Monday 3 May 2021

In Search of Meaning

I was always pretty bad at twitching. I certainly never had the patience for it. A few times I can remember having to queue for a bird, and absolutely hating it. In this regard a Pine Bunting near Newcastle and Rüppells Warbler in Norfolk come instantly to mind, not so much because of the birds, rather the immense tedium. And if a bird wasn't on view straight away I would lose interest very quickly. And what about those times when nobody knew if the bird was actually still around? Not showing, and possibly not even present, was the worst scenario possible. Much worse than definitely not present, ie, gone. At least then you could get on and do some proper birding.

To be fair, I was never part of the 'scene'. Arriving at a twitch I would invariably know hardly anyone present. Glancing around the crowd of hopefuls for a familiar face, I would marvel at their seeming nonchalence in the face of a no-show, their ability to chat with mates - or stand mute - indefinitely, it seemed. If I lasted half an hour without screaming, I was doing well. Any travelling companions would soon be chivvied with suggestions about what we could be doing instead...

Well, that's how I recall it anyway. In reality I'm sure I often waited interminably for a bird to show - or not - but those occasions have been mercifully deleted from my memory.

Why was I such a bad twitcher? I'm not really sure, but I suspect the answer is connected with a bird's 'meaning'. For example, the last time I got seriously fired up about twitching a bird was the Axe Estuary American Herring Gull in February 2020. For several reasons that bird meant a very great deal to me. The vast majority of stuff - even in my twitching heyday - held little meaning beyond a tick in a box. Which brings me to today...

I was hopeful, but not confident, that seawatching might pay off. I didn't think an early start was necessary though, and went through the night's nocmig first. My loudest, clearest Whimbrel yet and a flock of Dunlin were the highlights. Nice. In the event the seawatching was poor. From 07:45 to 09:00 produced a summer-plumaged Great Northern Diver on the sea, 5 Common Scoter and not much else. Time for a long walk then.

I knew that yesterday's Abbotsbury Whiskered Tern was still present, and in the absence of lively seawatching thought, 'Why not?' I parked up at West Bex and walked from there. En route I bumped into Mike, who informed me that the tern had flown off down the Fleet towards Rodden Hive. From West Bex to the Abbotsbury Beach tank teeth takes well over an hour. Perhaps the bird will be back by the time I get there? I wasn't particularly bothered either way, because Whiskered Tern was just an excuse for a lovely coastal walk.

Arriving at the tank teeth, two things. One: no bird. Body language from the small group of birders present made that very obvious. Two: rubbish light. I had guessed it wouldn't be great, and it wasn't. I sat down on one of the concrete blocks, gave it about 15 minutes, then headed back the way I'd come. I had dipped, yet felt...almost nothing. How come?

Last Wednesday, Tom Brereton had a Whiskered Tern fly past just offshore at West Bay and got some evocative record shots. Yesterday evening, Steve Groves found this one at Abbotsbury Swannery. Whiskered Tern is a proper rarity, and I can imagine how thrilled both must have been, because finding such a bird is always going to be a massive buzz. If ever I am fortunate enough to do likewise I know it'll keep me going for ages! But going to see someone else's Whiskered Tern? Not the same thing at all. It's been a while since I've given it much thought, but today I found myself once again pondering the fascinating variety of ways that we get meaning from our hobby. To be honest I wouldn't want to self-analyse too closely, but here are a couple of examples of birds which meant a lot...

A few days ago I spent part of an afternoon at Cogden, investigating little corners I had never tried before. And in one of those corners I saw a familiar flash of red tail flick out from a hedge. The heat-haze made photography difficult, but there is a record shot...

Female Redstart peering at me through the heat-haze

The feeling of effort being rewarded was very gratifying, and somewhat enhanced when I came across another about 15 minutes later! Again, there is a record shot, but only just!

Female Redstart, 5 nanoseconds prior to disappearance behind that hedge.

In a different vein, yesterday afternoon at West Bex...

Very little, until one particular field. A lovely flock of Whimbrel, initially 18, then 21...

Periodically they would take off, fly around a bit, and settle in a different part of the field

Whimbrel, all 21 of them

But the field's real prizes were on the deck, scampering about among the cattle. Two male Yellow Wagtails - absolute belters! Spring males are such a treat, and I've seen so very few since living down here. These two picked a cow each, then followed their host wherever it led. In the case of one, it eventually led right to the fence I was standing next to. Whereupon the bird stopped and peered at me, as if suddenly aware that it had let its guard down, before flying off to choose another, more distant cow. I spent 20 minutes utterly captivated by these cracking little beauties. A magical encounter...

I am quite sure that I enjoyed the Redstarts and Yellow Wags a great deal more than I would have the Whiskered Tern. Is that strange? If the tern had been present, close, and beautifully lit, well, certainly I would have enjoyed it. A lot. But I am confident that the ingredients in the mix with these relatively modest birds made an altogether more satisfying brew for some reason...


  1. Gav. Could the meaning be that the same curiosity and knowledge which makes for a good birder, is also the pre-requisite talents for a successful hunter?

    Of course we don't kill birds unlike those retards who do so out of tradition, but essentially, the first to see a bird would claim it for themselves. Leaving behind nothing at all.

    So a self found bird by logic is a solid reality. A twitched bird is by comparison but a shadow of a rumour.

    1. Ric, a fascinating notion, and I've reread your comment a number of times because it really made me think. In the end I suspect things are a lot more complicated than that, because many times I have indeed got quite excited at the prospect of seeing (hopefully!) a bird which someone else has found. Some species simply have a wow factor that transcends almost everything else, for example. Also, there may be as much - if not more - buzz to be had from the 'expedition with mates' aspect of a twitch, than from the bird itself. And so on...

      However, I definitely think you are on to something, and in many cases I reckon that theory applies. Cheers for that!

  2. Many, many years ago I went on my first and only twitch, to see a Squacco Heron. It involved a lengthy walk across farmland and along a sea wall to where the group of twitchers indicated that it was still around. After a wait of half an hour or so, it eventually gave a brief show along a fleet in front of me. The immediate thought then, was what do I do now but walk all that way back, continually asking myself how I benefited from that experience - very little was the answer. I've never done it since and the delight of stumbling apon good/rare birds yourself as you wonder around, is a far better experience.

    1. Derek, your account really struck a chord with me. Without doubt, I have in the past felt exactly that way about a twitch. It's a strange feeling, almost like you've been diddled somehow! Where is the promised elation? Ha ha! Yep, I can definitely relate to your Squacco Heron experience...

      Many thanks for taking the time to share it.

  3. Be a shepherd not a sheep.

    1. Ha ha! I suspect I'm a bit of a loner Dave. The way I get my jollies from birding is almost certainly connected with how I'm wired...

  4. So many points to discuss there Gav. Twitching and Birding are, despite what they say, are two different animals and need a different mindset. I approach then very differently. When i go on a twitch I am focussed on gen, route, timings and mainly the likelihood that I will see the bird. If that is slim, I dont go. Regarding the meaning of a bird, yes I know exactly what you mean. Arctic and historical species do it for me, eg Stellers Eider,Harlequin, Belted Kingfisher, Black Lark etc get me fired but American Herring Gull, Moltonies Warbler or the Mockingbird raises a shrugged shoulder. If any were in Northumberland , things might be different because they would have meaning to me then.
    A great post, love it...

    1. Thanks Stewart. Your comment reveals just how many layers there are to this hobby, a fact which provides me with so much food for thought. A Wheatear on the beach can be anything from a prosaic tick on a list to a trigger for a few pleasant minutes musing the miracle of migration. Brilliant.

  5. Completely understand where you`re coming from Gavin. Last Monday I found a Garden Warbler in our coastal garden, my first in 15 years! Having seen plenty of far rarer `other peoples birds` around Dungeness this year, that warbler will stick in the memory bank for ever. Keep on birding!

    1. Nice. Yes, that's exactly it Paul. Funnily enough I was thinking about Garden Warbler this morning. Never saw one last year at all, just a heard-only job. I'll enjoy my next one!