Sunday 5 December 2021

Bird News - Part 4: Ripe for the Plucking

I'll start with an apology, because I'm going to be a little untrue to the closing sentence of my last post; this one isn't quite going to be about Birdline. It struck me that I ought first to paint a picture of the early-1980s birding scene in order to demonstrate the inevitability of what was to follow. Obviously this is a personal take, so it's highly likely some of my contemporaries will have a different view. But for any younger readers, hopefully it will provide some insight, and maybe food for thought...

In 1981, when my enthusiasm for birding really took off, I was 22 years old. And I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of birders I met in the field back then were more or less of the same generation, i.e., predominantly young.

The vibrant grapevine and the very existence of the Nancy's hub illustrate the strength of that 'need to know' what's about - especially rarities - and speak volumes about the birding ethos of the day. Seeing 'new' birds was a massive thing. Listing, ticking and twitching were regular topics of conversation, and some popular contemporary literature basically encouraged it all. For example, I would say the three most influential books on me at that time were Discover Birds (1979) by Ian Wallace, Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book (1980) and A Twitcher's Diary (1981) by Richard Millington. I still have all three...

Discover Birds. While in no way promoting twitching, DIM Wallace's enthusiasm made me hungry for birdy drama. The book featured North Norfolk and its birds - reinforcing my desire to go there - and introduced me to Walberswick. And his thrilling account of 1st May 1978 at Flamborough Head effectively conveyed the excitement to be had from a hatful of rare and scarce birds.

Bill Oddie's LBBB. To the youthful me, this terrific little book basically said 'twitching is cool'. Rereading the relevant chapters now, it still does.

A Twitcher's Diary. The book is exactly that. Richard Millington's 1980 quest for 300 species in a year was an absolute inspiration. Full of birds I could only dream of, it revealed what was possible.

For me, this book was the new birder's equivalent of an Argos catalogue. Fatal.

So there you have it. My early influences. The birding clan was mostly young, and driven by an engine which had been steadily revving up through the 1970s: twitching. And I found myself very much up for the ride, along with loads of my contemporaries.

But, as I mentioned in the last post, bird news was still basically free. Despite the obviously massive demand for it (would 'aching need' be an exaggeration?) there was no obvious way to turn bird news into money. Well, not yet...

I don't know much about telecommunications technology, but I do know that all we had back then were landlines. By the early 1980s I would imagine most homes had a phone, but certainly not all. Otherwise you had to rely on public phone boxes, many of which were typically vandalised, or toilets, or both. In May 1985 I made my first ever calls from a car phone. A BMW-owning birder at Staines invited me to use his to phone out news of a couple of Temminck's Stints. I've not used one since, and they were incredibly rare even then. A few home phones had a facility for leaving a message. My memory pictures a tiny little cassette tape (on which you recorded your greeting, along with the sad news that you were currently out and therefore unable to do anything with the gripping gen the caller was about to share) plus a lot of flashing lights and unreliability.

So that's the technology side of things. Not quite ready...

Interestingly, A Twitcher's Diary contains a dedication. I quote:

Dedicated to-
The finders of rare birds - many whose names I do not know, but without whose unselfish attitude twitching could not exist and this book would not have been written. Thank you.

And the preface contains the following paragraph:

Twitchers cannot exist without the goodwill of the birdwatchers who are the lucky finders of the more exciting birds. It is these generous and unselfish birdwatchers who start the telephone 'grapevine' working, so that other people can come and enjoy the birds that they have found.

Ironically, the unstinting 'goodwill' of these 'generous and unselfish' folk was just about to become a vital element in a fascinating business model. Just as soon as the technology was ready...

Next: yes, definitely Birdline next.


  1. The overwhelming feeling I get from those early days Gav, is a breathless pursuit of rarities and the urgent quest to pass it on/gain some credibility. I can see the appeal, really I can but, I also see why I am more than content seeing the occasional notable bird in my own locality.

    Thinking back, I married young, had no money and strong work commitments but, in another world where I wasn't an angler, maybe, just maybe.

    1. Cheers Dave. Yes, I do wonder where things might have gone had I got into birding in my early teens. But by 1981 I was married, with a mortgage, and therefore skint. The whole scene was incredibly alluring, but I was simply not in a position to get fully involved. With hindsight, thank goodness!

  2. I had those three books you mentioned, Gavin, although somewhere along the way I have lost the Wallace one. Regarding Richard Millington's book, Mark Cocker in Birders: Tales of a Tribe mentions that the RSPB censored an advert which featured A Twitcher's Diary by putting a black strip across the main title, which he condemns as "corporate prudery". Shameful but kind of hilarious as well, I think.


    1. I remember reading that. How daft. Like twitching was the new punk or something.

  3. Thanks again for a great read and a trip down memory lane Gav. I see Ian Wallace only passed away recently, Nov 4th. I have his book Birdwatching in the Seventies, which I am still reading.
    I had recently purchased the first four copies of Bird Watching magazine again, starting from March 1986 that Richard wrote a column for. This prompted me to get his book which thoroughly enjoying.


    1. Thanks Tony. For a fascinating insight into British birdwatching history I can recommend Ian Wallace's 'Beguiled by Birds'. A challenging read, but well worth the effort.

  4. Replies
    1. Don't think you'll regret it Tony.

      Incidentally, when I say 'a challenging read', that's down to Ian Wallace's writing style rather than anything else. Some long, convoluted sentences and enough unfamiliar words to test most vocabularies - well, certainly mine!

  5. Suggest reading "Kingbird Highway" which really captures the zeitgiest of that era. Although set in America it parallels the roadtrips that were being trod across Britain & Ireland from Shetland to Scilly Cape Clear and beyond. One minute at the bar in the Queens the George or the Mermaid the next on an overnight adventure chasing an ephemeral Sprite that would usually be gone before you had time to arrive! Birdline brought order to that chaos and today it's all about timetables for the retired boomers.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation. For whatever reason, I've never got around to reading 'Kingbird Highway'. One day...

      Steve Webb's account of the epic twitch from Scilly to Fair Isle for Yellow-browed Bunting in October 1980 (as told in 'Best Days With British Birds') nicely captures the zeitgeist of that era too. We certainly live in a very different world now.

  6. Kingbird Highway is an absolute must-read Gavin - an incredible book! Perfect for re-motivating you when that phasing feeling comes on! One of my favourites. But I didn't read that till a few years a go. Do remember getting a copy of BOLLBB for christmas 1980 (i was 10) from my granny - remember being shocked when reading about "cosmic mind-f*ckers" and also trying to fold down my wellies and going out birding in the rain to prely to try and avoid being a dude!

    1. Kingbird Highway ordered. If it was just a twitchathon I wouldn't bother, but sounds like there's a lot more to it than that. Cheers.

      And yes, no one wants to be a dude...