Sunday, 8 January 2017

I've changed my mind

At the end of last year I made the rash decision that I'd keep a 2017 UK bird year list. I thought it would be a bit of fun. Once upon a time I used to keep one every single year - it was just what I did, no questions asked. I stopped when it ceased to be fun. On January 1st 1987 I wrote this:

It’s New Years day and the lessons of last year were not taken in. We are sheltering from the rain in a car parked alongside the road that bisects ARC and the RSPB staring southwards over the reserve. Our damp clothes are starting to steam as a combination of body heat and a virtually ineffective car heater finally starts to take effect. We stare through misted optics at the same species that I saw here barely hours ago. It’s another day of reliving what I did last week, even if last week was last year. The difference between the Smew that we are watching now and several days ago is that this one means that I’ve now seen one in 1987. The need to rush around today for the year list has so far been done with little humour, each new species being scrawled into a damp notebook to be consigned to the status of ‘Not needing to be seen again during the next 12 months’. Why do I continue to do this? We start the engine in our hide-on-wheels and drive around to Brett’s Marina. On the way, a covey of Grey Partridges huddle in the middle of a vast open field. We stop to take a look (another pointless year tick) and I cannot help but see myself in them – miserable in the rain, waiting for something better.

And believe it or not, I still continued to keep the list up until the mid-1990s. My misery from 1987 obviously wasn't enough to kick the habit, but instead of making a concerted effort to do so, the need to keep one slowly withered away.

Fast forward to Jan 1st 2017. A brand new year and the resolution to keep a low-key year list, most probably based around the ND&B patches, Dungeness and various sites in the south of England. No great ambition, maybe 250-270 species if I kept at it. Perfectly doable. Dungeness already had a raft of good year ticks waiting for me, including a drake Ring-necked Duck, Stejneger's Stonechat (apparently), Long-eared Owl, various geese and grebes, a tidy little return. I knew the first two days of the year would be busy with birders (mostly year listing), so I planned to wait a few days longer before visiting. Eight days into the year and the influx of birder's just has not abated. Talking to the locals (and reading various social media postings) has acted like garlic to a vampire - I'm not about to go anywhere near the shingle. There has been a procession of birders going from good bird to good bird, like ornithological tourists gobbling up all on offer. Up to 50 cars parked along the road to the Stonechat; cars causing traffic problems on the causeway at ARC; the RSPB car park full. No thank you.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with going to Dungeness to see all that is on offer at the moment - my inability to do so is down to me and my take on what constitutes enjoyable birding. Treating the birds as objects to be consumed, before quickly moving on to the next feathered morsel (and following in the tracks of several hundred others), is not for me. My problem, my choice. There's no criticism of those that are doing so, it's my loss. This has all made me reconsider the idea of keeping that year list. It's reminded me of why I stopped, the futility of it all. Games for the boys, nothing more - all harmless fun, agreed, but I now look for a bit more meaning to my birding, through a connection to place, the birding of new areas or ornithological discoveries at a local level. Maybe, if I'm being pompous, such birding is more worthy... yes, that is being pompous, that is me being an arse, but we are all searching for something via the time that we spend in the field, and that just happens to be the direction that my search is going in. And if your direction is to follow the crowd from bird to bird, then good luck to you. Neither is right and neither is wrong.

Now please excuse me, I need to rest my righteous head on a very soft pillow...

18 comments:

  1. I'd rather just enjoy seeing birds, rather than keeping those kinds of records

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    1. You're in the right place there Simon

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  2. I`ll tell you something Steve, I`d swop your 1987 covey of Greys for a pale Stonechat any day!

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    1. Paul, the loss of Grey Partridge on the peninsula is a crying shame. To think they used to breed in the desert, between ARC and where you live, plentiful on the reserve, relatively easy to find on the marsh...

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    2. It certainly is, I only heard one last year, on the Ranges, and fully expect 2017 to be a blank year.

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    3. Paul, there were a pair of English (Grey) Partridges in the field directly behind Iden Lock, on the Royal Military Canal, when we were pike fishing there in late December. I'm not sure if this constitutes Dungeness recording space as it's in East Sussex, but it is a sign that they're hanging on out on the marsh.

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    4. Slightly off my manor Dylan, but still good to hear.

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  3. Why not try a self found year list then? Go to lots of little visited habitat types and see what you can notch up. My usual birding is done like this except i dont record the numbers. This year I will and I will take in any odd bird that I may fancy ie shorelarks or bean geese, but I can never see me going to twitch a black redstart or pec sand down on the reserves...As for your estimated totals, wow! My best ever hasw been 226 and that involved a couple of week long stays at opposite end of the country...

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  4. What I forgot to add is, there is no need to wear sackcloth and go all out on a race to the bottom where you dont see anything and lose motivation all together. There must be a nice middle ground with some crowd avoidance tactics thrown in...

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  5. Truth is Stewart, my appetite for driving a fair way, birding in crowds and following the sheep has diminished. I'm not having a go that those that do. To me, and it has come late in my birding life, the thrill of finding stuff locally and off of the radar has been a revelation.

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  6. Great piece as always Steve. I hold my hands up, I was at Dunge yesterday (and went to Camber and Pett afterwards) but we did see some great birds. I'm just as happy doing my own thing and staying local though the occasional twitch or nice selection of year ticks at Dunge does help me keep my enthusiasm up. I can understand the locals being unhappy but that's what comes from living in a great birding area. Hopefully the crowds will die down in a week or two.

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    1. Thanks Paul. I'm afraid I'm a poacher turned gamekeeper - too worthy for my own good really!

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  7. A good post I think on how many fifty something birders view their past time Some of this sounds so familiar. I was once a neurotic local patch birder. I used to call before work and after work every day. I used to try to be the first on site and the last to leave, and every year on the 1st Jan it all started again. I'm cured now, athough botany rules these days I do have occasional relapses ( I went for the Siberian Accenter at Spurn).

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    1. Mick, as you know, botany (plus moths and butterflies) are a big part of my time in the field. I'm very lucky that I live in an area blessed with them.

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  8. Nicely explained Steve. The birding tourism around here really gets me down. Few of them have a local patch to learn and enjoy. I dread anything turning up locally as I know there will be an invasion of alien species. Red-breasted Goose now - oh shit!

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    1. I do feel a bit of a fraud though Phil, having trudged from bird to bird myself many times!

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  9. It sounds like the Patchwork challenge might be what you are looking for Steve! I haven't kept a year list since, well probably 1987, but I do take part in PWC as I'm keen to support any initiative that keeps people on their patches.

    I'm glad the Red-breasted Goose is in Phil's area (sorry Phil), as it will keep the hordes on the other side of the river from me!

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    1. Yes Seamus, I should embrace the PWC. I'm quite enjoying playing the righteous birder!

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