Monday 14 February 2022

Avoiding the Definite Article

It is impossible to be a birder on Twitter right now and not know what a drake Baikal Teal looks like, or an American Robin. Every few minutes a fresh reminder appears. Some of the photos are really excellent, and if you want your search image for these two species reinforced, Twitter is a fine place to go.

I would imagine that some birders are galvanised into instant action by such pics: 'That is stunning! I must go and see it NOW!' Many years ago I might well have responded like that. Nowadays I get no further than the first three words, and with some other species which have bloated my Twitter feed on occasion, not even that far. I do sometimes ponder my complete disinterest in twitching, and wonder what led to it...

Complete disinterest? Hmmm...

It is true that I have moved pretty quick for some good local birds. Technically, that is twitching I suppose. But the last time I was struck with a must-go-and-see-it-NOW urge which took me out of my local area was the Axe Estuary American Herring Gull two years ago today, and it was possibly the most stressful 30-minute drive I've undertaken. But that was as much about context as it was the bird. A mega-rare gull at a much-loved former patch, and the very place I went to gull school. It had to be done. But other birds?

I would be the first to agree that the Baikal Teal really is stunning. However, though I've never seen one in the flesh, I definitely do not need it, and feel no urges.

What I do need is pleasure from my hobby, contentment, fulfillment; that kind of stuff. And I feel very privileged that I can get almost all of it from relatively common birds. Mind you, offer me the less common and I won't say no...

Another visit to the Goshawk site produced a very-much-hoped-for pair. For a while the female was chivvied by a Raven, and comfortably matched it for size. What a truly impressive beast! Mostly it was distant scope views, and I botched a brief opportunity for photos. This is the only one worth posting...

Female Goshawk, admittedly not looking as huge and impressive in this photo as I would have liked...

Much closer to home I added a new species to the #LocalBigYear list, bringing the tally to 99. I find it quite bizarre that I had so far failed to see this species locally in 2022, when exactly 1.62 miles from my house there was a field-full. And it still needed someone to tell me about them!

Lapwings - a few of the 196-strong flock!

The title of this blog post was inspired by my Twitter feed. Recently I noticed how frequently the definite article (i.e. the word 'the') appears in front of bird's names in the tweets of some birders I follow. Obvious examples are the American Robin and the Baikal Teal. But often the species involved will be far less rare. So we have the Shore Larks, for example, the Black-necked Grebe, and on one occasion even the Water Pipit. And it suddenly struck me how many birders treat a day's birding as basically a tour from one 'known' bird to the next. I'm not knocking it, but it made me take a close look at my own behaviour to see if I do similar, if on a more compact scale. And yes, sometimes I do go somewhere to see 'the' something-or-other, but it is not the norm. By far and away the majority of my outings are totally on-spec visits, with no specific target or expectation. And this made me wonder if therein lies one of the keys to contentment with relatively everyday birds? I suppose I reasoned this way: If you go somewhere to see the [insert species] and you fail to see it, well, that's disappointing, isn't it? If you go somewhere expecting nothing in particular, surely it's hard to be disappointed?

Or perhaps I'm being a bit simplistic. Whatever, I know which I prefer these days.


  1. Rest assured Gav, should 'The' Pallas's Gull appear within range, I'll expect you to put on your best twitching boots.
    I might consider the same should it be in full breeding plumage, no more than twenty miles away and not raining.

    1. If it was local or on the Axe, yes, definitely. Further afield though...probably not. I didn't even bother to twitch a Ross's Gull in Weymouth a while back. Enjoyed all the terrific photos though!

  2. But some things are worth seeing seeing again and again such as "Another visit to _the_ Goshawk site" and the memories stay with you for life.

    When, at a young age, I progressed from seeing birds to watching them I found a male Red Backed Shrike at my school (then my local patch in the middle of town about a quarter mile from home) during the summer holiday. I returned to watch it every day and could sit in the open within a few child paces of it.

    Then it was an exotic looking bird in my bird book. At the time (1970 ish) I did not realise how rare the bird was and it is now only one tick amongst many on my life list, some with their own memories.

    But I did know then how special the experience was and now I know how unique. That bird in the summer sun will never be forgotten.

    1. What an experience! Yes, I feel similarly. I can think of a few birds I have revisited several times because they are just so enjoyable, so special. And as you say, the memories live long...

  3. I too get much more satisfaction from finding my own birds locally. If I had to choose between finding (for example) a Cattle Egret on my patch or driving across Somerset to see a rare duck, the Cattle Egret would win every time. I guess we are all different and there are lots of ways to enjoy birds.

    1. Very true, Ben. And your approach is very similar to mine. Took me a good few years to get there though...

  4. Going for 'the'! We always talk about it. I blogged it here... :)

    1. Thanks for those two links Stew. I've just read them both, and yes, exactly the same sentiments.

  5. oh and here, I repeat myself quite often...

  6. To twitch or not to twitch, that is a question that rankles deep within you Gav. You have blogged about it so often yet, here we are again.

    Or is it the grammatical use of the definite article? Picking up on internet grammar is truly a lost cause. Having said that, I noted many years ago that country folk from my home range on the Mendips, tended to talk like that. "I saw the fox up over the quarry", would be uttered. Even as a youngster, I realised there would probably have been more than one.

    1. I suspect this blog is like a specialist magazine. There are only so many topics in its repertoire, so expect it to revisit them often. 😄

  7. You know I agree Gavin. Driving long distances just to see a bird while thinking we are conservationists, nature lovers and the like provokes a large amount of cognitive dissonance that has to be rationalised if the behaviour is to continue.

    I see frequent criticism of many other behaviours that damage the natural world but when it comes to our own carbon emissions it appears to be different. There are many justifications but deep down I suspect 90% know the situation is more than a little uncomfortable.

    We don't have to stop travelling to see birds but there are only so many car miles we can do before we go beyond our personal limits for emission levels that keep us below 2 degs etc - a level that in itself will be hugely destructive. And as people who profess to others that we should care for the natural world, it is simply no longer possible to say one thing while acting differently.

    This leads us to some very difficult decisions. We either decide to reduce our mileage as much as possible or we carry on and pretend to ourselves that for some reason it's okay for us to continue our emissions.

    Yes, some places are not as good as others for birding and without travelling, 'rare' birds will generally not be seen. That is the harsh reality now. Do people go after the "the" or stay local? Do they keep emitting and chasing rarities? Do they decide seeing the rarities is more important? Or do they make the difficult choice and greatly reduce their emissions for the sake of a liveable planet?

    As things worsen, it will become more and more antisocial to "waste" carbon like this. I really hope people can act altruistically and can begin encouraging others to do so too.

    Horribly awkward for keen birders and it will take courage, self-sacrifice and willpower to act for the good of the planet and those who will otherwise suffer as a result of our continued profligate emissions.

  8. I wasn't going to comment on this post, but really, people like Tim Allwood need to start wearing dog-collars to show they are so much more holy than the rest of us. And just so this doesn't come across as sour grapes, I am 61 years old, have been birding since 1974 and have never left Europe in pursuit of my hobby

    Can I ask the Rev Allwood which countries he has visited in the past before he saw the light. I am absolutely certain he is a better birder than me, and one reason for that is that he spent his youth travelling the world watching birds. So guess what, now when something rare turns up on his North Norfolk patch (no barren inner-city desert for him), he can identify it (and surpress it) because he's seen dozens of them in their natural habitat. And somehow, strangely, that gives him the right to stop young birders from travelling to see these same birds, just as he did.

    A few weeks ago, I read a story on the BBC about West Ham Utd chartering a private plane to fly back ONE of their players who had been been playing in a tournament in the Caribbean. Another story reported that the golfer Rory McIlroy had flown from the Middle East to Florida alone in a private plane after a tournament. I'm sorry, but this self-righteous breast-beating by certain members of the birding community won't mean anything (apart from elevating themselves to sainthood in their own minds) until there is a serious global commitment to tackle the issues that face us.

    There is more self-righteous bullshit talked about this subject than anything else. The Formula One circus, anyone? Tennis? Golf? International football tournaments? The people who beat this birding drum are always those who have already filled their boots. Funny that, isn't it?


  9. Well Malcolm, you're an angry man for sure.

    I stopped flying 15 years ago, a couple of years after I started teaching climate change as part of the science curriculum. Prior to that I birded abroad once a year, often staying for lengthy periods, such as two years in Indonesia and a year in Greece. During these periods abroad, I didn't even drive and lived a low impact lifestyle. I suspect my carbon footprint during these years was actually far, far lower than that of someone in UK chasing rarities. It does, of course, suit people to push the idea that I was on a plane every other month. Your post is full of such errors.

    I live in East Norfolk.
    Birding abroad isn't much of a help in terms of finding birds.
    I have suppressed some birds, but a look at my TG42 past record posts will show just how many birds we have found here and others have enjoyed. A few in sensitive locations have been kept quiet as people simply can't behave and we are not going to lose access or cause locals problems just to placate those who care little for us or our neighbours.

    Yes, many activities are carbon heavy. They too will have to change. Football and music are starting to address these issues. We can't point to others and complain that they are worse so we can carry on doing what we like. That argument isn't used anywhere else.

    Let's face it, you know that what I say about carbon emissions and climate change is correct. It's just physics and chemistry at the end of the day. It makes you angry because you know that keeping the planet habitable means we will all have change. I have been proactive and done that.

    You can be abusive about me and distort reality as much as you like. The reality we face will be there every morning that you wake up. You can either do done thing about or say "fuck it, my enjoyment cones first". Do what you like, but own it and be honest.

    Things are changing because change is inevitable. There is no alternative.

    Or at least give me a good reason why you believe YOU have no obligation to act responsibly, especially if you're going to insult me for the changes I gave made and the desire I have to see the planet remain habitable.

  10. Actually, Tim, I am not usually an angry man. I'm too old and I've experienced too much (personal loss etc) for that. With age comes a certain perspective. I also, usually, avoid online political debates. I always recall Paul Simon's lines from his 60s' song The Boxer: "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

    I do apologise for the personal tone of my post. I sincerely didn't mean to come across as abusive/insulting to you as an individual. But you are someone who bangs this particular drum loudly and publicly.

    Please re-read the last paragraph of your reply to me. You suggest that I believe I have "no obligation" to act responsibly. I'm sorry, but I resent that. And my point was that if my and your carbon footprints over the past 30 years were compared, I'd bet my house that mine would be lower. Yet I don't grab the online megaphone and tell young birders that they can't enjoy the world that I did.

    I actually think that we're on the same side. Certainly, I think we should all do what we can to save the planet for future generations. I have two children who are in their 20s, and God knows I fear for the world they are going to inherit. I just get annoyed by a certain kind of personal self-righteousness when politicians and big business etc pay nothing but hypocritical lip-service to the big issues.