Well well. Two weeks I wrote what I thought was quite an amusing take on what it is like to spend time in a bird hide in 2018. A bird hide with other people in it. I had spent quite a few hours in a hide not observing a Bittern, but I did see and hear many other things, and I am not talking about birds. I am talking about people. Five hours as a fly on the wall at a popular bird reserve in a well-populated area provided almost endless blog material. This was not a social experiment, I had genuinely wanted to see the Bittern and I still do. Staring at a birdless reed bed for hours on end however and you cannot help but pick up on the other things going on around you, and in that particular hide on that particular day the sideshow became the main attraction. I condensed it into one post centred around a number of the characters that were in there, left out all the boring bits about people sitting quietly observing birds (not many let me tell you!), and gleefully pressed 'Publish'.
To say the post generated some reaction is an understatement. I was not alone. Many people it seemed had experienced something similar and had the same frustrations. The “camotwat” in particular was a clearly defined person that people recognised from their own birding experiences. More generally poor behaviour – loud behaviour – in a place where it is expected and indeed beneficial to remain still and quiet, was something that struck a definite chord. My blog has no censorship, but the comments there – more numerous in response to anything I have previously written – indicated that people felt the same way and had enjoyed my rant. Well, I very much enjoyed writing it! I named nobody, posted no photos, indeed I did not even mention the location. It didn’t need any of that. Just a few present tense snippets of the odd few minutes here and there and it almost wrote itself.
But not everyone found it amusing. I suppose this is to be expected, we are a diverse lot. As I followed the spread of the post and its reaction on Twitter I chanced upon a separate thread with a completely opposing view. I was not amusing. Not in the slightest. In fact it was very sad that I had chosen to publicly criticise other people out enjoying nature, and of course Twitter being the echo-chamber that it is, many people agreed. At the time of writing this rejection of my point of view has nearly 1000 likes, far more than anything I posted about it! In the spirit of fairness I retweeted this thread and kept an eye on it. There were a few attempts from contributors to prop up one of my key points, which was that hides are supposed to be places from which to quietly watch birds, and that if you want to chat, discuss camera gear, listen to music etc there are probably more appropriate places, but overall I was firmly labelled an elitist snob. Hah! Better even than that though, one reader felt the need to declare me a sanctimonious pillock! This got a retweet from me as well, as a near perfect example of everything that is wrong with social media. With zero irony my judgemental stereotyping was used to blithely categorise me. Amazing.
There are varying levels of excellence on the internet, and although this Twitter user clearly wasn’t much of a fan, he has done very well. Personally I fail to see how anyone wouldn’t find my post amusing, but then I would say that wouldn’t I? I write it and read it as me, and my sense of humour is not necessarily easy to translate, especially not on a first read. Regular readers, a gratifying number of whom came out in support, knew exactly where I was coming from. Some - indeed most - have not met me, but having read my output for many years feel that they do, and they are probably more or less right. It would be difficult to read what somebody writes for close to ten years and still be in the dark as to the author’s general outlook. However this post has had around 2300 hits, which is roughly 10x the normal amount. A whole new set of people have happily been introduced to “WansteadBirder”, and whilst it is too early to say whether they are destined to become acolytes, evidently quite a number failed to read it as I intended and have taken offence.
Offence is of course very easily taken on the internet, and especially on social media platforms. It is almost de rigeur in many instances, and my experience is that people are very quick to jump on the bandwagon. Dare I say it but some revel in it. It is just too easy to bash out an ill-considered and quick-fire response to whatever it may be, keyboards do funny things to people. Type first, engage brain later. Or perhaps not at all. I am a limited user of these places, but I try not to take any of it too seriously. I’d also encourage my blog readers, especially new ones, to take the same stance. I am sure I have said this before but rarely do I take myself seriously. And neither should you. Nonetheless, and cutting through the manner in which I chose to express myself, I wanted to say two things. One, I wanted to make the point that some people actually want to watch birds from hides, which is after all why bird hides exist. Two, I wanted to point out the reason why number one is rather hard if not impossible is because many people that spend time in hides appear to have rather lost sight of that, or more likely have never been aware of that at all. Personally I find tooled-up wannabe wildlife photographers to be the most egregious of these, hence why my blog post featured them front and centre. People who think I highlighted the toggers purely out of some arrogance stemming from my own interest in bird photography are for the most part mistaken. It was primarily all about behaviour and hide-etiquette, wrapped up in some gentle ribbing.
I do not want to start the whole birder vs photographer argument all over again. I am a bird photographer and I am a birder, and I am beginning to understand what each of those disciplines means. One thing I can definitely tell you is that one hobby is not more noble than the other, no matter what some may think, or may think I think. What I can also tell you is that bird photographers should make an effort to know their subjects just as they should make an effort to know their art. The people I singled out in that hide knew neither.
But I digress. Reading huge number of contrary responses I realised that the issue could be summed up as follows. In order to encourage more people to connect with wildlife, and with birds in particular, should existing and dare I say competent birders turn a blind eye to bad behaviour in hides, put it down to life’s rich pageant, it takes all sorts etc. And going one step further, should they nonetheless seek to encourage and indeed possibly educate these new entrants?
And if they don’t are they sanctimonious pillocks?
To be continued....