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Masters of Mystery

Looking back

Looking back: 12 years Masters of Mystery

With the solution of Sykes's Warbler Acrocephalus rama and Red-backed Shrike Lanius collurio in the first issue of the current volume (Dutch Birding 31: 44-46, 2009), the Masters of Mystery competition has come to an end. This overview looks back on 12 years Masters of Mystery and lists some interesting facts and results.

Start of a new competition
In 1997, Nils van Duivendijk and Diederik Kok initiated 'Masters of Mystery' as a new bird identification competition in Dutch Birding. The series was supported by the editors as a welcome follow-up to the once regular mystery photographs in Dutch Birding, which had become rather irregular, needing new stimulus. From the start in Dutch Birding 19: 80-82, 1997, the high standard of this new competition was immediately set. During that first year, it consisted of three rounds with four mystery photographs each (with the solutions in the next issue) but from 1998 onwards, two mystery photographs per round were presented, each time combined with the solutions of the previous two photographs. This formula was maintained until the end of the competition, which summons to a total of 144 mystery birds of which the identification has been discussed. Starting in 1997, Swarovski Benelux generously sponsored the competition, awarding some of their highly acclaimed optic products to the overall winner of each year. In addition, smaller prizes (mostly books) were available for each round, kindly donated by several sponsors. DK and NvD carefully edited the Masters of Mystery for five years until 2001. From 2002, their task was taken over by Rob van Bemmelen and Dick Groenendijk until early 2009, with assistance by Jan Eerbeek during the last two years.

Every first and second round of a new Masters of Mystery year, more than 100 entrants entered their solutions. Despite the prizes for each round, people dropped off one after another as the competition continued, and in the final round, only a few 10s of entrants were still in the race for Swarovski's first prize. Table 1 shows the Gallery of Fame with the overall winners of each year. Hans Larsson (Sweden) in 2005 and 2008 and Harri Kontkanen (Finland) in 1999 and 2007 both managed to win the competition twice. The latter, however, was very unfortunate, having joint winners in both years and losing both times in the draw for the Swarovski optics. In the 12-year history of the Masters of Mystery, mostly German but also several Dutch, Finnish and Swedish birders were among the winners. Remarkably, there has never been a winner from Belgium, although Belgian birders are famous for defeating their Dutch colleagues in mystery bird competitions held at, eg, the annual Dutch Birding day!

Selection of photographs
For each issue, the selection of the mystery photographs was a very delicate and challenging job as the margin between 'too easily identified' and 'impossible to identify safely' proved narrow. An additional important requirement was that the subject should be interesting for many readers (and authors!). Preferably, the species involved had not yet been discussed in an earlier round. Furthermore, the availability of high quality solution photographs sometimes also played a limiting role.
A total of 44 photographers supplied their work for publication in the Masters of Mystery. Of 28 of them, only one or two mystery photographs were used, illustrating that the number of regular 'mystery bird photographers' was rather low during the 12 years. The most regular suppliers were Arnoud van den Berg with 26 photographs, NvD with 14, DK with 10 and Leo Boon and Edwin Winkel, both with eight. Of the 144 mystery photographs, 67% concerned birds resting, perching or foraging; c 10% of the mystery birds were swimming or diving and 13% of the photographs showed birds in flight. Another 13% concerned hand-held birds. The latter category turned out to be the most difficult to solve.

Selected birds and results
From all families occurring in the Western Palearctic, some have starred far more often as mystery bird than others. The most treated family are the warblers Sylviidae with 26 mystery photographs (18% of the total of 144). The waders (comprising members of the pratincoles Glareolidae, plovers Charadriidae and sandpipers Scolopacidae) is represented with 24 photographs (17%). Raptors (hawks Accipitridae and falcons Falconidae) were chosen 16 times (11%) and gulls Laridae 11 times (8%). Of these most 'popular' families, the mystery photographs of gulls resulted in the lowest percentage of correct answers (on average correctly identified by only 39% of the entrants), whereas the waders were the most easy ones (on average, 54% correct answers). Of the families with more than five mystery photographs, wagtails Motacillidae (including pipits Anthus) were the most difficult to identify. On average, only 30% of the entrants managed to identify the mystery photographs of the latter family correctly.
During the 12 years, on average, each mystery photograph was correctly identified by 45% of the entrants. Some of the photographs appeared extremely difficult and one may argue whether a mystery bird which was solved by only one or two or even by none of the entrants could be regarded as a suitable one. The most difficult mystery bird was a hand-held Willow Warbler Phylloscopus trochilus (23: 211-215, 2001; repeated her as plate 1), which none of the entrants identified correctly. Another nearly impossible mystery bird turned out to be the preening Savi's Warbler Locustella luscinioides (26: 53-56, 2004), which was identified correctly by just one contender. On the other hand, both a snorkeling Goosander Mergus merganser (26: 126-127, 2004) and a feeding Wood Warbler P sibilatrix (27: 269-271, 2005) were identified correctly by 90% of the entrants, being the highest scoring of all 144 photographs.

Keen birding
Regularly, the solution texts of the Masters of Mystery contained new identification knowledge that had been published only shortly before in leading birding journals but not yet in field guides. An example is the well illustrated and extensive discussion of a mystery photograph showing a Wilson's Snipe Gallinago delicata (21: 275-283, 1999). Other examples are Swainson's Hawk Buteo swainsoni (22: 32-39, 2000), Eastern Olivaceous Warbler A pallidus (24: 223-228, 2002) and Yelkouan Shearwater Puffinus yelkouan (29: 35-40, 2007). Worth mentioning is also the Glaucous-winged Gull Larus glaucescens featured in the very first round (19: 125-130, 1997), a species with just two WP records at the time which, until then, had received little attention in the European birding literature (the British records in recent years have changed this dramatically...). Furthermore, rarely illustrated plumages also received attention. In most cases, these concerned well known European species such as a second-winter Common Gull L canus canus (20: 36-43, 1998) and a juvenile Grey Wagtail Motacilla cinerea (28: 33-37, 2006). Both proved to be difficult to identify (with 19% and 21% correct identifications, respectively), which may be attributed to the lack of illustrations of these plumages in field guides. It can be concluded that a broad knowledge of bird identification was needed to solve the mystery photographs and it is, therefore, not a surprise that some of the keenest European birders are listed in the Gallery of Fame (table 1).
One of the mystery photographs deserves extra attention. It showed a Sylvia warbler photographed on Lesvos, Greece, in May 1995 (19: 192, 1997). In the attempts to find difficult mystery photographs, the authors came across this photograph which initially was thought to show a first-summer female 'Orphean Warbler S hortensis' (which, nowadays, should be called Eastern Orphean Warbler S crassirostris). In the mystery photograph, the bird's bill structure was difficult to judge. However, it seemed rather broad based although not stout overall. There was a quite well marked white half eye-ring but the flank and undertail-coverts could not be seen so the bird appeared very similar to a Lesser Whitethroat S curruca. Obviously, this was one of the kind of photographs the authors were looking for! None of the entrants opted for 'Orphean Warbler' and 87% chose Lesser Whitethroat as solution. Actually they were right, although the solution text (19: 244-248, 1997) still went for 'Orphean Warbler'. In the photograph published with the solution, the undertail-coverts, although partially hidden, seemed to be white and unmarked, the half eye-ring stood out and the bill looked also quite normal for Lesser Whitethroat. This is, as far as we know, the only identification mistake in this competition and it is more than appropriate, albeit belatedly, to correct it here. Fortunately, this error had no influence on the outcome of the competition.

It would have been impossible to produce 12 years of Masters of Mystery without the help of a strong editorial board. Therefore, our thanks go out to Arnoud van den Berg, Enno Ebels and André van Loon for their often last-minute comments on style, grammar and content. For us, it has been a most rewarding learning experience, well worth the effort. We hope that we have succeeded in our aim to present readers an interesting and challenging competition. Now, let's go into the field, find those mystery birds and identify them!

Dick Groenendijk, Elzenstraat 14, 4043 PB Opheusden, Netherlands (
Rob S A van Bemmelen, Gouwzee 20, 1423 DV Uithoorn, Netherlands (
Nils van Duivendijk, Veluwemeer 82, 3446 JC Woerden, Netherlands (
Diederik Kok, H J Schimmelplein 5, 3532 TD Utrecht, Netherlands (


Table 1 Gallery of fame: winners of the Masters of Mystery competition in 1997-2008

Year Name
1997 Dave McAdams (Germany); Leon Edelaar (Netherlands)*
1998 Hannu Jännes (Finland)
1999 Sander Bot (Netherlands)*; Marc Guyt (Netherlands); Harri Kontkanen (Finland)
2000 Hein Prinsen (Netherlands)
2001 Sebastiaan Klein (Denmark); Clemens Portofée* (Germany)
2002 Martin Gottschling (Germany)
2003 Axel Halley (Germany)
2004 Felix Heintzenberg (Sweden)
2005 Hans Larsson (Sweden)
2006 Tommy Holmgren (Sweden)
2007 Harri Kontkanen (Finland); Fabian Bindrich* (Germany); Andrew Holden (England); Martin Kühn (Germany)
2008 Hans Larsson (Sweden)

* Winner of Swarovski optics after draw

Willow Warblers / Fitissen Phylloscopus trochilus, Valassaaret, Finland, September 1995 (Jari Peltomäki)
1 Willow Warblers / Fitissen Phylloscopus trochilus, Valassaaret, Finland, September 1995 (Jari Peltomäki). Both birds were used as mystery bird in the Masters of Mystery competition. The left one was the most difficult mystery bird in 12 years of competition: no entrant identified it correctly.

Lesser Whitethroat / Braamsluiper Sylvia curruca, Lesvos, Greece, May 1995 (Peter de Knijff)

Lesser Whitethroat / Braamsluiper Sylvia curruca, Lesvos, Greece, May 1995 (Peter de Knijff)

Lesser Whitethroat / Braamsluiper Sylvia curruca, Lesvos, Greece, May 1995 (Peter de Knijff)
2-4 Lesser Whitethroat / Braamsluiper Sylvia curruca, Lesvos, Greece, May 1995 (Peter de Knijff). Used as mystery bird and presumed to be an 'orphean warbler S hortensis/crassirostris' (then: Orphean Warbler S hortensis) by the authors (Dutch Birding 19: 244-248, 1997), but in retrospect a Lesser Whitethroat, as most of the entrants rightly suggested.