Wednesday, 29 August 2012

What do you do if you see an unknown animal?

When I looked up, for a few seconds I was confused. I literally had no idea what I was seeing. It was certainly a bird and, by its ponderous flight, presumably a big one. But what species? Luckily, as we were out birding, I had binoculars and a bird field guide handy. After a few anxious seconds of alternately looking through the binoculars and leafing through the guide we had it - a Black Stork! This species is very rarely seen in the UK, being just an occasional visitor. It was rare enough for me to report the sighting to the county bird recorder.

I was reminded of this event by the recent reports of a big cat in Essex. I wondered what I would do if I saw an unknown species before realizing that, in fact, I had already done so - the stork. I had never seen a Black Stork before, not even in a zoo, far less in the wild. So it was completely unknown as far as I was concerned. That would explain my moment of confusion when I had no idea what I was looking at, beyond the obvious fact that it was a bird. However, I was able to determine what it was quite quickly. I had several advantages compared to many finders of unknown animals. I was an experienced birder, I had binoculars, a field guide and other experienced birders nearby to consult. Most people who come across rare or unknown animals have none of these things.

So what would I do if I'm ever in that situation again? Firstly, if I have a camera I will try to take video or photos. I prioritize such recordings because, unlike witness statements, they can be examined at leisure for additional detail. Then I would look carefully at the animal, ideally using binoculars, and make notes of what I see. After describing the basic shape, comparing it to a known species (eg. like a Jay but with the following differences ...) I would note the pattern of colours and describe any noise the animal makes. I would then try to assess its size. This is usually the most difficult thing to do so it makes sense to leave it until last and devote any time remaining before the animal goes away to it.

Purple heronSize is generally crucial in determining what a species is. The obvious way of measuring it is to compare the animal with the size of any object it is interacting with, like a bush or tree. Note that I said 'interacting', not simply close to. Objects can appear close to one another simply because they are in the same line of sight when they might be some distance apart. If the animal is not interacting with anything, I would try to reach the spot where it was seen, if possible, and place an object of known size there. Then I would return to where I made my original sighting. This will allow me to get some idea of scale. While at the spot where the animal was observed, I would look for any possible tracks which could help identify the species. If the animal is only seen flying it can be difficult to estimate its size. The best guide is that larger species (like the Purple Heron in the picture, right) tend to flap more slowly and deeply compared to smaller ones.

This might all seem obvious but the problem is, when you DO see an unusual animal, the chances are that it will catch you by surprise and it won't be visible for long. And if, like me, your initial reaction on seeing something unknown is momentary confusion, not unusual when having a xenonormal experience, it will lose you valuable viewing time. Being a witness to anomalous phenomena is not easy!

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