Monday, 13 January 2020

One Lump, or Two?

When birding really got its hooks into me in the early 1980s I'd be on the Staines Res causeway as often as possible, bothering all the regulars in a quest for gen. Gradually I got to find out about the lesser-known spots, and frequently bumped into the same pair of birders at such places: Andrew Moon and Pete Naylor. They were W London fixtures really, and the London Bird Report was peppered with their initials. For example: Caspian Tern, Staines Res (AVM, PN), Little Bunting, Poyle (AVM, PN), Collared Pratincole, Staines Res (AVM, PN), and so on ad infinitum. As a duo, they found an awful lot of good birds. I would sometimes meet up with birding mates and we'd do a few W London sites together, but the vast majority of my birding even back then was solo. I enjoyed some pretty good finds, but not in the same league as AVM and PN, and I can remember wondering if Pete and Andrew did so well as a result of pairing up. And the 'solo versus duo' question interests me still. Which is best?

Actually, that's a really poor question. I mean, best for what, exactly? So, rather than try to tackle such a vague and open question I'll just think out loud for a bit...

As an habitually solo birder, I am always in tune with my companion. When he's up, so am I, and when he's down, I am right there, rooting for him. He wants to linger by this weedy field for ten minutes? Me too! And breeze past this perfectly inviting hide like it doesn't exist? He must be reading my mind...

One reality when birding in company is the need to compromise. Whether in conversation, route, speed, or whatever, it will always be at least a bit different to how you'd go about things alone, and possibly sometimes that will grate. That said, when there is something like a big raft of ducks to go through, a pair of you can each start from opposite ends and halve the time and effort. That's a plus. Hold on though! Suppose the newly-arrived Ring-necked Duck is in the right-hand half, and you started on the left...?

This is a problem. Unfortunately, finding stuff is a prime source of birding jollies for me. Mates finding stuff when you're with them is very nice of course, and if it's rare enough the buzz is so terrific it hardly matters whose eyes arrived first, but generally I want them to be mine.

Is that bad?

There. I'm being honest. I'm just a selfish finds hog. And flying solo is a guaranteed way to find your own birds. Except when you overlook them...

And that's where two pairs of eyes are potentially better than one. While you're being distracted by a fly-by 1cy Yellow-legged Gull candidate, your mate (who hates gulls) can get on with finding the Chestnut-sided Warbler you would have missed. And though you didn't personally find it, you will at least be in on it, as opposed to "... that divot who walked straight past it. I saw him! He was looking at some poxy gull, and me an' my crew found it in the bush right behind him!"

In truth I can think of several occasions when I would have missed really good birds had I been alone. And here is one scenario where many pairs of eyes is usually (and I mean 'usually') an advantage...

A lovely morning at Berry Head, autumn 2010

Anyway, the aching, desperate, pathetic desire to find good birds by myself is not the main reason I prefer birding alone, honestly, but who's going to believe that now...?

So which is best? One lump or two? I guess it's a matter of taste...


  1. Another great post Gavin and I'm with you on that one. Usually solo nowadays, but I do really enjoy bumping into birders, chatting about stuff (not always birds, or even wildlife of any kind) and then moving on.
    BUT (and possibly NQS could address this?), since moving near Spurn I've had to come to terms with another "friend" - the two-way radio. Frequent birdy messages over the airwaves helping me see fly-over HB's and in-the-hand LBJ's. But am I comfortable with it, do I enjoy the birding as much as my pre-radio Spurn trips? Not sure ...... But dare I leave it at home now?

    1. Thanks Col, that's an interesting one. The first time I used a 2-way radio was on Scilly in '91, and I'm pretty sure it was one you loaned me! I guess it's an issue that goes with birding a very popular location. Dead useful, but I can see how it would be possible to become a bit of a slave to it...
      Not sure I'd be able to resist!

  2. On our many sorties together Gav, I can't think of many occasions when I saw something of note before you did. 'Glaucous Gull'!!! (Me, er where) - '30 yards straight out!'. Or that raft of tufties - 'Wow, Scaup!! (Scaup?) subsequently you found four in that lot.
    So day listing apart, no danger of me finding much of note.

    I think I might have spotted that dog with a dead cat in it's jaws trotting across the wastes of Dagnam Chase first. Does that count?

    1. Ha ha! Yes Ric, you probably did. Dagenham Chase sticks in my memory for four reasons, and that's one of them. The other three are actually bird-related!

  3. Very interesting post Gavin. Andrew and Pete's amazing records must be unrivalled in the Staines area. I have in the past enjoyed spending many hours birding with both and have learnt much through doing so. Pete is greatly missed!
    Mainly because of shift work I spend most of my birding time going solo.
    However despite some reasonably good finds over the years I agree that teaming up with another keen birder/s does produce more.
    As good as it is finding a rare / scarce bird I still find it rewarding to catch up with with others good finds. Going off at a tangent; being an inland birder the real excitement and satisfaction is when I'm fortunate enough to witness a flock of waders or terns etc going through on passage. It always seems such a privilege to see! Eleven Black-necked Grebes at Staines at the moment, not bad at all!
    Thanks for the post

    1. Thanks for your comment Ken. Back in my Staines days I too worked shifts, and unlike almost all the other W London birders my outings were not centred on the weekends, but rather on whatever my rest days happened to be. Hence a lot of solo.
      I was fortunate enough to be around when the N basin was first drained in '82, and the following spring was just amazing. I no longer have my old notebooks, but I remember one dull and mizzly April day which began with just a small number of Dunlin present. Ten or fifteen maybe. During the day little groups of Dunlin arrived one after the other, building to a hefty three-figure total (which I cannot remember!). Other waders arrived as well, adding variety, and terns too. It was proper migration in action and, as you say, a real privilege to witness at an inland location.
      Four different Kentish Plovers that spring! Ridiculous!!
      So glad the Res is still a BN Grebe magnet; the late-summer gathering was always a highlight...
      Thanks again.

  4. Gavin

    I always enjoy reading your hit the right mix of information & entertainment!

    I do most of my birding alone, although I must admit that I prefer to bird in company. I came to birding relatively late in life, and I'd probably rate myself as 'middling' in terms of skill level. As such, I'm not particularly confident when it comes to identifying the less common birds, so appreciate a second opinion if anythng unusal turns up. Obviously a second pair of eyes is always good for spotting more birds, and I must admit that when I do see something good....whether self-found or twitched, I enjoy it much more when I have someone to celebrate with!

    Keep on posting....


    1. Thanks very much Sue! Like you, I really enjoy sharing a good bird. Finding something unusual is great, but so much more pleasurable when others get to see it too. Definitely a topic for a future post...