Saturday, 12 February 2011

To twitch ot not to twitch?


'Sally Luker, you are charged with the following offence: that during the month of January 2011, at a variety of locations and at a variety of times, you did partake in the activity known as ‘twitching’. How do you plead?'

'Not guilty, m’lud – I’m an ornithologist!'
European Starling Sturnus vulgaris

OK, so these past few weeks, I seem to have inadvertently exchanged my entomologist’s hat for that of an ornithologist. In fact, if I’m honest, rather worryingly, in many people’s eyes, the hat in question is not really that dissimilar to that of a twitcher. Now, I’ve always vehemently refuted any accusation of ‘twitcher-ness’, preferring to consider myself above such frowned-upon activities.

'Twitcher (noun) A type of birder who seeks to add as many species as possible to their life list in as short a time as possible. Twitchers are willing to go to great lengths, including extensive travel and dedicated monitoring of local and regional birding hotlines, to see new bird species. A twitcher does not generally devote great lengths of time to bird observation, but rather is content to simply identify the bird species conclusively and add it to their life list.'

See, I’m not a twitcher. For a start I don’t ‘travel extensively’ (too poor and contrary to my ‘green’ ethos), plus I like to think that I do more than add species to my list… Oh no, I’ve just confessed to keeping a list. Damn, I’ve blown it now, haven’t I?! But then I keep lists of everything, I’m a self-confessed compulsive list-maker, in fact I’m the Queen of List-making - so making lists of birds is surely acceptable in my circumstances?

(Unsuccessfully) looking for Pacific and Great Northern Divers in Mount's Bay - so, so tough...

Saying that though, I am rather ashamed to admit to yesterday driving around (or rather being driven around) a neighbouring village looking for Golden Plovers and Ruffs, in a steamed-up car, in foggy weather and with only a vague idea of where to find said birds - oh, and with the binoculars currently residing on a shelf in our little cottage… Needless to say, we were out of luck. On a brighter note though, I have been invited to sit in a friend’s cold shed in order to meet a now-regular visitor to her garden – a Rose-coloured Starling. And very excited I am about the prospect too!

So, twitcher, birder, ornithologist - in all honestly, is it really simply merely a case of intellectual snobbery? Why does there seem to be a need to categorise, to label, and to put everything into an easily-definable little box? And why take offence - they’re only words after all. 

Marazion Marsh - currently home to a delightful Siege of Bitterns!

I did consider going into the whole ‘twitcher v. birder v. ornithologist’ debate but having done some research into the matter, see that it’s been done to death, and for that reason, feel that it is probably best (mostly) left alone!

In my opinion, whether twitcher, birder or ornithologist, what is really important is the subject – birds. Surely it would be better to expend our energy enthusing our passions to others, rather than wasting it on pointless semantic-based arguments, so that more and more people take up the cause – whether it’s by appreciating a bird’s beauty or its rarity, thriving on the adrenaline rush or revelling in the magic that accompanies a special sighting, or perhaps heading down the academic route of really getting to grips with avian ecology. It all makes a difference, and serves to raise awareness of the intrinsic value of birds.

Me, I will continue to make lists, to keep a check on the local sightings forums, to share my sightings with like-minded people and to revel in a touch of friendly rivalry, and I will continue to learn and also to educate. Why? Perhaps because first and foremost, I enjoy it.

Drift Reservoir - home to Mute Swans, Coots, Mallards, Canada Geese and for the time being a Greenland White-fronted Goose

Meanwhile, I’m unable to resist concluding with the following - some (tongue-in-cheek) Rules for Birdwatchers, as posted on BirdForum back in 2003:

Rules for birdwatchers (very tongue-in-cheek)

1. Any travelling involved to go birdwatching should be on foot or by bike. Cars, buses, trains, planes, etc. cannot be used. Only a twitcher would use up valuable fossil fuels just to go and see a bird.

2. No visits to any location where birds are known to be present, e.g. Avocets at Minsmere, Mallards at the local park. Any visits to somewhere you suspect there are any birds, is twitching.

3. No flushing of birds. If you are walking along and spot a bird, turn 180 degrees and walk away from the bird. Only a twitcher would deliberately approach a bird and risk disturbing it just to selfishly get a better look at it.

4. Spend as much time as possible looking at every bird you encounter, be it a Magpie, Canada Goose, etc. Make sure you note all aspects of plumage, behaviour etc. Only a twitcher would spend less than 10 minutes looking at a bird before moving on to look for another bird.

5. Try to see as few species of birds in a year as possible. Don’t make a list of the birds you have seen, not even mentally. Only twitchers make lists and try to see more birds.

6. If you must keep a list, make sure it's in the right order. The correct order for UK birdwatchers is Starling, House Sparrow, Blue Tit, Blackbird, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Collared Dove, Great Tit, Woodpigeon, Robin, etc. Only a twitcher would see a Pectoral Sandpiper before a Hawfinch, or a Yellow-browed Warbler before a Chough. A full list can be found in the forthcoming book "Birds in the Right Order - How to get a Lifelist of 100 in less than 25 Years".

7. If you see a bird you don't recognise, make no effort whatsoever to identify it. Ignore it, walk away and erase it from your memory. Don't get Collins out of your pocket to check the ID. In all probability the bird will be rare one, and you will be instantly transported to a twitch of your own making, guaranteeing a place in the fires of Hell for eternity.

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