reason justifying the continued rejection of the record was, supposedly, a flaw in the head pattern, namely: “description of the bird as lacking any eye-stripe or superciliary”. The head pattern apart, would the IRBC care to elaborate on the alleged other “critical reasons” for continuing to reject the record?

(2) The IRBC misquotes the observers. Contra IRBC’s contention that “all four observers noted that it had no supercilium whatsoever”, two observers stated: “No obvious supercilium” [JTRS] and “no noticeable eye-stripe or superciliary” [PGR Barbier].

(3) The IRBC comment “the field sketches present in the file are absolutely consistent with these statements” appears, presumably, because I (AMG) specifically asked to see the field sketches. My request ought to be possible because, during my time on IRBC, I supported a move for all data held on IRBC files to be available for public scrutiny, upon receipt of a valid request. Indeed, the Association of European Records Committees’ guidelines, to which IRBC is affiliated, state: “The first (or preferably the first five) records [of a species new to a member country] should always be published in detail in a national journal, including full description and images, with an English summary. The full documentation of every record should be kept on permanent file and made publicly accessible.” [www.aerc.eu/guidelines.html]

Despite asking, months ago, to see the sketches, that right has not drawn a reply from IRBC.

It is appropriate to query the extent of the IRBC’s knowledge of the very feature that they say is wrong for an identification of Blyth’s Reed Warbler. IRBC maintains that the species shows a “continuation of the supercilium behind the eye …” Although some individuals may indeed look like this, the head pattern of three different individuals in Plate III shows examples that fit the observations from 1969. In 1969 no one knew where to start when it came to teasing out distinctions that identified an out-of-range Blyth’s Reed Warbler. Metaphorically, the observers threw the kitchen sink at the bird. Not only is their description of the head pattern within acceptable limits, the impression of “no obvious supercilium” (given the subject’s restless movements) still rings true to life. Watch the video of the Blyth’s Reed Warbler on Achill. Without pausing the footage, precise details of the head pattern are not easy to establish, even with the benefit of today’s arsenal of new information. The IRBC, in applying omni-dominant hindsight, is attempting to sound shockingly knowing about an identification feature that is, in fact, more variable than IRBC allow.

It is hard not to wonder if the IRBC has been motivated to continue to sacrifice the record in order to protect the reputations of those who schemed against it and who managed to put it forever on the wrong side of history. The sound of dragging feet has been deafening. Instead of the clicking of tumblers indicating that the bird was a Blyth’s Reed Warbler, there has been a rattling of teacups and scurrying of boots to uphold a decision that, in my opinion, has become indefensible. On another level, the IRBC’s conduct smacks of totalitarianism. Such a conclusion is not so surprising when you consider that membership can be for life and is by invite only. The lack of democratic elections, accountability, and regulation of standards are not so much faults as official policy. If IRBC’s tactics have been to grind down my resolve and the hopes of the two surviving observers whose record has been rendered worthless, then they have succeeded. Who would have thought that arrogance would replace innocence as a wellspring in Irish ornithology? The June edict is illuminating. Designed to sound erudite, its tone is defensive. The words are juvenile, probably assembled using tweezers, and masquerade as learned. In reality they are a tip minus the rest of the iceberg, out-squeezings of parroted waffle delivered with the self-justification of a petty linesman refereeing a match boycotted by an increasing number of players: from now on, including me. Click.

Plate 3

Thanks to Kieran Fahy, Ken Preston, Tim Sharrock and Robert Vaughan for permission to quote correspondence contained in private emails.