Monday 1 November 2010


You knew I would go to Cornwall didn't you? It was a tough decision, and I had my fingers crossed for the American Bittern to depart overnight. Unfortunately, it didn't happen, and a nice morning on Wanstead Flats was brought to a premature close by news of its continued presence on Saturday.

It had to be done. Actually that's a lie. It didn't have to be done at all. I could have just stayed at home, like Shaun and Paul did, and had a nice weekend. But no, even though it felt foolish, by about ten thirty me, Dick, Bradders and Nick were in the car and on the M25, 360 miles of mind-numbing boredom and a likely dip ahead of us.

We arrived, and dipped. Oh what a surprise. We dipped with style though. We arrived in pouring rain to learn that the bird had been seen only once since we had left London, and that flying strongly away north and over a large hill. Rather than retreat immediately to the pub, we decided we would search for it in the valley (down a marked footpath, since you ask). We found a Goldcrest, and got soaked. In my case, to the skin. My waterproofs are apparently not what they once were, and the rain penetrated all four layers of clothing. To cap this fine afternoon off I stepped in a stream over my boots and got my socks wet as well. Brilliant.

Later at the pub, where we should have been all along, we made plans to return at first light. Zennor Mermaid is superb, by the way, lifted my dampened spirits very quickly.

We were up before the sun, and in the dark found a spot for the car well away from the bird and walked the remaining distance. Many lazy-ass birders decided to drive the entire way and park immediately adjacent to the pool. I don't know what resting Bitterns pick up on and what they don't, but headlights, reversing noises, slamming doors and flashing indicators and beeps as people lock their cars strikes me as none too subtle. If I were a Bittern I would be thinking very strongly about hunkering down and staying hidden rather than popping out to see what was going on. That said, over a hundred people stood just over a fence looking directly at your pool probably also isn't going to encourage you either, and that was inevitable. Parking issues aside, the initial behaviour at the twitch was exemplary. Over a hundred birders stood mostly silently in a long line on the road, the furthest away spot you could wait without encroaching on the moor, and waited patiently for the bird to show.

Which it didn't. Three hours passed, and nothing happened. As you would expect, people became a little restless, more conversation took over, but contrary to internet hub-bub there was no mass hysteria. I wasn't there Friday, and from what I had read, it seemed that people were crawling all over the moor and through the sedge, booting the bird from pillar to post. Actually, though it remains true that the bird was indeed flushed, it appears that the behaviour of birders on site was in no way what internet forums would have you believe, inconsiderate birders running amok, lighting fires to smoke the bird out. But I wasn't there, so who knows.


I saw nothing bad on Saturday, and on Sunday, though the bird was indeed flushed, if it was going to happen, as may well be inevitable in situations like this, it happened in the best possible circumstances. It could have been terrible. After three hours of nothing, many were convinced that the bird wasn't present, having been attacked by a Peregrine the previous day had probably been enough for it. A very brave birder walked the entire line of people, asking if any objected to him getting closer, and walking alongside the pools for a look from a different angle. I heard no objections - none - although I understood later that there had been a few from further down the line. I have no idea how this is supposed to work. Some may argue that one objector should be enough, others may say that no matter how many he heard, that birder was going to go closer regardless. Yet others may say he should not even have suggested it. As I say, I don't know, but it appears that the overwhelming majority of people were perfectly happy for this guy to go and have a look, mainly as that meant that they didn't have to, even though they probably really really wanted to. Nobody wants to be first; this applies to many things in life.

By this stage cows were encroaching on the pool, and nothing had happened. The guy hopped over a gate and into a field adjacent to the pool, ie he didn't even "go in". Nothing happened. He walked along the fenceline, peering in, and still nothing happened. I wasn't really looking, by now convinced that the bird wasn't there. All of a sudden a shout went up from the crowd, and the Bittern flew up from somewhere invisible that wasn't even particularly close to the guy, did a showy loop to the assembled crowd, and flew off to some pines nearby. I got excellent scope views. People applauded the bird (I assume), and for some reason the guy took a bow. Now clearly this is not ideal. Ideally everyone would have waited and waited, and had we been lucky, perhaps the bird would have plucked up the courage to feed in the open somewhere where it could be seen, as had happened when it had been found. I don't think that was ever going to happen. The first few days, with just the farmer, the finder and a few locals having a look, the Bittern was apparently extremely visible and pleasing on the eye. With 100+ birders streched in a long line only a few metres away, plus wacky races in the dark, any bird with a modicum of self-preservation was either going to bugger off, or if it chose to stay, adapt its behaviour accordingly.

I wasn't twitching in the halycon days reverently recalled by so many armchair critics, when all birders were stuffed so full of fieldcraft they could barely move, and when evil pagers (and the internet) didn't exist. Outrageously, these days any Johnny-come-lately can now find out where a rare bird is and drive there on a motorway. Pah! Modern twitching being what it is, that people waited even three hours strikes me as miraculous. Tick cravings are rarely kept in check for that long! No, people will be napalming any thick cover after about fifteen minutes in order to get their fix. So, adding a healthy dose of realism, if you take the line that there was simply no way on God's earth that in the year 2010 100+ rabid twitchers were going to patiently wait around all day and quite possibly go home without seeing it, then what transpired is essentially common sense. One guy sought the opinion of everyone else present, went with the overwhelming majority, and then very carefully walked nowhere near the bird, but where he might be able to see if it was still present or not. Unfortunately he was still too close, and the bird spooked. Is that really so bad? Does it harm the bird? Well, it's clearly not as good for the bird as leaving it alone, so in that respect, yes, it must, but charges of animal cruelty? Please. Does it really deserve pages of vitriol, mainly from people who weren't there? I'm not so sure. Had a bunch of people unrestrainedly hopped over the grassy bank and converged on the pool, kicking at clumps of sedge and bracken, I would have been livid. Had people gone looking with torches in the dark, that would have been selfish, and stupid. But it wasn't like that. I did not object, so am I a hypocrite? Yes, a bit. But then again I'm a hypocrite for even going. Am I trying to justify my tick? Not really. I'd be writing this if exactly the same behaviour had occured but the bird hadn't been seen. Having been sucked-in yet again into commenting on the net a couple of days ago, I felt I had to put the record straight as to what actually happened.

Personally I was on the point of leaving. I hate standing around, I was cold, and I was hungry. American Whatever, at that stage I was far more interested in breakfast. I would have walked away. As it was, all present (apart from the objectors who presumably closed their eyes) got excellent views as the bird flew off about 100m away. Nobody else then felt the need to trample anywhere, most people were happy, and many left the site (the quicker to get back home and bitch on the internet about bad behaviour at twitches...) hopefully allowing the bird to get back to doing whatever it was doing. Cowering in thick cover...

We couldn't see ourselves seeing the bird any better, so did not even attempt to refind it in the pines. Instead we went to Penzance for breakfast, and to find an internet cafe....

Green Heron, Heligan. It would have been rude not to.


  1. John if you want some waterproof socks try sealskins! A bit expensive but there were brilliant in Shetland going through the iris beds!!

  2. Excellent summary of yesterdays events. Did hear one guy did say that if someone went in and flushed it he would not even look! Nice to see the back of my head in a crowd shot for once (second from right).

  3. Your Green Heron pic is gorgeous...and I am green with envy that you saw the American Bittern!