On a recent trip to Norfolk I spent a day at Titchwell RSPB reserve. It was one of those misty/hazy days where atmospheric pollution led to disappointing long-distance visibility. But with variable layers of cloud – often thin – and with no great contrast between light and shade – and little wind, it was ideal for bird photography, I spent many hours in the Parrinder hide, focusing my attention on the waders, ducks and gulls on the freshwater lagoon. When the cloud was at its thinnest birds and background were illuminated by bright, silvery light which was exquisite and close to perfection. The image above is one of my favourites from the day.
At lunchtime I left the hide and walked back towards the visitor centre. A cluster of photographers were stationed on the embankment with long lenses pointing into the reedbed. Alert to what other people may already have seen, I heard a distinctive “pinging” call emerging from the reeds – a bearded tit. This is one of the most stunning and sought-after of British birds, and one of the rarest. Further calls followed and it became apparent that a pair of “beardies” was moving through the reeds parallel to the path. Then I heard another “ping” to my left and quickly turned to find its source. Another birder was fiddling with his phone and saying …”Oh, that was me”. The penny dropped – he was broadcasting bearded tit calls in order to entice the birds out of the reeds and into visibility. Over the next few minutes a male perched high in the reeds several times to investigate whether a rival was in his territory. It was an ideal photographic opportunity and despite forgetting to re-adjust my camera settings for this new situation I obtained a few decent images of the bird.
But I couldn’t help expressing my surprise over his methods to the birder. Many people believe that using tape lures such as this is unethical, and the British Birds Code of Practice for bird photographers states the following –
“The use of playback vocalisations should be employed sparingly, if at all; if a reaction is not forthcoming immediately, then playback is unlikely to work and should not be repeated in a given territory. It should be noted that the use of playback for species protected under Schedule 1 [like the bearded tit] of the Wildlife & Countryside Act may be considered illegal.”
He was unconcerned. He got the recording from the RSPB website, he said, and also did it at home in Birmingham to attract woodpeckers. It reminded me of a friend who, many years ago, and despite being a committed insect conservationist, threw branches into trees to dislodge tree-dwelling butterflies. A scouser with a drier than dry sense of humour, he called it “science”, because it “got results”.
In the greater scheme of things the occasional use of tape lures may cause little more than irritation to a bird, rather than actual disturbance. But it appears to be a growing trend. A columnist in the current edition of “Outdoor Photographer” magazine, Steve Young, recalls an incident at a lesser spotted woodpecker nest site where he berated a bird-watcher for doing the same thing. I consoled myself with the fact that in this instance the birds genuinely WERE there before the use of the recording, and, rather selfishly, that any bearded tit images I managed would have been obtained without any unethical behaviour on my own part. Under other circumstances I would have been thrilled with this image, but in fact it just feels a little bit flat.
The birder moved on and another took his place. I couldn’t help recounting to him what had happened just a few minutes earlier. “Oh,” he said brightly, “I’ve got a bearded tit on mine.” He retrieved the phone from a pocket, turned it on, and hey presto – “…..ping…. ping…..”. Does everyone have a damned bearded tit on their phone but me?
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