Tuesday 17 September 2013

Tuesday and London listing

Continuing my theme of cunning, playing with the very fabric of time, I can tell you that today I went to work, but seeing as I don't know what happened there yet, I have nothing to whinge about and can thus write about something else. That something is London listing. The idea just popped into my head suddenly when I read Gavin's post about a London big year he had attempted in the late 1860s, when Willow Tits outnumbered people, and Grey Partridges were so common they were used as cavity insulation. I had been going to write about cycling, but when I read Gav's blog I soon gave up on that absurd idea and decided to change the theme to birds. Maybe next time.

All birders I know have lists. This is as universal a fact as badgers being evil. Show me a birder who does not have a list, and I will show you a fraud. And if you really don't have a list, then with any luck somebody else will be keeping one for you anyway. Most birders have a "close-to-home" list, probably a local patch or two, and the natural extension of that is a county list. London spans so many counties that it has its own recording area, a circle 20 miles in diameter centred on St Paul's Cathedral. Slightly antiquated now that we have the M25 as a nice natural boundary, but there it is, and we would all lose quite a few birds if we changed it so that's how it's staying. I'd lose Buff-bellied Pipit, Nightjar, Glossy Ibis, Raven, Wood Warbler, Great Grey Shrike, Savi's Warbler and Red-footed Falcon, so not sure what camp I'd be in. With that little lot, the "keep it as is" one I suspect!

My London list is low versus the die-hards, who have close to 300 or in some cases even more. Another way to describe the die-hards would be old. The secret to having a high list - anywhere, not just London - is to be extremely ancient but not quite have your name in green italics on the List of Lists. So, being the right side of 40, and only having birded in London for under ten years, it is entirely normal that my list be the wrong side of 250. Just. I probably realised I could start a London list in about 2006 I reckon, as for many years I only birded abroad. 200 came quite quickly, sometime in 2009, but it took attempting a London yearlist in 2010 to really get the it motoring. That year I added 22 birds, more than I've added since then combined.

The fascinating thing about London listing is that crap birds become really really good. Sandwich Terns, Gannets, Eiders, Ravens, Merlins, Brent Geese. Well, maybe crap is the wrong word. Common, easy, seen loads, in other words birds not worth panicking about. Yet I remember dropping everything for a Manx Shearwater on the Thames and hooning it to Rainham as quickly as I possibly could, praying fervently that it would last until I got there. The poor thing was flying ineffectually up and down the river, and almost certainly ended up inside a Great Black-backed Gull. A pitiful sight, the more so given that I've seen perhaps 30,000 in a day go past Pendeen in full command of the elements, and not how to enjoy the species, yet I felt elation that being at Pendeen could not possibly have created.

And then there's the traffic. The thought of a good London tick in south-west London, the Surrey sector, makes me shudder. During my 2010 big year I only had cause to go that way three or four times, and that was three or four times too many. Hours. Hours and hours sat in the car. For what? A Pectoral Sandpiper? Some Velvet Scoter? Please. The mere fear of traffic may possibly have scuppered my chances of beating the London record - various birds turned up that might have helped me get over the line, but the thought of the time it would take to get there stirred in me feelings only of apathy and dread. Yellow-browed Warbler at Ally Pally. Great Grey Shrike at Wormwood Scrubs. Gah! No thanks, not with the school run ever on the horizon. Instead I spent most of the year at Rainham, a solid tactic with Gannet, Kittiwake, Eider, Great and Arctic Skuas, Hen Harrier and Snow Bunting to name but a few.

So why is it I still keep going? I have very little reason, nothing that makes any sense. Why would I spend hours in the car to see something I've seen loads of before? Why would I fret, worry, and become annoyed by a dross bird simply because it's somewhere close to the M25 and I'm stuck at my desk until dusk? Why would I, on occasion, jump up from said desk and simply walk out of the door upon hearing news of a trip of Dotterel in Surrey? (I made it by the way) There's not even really a competitive element, the number of London listers is extremely low, perhaps fifty? That said, it's the only list I have where I'm ahead of Bradders, so perhaps that counts for something.

I reckon that it must just be the thrill of the chase. Bumper to bumper, at 2 m.p.h.


  1. When I began birding in London there were vast flocks of Turtle Doves that took days to pass and blocked out the sun; Grasshopper Warblers reeled in such number that a day in the field caused temporary deafness; and every fence post had not one - but two - Red-backed Shrikes. Still, there were no effing parakeets...

  2. No, sorry, it really doesn't count for anything... because I couldn't care less about my London list! I just happen to have lived here for ten years, so have seen some birds - almost all either close to home, or rare enough to be worth travelling for.

  3. Sorry, my mistake. But thanks for driving me to that Nightjar ;-)