Wednesday, 5 October 2022

Flushing

It is autumn 1996, and I am standing on the side of a wet meadow in the Lea Valley. Looking around I see many familiar faces among the murmuring crowd, all here for the same reason as me: the chance of a London tick. In my case, a lifer too. I check my watch. It is almost time...

Two men slowly make their way across the meadow in front of us, several yards apart. The chatter has stopped; all eyes are on the pair out there, the flushers. A bird explodes from the grass! The collective sigh of disappointment says it all. Snipe, just a Common Snipe. But look, two more birds up! One is bigger, darker... And yes, much, much rarer. That rubbish, rather distant flight view of a Great Snipe is exactly what we all came for, and now the show is over. The chatter resumes, a little more animated now, and I cannot get away fast enough.

My one and only Great Snipe. It is hard to convey effectively what a massive anticlimax that all was. And of course, I knew it would be. How could it not? An organised flush, for a load of tick-hungry listers happy to make do with tenth-rate views of a bird that someone else had the thrill of finding. I do not (and never did) have mates delusional enough to help me talk up such a scenario into something to get excited about.

An 'organised flush', did you say?

Yes. Standard practice for such a skulker. Agree a time. Kick the bird out for all to see. Everyone happy.

Couldn't you all just wait for it to show itself?

Ha ha! In umpteen acres of wet meadow, that ain't gonna happen!

But it might fly of its own accord, surely?

Yeah. So might a pig.

To be fair, some birds are so secretive that flushing is sometimes the only way you find one. Any Jack Snipe in that boggy bit on your local patch? You probably won't know unless you get in there.*

Anyway, I don't plan to debate the ethics of flushing birds. After all, we all do it, all the time. Walk along a hedge, through a wood - anywhere really - and you'll be kicking up birds that were quite happy in their little world, until you came clumping along. And away they go. Oh, wait, what was that? Looked really interesting! So you creep along, and flush the Robin again.

Gently trying to chivvy a poorly-seen bird into view is par for the course in everyday birding. But I wonder how it looks to a non-birder? How would I explain myself if challenged? I am well aware that persistently hassling a small bird which is trying to stay hidden would not look good. Which is why I was pretty gobsmacked at one of the offerings on my Twitter feed this morning.

It was a video. A short video taken on Shetland. A small crowd is strung across a road, while a number of individuals converge slowly upon a hidden Lanceolated Warbler, pishing and clapping in order to drive it out of cover. The outcome is predictable. A rapid flight across the road to the field beyond. Crippling views for all, no doubt.

The video has been taken down now, but here is a still from it...

Pre-flight. Guess where it is at this point. I suppose I ought to credit the original videographer, @BrittenKit.

Other tweets suggest this was just one of several times that the Lancey was flushed. As I said earlier, I don't plan to debate the ethics of all this, but what struck me was the seeming lack of awareness of how it looks. Amazingly the tweet had 28 'likes'! Seriously? What is to like? Mind you, it had been viewed well over a thousand times, and attracted multiple retweets and comments which roundly condemned the behaviour.

A bit of context for anyone unfamiliar with all this. Lanceolated Warbler is a small brown warbler that creeps about in the grass like a mouse. Hailing from Siberia, it really should not be on Shetland, but is one of a number of that archipeligo's Sibe specialities, and a sought-after rarity. Birders go to Shetland in autumn hoping to find such birds. Or failing that, just to see one. Even to see one really, really badly as it zips from one patch of cover to the next, showing no diagnostic features whatsoever.

It's a shame the video was taken down really. It ought to be required viewing for every would-be lister. With perhaps an accompanying question:

Is this what you want to get involved with?


*Or fork out for a thermal imaging camera.

18 comments:

  1. Totally agree Gavin. Not the type of birding I would ever want to be involved in. It's this kind of stuff that has put me off ever 'twitching' anything. Gives birders a bad name.

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  2. I've just been reading the tweets and am appalled by the supposed 'justification' for this behaviour. They should be ashamed of themselves.

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    1. Judging by the advanced age the vast majority of the mob appears to be. If they don't feel shame by now, they probably never have done or ever will.
      At least if this picture does have a positive outcome. It will inform the managers of the various nursing homes and other institutions, where their guests have escaped to.

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  3. Charlie Peverett6 October 2022 at 08:03

    We’ll said Gavin. Maybe we should treat this as any form of addiction - is there a 12-step programme for problem twitchers?

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  4. Twitching is competitive and, when men compete they go a little crazy. The line must be drawn at bird bullying.

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  5. Oof this is good...I too have been on a Great snipe flush that was more like Rourke's Drift that birding. But, I was still glad to see the snipe... I watch the condemnation with interest. the holier than thou giving it large. We all know its not best practice is it, but as you say, every single one of us flushes migrants at some stage while out properly birding. If you are on the coast and lift a small brown job into a small bush, are you walking away or just trying to see a little bit better. til it comes out again and you see it is just that Robin after all. It might have been a Lancy...
    If you, or I were on Shetland, say half a mile along the road when news of the bird came through would we say, no thanks, it might get flushed...mmm...
    Oh and from what I gather , though I may be wrong, once flushed maybe the bird was more visible? rather than just a flight tick? Even I wouldnt be too happy with that for such a small bird... I see there was no condemnation when a host of beaters drove out the Pechora for some 'flighty glimpses'? This is one Im keeping back from on Twitter!

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    1. As I say Stew, not debating the ethics (would be too hypocritical of me) but rather how it looks to onlookers.

      If I were half a mile down the road, I would stay there. I can say that truthfully. Scenarios like this are my kind of birding hell. Have you seen Dave Astins' (@westcoastbw) thread re the Pechora? Not good.

      I have this naΓ―ve hope that some of the participants - having already seen the wisdom of removing ill-advised tweets - might register the consequent torrent of condemnation and have a little think...

      Meanwhile, absolutely zero chance of similar shenanigans in West Dorset. Just one scarce migrant would be nice. πŸ˜„

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    2. Credit to you for having such strength Gav. I'll check out Pechora shenannigans. As for your last comment, I'll comment on your new post on that...

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  6. Well said. Not my kind of birding either so kind of glad I did dip the Lancie after what happened (repeated flushing & hit a fence after the video I was told by those on site). Avoiding the pipit for those reasons. Haven't joined in with kicking stuff up from iris beds as it doesn't feel quite right, and if lots of people cover the same area, that's a lot of disturbance... Sumburgh in theory has plenty of bits where you don't need to do that, if only the winds were better! Amy

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    1. Glad you're happy to do your own thing, Amy. Wish you all the best with it. πŸ‘

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    2. Thanks Gavin - gambling with a windswept headland in mostly strong ish westerlies isn't as fun as hoped but it can't always be easy!

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  7. The difference here is that the bird “had to be flushed” as otherwise the people present would have caused distress to cattle and block a road to traffic. All pretty pathetic. I also have no doubt that the types involved would show scant regard for property, fences, cattle, parking and locals were they on my patch trying to see a bird. Otherwise I have no huge issue with flushing birds in a measured way, although the crowds surrounding birds is a bit ugh for my tastes. At least Shetland keeps all the weirdos of UK birding out of the way for a few weeks! Bit heavy on the carbon getting there for most though, mind…

    #lowcarbonbirding

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    1. At the land-owner's request, we are informed. Little wonder this all got hammered on Twitter.

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