Monday 17 October 2011

Life lists are a load of crap

Yes, I’m sorry, yet another blog post on listing. The opportunities to waffle on about listing are many and varied, and frankly I’m amazed I don’t write about it more, for it affords an insight into the minds of many of this country’s finest birders. Or is that listers? The prompt for this post came yesterday at Landguard.
For those of you who have not been there, Landguard sits below Felixstowe on the very southern tip of the Suffolk coast. It is a short shingle spit, and like many shingle spits in this counrty, is covered in old concrete things designed to impede tanks, with yet more old concrete things that used to contain large guns with which to blast tanks as they attempted to negotiate old concrete things, or at that period in history, new concrete things. In the event I don’t think any tanks ever arrived, but that is by the by – this is not a history blog. In the middle of the spit there is a very large concrete thing that was once a fort, or something, and this is now home to the Landguard Bird Observatory. The Obs is surrounded by Holm Oaks and Tamarisks, and is somewhat of an obstacle course for small birds, being filled with mist nets and people with small bags. These people find a lot of birds, not only entangled in nets, but also in the bushes and brambles surrounding the fort. This is what happened yesterday, and Bradders and I were the happy recipients of news that either a Booted or Skyes’s Warbler had been found at Landguard. Being a mere twenty miles away, we decided, there and then, to go. Filth.

We arrived to find a lot of people already there, with more arriving all the time. The bird was remarkably obliging, feeding in the open, and sometimes just sitting around in the open doing nothing. Excellent and prolonged scope views were had by all, and the noise of camera shutters, had we been in the 1940s, would have had gunners in concrete things in a right old panic. Booted Warbler is a rare bird, but Skyes’s Warbler is even rarer. Much rarer. The two were previously considered conspecific, so nobody went to see Sykes’s Booted Warbler. Now that it is treated as full species there is a surprising amount of interest. More than a few 500+ listers still haven’t seen a Sykes’s Warbler. Oh dear, what a shame.
Can you guess what the favoured outcome of the identity debate on this bird was? Bet you can’t…..I shall put you out of your misery – amazingly, many people there wanted the bird to be a Skyes’s. Unbelievable, but true. Out of genuine interest? Not on your nelly. They wanted to be able to say that they had seen a new bird. Sykes’s would a be a tick, Booted, nothing. Nul points. At this point I should declare a vested interest. Being fairly new to this seeing vagrant bird malarkey, I had only seen a Sykes’s Warbler, and not a Booted. Booted was an outcome that suited my list particularly well. And although the bird was a challenging one, it didn’t take long for the backs of cameras to get scrutinised to the nth degree, and with Obs literature to hand, the bird quickly resolved into the one I wanted. But this was against a backdrop of very experienced birders trying to talk it into a Sykes’s Warbler, searching for tenuous things that might make it one, trying to convince others of the light. Surely this is a Sykes’s, one implored.  
My comments about teaching Nils (Van Duivendijk) everything he knows were obviously in jest. He spent some time with other people too. But even I, with my pathetic bird knowledge, my almost non-existent grasp of bird topography (I believe I got tertials and secondaries mixed up yesterday, but maybe not, that’s how clear I am), managed to look at it critically. And really, it was simple. The bird was browny-beige. The Sykes’s I had seen on Shetland had looked grey. Booted. End of. The ringers caught it a bit later and measured its eyelid or something. Guess what? Booted. Hurrah, so I get to tick it, and the legions of mega-listers came away disappointed. Not a new bird, just another bloody Booted Warbler. Wasted journey.

What amazed me is that it was obvious that some of the people there didn’t actually know the difference between the two birds. Granted that it is subtle, but the information is out there. If I can read (and mostly comprehend) Duivendijk, then trust me, anyone can. But when a bird is just a tick in box, it’s clear that being able to ID it for yourself is for some people irrelevant. I am guilty of this of course, as I am sure are many twitchers new to the glorious sport. In fact to begin with I was a hopeless tick and run machine, and my recent experience with a funny Greenshank served only to hammer the point home. But to continue to be guilty of it after twenty or more years and having seen in excess of 500 species is an exercise in the pointless.
I would not go far as to say that the size of someone’s BOU list is the inverse of their birding abilty or knowledge, but it raises the question as to exactly what the point of having a large life list is. Given that a tick is prized so highly, what exactly does it mean to have a lot of them? What does it measure exactly? Well, it is not totally without value. It measures your ability to read a map and drive somewhere. And it also takes in your ability to have a flexible working arrangement/low moral standards re work, or a large trust-fund? The UK400 club “list of lists” that causes so much furore is what then? Irrelevant? One-upmanship in tabular form? And Bubo, where I record my little-league list?

I like lists, I have no problem admitting that. I take regular medication to ensure the number of lists I keep remains sensible. I think I have about eight, if you exclude year-lists. The one that really matters to most people is their UK life list. This is the biggie, the one people brag about, the one people mistakenly think commands respect. My entry on the list of lists, were I to have one, would be 380, presumably a few more in UK400 terms. This is so lowly that I wouldn’t even get on the list. I am nothing, a birding nobody. And yet those pitiful 380 birds on my list tell people nothing about my field ability, but presumably the assumption would be that I’m not much good. That happens to be true, but the number of birds I’ve seen isn’t the reason. Isn’t that odd?  The fact that I’ve even seen as many as 380 birds is down to two things. I can read a map, and I can drive. Well jolly well done me I say. When I reach 400 I will slap myself on the back and offer myself hearty congratulations on my tenacity. But not on my skill. The two are not related. Pointless.
So what does mark a good birder out? The classic measure would presumably be a self-found list, but there is an argument to say that land-locked birders are at a severe disadvantage. Sure, they can drive to the coast, and I’m sure many do, but ultimately the guy who can be in the sueda ten-minutes after rolling out of bed will have a clear and distinct advantage. Still, I’m sure the measure has its uses, particularly as many many keen birders deliberately live on the coast. I would, and at the drop of a hat. I am however extremely tied to London, and have sworn on many occasions that I am Never. Moving. House. Again. Stamp tax is one reason. Packing and unpacking is the major one. Thus when I added up my self-found life list the other day, it came to a meagre 215. I can’t blame that on London though, a lot of it is time birding, and the relative inexperience that comes along with that. Oh, and that and I always go out birding with better birders, thus they nearly always call the birds first. Unless they happen to be on the phone, which is what happened the other day, and I was able to seize my chance. Perhaps I should distract them. “Look, what’s that behind you!”, and whilst they turn around quickly scan the juicy habitat they were about to get to. Might work. But I am thinking of a different measure. An unquantifiable one, or rather a series of unquantifiable measures. What about the birder who enthuses about common birds, the birder who can accurately draw a Blue Tit from memory? The birder who spends time counting breeding birds, observing regular activity like nest-building. How about the birder who carries and uses a notebook, an argument that gets touted again and again, and with some merit. The birder who instantly knows the calls of common birds and thus pauses when something out of the ordinary calls from a bush. The birder who can smell weather. The birder who questions facts that are known as standard knowledge, that push the boundaries. Surely these guys are the real gurus? The real masters of their craft.
Anyway, next time someone tells you they’ve seen over 500 birds in the UK, the approach is as follows. I dare you. Look amazed. Look stunned. Say “Wow” a lot. Say that you find them god-like, incredible. Then say that you are in awe of their driving skills, amazed by their ability to follow simple directions, and extremely jealous of the amount of free time they have. Do let me know what they say.


  1. Jonathan,

    if politicians ever create a Department of Prolixity you shall surely be a minister.

    Nils van Divingduck is simply a minimalist.

    (A birder called) Des.

  2. Yes, I am known for brevity.

  3. Excellent rant!

    Most of all, a full list to me seems linked to money: for gas, lodgings, and by implication only those with money have the time to go and tick. This is of course quintuply (not a word, Firefox is telling me, but I'll go with it) true for world life lists.

    Great description too of the things that make a truly skilled birder. All quiet things and, as you say, unquantifiable, can't be trumpeted on a website or put you at the top of any list.

  4. I love your post today. I feel the same way about the "big list" people here in the U.S., too. Many of them couldn't find a bird in a brown paper bag. Many of them have tons of money and pay exorbitant amounts, in my mind, to go on bird trips led by some much poorer, much better birder than they will ever be.

    The rest have a lot of free time (and enough money for gas at least). A few, a very few, are actually good birders.

    So what good is a big list? Not very much. What does a big list say about the birder who has one? Not very much.

    That said, I do keep a list of my own, two actually--a county list and a "yard" list around my cabin. Attempting anything more than that when I don't have the money or the time for travel would be pretty ridiculous.

    So why do so many other people view the big list people with that mixture of envy and awe that you mention?

  5. yes yes quite agree but there is a trap here, which is living other people's lives for them.

    Birding would be dull if everyone did it the same way and for the same reasons.

  6. Here here! Very well put indeed.