Thursday 11 November 2010

Twitching. Ugh.

I told you about Cornwall. Seven hundred miles for a thirty second flight view of the American Bittern. In the cold light of day, I wonder why I do it? Mrs L wonders why I do it. Presumably anyone who watched the "Twitchers, a very British Obsession" documentary the other day wonders why I do it?

Why do I do it would therefore seem the obvious question. Well, I like seeing rare birds. There is a small element of listing I'll admit, but largely it's about seeing the bird. I've seen plenty this year that don't contribute to any list whatsoever, and enjoyed them just as much. I'll never be one of the people that documentary followed, who can't sleep at night, for whom the nervous tension is unbearable, and whose entire life is dominated by the accumulation of ticks. Unlike them, I will never get to 500. I'm not competitive enough, not driven enough. As the distances become ever more absurd, I'll bow out gracefully. Give up, if you like. Perhaps go see the odd one or two, but charter a plane at a moments notice to fly me to some far-flung island so that my list can go from 480 to 481? I don't think so, or rather, I hope not. It's just a bird, there will be others. Or maybe there won't, but does it actually matter? I'd say it doesn't.

So why then am I fretting about the coming weekend? I don't have to go and see the Pied-billed Grebe near Manchester. Nobody is making me go. Likewise the American Robin in Devon. My rather meagre BOU list is 363. Will it be a huge disaster if it remains on 363 rather than advances to 364, or if totally crazy, 365? Will I be a different person, will I be able to hold my head that little bit higher? Will people look at me with that extra little bit of respect, and as I pass whisper to each other "See that Jonathan Lethbridge, he's seen a Pied-Billed Grebe you know"? I think I know the answer.

Funny old game isn't it? There are plenty of ex-twitchers out there. I wonder what their 'moment of clarity' was, when it was that they decided that they would jack it all in and just go birding for the pleasure of it, and leave the obsession behind? I reckon I've got a few more years of twitching left in me, but people who know me realise that I am becoming more and more fed up with it. The same people call me a filthy twitcher of course, but that's fair enough, these past few years have been pretty bad. Not so bad that a TV crew felt a burning need to follow me round the country for sound-bites to make me appear a luncatic though, for which I'm thankful. But bad enough that I recognised quite a few of the people, and had actually been present at some of the locations. And bad enough that Mrs L felt able to draw unfavourable comparisons...

I wonder if I could become a local twitcher, or set myself a maximum (and small!) range, and not travel outside of it? Apart from a few birds, everything turns up closer eventually. Take that Brown Shrike at Flamborough for example. I know more than a few people that went up for that, some of them got it, some of them didn't. Hours in the car, hours. I didn't go, perhaps back then the thought of that distance put me off? Perhaps it was midweek and I was, shock-horror, working? It doesn't matter, as guess what turned up on Staines Moor last year? Similarly I declined to go to Seaforth for the White-tailed Plover, I couldn't face the time travelling for the views I would likely get. There was space in a car, and I passed it up, wondering if I'd made a very bad call indeed for such a rare bird. A few weeks later I spent several hours scoping the same bird at Rainham, it was fantastic. The good things come to those who wait. Could I really do it, have I really got the patience and the will-power?

My weekend plans

Meanwhile Shaun, Bradders and the Monkey are all calling and emailing, discussing potential plans for the weekend involving Manchester, or perhaps Devon, or perhaps both. London to Manchester via Devon has an all too familiar (and unpleasant) ring to it.... Right now, I don't yet know what I'm going to do. Whatever the twitch is, it has the potential to either be horrible or be a fun day out with the boys in equal measure. It all depends on me, and my frame of mind. Latterly I have been approaching all twitches in a very negative manner, which is ridiculous, and I know it. Either accept what you're letting yourself in for, and approach it as positively as you can, or don't go. And if you do go, make a day out of it, make the bird in question just part of the trip.

And most importantly, don't dip.


  1. think of the CO2

    does that help?

  2. CO2 me arse! Think of the american robin nestling on yer list! Think of the craic! Think of how many cheese & onion pasties and bags of spicy niknaks you can cram down your throat in 2 days of twitching! Think of 2 kid-free days! Footie on the radio! You deserve it after all that domestic drudgery through the week! Think of greasy spoons - egg, chips and beans! I'm always full of schteam!

  3. Good points - all of which I've enjoyed in my time although I don't think people do the five days sleeping in a car for the Scottish stuff in February these days.

    The only way to conquer it is to move to the coast and get a local patch that truly delivers. Until then, it's mouth ulcers and waking at 3 a.m. with frost on the windows (outside if you're lucky) for you.

  4. I understand the appeal of twitching, I do. If one of your robins showed up around here I would, of course, be falling all over myself to see it. But it's terribly mind-bending for me to think about twitching an American Robin since they're a dime-a-dozen suburban bird around here. I think that's why I have a bit of a preference for the elusive local rarity (but the last bird I went for was a twitch, so grain of salt...).

  5. Ever since you ranted on here about a couple in the Scilly Isles disturbing a bird that you were watching/twitching, because they were oblivious to the fact that you had travelled across Britain to see what exhausted North American birds might have turned up there, I've wondered if your twitching has made you lose all sense of proportion. Glad that you are now taking time to reflect. It's clear from your reports from the garden and Wanstead Flats and Ponds that you enjoy all birds and take pleasure from seeing even common ones in your local area. I'd urge you to keep that in mind next time you work yourself up about whether to race across the UK to add another tick.

  6. Rant? On this blog? Never.
    The bird you're talking about was a (local) Rock Pipit I was attempting to photograph on a beach, twitching didn't come into it. I'd also argue that the fact the Rock Pipit was on Scilly and I live in London is irrelevant. But you're right that I am entering a reflective period.
    PS Do you have a name?

  7. Sorry, yes, Matt Evans. I'm an occasional birder, live in North London and found your website a couple of years ago. It resonated at the time because we both worked in the City and enjoyed birding in our spare time and neither professed ourselves to be massively proficient in birding. Since you left your job and found more time for birding, the tone of your blog entries has gradually changed and it has tended more towards the run-and-tick-job-done side of twitching compared to the "what a fantastic few hours I had enjoying the various birds at such and such a site" birding side (albeit it that we had such an entry recently from Rainham, which was a welcome return to the Jonathan of old).

    Fair point re. local rock pipit and photographing not twitching it - no doubt you see them at Rainham every time you visit at this time of year. But it was quite a rant and I read it as indicating that all non birders should be more sensitive to birders. It came across to me as though you thought you had a greater right to use the beach in question than a couple out for a walk - sorry if I misinterpreted that.

    I should add that I enjoy your blog, am envious of your ability to find time to bird regularly and don't intend to come across as critical - my comments are purely the non-judgmental observations of someone who has followed your blog for a while. Keep up the good work!

  8. Run-and-tick? No no no no, it's Tick-and-run. Totally different....ahem.

    Tick-and-run, btw, is an in-joke between me and the guys I go out with. Whenever we get something, it is high fives and "tick-and-run". More often than not, we then go birding around whatever area we are in, rather than 'run' back to the car. Sometimes though, it is literally see the bird and go home, which is a highly unsatisfactory ratio of time birding to time travelling. I like to avoid it if at all possible.

    You've just made me go and reread my rant, and you're right, it was a bad one, not surprised you remember it. I was indeed indicating that they should have been more sensitive and diverted around me, but no, I had no greater right to be on that beach than they did. That said, if I saw someone photographing a bird - and the couple did see me - I'd make every effort to walk around them, same as if I saw someone trying to take a family shot in the park, but it could be that as a photographer I'm more alert to what is going on. Or it could be that the couple on the beach were locals who had spent years getting wound up by stampeding birders and were being deliberately obtuse. We will never know, but at the time I found it staggering. Rereading it a year later, I wish I had been more chilled out about it - it was after all only a Rock Pipit. I see lots of them, though at Rainham I'd have to be knee-deep in mud to get the same photo opportunity. A nice warm sandy beach gets my vote every time.

    The Jonathan of old.....hmmm. It could yet happen. Perhaps not this coming weekend, but it could yet happen. Maybe I need to get a job?

  9. Laurel does have a point - neither American Robin nor Pied-Billed Grebe are rare birds - they just happen to be rare here.

    I'm not a twitcher, and this is partly down to laziness, but I also would draw a distinction between going to see a bird that is on the edge of its range here - and so is just about part of our ecosystem, and could even become more established here like Little Egrets did - and going to see a bird that is completely lost and out of its range and will probably die here without any chance of breeding again. The former is enjoying the diversity of our wildlife, the latter is just a tick.

    Not wanting to preach - partly justifying my own small life British list, which is about half yours! And I do enjoy the blog too, even the twitching bits.