Neil Randon has recently responded to my post ‘Then and now. Go figure’. This gave me further food for thought. If I really am asking where the originality and free thinking is in birding today, then I really have to ask myself (and any readers of this post) a simple question.
‘Why do you go birding?’
This question is easiest answered when you first start out to take an interest in this fascinating subject. My answer would have been ‘to see what’s there’, but it would also have included ‘to be able to put a name to what I see.’ And why did I choose birds and not stamps, planes, football or beer mats? The chances are because it got me out of the house and gave me a sense of adventure – an afternoon wandering around the alien environs of a sewage farm beat sticking hinges on a stamp in my bedroom.
So, forty years after I started on this voyage of discovery, why do I now need to get bogged down in ornithological mind games and when did it start? In my case, it would have been in the late 1980s. I then found myself questioning why I was going out birding. Until then, I just went and did it. I picked up my optics and went out regardless, no questions. It was like an unthinking knee-jerk reaction to spare time, a Tourette’s syndrome of leisure activity. About this time I often wandered around birding and returned home utterly unfulfilled. I carried on doing it because that’s what I did. I knew that I still wanted to bird, that I hadn’t fallen out of love with it, but I had to accept that I wasn’t being a good partner to it.
My answer was to diversify my natural history interests. I took up the study of moths (1986) and then plants (1998). I took to these new interests with great enthusiasm and, at times, didn’t really bird for weeks on end. I never stopped birding – if I were out looking at chalk downland flora I would still keep an eye on the Hobby above me. Moth trapping was enlivened by roding Woodcocks, and I never lost the sheer joy of hearing them as they flew overhead.
But still I came back to birding. But whenever I did there was a sea change, and that was, where as previously I had been a bit of a twitcher, a faithful patch watcher and someone that found a few good birds, now these statements were not true. My time was spread out amongst these other new interests and I realised that I couldn’t compete (on a list or prowess rating) with the active birders that I bumped into. So, I regrouped. I scaled down my expectations and birded locally, often on my own and on a very local level indeed, a level that I hadn’t visited since my early birding days. This I found fulfilling to a point. What I hadn’t expected was to find that the birders had seemingly changed. In my short ‘exile’ the fun and joy in a high proportion of my fellow birders had apparently been removed. Seriousness, po-faces and poor communication had taken over. I was aware that this was a bold conclusion to arrive at, but I kept an open mind and ‘watched the watchers’. I asked others if they agreed. Many did. So, why was this?
New technology had a lot to do with it. Instant news, precise directions and superb identification aids had allowed the uninitiated and the ill-prepared to gain immediate access to a world that had, in the past, needed a few years graft and a network of hard-won contacts. A major burst in twitching popularity (4,000 plus saw the Golden-winged Warbler in 1989) opened up this specialised section of birding to a new demographic. Flush with money, mobile and - yes, one of my bug bears – middle-aged. The new ‘kids’ on the block had top notch optics, time on their hands and were all eyeing Stannah Stairlifts in the not too distant future. That’s got to affect the dynamics of such a small group, hasn’t it? These new birders were not young and impressionable, they didn’t need to exhibit social skills to obtain the phone details of those in the know (they already had the 0898 number) and they could stand silently in line whilst one of the old guard pointed out the bird. Think I’m way off the mark? Ask any active birder who remembers the 1970s. This had a knock-on effect in that the herd of active birders became less communicative due to either a perceived inferiority when it came to identification prowess and, on the flip side, a distrust of the ‘new boys’ who hadn’t paid their dues. It was no wonder that few young birders joined this morose collective.
Bear with me, I’m getting there.
Over the past few years I’ve witnessed, first-hand several ornithological meltdowns. People with years of experience who have suddenly given it all up. There are often trigger points that make this happen – a massive dip mainly. But the seeds were sown before that point. Could they have been saved, or saved themselves from such drastic action, by analysing what is was that they expected from birding? Have they found themselves ploughing that lonely furrow without questioning why? I’m sure it’s true of all hobbies and not just birding, which we elevate to a psuedo-science but conducts itself by a moveable set of rules such as weather, chance and ability.
I’m going to stop soon, there’s plenty of fuel for further posts, but before I do, let me ask you a further question:
'How many birders do you know who seem to go through the motions and not really get much out of their birding?'
If someone feels this way, and have half an active mind, they will start to question what they are doing. Those that survive will be the ones that do something positive about it.
Sorry about the rambling, but posting this overflow from the mind is cheaper than professional therapy...