Sunday 8 January 2023

A critical mass

The number of birders in Wanstead is growing, I think mirroring a national trend in 
birdwatching becoming more popular. Excellent news, I am no longer a middle-aged loner weirdo, just the first bit. The various lockdowns and general level of shit all around us is seeing more people than ever turn to the great outdoors for solace. Excellent, yes? An emphatic yes, ditch the screens and get out there, it can literally save people's lives. Wanstead, I am assuming like other areas (although possibly magnified, this is the big city after all), has benefited from this newfound interest in wildlife with a whole host of new faces out birding. Collectively, and this does actually include me (!), all of the existing birders on the patch have been exceedingly friendly, welcoming, and helpful. That patch map I drew up years ago has been getting more impressions that ever as people get to grips with the different areas and the stupid names we gave them. Again, this is good. More people out birding and exploring, more eyes spotting and reporting detrimental activity like arson and fly-tipping, and more birds being seen. Many more birds being seen. And many more birds being reported.....

Back in the old days there was no such thing as instant local bird news. News of birds was shared face to face on the patch, or if there was something demanding immediate attention, people phoned each other. Sometimes even on landlines! Things have moved on, almost everyone has a smartphone, and there are loads of ways that news can be shared. Too many ways in fact, and for a while the local birding scene here suffered from a mishmash of communciation methods that resulted in a logistical nightmare and an absurd amount of duplication. There were numerous Twitter accounts for example. I had two, my own one called Wansteadbirder and then another called Wansteadbirding, essentially to separate my usual drivel from the dissemination of local bird news, if you wanted "in" then all you had to do was follow the account. In theory if you used hashtagging, or @'tting (is that even a word?) then you could report sightings. I gave a number of people the password to this latter account so that they could use it directly, but with several cooks the waters started getting muddier. The account started to follow other accounts related to London Birding, the idea being that we would get a view of what was happening across London, migratory arrivals and so on, but this then morphed into following bird observatories, nature-themed good causes, climate biologists, local water companies and so on, and before long it was impossible to have that coherent view of the local patch that it had been expressely created for. And that was without the advertising and emojis! Every now and again I would go into the settings and have a good old purge, but this was only ever temporary and it would soon bloat out again as different people have different views (more on which later). 

We then hit upon the idea of using the messaging function. It looks like a little envelope and it turned out that as well as one to one messaging you could add several people to a conversation, and so provided you had a Twitter account you could be added to this by one of the people that had the password. WhatsApp by another name. You can probably guess where this is going, but so many people were added to the list that it became a giant chat room, and worse than that, some of the additions were essentially random, people visiting for the first and perhaps only time were added on as well. Seemingly all you had to do was stop and ask what people were looking at and you were on! The need to sift through endless chit-chat to get to actual bird news from somebody you actually knew became distinctly unsatisfying, time-consuming, and above all distracting. And then there were the notifications. My God! Any time anyone said anything my phone beeped, but ironically as any of the longer-standing birders to whom I'd given the password were assumed to be "me", my phone did not beep when they posted something (as why would I notify myself?) so I was basically getting push notifcations for all of the chat and very little concerning birds of interest! Disaster!

What to do? Split, that's what. Thus a breakaway faction started a local WhatsApp Group by invitation only! For a while this worked very well. A small group of more experienced birders who knew what was good and what was normal, and generally sticking to bird news only, although I should point out that we could degenerate with the best of them. At around the same time one of the most active birders on the patch lost his phone somewhere, and when he finally got a new one he decided to eschew both Twitter and WhatsApp, and instead started group-texting people. And then of course all birding patches have at least one luddite who doesn't have a mobile phone at all....So now we had a plethora of information pipelines that were impossible to manage.This was never more keenly felt when a locally important bird was flying over. The unlucky observer woud need to try and recall who used what method of communication versus where they lived and what direction the bird was flying in to make a split second decision as to whether to first tweet, whatsapp, text or phone. Or go home and write a letter. I cannot begin to describe the panic that set in when this happened to me, and I would inevitably make a hash of it, missing somebody off, sending it from the wrong account. 

Worse than this, the word had got out about a select WhatsApp group and there were whisperings of elitism that did not sit very comfortably. The truth hurts. Why wasn't so-and-so allowed to be on this group, were they not good enough? Don't you like them? It was a fair challenge, and whilst it might have been created to cut through the noise, perception is everything and so is inclusivity. Not everyone agreed, but one day I made a new one, moved everyone over, and added as many other people as I had phone numbers for to it. Over the following days those birders we saw on the patch got added and people continue to join today, although the closed nature of the application means it is still de facto invitation only. We also used this opportunity to consolidate platforms, encouraging people to stop tweeting and only use WhatsApp going forward. The last Twitter message was in April 2022. With the exception of the guy who still texts and is not for turning, all bird news is now in one place.

So this is nirvana right? Loads of new birders, loads of birds being seen, all the bird news being shared in a single place. Well, err, yes. And no. I am not sure exactly how many local birders there are now, but judging from the stream of WhatsApp message there are a lot. And it is not a stream, it is a torrent, and herein lies the issue. Inclusivity is a good thing for local birding but it is not without its failings. Whenever anyone joins they get given a set of guidelines, but any social media group with upwards of 30 people on it is inevitably going to suffer from a dilution of purpose. It seems not to matter how many times the guidelines are shared, it isn't long before it starts to meander. It starts with a casual emoji, disappointingly WhatsApp has the ability to "like" a message amongst other sentiments. Confidence builds, and someone will sneak a "well done!" in there. As it is January many birds are temporarily exciting again, and so someone will report a Fieldfare as it might be new for the year. Why stop at Fieldfare though when there are Redwings? And Green Woodpeckers! Left unchecked you eventually get to this:

I do appreciate that a birder who is new to the patch and perhaps also new to the hobby might not be able to confidently work out what counts as notable, but come on! A Wren! This is but one example of many (I am not in the game of deliberately wanting to make an individual feel bad), and I am sure it is plain-old over-enthusiasm, but taken en-masse it has the impact of making the local bird news group more or less useless. I would rather miss a good bird than have to sift through this, I just don't have the time. So here is the conundrum, do I throw my elitist toys out of the pram, or do I patiently try and provide some guidance? 

Well you know me..... Hah! Actually it is a bit of both. So yes, I did bash out a message about Wrens, Chaffinches and all the other common birds recently reported as being very definitely not notable, and I also went one grumpy step further than our very polite guidance, big killjoy that I am, and stated that I deemed general chit chat and congratulatory emojis as non-essential. But I also very helpfully pointed people in the direction of the Wanstead Birding Blog which has a number of really quite useful pages on it that are specifically designed to demystify the patch and the birds found on it and over it. So for example we have a full site list which gives clear information on the status of each and every species, whether resident breeder or rarity. Of course the time of year is also important, and so we also have a page which clearly shows the range of arrival and departure dates for our expected migrants. And then finally we have detailed annual bird reports that go into a lot more detail, especially since the advent of consolidated eBird use on the patch. When I started birding not only was I clueless, but very little of this information existed about my local area, certainly not to the extent it does today. Other than the somewhat deal-breaking issue of actually being able to identify a bird in the first place, everything that someone unfamiliar to the patch might need is readily available in order for them to make a reasonable assessment of how interesting a bird might be. 

Of course I immediately felt rather guilty about being a big misery-guts arsehole, birding is supposed to be fun rather than a military operation to record birds. And this brings me to my final point and one that I am perhaps not very good at. Empathy. People go birding for all sorts of reasons, just being outside is perhaps the biggest one of all at the moment. My perspective on birding, focussed as it is on notable species, lists, numbers and statistics, is likely a long way from the perspective of a casual birder, or the perspective of somebody picking up binoculars for the first time. I once picked up binoculars for the first time of course, but thankfully not everyone turns out like me. I would do well to remember that.

Ultimately I think we will come good, but certainly the transitional phase is becoming a little trying. It all comes down to good communication, right now we have over-communication, and I expect that many patches will have travelled this same road before settling down. The best examples of how to disseminate bird news that I know of are in London and Fife, both bigger areas than Wanstead by some margin, and with many more participants. Perhaps this is actually helpful, as rather than feeling like a chummy club where everyone knows everyone, there are so many people you likely don't know it forces a little more circumspection when typing a message. The London group has 79 members at the latest count and is admirably clear of distractions. It does stray from time to time of course, but there are a number of more intolerant people than me on there who very quickly shut it down. Fife Bird Club has a different solution, and has two groups. There is a Bird News group, c200 strong, that is most definitely for news only. You have to post the date, the time, the location, the species or list of species, and finally your name, in that order and that order only. It is ruthlessly enforced and woe betide anyone who gets it wrong or attempts to stretch the boundaries. The human need to interact and communicate beyond raw data is satisfied by having a separate group only for chat, questions, directions and anything else. Interestingly this group only has half the number of participants, yet if a rare bird comes up on the News group all questions about it will without fail be on the other group. Again this only works due to a certain ruthlessness on the part of Admin, but it seems to me to be the perfect model.

But here is the rub. Although I created our WhatsApp group I have no desire to administrate it. A thankless task, and most of the time I am at work and can't respond anyway. But my vision of what it was for and how it should work seems to currently be a little different to how it is working and what it is being used for, and finding a happy medium has the potential to be challenging. People eh? So at the moment I think a second group just for the chatty aspect, photos, and less news-oriented messages would allow for a space that a decent number of the participants would enjoy and feel comfortable in. But I would want everyone to be in both lest we end up with any kind of "us and them" type divide, even if that were just perception. I would then feel better about being ruthless in shutting down the spam on the news one, but then I would be a de-facto administrator.....Oh dang it! Maybe I just need to chill out!


  1. Highly commended on your efforts Jono. Really. With such complication to the fore it's enough to go out birding and hope to find nothing to report. Or report it, go home and have a lie down.

    1. There was barely a bird reported today in Wanstead....

  2. Hi Jonathan, Our Northumberland WhatsApp has 2 groups. One Rare and Scarce, One Common and chit chat. We have 200 members and it was the first such group in the country devised and administrated by Alan Tilmouth. He runs a tight ship so very little crap gets through, especially now that admin can delete messages so any bollocks or people posting to their wife on Rare Birds can be deleted. If this happens too much, he can also remove people from the group for a spell in the cooler. As a result of all of this, it is the best way and like a free pager for our county. We do get stuff like 'Blackbird in my Holywell Garden' etc but thats on the chat group soi it can be ignored. I've just had a message this morning 'Jack Slack, Monastery' :) Ive no idea either

    1. I honestly think we need something like this. There is a clear desire both for straight up [interesting] news, but also for a more social aspect. Being a grumpy bastard I want the former. I don't mind the latter actually (I am not actually that grumpy), but I just don't want both in the same place.