Tuesday 13 February 2018

Fond memories

There is a trend afoot in blogging circles at the moment to relive past glories. This is understandable – it is February and there is not a lot going on unless you are Steve Gale and can spend all day every day relentlessly finding hundreds of Hawfinches. For most of us however February is an exercise in almost perfect boredom, the same birds in the same places that you saw them last month. There is a little bit of late winter excitement every time it gets a bit cold but for the most part it is extremely difficult to drum up the necessary enthusiasm to get out on those local patches. I’m only speaking for myself of course, but the plethora of “here’s good some birds from some time ago” musings suggest that I am not alone.That being the case, I thought I too would draw on the reserves of yesteryear, from times when the birding was better than it is now. The date is the 7th January 2008, and I am an incredibly keen novice twitcher… 

My drive is not an overly long one, just up to Cley on the North Norfolk coast. I have done it quite a few times before, but never with such anxiety and excitement. Such is my enthusiasm that I leave and arrive in the dark. The bird is a White-crowned Sparrow, the fourth record for Britain, and I have severely underestimated its popularity – it is not light for at least an hour and yet there is a throng of people and more arriving all the time. I quickly grab a position in a spot from where I stand a chance of seeing where the bird has been showing – a narrow gravel driveway. This is not going to be easy, but I line myself up with my scope in a scrum of green-clad humanity. It is absolutely freezing, but the massed observers act like a group of Emperor Penguins and thus stave off the worst of it. I am not used to this kind of gathering, none of the few other twitches I have been on have been anything like this. It is very peculiar in fact – a phalanx of people are assembled opposite a five bar gate on a narrow country village street, backed up against and onto the grassy verge. There is jostling, people losing their balance, and the sun has yet to even rise.

Gradually it gets lighter, and I can now see the full extent of the crowd. Gosh. There are 300 people minimum. I actually have a decent vantage point compared to some, but all of the usual nonsense of people’s heads, hats, arms and so on blocking carefully aimed scopes is happening. Every now and again words are exchanged before the exclamation recedes and we are back to the underlying low hum of conversation. I gather that many people seem to know each other, stories are being exchanged, lists compared – it is enthralling stuff and I feel like I am part of an event. And then the main event happens….

The bird has been seen on the driveway for the first time, and there is an uncontrollable surge across the road to the gate. The old and infirm are knocked off their feet and crushed. I am carried – swept -  unwilling across the road in a tidal wave of goretex. I am jostled, shoved, manhandled. My tripod goes flying and I barely keep hold of it – I have zero chance of seeing the bird in the maelstrom and just hang on for dear life. To be fair nobody is enjoying this, but the number one priority is to see the bird, and despite all of the friendly chat just a moment earlier all bets are now off. The energy of each and every person is concentrated, straining, to set eyes on the prize. Gradually some do, but they make the mistake of lingering! The gate is perhaps seven feet wide, only a small number of people can see down the drive at any one time. What is going on, why are those at the front not moving?! Complaints begin to be voiced. Make room! If you’ve seen it move away! Have you seen it? Can we see it please? Stop being so selfish! Come on, get out of the way, some of us haven’t seen it yet! The whole thing is a crazy mess, an uncontrolled every man for himself barging match where nobody has the slightest interest in anyone else’s wishes and desires, yet these desires are common to everyone here. I managed a brief and unsatisfactory view and then manage to stagger away, rotating off the side of the pulsing crowd to recover my breath and see if I still had all my limbs and clothing.

Honestly, what a palava. I very nearly gave up twitching there and then, and even now I have a huge amount of distaste for seeing birds like this, that has in many cases caused me not to travel. There have been some of course, the Dusky Thrush in Margate and the Siberian Accentor at Spurn spring immediately to mind as being highly similar, but on the whole if I judge that the location and popularity is such that it will be a complete bun fight I almost always find other things to do. My memory has faded a bit ten years later, but if I recall I went and did some real birding and came back in the afternoon for a much more satisfactory second viewing. 

Though I didn't realise it fully at the time, White-crowned Sparrow is one of the commonest passerines across the United States and I've seen them there on many visits. Location, location, location, the eternal mystery of twitching. Here is one seen in more relaxed circumstances a couple of years ago - I am glad I have largely abandoned the "thrill" of the chase!

White-crowed Sparrow, Washington State


  1. I have seen some Marsh Tits as well...

  2. Interesting. We saw that bird and may have been the last to do so. Had it all to ourselves early morning; called back 2pm. No-one there had seen it and it was not seen again I believe. Not often that lucky hence my local alias "The Great Dipper"!
    Can't stand the crowds either - madness.

    1. I reckon I can cope with one big crowd a year, no more.