I was involved in a three-way Twitter conversation this afternoon that was really quite interesting. It was between 'local' birders, with one member of the triumvirate voicing concern that the local birding scene is slowly withering on the vine.
Let's look at the facts. It was suggested that there are 50 -60 keen birders who live within the immediate catchment area of Beddington Sewage Farm, Canons Farm and Holmethorpe Sand Pits. Of these, only a handful are what could be termed 'regulars' at one of these patches. In fact, the numbers of avid patch watchers at all three sites is dwindling. This doesn't concern me as much as it did one of this afternoon's tweeters.
Let's take each patch on its own, with Beddington first up. This is a site that has been covered by birdwatchers for close on a century. It has an unbroken and thorough ornithological record since the 1930s. But within this time there have been peaks and troughs of effort. The 1950s and 1960s were considered a golden period, followed by a fallow 1970s that really didn't pick up again until the late 1980s. In recent times the regular group of birders has become smaller through various reasons, but there is still a nucleus present. What it most probably now lacks is the omni-present birder (such as Gary Messenbird and Johnny Allan). It is true that Peter Alfrey lives practically onsite, but he does persue a life elsewhere.
Canons Farm has a very brief ornithological pedigree. From 2005 (when I was one of very few birders present - so few that I never saw one) to last year (by which time a bird group had been formed and a regular band of half-a-dozen birders combed the site most weeks) the area has been given an intense coverage. But that is only true of one birder - David Campbell - who had the time, enthusiasm and patience to carry on blitzing the farm and its neighbouring woodland. You may have noticed that I wrote 'had the time'. That is because David is now at university in Brighton. It gives me no pleasure in saying 'I told you so', but when the Canons Farm scene snowballed three years ago, I did predict that it would only last as long as he was constantly birding there. You need more than one obsessive to be part of the scene to hand the baton to.
Holmethorpe has always been a one-man band and that is Gordon Hay. Others have come and gone (and come back again), but nobody has shared his unwavering enthusiasm to bird the place on an almost daily basis for close on 30 years. I can remember a time (maybe 10 years ago) when Gordon, Graham James and myself set up a website, newsletter and text alert service and it looked as if things might take off. But there weren't enough birders that interested, if truth be told.
Surrey does have other hot spots that lure the obsessives - Tice's Meadow and Unstead Sewage Farm for example, and there are other corners of the county that are given a good grilling on a less formal basis.
Birders come and go. They phase, they move away, they die. But generally, if birds turn up, birders won't be far behind. For Beddington, Canons and Holmethorpe, these are just blips in an evolving story. But what is blindingly obvious is that as much as you 'can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink', the same is true with birders. You can enthuse all you like about a place, take them there, give them a guided tour - but you cannot necessarily make them adopt it as a regualr patch.