Friday 4 October 2013

Variations on a theme

Some birds are better than others, fact. I'm currently contemplating going to see an Isabelline Wheatear in west Wales. Notwithstanding the fact that it's a type of Wheatear, and thus excellent, when I saw the photos of the bird I was slightly underwhelmed. It looks like a pale Wheatear, which I suppose it is, but what I mean by that is that it looks remarkably similar to the common Northern Wheatear, just paler. Sandier. Is that worth nine hours in the car? I mean, it's not a Little Green Bee-eater is it? The typical agonising I always go through got me thinking about what birds I really regret going to see, not because of the twitching experience, for instance my awful trip to see the Lesser Kestrel near Minsmere, but because the birds were, well, boring.

Top of this list without a shadow of a doubt is Short-toed Treecreeper. Why did I do this? I spend probably a whole day chanting "I will not go" repeatedly, and then went the following day. Massively underwhelming. A Treecreeper that unless it made a noise, or you studied a small part of it on the back of your camera, looked identical to a normal Treecreeper. Only 70 miles away, but crushingly and mind-bogglingly boring. Completely absurd that I went, especially when I said I wouldn't, but I guess that's me all over. What Great Snipe?

Yes, I saw it. You knew I would go right? Of course. So is the Great Snipe a candidate for one of these underwhelming birds? Like the Treecreeper, I had decided I wasn't going and then changed my mind, but is that where the similarity ends? I came away glad that I had been, but that was due to the experience of observing the bird at extremely close quarters, rather than the bird being anything particularly stonking. Basically a Snipe. A shade bigger, but 'Great'? I was hoping for a whopper, a monumentally huge Snipe! Like a chicken, but with a sword for a beak. But no, a dumpy wader, somewhere between a Woodcock and a Snipe, and decidedly at the Snipe end of that scale. Having seen it, I wondered about what previous attempts at Great Snipe ticking might have led to. A flight view of something Snipe-shaped with a bit of white on the tail, probably in murky conditions on a wind-swept island up to my knees in a morass. Any other individual Great Snipe but this one, and it would have made the list of duffers.

What about Rosefinch? I've seen a few now, and whilst they do a nice little whistle, they're staggeringly boring. I might get up to see one in Wanstead, but nowhere else. Every single one I've seen has been a brown one. Basically a sparrow, near enough as makes no difference. Small, boring, brown. But at one time a tick, thus amazing. No more. I've even got one on my London list, a rare bird here, but still dull as ditch water.

What about birds that people have invented in order to get more ticks? I've seen a few of these now, birds like Iberian Chiffchaff, Siberian Stonechat, and Parrot Crossbill. A Chiffchaff that was a shade brighter and sang a different song, a Stonechat that was a bit plainer than normal, and a Crossbill with a chunky beak. Well, what can you say? They all count, they all count, and clearly someone like me who is so defined by their UK list had to go and see them all. Err, why did I do that exactly? I have no idea. Then again if I refused to go for dull birds my list would be sitting at around 250 I suppose. Listing is silly. Short-billed Dowitcher? So similar to Long-billed Dowitcher that the two get confused even in the US where they come from? You betcha - a great day out where I first scored the Baillon's Crake, which had the good grace to at least look different, and then a long drive to Dorset.

What about the ones I've yet to see? Greater Yellowlegs aka 99% Greenshank (sometimes even 100%!), Solitary Sandpiper aka 99% Green Sandpiper. Pallid Swift? Pacific Diver? Black Duck? And my most keenly anticipated lifer, American Coot! Will somebody please shoot me if one turns up, it will be for the best and save me the agonising.


  1. Absolutely bang on the money. We go on these twitches simply because we're held hostage by the need to add to our lists. I can't get to the relatively long-distance places you have visited (my better half knows me too well and just simply won't allow it!), but if I could I would and on many occasions no doubt would regret it due to being totally underwhelmed by what I've seen. The best birding experiences I've had are the dramatic sightings such as the Burpham Pallid Harrier or the Broxhead Common Roller. A seawatch, I have recently discovered, is just great value if the conditions are right. Birds that look like other birds, like so many waders do, are very hard to get excited about, especially the ones you've mentioned, and as a consequence I've left them alone, hence my pathetic list total. The Lesser Yellowlegs at Cliffe isn't far way, as an example, but in truth I can't be arsed...

  2. One man's boring is another man's subtle identification challenge, and, for me, pretty much most birds have some sort of redeeming feature apart from just being another tick on the list. I do find Black Ducks kind of boring, though...