Information on birds is currency in the birding world, the more you have the richer you are. Each species seems to carry it's own value with information on rarer species more valuable, literally gold dust. An industry has built up around this information in the last twenty years. From the early days of local grapevines and late night telephone calls, via the telephone information services to today's lightening quick pagers and texts backed up by crippling levels of detail and imagery on the web for those that can afford it.
Sometimes the information itself becomes contentious though. Now that I'm 'in the business' of providing information on the whereabouts of birds via Bird North East I can't avoid these issues. several of them have raised their heads in different ways in the past few weeks prompting this post. They left me with some unanswered questions that needed exploring, When should a sighting not be publicised? Who decides?
The quick answer to the first question is perhaps when it involves a Schedule 1 breeding bird. Is it always the right answer though? Obviously the devil is in the detail here as it depends very much on the species and the location. However it is interesting that different approaches can be taken in what may appear to be similar situations. Just look around at Durham & Northumberland this year and take some examples of how some sightings have been handled and the responses.
1. Red Kite. When a pair began to nest at the Highland Cattle Centre near Stocksfield in an area visible to the public from a local tearoom the news was made public. The relevant authorities were involved in the decision and the Highland Cattle Centre probably benefited from an increased number of visitors.
2. Osprey. The nesting pair at Kielder were known about but again the relevant authorities (Foresty Commission/NWT) agreed a news blackout that was only lifted after the eggs hatched. Again this management has given birders the opportunity to see the first breeding Osprey in Northumberland for 200 years (perhaps ever?).
3. Osprey. When news of recent sightings at Hurworth Burn Reservoir in Durham were published online this was apparently greeted by comments from some local birders that they were unhappy with the reports been leaked despite there being no evidence of breeding and the bird in question an immature.
4. Marsh Warbler. A singing Marsh Warbler at a suitable breeding location initially resulted in some birders 'creating paths into unneccessary areas'. Subsequent sightings have been withheld from publication at the request of one of the region's Bird Clubs.
5. Marsh Harrier. A pair noted in suitable breeding habitat in the region on a Wildlife Trust reserve. Local birders expressed dismay that sightings were published online.
6. Corncrake. An individual calling in suitable breeding habitat was 'continuously taped lured' ("alledgedly") just so that it could be videoed. The bird has now left the area. The RSPB are aware and further action may be taken.
Now in my mind, in the examples above where there have been issues these appear to have arisen from the actions of birders rather than individuals wishing to steal eggs or destroy nests. It appears to be a sad truth that there are, hopefully only, a minority of birders who fail to put the needs of the birds first. As birders we frown upon those who still take bird's eggs yet we appear to tolerate behaviour equally as unacceptable within our own ranks silently. This needs to change. I would like to see our Bird Clubs who have a combined regional membership of over 1000 birders play a leading role in bringing about this change. Together they could relaunch a code of conduct, they could also act on reports of individuals breaking this code by summoning those individuals to a 'Peer Review' where evidence could be heard and if necessary individuals warned about their behaviour or ulitmately expelled from the organisation. Peer pressure can be an important factor in changing behaviour.
Now all of this might appear a little heavy handed but unless we police ourselves the implications are that increasingly information will be withheld and responsible birders will miss opportunities to experience some of the region's rarest birds.
If you look at examples one and three above, this demonstrates the point that despite no evidence of breeding in the first example and the second happening at a location designed to cope with daily visits from birders and clearly no access or people issues information potentially would have been withheld.