Whenever the whole body of people who are even mildly interested in birds are lumped together by the media as ‘twitchers’, I get properly riled. There are two main reasons. Firstly because it’s a massive reporting failure. You would have thought that a journalist interested enough in birds to write up a story about them would at least have the intelligence to do some background reading on our hobby. They would have swiftly (see what I did there?!) discovered the difference between the kind-hearted old dear who feeds robins in her garden, the fairly knowledgeable nature enthusiast who takes binoculars with him on a weekend ramble, the rough-talking, scope-toting, pager-wearing middle-aged-going-on-grumpy-old-man lister, and Lee G R Evans, only the latter two categories deserving the label ‘twitcher’.* And secondly, because I’m not a twitcher. No, really. I can prove it! Just bear with me whilst I review my birding year, and you’ll see.
It started with a tawny owl calling into the first hour of the New Year. Once the sun had risen and we’d dragged ourselves up after a night of tea- and ale-fuelled revelry, eight of us wound our way up Shuttlingsloe, on the edge of the Peak District. There was a female lesser-spotted woodpecker in the wood on the way up, and red grouse on the extremely soggy moor near the hilltop (on reflection, the year started as it meant to go on), so some nice birds to accompany our walk. But since they weren’t the reason I was there, I definitely didn’t twitch them. Three days later I was in Hampshire’s New Forest, in pursuit of a dark-eyed junco that was visiting from across the pond. ‘Aha!’ I hear you cry, ‘sounds like twitching to me!’ But you’d be wrong, dear readers, for as an on-off birder of the Americas I felt it only polite to drop in and pay my respects to a familiar friend whilst on the way to Keyhaven, where I didn’t twitch anything at all. And as it turned out, that was the only junco I saw all year. Would have been a shame to miss them.
Mid-month saw me back on the edge of the New Forest admiring a handsome male sparrow of the Spanish variety. I admit this is sounding a lot like a twitch, but I had to go birding somewhere that day and it seemed rude to miss out on the county’s latest main attraction. So I don’t think it really counted, and therefore nor did it count that I stopped by Eling on the way back for a black-throated diver. I hardly had to divert from my route home to see it. Similarly, purple sandpipers in Southsea can’t have counted because I’d never seen them before, even though they’re always there, every year. As is Ringo the Gosport ring-billed gull, so he doesn’t really count either, plus I saw no other birders the whole time I was there – always a good sign that you aren’t twitching. The Iceland gull in Portsmouth on the same day was basically an add-on, though a magnificent one as it did laps of the Bridge Tavern and buzzed the Isle of Wight ferry.
I saw a cattle egret the following week, which I reckon also doesn’t count as they’re ten-a-penny nowadays, and the shore lark nearby on Hayling Island was another way overdue lifer and therefore wasn’t really twitching. Though I must admit a lot of men with scopes were present. There are often Bewick’s swans in the Avon valley in winter, so the four or so I saw there on February 2nd were definitely not twitched either, and although I had heard about the whooper swan that was with them before leaving home, I could hardly close my eyes and pretend not to see it. Two redhead smew on an unbelievably frigid day a week later were sort of on the way somewhere else I had to be, and I got an amusing blog out of it. So I’ll put them down as research, not twitching. And as for two displaying goshawks on the 19th? I admit to going to the site in the deliberate knowledge that they might be present, but we were stuck for anywhere else nice to go for a Sunday afternoon walk. Who could blame us for adding goshawk to the itinerary?
I was working for the RSPB between March and July, and therefore must have been too busy to twitch, and any bird I saw whilst on the job definitely wouldn’t count. Black-winged stilts on Elmley marsh in May are probably a grey area, but they looked like they belonged there. Could plausibly start breeding there in the next few years, in fact. That’s definitely not normal vagrancy procedure, so I don’t think seeing them really counts as twitching. Stone curlews on May 22nd were a post-pub treat, which again I’m pretty sure doesn’t count. A cheery little cirl bunting, a species I had long sought the chance to go see, was singing away in a part of Devon in which we just happened to be holidaying in July. I saw choughs distantly perching on a Cornish cliff-top later that month, another fitting and wondrous sight, and fortunately for me I again ‘just happened’ to be in the area.
My autumn birding pace was slow, compared to last year, but I still managed to see some quality birds like pectoral sandpiper (I’d seen at least three before, so I didn’t really ‘need’ it and it therefore – guess what – doesn’t really count) and red-backed shrike, which was a hairy sort of twitch with no other birders present, and it’s hardly rare enough to count as twitching anyway. Well, maybe it is rare enough now, but you get the idea. It doesn’t count. Since moving to Reading I’ve slowed even more, though there was a great northern diver (that’s a loon to American readers) early in November, which I only went to see as it was across the road from Sainsbury’s. Oh yes, and waxwings early in December, across the river in Caversham. One should never, ever turn down the opportunity to see waxwings. I suppose I should also mention a furtive little trek east along the M4 to see a pipit just before Christmas. Eccentric behaviour, I know, but it was an American pipit, buff-bellied to us Europeans, a species that I rather think I should have seen in America by now, and hadn’t, so at least now I know what one looks like in the feather.
Setting all those trips aside, I’ve hardly twitched at all this year. Not even once a month, all told, and never, in fact, outside of the county in which I was living at the time. So if I am a twitcher, let’s say I’m a recovering one. Whether I ever want to completely recover is another question, because recalling all of the above birds I have to say I enjoyed seeing almost all of them rather a lot. Here’s to more avian delights to come in 2013.
*For the original and best description of these various categories, excluding the last, see Bill Oddie’s ‘Little Black Bird Book’.