Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The Elephant in the Room

Like most human pursuits, birding has the potential in some of us to trigger a level of obsessive behaviour which overrides real-life responsibilities. The neglected family, reckless spending, illicit sickies and so on, all bear testimony to that fact. My own record in this regard is dismal. One minor example. Thirty-three years ago, another London birder and I twitched a pair of Slender-billed Gulls in North Norfolk. We went in his car, a pretty rapid Vauxhall Cavalier SRi. We met at Hanger Lane in NW London, and made it to the Cley beach car park in under two hours, arriving just after first light. If you know the roads, you will appreciate how hazardous a night-time drive it was at that speed. It was truly scary. It was also utterly stupid and irresponsible.

One makes excuses of course, but when you strip away the rationalising, all this kind of behaviour boils down to selfishness, pure and simple. Occasionally you see it taken to another level, like when English birders twitch a vagrant tern in the Republic of Ireland, circumventing the nation's 14-day Covid-19 quarantine policy in the process. Again, take away the ifs, buts and feeble justifications, and what are you left with?

I rarely visit BirdForum these days, but made an exception for the Irish tern and read the whole thread. One contributor, Jonathan Dean, wrote this...


The strength of feeling evident here is palpable. The birding ethos against which he rails was embraced and promoted by my generation, decades ago, and it seemed okay back then. But in the sober light of my later years and a very different world, it doesn't look okay at all. And I agree with him: it belongs to a bygone era.

Jonathan Dean is the age of my sons. Birders of his generation, and their children, will formulate their own ethos. Amongst other things, I doubt it'll include burning vast amounts of fossil fuel for a tick on a list. Birders of my generation, meanwhile, have a choice. Continue as before in dinosaur mode, or listen to the younger voices, think about what's happening to the planet, and change.

In 2018 British Birds magazine published a 'BB eye' piece entitled Are we addicted to high-carbon ornithology? by Javier Caletrío. It was referenced in a more recent 'BB eye' written by former RSPB CEO Mike Clarke: The changing nature of bird conservation - some reflections. Both articles are a thought-provoking read. Javier goes by the Twitter handle @BirdingClimate and his page has the tagline: 'Talking about climate and equity in the world of high-carbon ornithology'. That's all, just 'talking about...' Currently he has a paltry 899 followers. In two years. Is this because so few wish to engage in that conversation? Possibly. I don't know. But I do know that until recently, I didn't.

What's changed?? Good question. I'm not sure really, but the stupid Irish tern episode certainly figured. And there are other factors which aren't really for this blog. Anyway, I'm not quite sure where I go from here, but as regards the low-carbon birding elephant in the room, I'm happy to talk about it at least...

27 comments:

  1. I'm rarely shocked by anything I read about twitching, but this felt like a new low. Funny thing is I used to enjoy twitching myself, seeing a rare bird is I find still rather exciting on the few occasions I still bother. But I've moved on, and these days what really gets the juices flowing is birding abroad, and that has a dreadful carbon footprint. In that respect 2020 has forced a positive change.

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    1. The changes forced upon us this year have certainly made me to stop and think about some things, and what I do going forward. Speaking for myself, that's been a good thing.

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  2. A nice post Gavin, about a subject that I've always had a dislike of. These days it seems to have morphed into the long lens cameras brigade, who seem to compete with each other to get the perfect shot, and flood bird forums with scores of photos of the same bird, simply looking in different directions.

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    1. Thanks Derek. I get the feeling some have seen this post as anti-twitcher, but that's not my intention. Many of us indulge a routine of birding behaviour which impacts negatively on our environment and our fellow man. We just need to do it a lot less.

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  3. It's good to see this discussed, Gavin. Certainly as an ex-twitcher (and now very much local patch birder) I can see the faults of my past escapades, and the "COVID-19 Irish Tern episode" seems to crystallize the selfishness of twitching in a way that many are yet to grasp with regards to the climate emergency. Inconvenient truths, eh?!

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    1. Indeed, David. The Covid-19 pandemic has put pressure on our various approaches to birding. Twitching is just one. Foreign travel another, and so on. Unfortunately, sometimes our response to such pressure is poor. I wish more of our number would just take a look in the mirror and see the problem staring back at us...

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  4. 33 yrs ago!!! I went for those, also from London - classic Saturday morning dip! Never really had my heart in twitching anyway so these days if I can't cycle it I rarely bother (I also seem to have developed a serious dislike of crowds). So yes, in my time I've made too many pointless car journeys and taken too many long-distance flights but I've pretty much given up flying and see little reason for owning a car these days: it may be too little, too late but dinosaurs can still evolve!

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    1. Looking at some of the intelligent social media feeds from birders and naturalists of my kids' generation and younger is a humbling thing. Sometimes I do feel very much the dinosaur.

      With you on the crowds thing Tim.

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  5. A good discussion and I agree that the Cabot Tern ,those that travelled more than 5 miles to Lothian, & the open disregard for the guidelines at Belvide have certainly caused me to question further the whole area of twitching. These recent actions in our new normal plus the increasing disregard demonstrated for bird welfare over the years just to get that one shot, blatant rudeness towards dog walkers, horse riders, runners when on public footpaths / bridleways really does question whether this is an obsession gone too far. But then again, there are many other obsessions out there that undoubtedly see equally unacceptable extremes!

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    1. Yes, in too many ways we set a very poor example. Collectively, our high-carbon birding habit is just one thread of many in the horrible tangled mess of a legacy we are leaving.
      Thanks very much for your comment.

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  6. Nice post Gavin, which I wholeheartedly agree with. I'd like to make a point about another 'community' which is people who trap and ID moths. Many birders will overlap with this group, doing both, but in my experience they are very different. Moth-ers tend to be interested in the ID and there is a real feeling of support between those who are expert and those - like me - who are not. Newbies are welcomed on forums like Twitter, and there is no scoffing at mis-IDs or gloating over having seen things, just a sense of genuine interest and camaraderie. I know it's not directly comparable because moths don't settle to be twitched; they come to you and your trap, as much by luck as by skill (though people certainly target them by habitat with mobile traps). There's a bit of C-footprint with the cost of burning a bulb all night, but still, for me it's a great space to 'play' in. If I had to summarise the difference in a phrase it would be that people are more interested in what they found, not what they might have missed.

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    1. Thanks, Exeprattler. I've noticed a similar willingness to welcome newbies in the nocmig world. Thinking about it, I guess there are parallels, ie, setting an overnight 'trap' and seeing what you've 'caught'. Whatever, it's nice to hear of supportive environments like that. Cheers.

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  7. I didn't realise that the birding carbon footprint was a thing. So many people are happy to jump on a plane to go for a business meeting or weekend piss up I would have thought birding was a minor issue.

    I had read about this numpty who felt above the rules and acted selfishly and if it has created a wider discussion then that's fine. But I feel that this is all part of the national nay global introspection brought on by being locked down and that is going to hopefully turn people's heads to the big picture.

    However, the reaction of so many folk has been disgraceful, how many birds will perish amidst the garbage strewn on our beaches and beauty spots? In Liverpool it wasn't so much a celebration more a dump run by the looks of it. It all goes to show that humanity is incapable of acting with restraint.

    That you that have shown willing to seek your birds with moderation is laudable and I genuinely hope that it's a mood that spreads.

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    1. Thanks Dave. The birding/birdwatching 'community' no doubt sees itself as a conservation-oriented entity, so yes, it needs to face up to searching questions about carbon footprint if it wants any credibility. Perhaps even more so its representative bodies like RSPB etc.

      And my word, yes, it's been so depressing to see the appalling way many have treated the countryside. But not a massive surprise really. And when you realise that the vast majority of those involved are youngsters (relatively speaking) it brings home how profoundly our generation has failed. Sobering.

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  8. Gav, in the light of developments, I'm almost proud to admit I didn't see that Golden Winged Warbler because I couldn't be bothered. The Red Breasted Nuthatch I went with you to see but we dipped. You went back, but I couldn't be bothered.
    Finally, a Oriental Pratincole convinced us both that twitching has run it's course.

    However, finding a good bird, especially on the local patch, is another matter. More to the point, having an involvement in the observations and subsequent analysis adds further weight and reason to take an interest in birds.

    Twitching is just 'go', 'tick' 'done'. Nothing to it. Lets face it, time and money with no limits and away you go. Can't see any value in it myself.

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    1. Yep, not for me any more either Ric, by and large, but twitching gave me some priceless memories.

      Someone on Twitter pointed out that twitchers are an easy and predictable target, but pointing a critical finger is not my intention. Loads of keen twitchers spend most of their birding time working a local patch, finding good birds, sending in records, taking part in surveys etc. The object of this post was to not to condemn twitching, but it so happens that one particular twitching episode helped me see the need to engage in this conversation.

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  9. I used to absolutely love twitching (90s into 2000s), but if I'm being brutally honest I think it was the adventure, the craic, the buzz that did it for me as much as seeing the bird. Not to suggest I was a tick and run type, but London to Scotland for Harlequins/Sandhill Crane/Barrow's Goldeneye was a lot more 'gung-ho' than London to Dunge or Kent or Dorset. Just a bigger adventure, basically. I loved the night drives, the games we used to play just to keep ourselves awake in the car, knowing you've just clocked 1000 miles in a 24hr period. I could look back and I shake my head, call it a disgusting waste of money, fuel and (considering the bangers I used to drive) knowing I certainly added my bit to pollution. But I don't. I absolutely loved it. It was the 'all the gear, no idea' mob that stopped my twitching in its tracks. "We've just seen the Greenland Bunting!" with much backslapping (it was a rostrata Redpoll....) was about the final straw for me. Machine gun shutter noise actually was the final straw.

    I suspect that if I hadn't effectively given up birding, never mind twitching, I'd have shot off for Lothian's sandplover without too much fuss. I can socially distance. I live in a remote spot. I don't believe I'm a risk or will put myself at risk. Coupla jerry cans of fuel in the boot, rucksack full of grub, there and back safe and sound, what's the fuss?

    You can call me Elephant, really I don't mind. I know where I'm at now and twitching isn't it.

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    1. There must be thousands of us out there Seth, former twitchers with some epic tales of yore. I look back fondly on them even now, and one or two have featured on this blog. But like you I have a different mindset now, that's all. But I wouldn't go so far as to say I know where I'm at. Not just yet.

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    2. I wonder how long it will be until we get pre-emptive sound twitching happening. For example, you've been watching a weather system develop for days, tonight it hits mainland Britain. You shoot off to a Land's End valley with your noc-mig gear in the boot. There are Yanks in that wind and you're gonna record them! Will you be part of a crowd at honeyspots like Nanquidno, Porthgwarra or Cott Valley? Or will you be a groundbreaker and head for the high land at Sennen? It'll happen, folks already do this with moth traps, so why not sound traps? Maybe that's where you'll be at sometime in the future, who knows haha!

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  10. Re: Gibster, 'but if I'm being brutally honest I think it was the adventure, the craic, the buzz that did it for me as much as seeing the bird'

    For me, that's what it was about. The bird itself was but a cause for it. Hence my individual deficiencies in respects to the twitching aspect of birding.

    My interest is in finding birds that others want to see. Ironically, I still don't have a lot of interest in going (alone) to see what others might find.

    Admit it. If only we could rekindle that buzz we all once had. That's the loss I feel in these situations.

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    1. There was a blithe innocence about it when we were younger. We're getting old, my friend.

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  11. Hi Gavo. Now you know me, I very rarely twitch, and if I ever do it's local and usually for several gettable species in one hit. And I agree with your post, particularly to lockdown flouters.

    Playing Devil's advocate a bit though, and these comments and posts regarding 'twitching' often seem to come from a generation that have 'been there and done it'. Is it easier to pass judgement now that you've been so many places, had so many experiences and seen so many birds.

    Same goes for birders who berate travelling abroad to bird. Many of them have done it, when we didn't have such an urgent climate emergency.

    No denying about the problems and not saying it's right. Just think it needs bearing in mind.

    If you were in your mid twenties today, and two Slender-billed Gulls turned up, a species you'd only seen in a field guide despite your early found love for larids, and a friend said "I'm going, you in?"...

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    1. This exact point has bothered me a bit Steve. It is pretty easy for someone who used to twitch loads, but now hardly at all, to sound off about such high-carbon birding. Likewise a birder who has already been to every continent several times. And so on.

      And the trouble is, nobody wants to listen to such folks because they can easily come across all sanctimonious. Or should I say, it gives people a good excuse not to listen.

      Unfortunately this comments section is rather heavily anti-twitching in tone. Which makes me suspect that my post came across that way too. I didn't mean it to. What's at fault is not twitching per se, but the birding ethos that esteems long-distance twitching, that promotes regular air travel as a good thing, that sees as perfectly acceptable a day spent driving from site to site to site for a variety of relatively common birds. These behaviours have to change. Simple.

      In an ideal world you could show people the numbers, say to them 'Look folks, we've got to stop this, and do something less damaging' and everyone would get it straight away, and change. Instead, it's going to be debate, argument, counter-argument. All sorts will see their precious, much-loved birding habits being threatened, will perceive it as an attack, and take offence, and point out the much worse climate crimes of other groups, etc, etc...

      It's going to be lots of fun.

      And so, to important stuff. I'm in my twenties today, 2 Slender-billed Gulls turn up, etc... Hmmm...

      Can I lie? ;)

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  12. Having read the above I think I understand twitching a lot better. I've never really done it as well, I could never afford the time, petrol etc and my main hobby has always been fishing. But understanding the buzz that comes with it, yes, I'm there. I used to shoot off all over the place to see butterflies, reptiles and amphibians, usually with mates and the banter and competitive edge to spot things first or get the best shot was intoxicating. A tick in your book is a reminder of more than just the bird or butterfly.

    I doubt I would let my carbon footprint guilt trip stop me from doing anything like that.

    As for using a recording device to record birds on a favourable wind, what's the problem? When you log a bird you are making a record, robin or roller, they are just records for history of what was there at that time, it's us that places the significance on that event. Recording birds that have been blown over our shores can be viewed as a personal victory and waved under the noses of others if that turns you on or, you can see it for what it really is - a lost bird that will likely die but it's demise has been logged as part of our natural history.


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  13. I remember reading a Dave Burrs Match Plan many years back.

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  14. Hi, Gavin! Thought-provoking indeed. A junior’s thoughts here —
    While I have neither the time, money or independence to seriously go “twitching” after every notable species, I‘ve often felt the major “oomph” and “squeee” of triumph at being able to tick off a new species - bonus points if it’s an endemic or a vagrant, and there certainly is a degree of competition between me and my sisters. Ticking and listing (and especially photographing) are great, but I must agree with Dean’s commentary - it’s important to be mindful of the currents of the world and the stress we’re putting on nature - being nature-lovers after all. It’s a fine balance - wanting to see more and learn more and experience more versus softening its impact on the world, and personally I hope I can keep that balance as I get more opportunities to bird at home and elsewhere in the future.
    Greetings from Sri Lanka!

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    1. Nicely expressed, Sadini. Seeing new birds can be a real thrill, I agree. However, the more we travel in order to do that, the more the environmental cost. Finding the right balance has become an increasingly critical issue! All the best with your birding! 😊👍

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