As I mentioned in a previous article, there is a difference between a birdwatcher and a twitcher. A birdwatcher will sit, as I am doing now, and watch whatever birds come to the feeders on the patio. He may go for a walk in his local wood and just see what he can find:
Or take a stroll along the beach, taking care to have his binoculars, and probably his telescope and tripod, to hand. He will have a rough idea of what he is going to see, but nothing is pre-planned:
A twitcher is somebody who finds out where a rare bird has been seen and then sets off in an effort to see it. In previous articles, I have revealed how I used to be a twitcher. As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I used to be a “twitcher”, the sort of birdwatcher who might travel hundreds of miles to see a species which is rare in whichever country he lives.I have already published articles about a trip to Dorset for a Terek Sandpiper:
I told you about going to Norfolk for a River Warbler:
Twitching was a very popular pursuit when I used to do it, back in the 1980s and 1990s. Here is a Golden-winged Warbler:
And here are the crowds that went to see it in Kent, myself included:
Even now, a very rare vagrant may attract several thousand twitchers over the course of the bird’s stay.
Twitching first began, on a very limited scale, in the 1960s, when news of a long staying bird, such as the Dusky Thrush in Hartlepool during the winter of 1959-1960, were circulated by letter and postcard:
How long has twitching been going on? What bird was the subject of the first twitch? I thought about this for a long while and my eventual conclusion was that it was possibly the Houbara Bustard present in Suffolk from November 21st to December 29th 1962.
Here is a Houbara Bustard. They are very rare birds:
And they will get even rarer if the Pakistani hunters in Baluchistan continue to think that this is sustainable hunting:
Even if the Houbara Bustard wasn’t the first ever twitch, the photographs reveal that this was very much an event in the distant past:
Just look at the clothes.
Just look at the car.
Just look at the telescope!
The bird was about the size of a turkey. It fed in a mustard field and could also be found in a stubble field:
Here is another view:
The Suffolk Houbara of 1962 was a rather eccentric creature and it often seemed to prefer to walk rather than fly. It could frequently be observed very easily by parking the old Morris Oxford at the side of the lane between its two favourite fields, and waiting for it to saunter past:
(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
Sunday, July 31, 1988
This Sunday, Ken is planning to go out somewhere, out there into the universe, to look for a decent bird (the story of his life actually). I get onto Paul, and between us we persuade him to go for the Greater Sand Plover in Cumbria, at a nature reserve on the Isle of Walney. It’s about 8,000 miles from Nottingham, but not too far for Ken and his Ford Escort XYZ 3i with Turbo intercooling and reheat.
Ken takes the concept of distance as a personal challenge. He occasionally gets under 70 miles an hour, and if the car’s on four wheels, he’s parked it. I’ve never even dared to tell him the type of car that I drive, GUR 25N, a bright orange Volvo 240 that weighs approximately the same as a canal barge.
To our great surprise, Ken agrees to go for this bird. He isn’t usually into twitching, since he dislikes crowds, (he has been a keen Notts County fan for years), and he much prefers a quiet stroll around North Norfolk, in the hope of finding his own birds.
First of all, we scorch to a pool in northern Lancashire, where a Grey Phalarope has been present for the last few days. It’s there when we arrive, but I am surprised how different it is to the individual I recently saw at Datchet Reservoir near London. It’s very active, flitting around the lake, and very loathe to come too close inshore. There are one or two birdwatchers there, but not very many. It makes me wonder where all the locals are. Do they know something we don’t?
Onward and ever northward (look for the orange arrow).
We leave the M6 and strike west towards Walney, passing our first patches of winter snow, and the odd few ragged beggars at the side of the A590. Just before we arrive at the Isle of Walney, we have to travel through Barrow in Furness, a really remarkable town. Most of it appears to be a single solitary shipyard, surrounded by thousands upon thousands of grey terraced houses, all clustered around the dock cranes for safety. Why is there nobody up there filming adverts,? Or those half hour documentaries that they put on after “The Bill”? Perhaps because overall, it is a grim, grim place, although nowhere near as bad as some of the localities I am yet destined to visit.
The Isle of Walney itself is a peculiar place, a bit like a grassy, tussocky version of Spurn Head. It has an infinitely worse road, though, but those years of training at Minsmere and Holme finally pay off. Unfortunately, we are not able to locate the appropriate turnoff for the bird itself.
The tiny dirt track is supposed to be on the right, near the village rubbish dump, but we eventually have to go to the very end of the “road”, having fought our way past the thousands upon thousands of rather large seagulls that sit lugubriously around, all waiting for a piece of carrion to fall out of the sky at their feet. It reminds me very strongly indeed of the ending of “The Birds”, that well-known RSPB / Alfred Hitchcock co-production.
The warden is tremendously friendly. We are the first people he has seen in four years. He explains that he has put up a sign at the side of the road, indicating the correct path to take. It’s not his fault that it’s fallen over. Anyway, all’s well that ends well, because we eventually do make it to the right bit of seashore. There is only one birdwatcher there, a local who says that the Sand Plover isn’t there, but not to despair, since it will be somewhere around, just waiting for us to refind it. And sure enough, one person, in the slowly growing knot of birdwatchers, does in fact refind it, after a delay of some twenty minutes or so. It’s with a largish group of Ring Plovers, and is a very distinctive pale brown. It’s extremely fluffy looking for some reason, and lacks the sharp black-and-white contrasts of its temporary colleagues. Indeed the Sand Plover is well capable of disappearing into the shingle very easily. It’s exceptionally well camouflaged, and tends to be obvious only after it has moved.
The bird has, of course, been the subject of some pretty intense discussion about whether it is perhaps a Lesser Sand Plover and therefore a potential first for Britain. I’m only too happy to accept the views of the experts on this one, but nevertheless, our bird here does seem to have what seems to me a very small bill. Unless, of course, a Lesser Sand Plover has an extremely teeny-weeny-weeny-teeny bill, just like a pimple on the front of its head.
This lovely film was taken by Terence Ang in the Sand Plover’s usual habitat, in Hong Kong.
Having got over the excitement of seeing the bird, there is not a lot to keep us here. The day is bright, but the wind is strong, and rather gusty, and there are very few passing seabirds to look at. Locals say that sea watching here is generally very poor, and the only thing of interest that I can see are the tops of several obviously gigantic factory chimneys, just over the horizon to the North West. I never do find out what they are… Southern Scotland, the Isle of Man, or even Ireland. I don’t have a clue, and neither do any of the people I meet. I get the impression that I’m the first person who has ever noticed them. Perhaps they are an illusion… Some kind of mirage, reflected from the eastern United States… Perhaps they are a hologram of Three Mile Island, being transmitted as part of the twinning process with Windscale. (or is that Seascale?)
On our way back, we call in at Leighton Moss in Lancashire.
I am obsessed with the desire to see a Bittern.
No luck, of course. Although this is the furthest north that Bitterns breed, and is, in actual fact, one of its strongholds, I don’t manage to see one. Apparently, the water levels are too high, and have forced them back into the reeds. What we do see however, are three juvenile Marsh Harriers, because this year the birds have bred, and have produced five young. It is particularly nice to see them in a new breeding area. It gives you a nice warm feeling inside to see a place where rare birds are on the increase rather than disappearing for ever.
That apart, I find Leighton Moss to be a somewhat boring place. There seem to be very few birds about, and if anything, the birdwatchers may actually outnumber them. The old out-of-date Annual Reports that they are selling off in the reserve shop are right little scorchers too.
(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
As I mentioned in a previous blogpost, I used to be a twitcher and ranged far and wide across Great Britain in search of rare birds. The furthest I ever went in a day from my home in Nottingham was to Glasgow and back, a distance of 633 miles, in a successful attempt to see an American Black Duck, which was, at the time, an extremely rare bird. My greatest ever failure was when I went to an island off the south west tip of Wales and failed to see the little American bird which was then called a Yellow-Rumped Warbler (270 miles). At the other end of the spectrum, I once saw an extremely rare bird from the USA, a Cedar Waxwing, as I drove the mile and a half to work in Nottingham. I hastily parked on the empty pavement, walked across to view a flock of birds, and became the fourth person to see this particular individual, the second ever for Great Britain.
I put together many of my twitching tales into a book called “Crippling Views”. I was unsuccessful with every single publisher, and back in the day, there was no Kindle to help the budding author. So……I published it myself as a ring-bound book, and sold it at £5 for a hundred or so pages. It didn’t make my fortune, but the reserve goalkeeper at Liverpool Football Club, Mike Hooper, bought a copy, so that was good enough for me.
One day, “Crippling Views” may see the light of day on Amazon’s print-on-demand, but for now, here is an extract…
“Saturday, July 14th 1988
…over the weeks, I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the in-flight views of Roseate tern that I had at Rhosneigr, Anglesey, in north Wales, that when a Bridled Tern is found at Cemlyn Bay, only a few miles along the coast, I decide to go for it…”
Bridled Tern may be rare in Great Britain, but it’s not particularly uncommon in New Zealand…
“Bridled Tern and Roseate Tern. I’ll be killing two birds with one stone, as it were. Indeed, I may not even have to go to Rhosneigr since the ternery at Cemlyn Bay is a secret site for breeding Roseates anyway. I feel fairly confident that we’ll get both birds. After all, one good tern deserves another….”
“It’s a very long trip to Cemlyn from Nottingham, well over two hundred miles, and the furthest I’ve been for a bird so far. The roads get gradually narrower and narrower, once we leave the A55, which is like a motorway compared to the increasingly countrified A5 as it approaches Holyhead. One of my friends is delighted that we go through Llanfairpwyllextremelysillylongwelshname and he bores all of us rigid with his ceaseless repetition of it. We finally know that we are nearing our destination, as we find ourselves hurtling down that true Welsh speciality, the Single Track Road Without Any Passing Places Whatsoever. I still can’t really understand why you seem never to meet anything, but you never do. Does Wales have a gigantic nationwide one way system for tourists?
At last, we reach Cemlyn Bay. As we squeal to a halt in the car park, another birdwatcher shouts to us that the bird has just flown in.”
“This is good, since the bird is apparently in the rather dubious habit of disappearing far out to sea for hours and hours on end. We are therefore, rather lucky in our timing, since, theoretically, if the bird has been out fishing, it shouldn’t be too hungry and should stay loafing around for a good while. There then follows a long trek across the relentless shingle to the ternery.”
“The whole place is rather peculiar, and perhaps unique from a morphological point of view.”
“There’s a beautiful, wide sweeping bay, with a shingle bar at one end, and between this and the land, there is a pool of probably salty, or possibly fresh, water. In the middle of this little lake, there is a flat island, covered in dry, scrubby vegetation, with plants all about a foot high. This is where the terns nest. They are mostly Arctic Terns, but with just a few Common Terns, and a whole host of noisy Sandwich Terns with their shaggy caps and black bills, replete with bright yellow tips. There are also a good few Roseates, up to perhaps twelve, sitting on a row of stones, preening.”
“They have lovely all black beaks, and short little red legs. They don’t, however, have the great long tail streamers that they are supposed to have…I presume that they must have broken these off during the busy period of feeding the young. And unfortunately it is also too late in the season for their white breasts to have the pinkish tinge that they are famous for. Nevertheless, they are fairly distinctive birds, particularly in flight, when their broad wings are very noticeable. Overall, they are very pale birds, and we realise that the birds we saw two months ago at Rhosneigr, far out over the sea, were in actual fact Roseates.
The star of the show, the Bridled Tern, stands quietly at the back of the ternery, half masked by vegetation, and other birds.”
“This oceanic bird truly is a magnificent creature, a really tropical looking individual. Its colour is most enigmatic, a kind of brownish black that one of my friends says they use in the fabrics at the factory where he works. As a shade of dress material, it’s called “taupe”. I just don’t know, but it is a rather striking colour. I cannot get over just how exotic the bird looks. After ten minutes or so, it does a series of little flypasts, showing off its darkly coloured upperparts, and its sparklingly white undersides, the whole set off by a kind of negative bandit’s mask, white instead of black.”
“It is straight into my Twitching Charts at Number One.
Probably more significant in terms of bird behaviour though, are the Herring Gulls that perch on top of a distant building, and every now and then swoop down into the ternery , pick up a single unattended tern chick, and then fly off to eat it. They are like Mother Nature’s version of Russian Roulette. If you’re number’s up, it’s curtains. Evolution in action, as the more heedless birds don’t get to pass on their genes.”
That account doesn’t seem almost thirty years ago. It isn’t just Bridled Terns that fly!
They are still, though, a rare bird in this country. Just a month or so ago this year, one was found in the Farne Islands off the coast of Northumbria. In my opinion, these three are the very best of many videos….
(An extract from my old birdwatching diary “Crippling Views”)
Have you ever noticed how, in crime films, the detectives always say to the criminal suspects, “Do you remember where you were on July 14th 1989?”
And the criminal suspect will always reply, “Why, yes, I was sitting at home watching Hawaii Five-O” or perhaps, “Why, yes, I was sitting at home, having a cup of tea and some Garibaldi biscuits, because I had just finished the somewhat tricky and tiring erection of an MFI office desk.”
The rest of us though, are usually not quite so lucky. We may not manage to remember even a single thing we did in 1989. We may not remember even who we were, twenty five years ago.
But not so, if you were……a twitcher.
At lunchtime on July 14th 1989, I rang Birdline, the recently introduced method of discovering which rare birds were where, and discovered that a River Warbler had been found at Boughton Fen in western Norfolk. This was only the fourth occasion ever that this bird had occurred in this country, having, presumably, experienced some major snafu with its migratory instincts. Normally, it lives here…
And soooo….I left school slightly early because I had a free period, and drove off a hundred miles to see if I could locate a specific small bird on a particular twig on a particular bush on the other side of the country. The bird should look something like this…
I remember only one thing from the journey there, namely, passing a road sign which I thought probably directed fans to the house of a rich oilman in “Dynasty” or “Dallas”. It read “Boughton Barton Bendish”, and was just one of that whole series of countrywide road signs which indicate people rather than places. Foremost among these, of course, is the Lincolnshire hamlet of “Norton Disney”
I reached Boughton Fen pretty rapidly because this was well before the days of speed cameras, and when things were urgent, this could easily be reflected in your driving. The bird was not difficult to see either, because it was almost constantly on view as it sang, perched on the same twig at the top of a single isolated bush.
I am terrible at birdsong, but it did sound rather like a slowly approaching steam train…. http://www.xeno-canto.org/species/Locustella-fluviatilis?view=3
I can remember very little more of this twitch. The crowd was not exceptionally large…
and neither was Lord Nelson there, testing out his six-footer…
One very famous birdwatcher that I do have vague memories of seeing may well have been present at Boughton. He is Lee Evans, who is the self-appointed policeman who vets all the birdwatchers’ lists to make sure that they are not claiming to have seen very rare species when this is not the case. Lee styles himself, therefore, the “judge, jury and executioner” for British and Irish twitchers. He regards himself too as the George Michael of birdwatching.
I may have forgotten the people somewhat, but the date…never.
So, when that detective comes back a second time, a few months later, and says to me, “Do you remember where you were on July 12th 1990?”, I can always look in my notebook, and without any hesitation whatsoever, I can reply, “Why, yes, I was sitting at the top of a cliff at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, watching an adult Alpine Accentor pick insects from between the rocks.”
The photographs of both the River Warbler and the Alpine Accentor have been taken from the website http://www.aabirdpix.com/megas.htm which provides an absolutely wonderful glimpse of the rare birds seen in Great Britain and Ireland over the last twenty or thirty years.