Monday 21 December 2009

Twitching is over-rated: discuss!

Yesterday’s trip was somewhat unsuccessful. That may be an understatement, I suppose. In short, I went looking for the white-phase Gyrfalcon in Glamorgan, on my own, and didn’t see it. Didn’t see much else either. Weather was absolutely perishing, air temperature just above freezing, but wind-chill driving it well below. Cost: about 8 hours in the car, 6 hours freezing my balls off, about £45 in diesel and a fiver on some rather average sausage rolls and motorway service station coffee.

By contrast, Jono was very pleased with a flyover Goosander and a few weather-driven Snipe and Lapwing on his recently rejuvenated London patch, as >this< suggests. He didn’t even take the car out of the drive. One possible conclusion suggested is that “twitching is over-rated”. Although I suspect this is at least partially tongue-in-cheek (coming as it does from someone who’s twitched more than once or twice this year), it got me thinking.

  • After three / four / five hours standing on a freezing cold lane in the middle of nowhere, why didn’t I give up?
  • When I finally got home last night, why wasn’t I completely p*ssed off?
  • If the Gyr returns and starts showing again, why would I seriously consider repeating the whole trip, despite yesterday’s events?
  • Why was I not particularly excited by Goosanders, Lapwing and Snipe in Wanstead? After all, they’re rare birds as well, in a different context.

Simple: because if the falcon had shown up, perhaps taken a Golden Plover out of the sky in front of me, tangled with one of the local Peregrines, or just rocketed straight past, I would’ve left with an amazing memory, never to be forgotten. On that day, I wanted to see that bird more than anything else I could seriously consider seeing or finding closer to home. Conversely, if I’d considered making the trip, but not gone and found out it had been there, then I would’ve been annoyed. A massive, Gyr-shaped opportunity wasted. Maybe wait another five years for another twitchable one.

So, in a happier alternative reality, what if I had seen it? I certainly would’ve phoned the people who turned down a lift, and picked up a strong hint of jealousy, I guess. “I can see Lapwings just about anywhere”. “There will never be a Gyr on my patch”. And maybe those conversations would’ve led me to joyfully blog “Patch-watching is definitely over-rated”?

I hope not, though. Because neither of them is over-rated, nor under-rated. They’re just different… and so it’s no surprise that different people love or hate them to a variable extent.

One of the clear differences is how socially acceptable the two activities are in general birding circles. Lots of people think they know all about twitchers, and their mental image is typically not favourable – the stereotype usually features someone loud and very dim who can’t identify anything and has no regard for anyone else’s property. (And, as the law of averages dictates, I can think of some who fit this pretty well). Conversely, patch watching has a very wholesome image – the dedicated local who checks the same little inland lake and acre of scrub every day, delighted by the odd Whinchat or even a BB rarity… after fifteen years of trying.

(Or maybe they’d actually miss the rarity, not knowing that the innocuous ‘tek’ call sounded like a Dusky Warbler, while a ‘filthy twitcher’ like me might have stopped in his tracks having learned the call given by several birds found by other people.)

I intend to spend much more time checking a couple of promising and under-watched local sites next year… but to be honest, the idea of doing nothing but this, every single weekend, and every summer evening, fills me with horror. Perhaps it’s because I spent my formative birding years in Norfolk, and I’ve been spoilt by lots of great birds on nearby sites. Perhaps it’s because I’d miss the variety of seeing new bits of the country. Perhaps it’s because I’d be very unlikely to see a new bird, and learn a bit more about it. Perhaps it’s because I wouldn’t randomly bump into friends and chat about where they’ve been, and what they’ve seen. (For instance, yesterday’s fellow falcon-dippers, Mick and John – that feeble gag about needing a ‘gyroscope’ is still raising a smile!).

But conversely, I wouldn’t want to repeat yesterday’s marathon dip too often, either! I’d miss the opportunity to wander around aimlessly looking and listening for whatever’s out there, with no expectations or demands; the opportunity to monitor trends in bird numbers at a favourite site; the camaraderie with other local birders down the pub; the amount of cash needlessly converted into diesel and Ginsters pasties.


So, after a rather unstructured and lengthy brain-dump… what’s the point? Well, I guess it’s this: birding is all about variety. It can be many things to many people, according to whatever they enjoy, or they feel like doing on a given day. If you enjoy whatever another birder is doing, well, that’s great. Tell them. If you don’t, whether they’re ringing, garden feeder watching, twitching, world birding, local patching, county listing, cormorant studying, RSPB reserve volunteering, whatever… just let them get on with it. They’re quite happy enjoying their birds just as they are.


James Emerson said...

A very balanced and sensible discussion, lets hope more people end up finding that conclusion!

Jonathan Lethbridge said...

My comment was entirely tongue in cheek, although I resent being labelled as a twitcher - outrageous! You've seen way more birds than me this year! Of course I agree with every word you've said, except for not getting excited about Goosander, Lapwing and Snipe in Wanstead! I left the door open for a bitter post about being cold and miserable, but this is much better. And if the Gyr reappears, give me a call. Although as you know I rarely stray further than Wanstead, I might be interested!

Gavin Haig said...

Nice post David. The vast majority of birders I've known have enjoyed a mix of different kinds of birding, and for most of us I guess it's a case of 'whatever floats your', because tomorrow may bring a different opportunity. Or mood?

I shall have to nick this theme for a future post :o)

Dbradnum said...

Glad you all think this is vaguely sensible. The number of hits on the blog has been very high today, suggesting that perhaps it's got a few people thinking and forwarding things on.

I just get fed up with the constant 'my type of birding is better than yours' bitching that goes on, whether online or in the field. My new year's resolution will be to ignore it all , and look to enjoy what I happen to choose as much as I possibly can.

Anonymous said...

"They're quite happy just enjoying their birds as they are." Amen to that!