Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Solitary Man

I have a nasty cold right now. After a virus-free year or so it was inevitable that I would catch something eventually, because all around me have been dropping like flies this winter. But instead of resting yesterday I foolishly took it to work with me, whereupon it beat me up a bit and made me come home early.

Before I did that though, just a quick look at the estuary...

Yes, it's that Caspian Gull again.

With the tide rising, the best bunch of big gulls was on the island just north of Coronation Corner, and there amongst them all was the Caspian Gull which I first saw on 22 Jan, in almost exactly the same spot. I had my scope this time, and took a few record shots as it preened. I only had it for a few minutes before something spooked the gulls, with the majority departing downriver. I departed also, sniffing wetly...

I am in my element with this kind of birding. First of all, it's gulls. Always a plus. Secondly, economy of effort. If I were to tot up the time I've spent checking the estuary this year it wouldn't amount to more than a handful of hours I expect, yet I've done pretty well out of it. Thirdly, I am alone, and I like being alone.

When I first got the birding bug as a young man I did a lot of twitching. Wherever large crowds of Barbour-clad men and women hurried awkwardly at dawn along woodland paths and seawalls, and then gathered, steaming and murmuring, in worship of some lost waif, so did I. Sometimes a twitch would be good-natured and relaxed, with the bird easy to see and the viewing unrestricted. Other times, quite the opposite. On such occasions many would allow their desperation to turn them into something quite unpleasant, resolutely oblivious to anyone's interests but their own. I found myself despising such people and their affect on me, and the herd mentality which spawns them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in just a few years the thrill of twitching palled...

I am now a lot older and almost entirely solitary in my habits. If you should encounter me in the field, actually birding, the chances are that I will actively avoid you. Exceptions to this rule are if I know you, or have a good bird to share (I'm not a complete oaf) but otherwise I generally keep to my own company. At this point you may well be thinking "Sad old so-and-so...", and perhaps you're right, but sadder still is the fact that there are quite a lot of us around. Last year for example, I uncharacteristically approached another birder while visiting Staines Res, and received an unmistakeably cold shoulder. Probably he was a decent enough bloke, and assuming he was also a Staines regular it's likely we had a bit in common and could have enjoyed a good old natter. Instead we both missed out.

Saddest of all though is why this happens. Why should a perfectly gregarious young birder gradually become less so with time, to a great extent withdrawing from active engagement with his/her fellow hobbyists? A clue is contained within Jono Lethbridge's recent thought-provoking post, The Echo Chamber. It sounds like facets of our internet age have merely compounded those challenges and difficulties inherent in birding generally, and twitching in particular. We live in a basically selfish world that lacks kindness, and many allow these traits to rub off on them, to influence their thinking and actions, and I suspect that what happens as a consequence is this...

There will be some who put up with it for a while, maybe even join in to a degree, but who eventually realise that they are finding it increasingly distasteful. Arriving at a twitch, they stand off to one side, well away from the scrum. One day, utterly wound-up by some hideous behaviour or other, they walk away and go somewhere else, all interest in the rarity lost. Eventually they don't bother going at all. In time even a hide full of birders becomes hard to cope with, and nowadays they are to be found only where the sky is big and the risk of company small. Are they overly sensitive? Perhaps. But they have my understanding.

And I can tell them this: it'll get worse as they get older!


  1. I can relate. The last big twitch I remember was a really of-putting experience, and indeed I stood to one side and instead watched it all unfold whilst decorum left the building. I totally get the thrill of seeing a new, rare, bird, but at the same time it is just a bird, just a number, and there is no need to lose the plot. It is the herd mentality - same as an internet chatroom - and I am beginning to find that all large gatherings should be avoided.

    In Costa Rica recently - and despite the fact I was slavering - I even refrained from attempting Resplendant Quetzal at the traditional (and best) dawn fruiting tree stake out as I knew that there could be several minibuses-worth there. Got it later with two other people, which was fine - I am not yet totally down to a tolerance level of zero.

    1. Ha ha! Yet! Actually, I'm fine with the small numbers you get at local stuff, especially as it'll usually be folks I know. I really don't like hides though.

  2. In your last paragraph I recognise myself. Can you believe I was in Weymouth when the Ross's gull was present and just couldn't 'face the twitch' however much I'd love to see an adult Ross's Gull.

  3. Interesting post Gav. My own experiences of solitude aren't so much about avoiding a crowd, but rather more about not wanting to be thought of as part of the crowd.

    The twitching crowd has it's variants. There was the historical version of Scilly in October which could be fun. But the one I wasn't at, but you were, was when the Red-Breasted Nuthatch appeared in Norfolk.

    The bird was being elusive and your report of over weight people rushing first one way then another to the point of collapse on hearing of a sighting made me wonder if twitching was worth it. I'd avoid crowds like that, no problem.

    1. Cheers Ric. That Red-breasted Nuthatch twitch ended very well for us, with crippling views to just a small group. But it took all day, and the frantic behaviour of many was so annoying that we needed a break and so drove into Wells for a pub lunch. Hard to believe that's nearly 30 years ago...

    2. Yes, frantic is an excellent word. Tragic would also apply.