Tuesday, 6 December 2011

The agony and the ecstasy

I couldn't help but experience a half-forgotten chill run down my spine when I read this post on Devilbirder's blog. It is a tale of dipping, magnified by the rarity of the species that he had hoped to see, plus the distance that he had travelled to see it. Increased distance (with a cost and time factor) does not always make dipping worse - a local failure can be far more personal and painful.

I started to think back to the days when I too picked up the twitching baton and ran with it. Were all my dips as painful? And come to that, were all of my successes pleasurable? 'No' and 'no' were my concluding answers to those questions.

Painful dipping
The bird that hurt me the most was a Great Spotted Cuckoo at Dungeness in the summer of 1989. I was in the grip of 'Dungeness fever' and liked nothing more than a Dungeness tick. At the time, this would have also been a UK lifer. The call came through to me soon after the bird had been found, and at the very same moment some friends had arrived at our house to take my wife and I away for an all-expenses paid weekend at a Brighton hotel (I think it was the DeVere). Timing had never seemed so poor. I did momentarily think about not joining my wife and friends on the 'fluffy-towels and cocktails' hospitality shindig, but I bottled it. Needless to say, I spent the whole of the journey down to Brighton in a cloud of despair, which pervaded all of the fine food and drinks that we were then placed before us for the rest of the day. How many times I phoned the observatory and Birdline I'd hate to think, but at least the cuckoo was still there! I then threw a sickie. My wife was in on it. Our friends (who, remember, had driven), planned to stay and have a slap-up Sunday lunch, which would have meant a departure from Brighton at about 2.30pm. Therefore, the earliest I could get into my car and head for Dungeness would be about 4pm - too much of a wait. So, summoning up the most pathetic face I could (and passing the chance of a full breakfast although I would have loved to have eaten it) I explained that I really needed to get home and into my bed. They kindly drove us back up the A23 within half-an-hour. We were home by noon. The only fly in the ointment was that I had not been able to talk to anybody at the bird observatory to get the low down on the cuckoo that day. Birdline was vague as to whether it was still about. Once home I made contact - the news was one big negative. I spent the rest of the afternoon behaving as if I had just suffered a bereavement. I think it was then that I realised that I needed to sort myself out and re-evaluate my approach to birding.

But, as you may have noticed, I hadn't actually gone for the bird. But it still hurt. One that I did actually go for, a rarer bird which involved a certain amount of faffing about to get to was a Ruppell's Warbler on Lundy in June 1979. A Saturday boatload of birders had seen this spectacular sylvia (a cracking male) and the next opportunity was midweek when the next charter sailed. When we boarded the boat at Ilfracombe that midweek day (I cannot remember which day it was) we had no idea if the bird was still present (as was often the case 'back in the day'). I do remember that the weather was sunny and warm and that I was in a good mood. The trip to Lundy was enjoyable. I stood on the deck and felt the wind in my hair, the sun on my face and felt alive. When we disembarked we were met by a resident birder with the news that the bird had not been seen for at least a couple of days. And do you know what? I wasn't that bothered. Don't ask me why, but I wandered Lundy for the few hours that we were there with a beatific smile on my face. I felt at peace and floated around without a care in the world. I even considered missing the boat so that I could stay on this magical island.

Two dips, two completely differing reactions to dipping. For me, the emotion that I disliked the most when twitching was the uncertainty. Was the bird still there? Was it genuine? More often than not my overiding emotion when I did see the bird was not joy, but relief. That seemed wrong. Maybe that's why I packed it in. If my joy didn't come from seeing 'lifers' or 'rare birds' then I needed to find my joy elsewhere.

Next post: why my successes were not always pleasurable.


Mark G. Telfer said...

Twitching has got its hooks into me, some times more than others. I’ve had a few spectacular dips but I’ve almost never regretted going on a twitch. It’s inaction that I regret: I cannot for the life of me remember what I was doing in September 1990 that seemed more important than going for a Yellow-throated Vireo in Kenidjack Valley.
I still don’t really understand what it is about twitching that gets under my skin. But recently I’ve been thinking that it’s a form of gambling. You stake your time, petrol money and the disruption to your life against the chance that a vagrant bird will stick around long enough for you to see it. And if you see it, it’s jackpot!
But there’s much more to it than that. The two twitches I’ve enjoyed the most this year have been dipping the Slaty-backed Gull at Rainham on 15th January and dipping the Rufous-tailed Robin at Warham Greens on 15th October. Both were great social occasions, a chance to catch up with many old friends, and with plenty of consolation birding to be had.
Birdline, pagers, BirdGuides, etc have taken more and more of the uncertainty out of twitching over the years. The stakes aren’t as high as they were in 1979 but is it better fun for that? And what about 1957? See the History of Dipping part 2:

Steve Gale said...

There's a whole book in this Mark - preferably written by a birder in collabaration with a pyschologist!