Join the RSPB
I spotted a new bird species in my inner-city/suburban garden recently, one which I couldn’t identify. I had a good view of it, so I could describe it very accurately. Eager to find out what it was, I raided my dusty bookshelves and pulled out a small, cheaply produced bird book. Flicking through a book full of pictures is a very powerful way of searching to match an image, and it occurred to me that this is one of the properties of physical books which cannot easily be replaced by any website, whether community edited and 50 times as big as Britannica or not. It would not have been much use typing “medium sized garden bird with a grey body, lighter coloured throat and distinctive black head” into google or something simpler into google images either. You have to know what you’re searching for, and all I had in my mind was a recollection of what the bird looked like.
The book worked, and I quickly found a page featuring the “Blackcap warbler” the illustration for which was a very close fit. But then I read the blurb which told me it was a “summer visitor” apart from just a few individuals which may overwinter in the westcountry, where I am not. It’s definitely not summer here, and I’d never seen one before, so was this some very rare visitor, blown thousands of miles of course by freak weather? perhaps I had misidentified it. Without the internet, I would have been left with considerable doubt and no positive identification. But having found the vital information keyword “Blackcap” I could quickly check out the RSPB site and discover that my little book was innaccurate, being hopelessly out of date.
“Although primarily a summer visitor birds from Germany and north-east Europe are increasingly spending the winter in the UK”
I just hadn’t noticed any before.