Thursday, 10 June 2021

Twitching Lundy

Back in 1990, one of my then work colleagues presented me with a copy of The Independent newspaper. He thought I might be interested...

Dated June 2nd, an entire page of the broadsheet publication was devoted to a first-for-Britain and its admirers. A reporter and photographer had evidently been dispatched to cover the remarkable events unfolding on Lundy, a small island in the Bristol Channel off the north coast of Devon.

I have it still...

The main photo depicts the scene at Jenny's Cove, Lundy. From the front: Martin Coath, Geoff Burton, me, the late Pete Naylor, Richard Drew and Andrew Moon.

Back in those days I used to write stuff in a notebook and make little sketches with a biro...

I've only just noticed that my packed lunch features strongly.

Finally, the first few sentences of the report itself...


'Twitchers, enthusiasts who tremble when they see or hear of a rare bird...' basically sums it up, doesn't it? The trembling might not be literal, physical, but the mental and emotional response to news of a rarity can be pretty much the same thing. But when news of the Ancient Murrelet broke, there was no buzz of excitement in my brain, just bafflement. What on earth was an Ancient Murrelet? In 1990 there was no googling, only books. I found it on pages 176 and 177 of the National Geographic Society's Field Guide to the Birds of North America. And then there was a bit of trembling.

All this reminiscing has been prompted by recent events of course...

The tweet that probably started it all. Sulphur-bellied Warbler. Lundy's latest first-for-Britain.

Present for just one day, in 1990 this bird would have been seen only by those on the island, and its true identity perhaps never realised. In 2021 it was nailed within minutes of that initial tweet, and by late afternoon the first twitchers were watching it.

In 1990 I travelled over on a small charter boat, as did Tuesday's twitchers. It was all a bit of an adventure. A beautiful day, bonus Golden Oriole in Millcombe Valley and, best of all, an absolutely spectacular location. The whole day resides vividly in a happy place in my memory.

But 31 years ago nobody knew about climate change. There might have been a bit of mirth and mockery at our antics from a minority of non-twitchy birders, and of course from non-birders, but finger-pointy stuff? Not for a second. Fast-forward to 2021 and the Sulphur-bellied Warbler. It has been very interesting to read the online reaction to this and other recent twitcher activity, with particular reference to its being very much NOT low-carbon birding. Amidst accusations of 'twitcher bashing', low-carbon birding advocates who have publicly voiced concerns about such behaviour have been given, I think, a tellingly rough ride. I struggle to articulate my thoughts on all this, so will close with a couple of random points...

In the top photo of the twitching crowd at Jenny's Cove, of the six members of our party I would guess that four or five were still in their 30s. At 31, I was the youngest. And I expect the entire crowd's average age was 30-something. In other words, quite young. I wonder what the average age of a large twitching crowd in 2021 might be? Fifty? Older? I am optimistically hopeful that today's birding culture will gradually swing away from the immensely skewed focus on rarities and listing, but if that is to happen it will surely need to be driven by the younger generation, because I think only a tiny minority of my generation are going to be swayed by even the best-presented argument.

Finally. Ancient Murrelet apparently breeds or is resident in a range covering 15,300,000 square km, and Sulphur-bellied Warbler, 5,130,000 square km. Both have a Red List category of 'Least Concern'. In other words, both are globally common birds. Which makes the reaction of a few thousand birders to the arrival of a lone waif on our shores a bit OTT and irrational doesn't it? Of course, but you try suppressing it! No pun intended.

4 comments:

  1. Gav, wasn't the AM one of a set of twitches of yours around that time which involved island hopping? As for the whys and what's..

    In these days of anti-social media, I feel the level of intolerance shown towards anything not PC, is simply relative. However, better this than the traditional route to gaining a sense of proportion. World war anyone?

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    1. Yes Ric, it was. Also Alpine Accentor on the IOW and Tree Swallow on Scilly. My circumstances back then precluded a jaunt to Shetland for the Pallas' Sandgrouse! It's funny, a similar set of birds in those locations today would not budge me one inch. Seemed important at the time though...

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  2. Believe this is the 10th first for Britain for Lundy? A remarkable record...

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