For the birder out for a bit of peace and quiet, it’s a familiar sinking feeling. Poking over the top of the hedge, bobbing tripod legs and the top of a beanie hat mark the approach of a fellow tribesman. You brace yourself to be sociable, knowing the inevitable greeting is coming – the one which separates the birder from ordinary mortals:
And you reply:
Well, what exactly should you say? The more I think about it, the more this question is a minefield.
Firstly, it’s necessary to read from the enquirer’s body language, attire and optic quality what birds they would actually be interested in. Expensive bins? Weathered, been-there-seen-it expression? For all you know, this is a Lee Evans-esque member of the 400 club, and unless you’ve just located a Berthelot’s pipit they frankly don’t care what you have to say – they only asked to be polite. Or it might be somebody who took up birding yesterday, but is also an investment banker and therefore could afford Swarovski’s and top-end ‘weather gear’ from the off. Oh, and they just stubbed their toe on a rock. So they look quite grumpy too, and the goldfinches you saw in the last hedgerow would cheer them up no end. Sorting the dudes from the die-hards can be tricky.
Secondly, what do you betray about your own standing as a birder? For example, I was asked if much was about last week at Cliffe Pools, an RSPB reserve on the Thames Estuary. As it happened, I’d just been watching the high-tide wader roost, so I had seen a bird or two. Possibly as many as 2,000, in fact: 800 avocets, 600 black-tailed godwits mostly still in their orange-red summer plumage, 100 or so dunlin, a smattering of green, red and spotted redshanks, and one somewhat solitary grey plover. In this situation, the right answer to ‘much about?’ is, of course, ‘Not a lot’. At a pinch you might get away with ‘Mostly just the usuals’, or ‘Nothing toomuch’. A shifting, shimmering horde of avocets, one of the world’s most elegant birds, was feeding in unison on a mud bank, moving poetry in white, black and blue. But for some ludicrous reason that I don’t think I can make you understand, they don’t count as ‘much’, being regularly present on that date and in that place.
Luckily, I’ve come up with an ingenious way of skirting the ‘much about’ minefield. Start by issuing the technically correct, usually negative answer, but then mention many of the fabulous things you have actually seen by way of an afterthought. That way you either mark yourself out as a fellow worldly birder, or you may actually get to help somebody who genuinely hasn’t seen those species before.
That’s just what I did at Cliffe Pools – I believe the words I used were ‘Nothing out of the ordinary’ (another acceptable variation on ‘not much’), followed by ‘good numbers of avocets this morning’. His response was also classic birder – politely double-checking my response by enquiring after something which would have counted: “Any curlew sands?” “Not that I’ve seen,” I said, carefully covering myself. “I thought I’d have a good look through this lot since it’s high tide about now, ain’t it?” he said, gesturing to the roosting masses.
Because I honestly hadn’t thought about the possibility of curlew sandpipers until then, I sloped off down the path a little way before resuming my vigil, at a careful distance. And began looking at the wader flocks like a real birder would – basically ignoring all the fantastic species that were clearly there and instead staring between their legs, hoping to find something that clearly wasn’t there. We birders are an odd lot. Which in a roundabout way brings me to my confession: I suspect I share many of the idiosyncratic habits of the classic birder. And I’m pretty sure that on encountering a fellow birder out in the field, I too have been known to look up, and with a half-smile, half-frown say: “Much about?”
P.S. If I in any way have made birders out to be a miserable, ungrateful bunch, that’s probably fair…no, I jest. Really we’re all sweetness and light. Our spirits lifted by every flick of a robin’s wing. Honest! Anyway, I’m only a part-time birder these days and spend at least as much time prodding at plants, chasing after crickets or – shock! – watching common birds. I know. What is happening to me?!