autumn at Inner Marsh Farm. You fight
your way to the hide against the strong westerly that's been blowing
for days, looking for some shelter from the elements. You open the
door to the hide and find it already occupied by: (1) a dishevelled
looking, camouflage clad, middle-aged bloke, (2) a keen-looking young
lad in his early teens and (3) an elderly lady wearing a Puffin
sweater, corduroy trousers and walking boots. You notice a variety of
optics in use by the assembled trio; (a) a pair of RSPB Compact 8 x 23
bins, (b) a second-hand Kowa TS 611 scope and (c) a Leica APO 77.
Various other items are also visible including (i) a rather battered
all-weather notebook, (ii) the new Collins Guide and (iii) the
Reader's Digest Pocket Book of British Birds. In a whispered
voice you ask politely, "Anything about?" and get, in no particular
order, the following three answers; (A) "Quite a few different ducks"
(B) "First winter Med. Gull on the border pool" and (C) "Not a lot".
Your task, should you choose to accept it, is simple - first, match
the optics and other items to their respective owners and then
identify who said what. Easy... Hands up who matched 'dishevelled camo-man'
with (c), (i) and (C); 'elderly lady' with (a), (iii) and (A) and
'keen lad' with (b), (ii) and (B)? Well done. You're absolutely wrong
of course. No matter, you've just proved a point and that is, that
whether we like it or not we all, to some extent, make subjective
judgements about others of our tribe based on simple (often
misleading) clues. The way we dress, the bins we carry, what we say,
even the above example, rightly or wrongly, all lead to judgements
being made about a person's 'birding credentials' or lack thereof. I
can almost hear the voices.... "Surely any self-respecting birder
wouldn't even be at IMF off the back of westerlies at that time of
year. They'd be somewhere between Hilbre and New Brighton looking for
Leach's Petrels, Sabine's Gulls and assorted skuas. Or, they'd be
checking their pagers for the latest storm blown rarity. Or, they'd be
on the Scillies or Shetland?" Like I said.... judgements, judgements,
judgements.... so what?
Well, I guess that depends on where you are in the pecking order. Oh
yes, believe me, there IS a pecking order and if you're a relative
beginner, you're constantly reminded of it. It's challenging enough
trying to find the picture of the bird you're looking at in your bird
book without some hairy bloke next to you banging on to his mate about
primary projection, lesser coverts and tertials. Besides, your book
doesn't even HAVE a picture of a Broad-billed Sandpiper in it... and
how can they tell anyway, it must be a mile away ... and, which one
exactly is it among the "330 Dunlin, 27 Sanderling, 4 Little Stints,
751 Redshank, 16 Ruff and a Curlew Sandpiper" scrawled authoritatively
in the logbook?
Now, in a perfect world, the hairy bloke and his mate notice your
puzzled expression, inferior binoculars and Observer's Book of Birds
and 'Hairy' let's you have a look through his scope at the
Broad-billed Sandpiper, tells you where you can pick up some DECENT
second-hand optics and a cheap copy of the Concise Edition of the BWP
and lets his mate explain why the 'BB Sand.' is different from the
Dunlin feeding nearby - best still, in terms you understand and
without a single mention of 'jizz'! Hairy then helpfully explains the
bird's likely origin and why it's rare in these parts, whilst his mate
(i) tells you about other good birding spots, (ii) gives you
directions for a Grey Phalarope down the road and (iii) directs you to
Richard Smith's excellent web site for future reference. Anybody
recognise this scenario? Lucky you!
How about this one? "Hello", you say innocently. Hairy raises his head
from his scope and looks at you stony faced. 'Trevor' meanwhile hasn't
budged, he's still looking at the Broad-billed Sandpiper. As his eyes
pause briefly over your leather cased 10 x 50s, Hairy grunts something
and begins looking through his scope again. That's it - end of
conversation. Pecking order reinforced. You want to say something back
but decide not to; after all, these guys have probably forgotten more
than you know. If only you'd had a Manfrotto tripod slung over your
shoulder and a pair of Swarovski EL's around your neck. Perhaps then
you would have been treated differently?
Maybe I'm being overly cynical. The above scenarios are, after all,
rather extreme. Well, the first one certainly is. The second, I'm not
so sure about! As a certain well-known Hairy once put it,
"Birdwatchers are tense, competitive, selfish, shifty, dishonest,
distrusting, boorish, pedantic, unsentimental, arrogant and - above
all - envious" and I reckon you can add uncommunicative and downright
elitist to the list too. Put that lot together and if you're a
relative novice trying to hone your birding skills you're in for a
very hard time. Well, I reckon that's a great shame. So to make up for
being a bit of a grunting Hairy myself at times, I've decided to have
the birding equivalent of a full body wax, to wit a personal tale of
double standards to prick the consciences of experienced birders
I was sitting on a rock one day (as you do) when a Black-tailed Godwit
flew past. How odd the train of thought such a simple thing can
trigger. It reminded me of the time I'd heard a chap talking to his
friend about just such a bird. The conversation went something like
this (it works best if you can imagine it in a West Country accent).
"There's one Dave, on the mud at the back of the pool", he said.
"What's that?" his friend replied. "Black-tailed Goblet", the chap
announced. Goblet? Did he REALLY say Goblet?! At first I thought that
maybe he had a cold. No such luck and a real shame too because I
reckon I could probably have coped if he'd just said it the once.
Unfortunately for me though there must have been about 30 'Goblets'
hidden among the various waders present and he seemed determined to
point out every one! Maybe you had to be there, but it DID seem funny
at the time...
So too was the occasion when some students I was with were asked to
identify a stuffed Starling (I can't for the life of me remember why).
Answers included, Redshank, Kingfisher and Osprey - I kid you not. Now
you have to be thinking 'phone-in-competitions on TV' to get the full
impact of that one! You know the type of thing: "Is London, (a) a city
(b) a country or (c) a planet?" because as mind-numbingly simple as
the answer always appears to be, you just know that somebody will get
it wrong - and still phone in!!! And then, of course, there was the
one about the Missile Thrush Turdus polaris (!) and I'll tell
you now, that this was not, as it might appear, simply the happy
result of a game of Chinese whispers. Need I go on? The point is that
people get things wrong and human nature being what it is, it's hard
not to take a certain amount of cruel pleasure from their misfortune
and feel just the teeny-weeniest bit superior as a result. But as I
sat there on my rock, smiling happily to myself, I heard the gentle
tap, tap tapping of skeletons in a closet somewhere, trying to get
out. The mistakes OTHERS make? How easily we forget...
Many years ago I had the privilege to be studying Dippers in Scotland.
It was part of my PhD on nestling birds and the deal was that my
friend (let's call him Trevor) would help me with my fieldwork and I'd
help him with his work on Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts. Well, we'd
just finished ringing some Dipper nestlings under a bridge and it was
getting dumpsy. The colours had faded from the landscape and the night
sky was upon us. Time to head off. The problem was we'd driven down a
track to get to the Dipper nest site and had not left ourselves enough
room to turn the car around and so had, instead, to do a 180 in an
adjacent field. An adjacent, muddy, field. It was whilst we were
pushing the (now stuck) car out of the field that a small owl flitted
by, giving the odd squeak as it did so, before disappearing behind the
silhouette of a nearby wood. We both said "Little Owl" and thought
nothing more of it. That was until the next day when we happened to
mention it to the Prof. who was supervising us. He told us that you
just didn't get Little Owls that far north; in fact, and this was the
killer... Tengmalm's Owl was more likely! I guess, in retrospect, he
was being sarcastic. My friend and I, however, took this particular
piece of information at face value and neither knowing at the time
what a Tengmalm's Owl was, nor its extreme rarity in Britain, easily
convinced ourselves with a quick trip to the university library that a
Tengmalm's Owl was indeed what we had seen.
So, did we keep this to ourselves? And miss the perfect opportunity
for some serious street cred? Of course we didn't! I'd like to be able
to say that we showed a little restraint, a little caution, that we at
least used the word 'possible' in the context of the aforementioned
owl. But I'm afraid I'd be lying. No, we simply told a friend who told
a friend who told a friend about the owl, until when we arrived at the
site the next evening, a sizeable crowd had gathered, scopes at the
ready. Fortunately, as it turned out, we knew none of the assorted
assemblage of dedicated twitchers, some of whom had travelled
considerable distances for the chance of this sought after little gem.
So, without further ado, and relishing the prospect of a little fame,
we made our way anonymously through the crowd and took up position.
For what seemed like an hour, nothing much happened. Then as it began
to get dark the owl flew past, silhouetted against the night sky,
intermittently squeaking as it had the evening before. BUT, nobody
said a thing. We looked at each other, questioningly. Had everyone
missed it? Sensing that something was amiss, we too said nothing. By
now it was getting really quite dark and many people if not
disgruntled, were, shall we say, far from gruntled! The one-liner
uttered by the huge Scot next to me summed up the mood nicely. "Oh
well," he growled "No owl. Still the roding Woodcock was nice".
OOPS!!! Let's just say there was enough egg on our faces to keep us in
sandwiches for a month, and leave it at that!
moral of the story? It's that we all had to start somewhere, and
painful as it may sometimes be, we shouldn't forget our birding pasts.
Perhaps that way we'll all be that little bit more tolerant of each
other and especially of people who have yet to enjoy some of those
finer birding moments that we've taken for granted for so long. So
next time you're putting the finishing touches to the notes on that
Caspian Tern that just flew east, spare a thought for the chap with
the brand new bins
who's just been wowed by his first close-up views of Chiffchaff. And
please, for goodness' sake, explain to him, as tactfully and as
sympathetically as you can (!), why it's really not a good idea for
him to tell the world about the 'Greenish Warbler' he's just found -
and if you're feeling really brave ... well, I'll leave that to you.
article was first published in the CAWOS Bird News (October 2002) and
reproduced here with the kind permission of the author, Mark Feltham.
Mark is the new editor of the Cheshire Bird Report.