I have a guilty secret. Last weekend I went away to Norfolk and…watched birds. Just to be clear; I’m not a twitcher. The correct term is birder. The vast majority of us are birders whereas twitchers are very much in the minority. Twitching is the pursuit of birds that other people find. The Internet and mobile phones gets news around very quickly and twitchers will drive long distances to add another rarity to their lists. It’s very competitive and some of the birds may only be there for a short period of time before flying on. There is a lot of time spent scouring empty hedgerows from fifty yards away!
While it is still fresh in my mind I want to share the enjoyment of birding.
The nearest analogy is sitting outside a crowded cafe and watching the world go by. Then imagine that you sit in the same seat every day and you begin to anticipate the arrivals and departures. You notice the differences rather than just the same events. You spot that the group of four that normally walk past now only have three in the group, the lady who normally stops for a coffee walks straight past with four large shopping bags, and the old gentleman who always sat in the corner making the most of a single mug of tea no longer arrives. You are able to anticipate and add a narrative to everyday events.
Certainly, the scenery of birding hotspots tends to be beautiful. The places where birds and birders thrive are undisturbed, have well maintained habitat and a variety of landscapes. They are designed to provide theatre – good views from all the seats in the house and a cast of thousands. I’m no expert in birds. I’ve read a few books and I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years but I have a terrible memory. This isn’t a geeky hobby for me – I’m not good enough at it for that. I’m much like your regular club weekend golfer, occasional rambler or cyclist than a scratch player, hiker or road racer. I like to think that it’s also a bit like watching cricket – the atmosphere and the pace of the event is as much part of the experience as the game itself because the views aren’t perfect and sometimes it rains.
It’s certainly true that you can get better at it through practice. When I first started I still remember being staggered at just how much there was to see! We walk around taking our surroundings for granted all too easily. We don’t concentrate and try and appreciate the detail and birding forces us to do that. All of a sudden we are trying to see something specific and, in doing so, notice so much more. After a while, a landscape becomes familiar and it is possible to anticipate what you are going to be able to see. This weekend I visited reed beds in summer and I therefore expected to see Reed Warblers, Marsh Harriers and Reed Buntings and knew I’d hear Cetti’s Warblers. I hoped to catch a glimpse of Bearded Tits and Bitterns. In oak woodland I expect to see Nuthatches, Treecreepers, woodpeckers, and warblers and I hope to see Redstarts, Flycatchers and maybe hear a Wood Warbler.
Knowledge of landscape helps a little with identification; the everyday challenge for all birders. The most successful twitchers in Britain hope to build a list in excess of 400 species seen in the UK over their lifetime. You may think that with all the guidebooks, powerful optics and communications that identification should be straightforward. You would be surprised about the challenge that foliage, light (either strong sunlight or fading evening light), and weather can present. Many birds are remarkably mobile or very shy which means you only get a glimpse once in a while. Gulls and waterfowl have a charming knack of resting with heads tucked into their plumage hiding some key features. Distance and perspective can play tricks with the eyes so that judging the size of a bird is nigh on impossible. Once you have got a decent view there are a whole new set of problems to face. There are differences in plumage between males and females – unlike humans the males may be bright and distinctive but the females can have some very drab and undistinguished plumages. Some of the smaller birds, regardless of sex, are very similar with some of the distinguishing features being proportionately tiny. This has coined the phrase of LBJ – Little Brown Job – to describe some of the many warblers species that present themselves. There are different plumages according to age – gulls in particular are notoriously difficult due to the subtle shades of grey even if you manage to grasp bird anatomy to look in the right places. Mother Nature manages to remove some of the key determining factors through moulting, albino and leucistic birds. There is a degree of interbreeding which results in tiny aberrations to plumage which indicate a “mongrel” rather than a pure species. And there are escapes…I’ve seen Greater Flamingo and some goose species that have clearly just hopped over the fence.
This is where experience comes in. You would be surprised how few birders can describe in detail the plumage of even a blue tit but they will know one when they see one instinctively. Instinct plays a big part in identifying birds. Experience birders can identify the smallest bird over long distances by its movement – tiny flicks of the tail, posture while it perches, and flight patterns. The final clear view is often just the confirmation.
Even after all of this, some birds go unidentified. Despite massed ranks of telescopes and camera lenses befitting a Royal Wedding some birds have to be referred to a committee of experts before they are officially identified. Some species can only be finally identified by DNA or close examination in the hand. Species are still being created (split) or removed (lumped) by official panels – the world if birding is political too and there is room for subjectivity.
So there is more to birding than just the scenery and the fresh air. Ornithology is a science and you can dig in to as much or as little of it as you want. Whichever approach you take, birding forces you to look. We don’t do enough of this and maybe birding is just an excuse to really examine the world around us. I’ve seen my share of rare birds over the years but the things I remember have little to do with rarity value. Most views of rarities are effectively watching someone else’s bird at long range and with same lack of certainty over identification for the reasons above. The things I remember best are watching a Magpie catch and kill a snake, two Dunnocks wrestling on the ground for around five minutes and seeing a moorhen chick being snatched by a Herring Gull after a lengthy game of cat and mouse. Gruesome for sure – but fascinating viewing. Another highlight is being in a place so quiet, and being at the heart of the action that you can hear the wing beats of the birds as they fly past – watching a hobby at incredibly close quarters as it hawks for insects. The other small victory for the birder is to pick out the anomaly from a large flock of birds – the bar-tailed godwit amongst the black-tailed godwits and the Mediterranean Gull amongst the Black-headed Gulls. This last weekend there were some great birds to see but I happily sat for half an hour looking down on nesting Black-headed Gulls with broken egg-shells, newly hatched gangly chicks and squabbles the moment anything came near. In the background some Common Terns were performing elaborate courtship dances. You can keep your reality TV shows.
Of course even birding communities have some variations to the everyday. There are lists – lifetime species, county species, garden lists. There are also bird photographers who try and capture the character rather than just a representative image. For a bit of excitement there are occasional bird races where journeys are planned to maximise the number of species seen in one day (you need to get the best balance of terrains and a bit of luck). The routine activity is the overlap between ornithology and leisure birding. The RSPB have the annual garden birdwatch which serves as a promotional activity for their work but also a very simple bird survey. There are many who visit the same “patch” each week and record the species and counts they experience. They know intimately the breeding territories, the roosts and the hotspots. They know the impact that seasons have on their area more than most.
And that touches on the final thing I like about birding. It can be done just about anywhere. Wherever you are in the country, whether you are driving or walking there is birding to be done. The nice thing is that, in doing so you will appreciate your surroundings more… by looking you start to “see”. And maybe for the first time you will see that birding is very different from twitching.