Thursday, 11 July 2013

It's (not) all about the list - or maybe it is(n't)

Some people are surprised that my UK bird list is so modest. It currently stands at 376 which, considering I've been an active birder since 1974, is pretty mediocre. My attempts to chase a list (and actively twitch) were limited to the late 1970s and early 1980s, with brief spurts of enthusiasm since (but these spurts really were brief, believe me). I hit the 300 mark in 1981. I thought my march to 400 was just a matter of time. Not thirty-odd years worth of time. I've become reconciled to the fact that, if I continue gathering lifers at my current rate, I will never reach 400. I'm not worried by that at all.

The last bird I truly twitched was a drake Canvasback at Dungeness. The year? 2000. So that means that I haven't gone for a bird for over thirteen years. I have had the odd tick however - a couple of Scottish lifers on botanical forays, a few armchair splits and a White-tailed Plover that happened to turn up at Dungeness while I was there.

So, why did I abandon listing? The seeds of desertion were sown on one of the greatest twitches...

November 1982. Cornwall. Driving rain at dawn. I lifted my binoculars, took in the Varied Thrush and, for the next hour, obtained further views whilst getting very wet. I cannot remember whether we moved on because the bird had disappeared, or we wanted to get out of the worsening weather. What I can tell you is that we then drove to a reservoir (the details are in an old notebook but I cannot recall which one - probably Stithians). By now the rain was biblical. We stayed in the car which was full of birders and was steaming up like a Turkish baths, as were our optics. A most unhappy hour was spent staring at a Long-billed Dowitcher through a sea of arms and a virtual fog. We all had the right old hump. It was dark by 2pm. We decided to go home. I volunteered to drive back to London, the journey of which was accompanied by articulated lorries and volumes of spray. Visibility was so poor that I drove by guesswork. I had a thumping headache. By the time I got home I went straight to bed and vowed never again to go on a twitch. It was unfulfilling. This after seeing a first for Britain.

If I'm being honest I was looking for an excuse to stop. I disliked everything pre-twitch - the gathering of 'gen' (not like it is today); the angst of worrying if the bird would still be there; the inevitable dips when they occurred (the hit rate back then was worse than it is now due to primitive communications); the feeling of 'what next' as soon as the bird was in the bag. I had even got into the habit of wishing a potential target species to have gone before I could make the journey, all to save myself the bother of the whole process. This is not birding for pleasure.

However, I like lists. I'm a maintainer of them but not a chaser. I like gathering them, compiling them, nurturing them, all neat rows in old fashioned ledgers. They are for nobody else, just for my own amusement and memory. If I lost them I would feel lost myself.

So it is about the list after all. isn't it?


  1. I would agree wholeheartedly, but I need Varied....