When rare birds really were rare

Back in 1976 I purchased 'Rare Birds in Britain and Ireland' by JTR and EM Sharrock, one from the T&AD Poyser stable. I was indescribably excited by this book, mainly because at the time anything pertaining to rare birds was generally not acknowledged by the ornithological mainstream. Rarities and twitching were still considered the pastime of the idle and unwashed, with the business end of such anti-social behaviour carried out in public telephone boxes and rough pubs. To have such a publication like this was in some ways an affirmation of what we did but also a tremendous read. I spent hours and hours poring over the records of all of the rarities recorded up until the end of 1975 - most of the species mentioned being just a wild fantasy to my teenage birder's feverish mind.

37 years on the book still makes fascinating reading. What is most striking is just how few records that there had been of species that today's birders would think twice about crossing the road for. I'll give you a few examples, and remember, at the point of publication these were the total numbers EVER recorded in GB and Ireland: Little Egret (under 200 records); Great White Egret (12); Black Kite (12); Ring-billed Gull (five); Laughing Gull (six); Franklin's Gull (two); Little Swift (two); Pallid Swift (not yet on the list); Red-rumped Swallow (32); Penduline Tit (1 - yes, just one!), Black-throated Thrush (five); Desert Wheatear (18); Pied Wheatear (four); Isabelline Wheatear (two); Cetti's Warbler (17 - yes, you've read that correctly); Red-flanked Bluetail (three); Booted Warbler (five); Sardinian Warbler (five!!); Dusky Warbler (14); Radde's Warbler (11 - I find this and the low Dusky Warbler total hard to believe); Citrine Wagtail (17); Olive-backed Pipit (six).

Most of these small totals are, of course, indicative of the smaller numbers of birders in the field, a lack of knowledge and, maybe, a pinch of genuine rarity that is not now the case (particularly the eastern vagrants). But looking at that list I can see how some of my great twitches in the late 1970s were for birds that today's birder wouldn't even get out of bed for. It is, at best, a reminder of how birding has changed and a history lesson to me of how things have changed even in my birding lifetime.

Recently it was remarked upon that my blog posts have been all about birds. The reason for this is largely down to the naff weather that is suppressing plant growth and knobbling any lepidoptera that thinks about beating a wing. However, the birding bug is obviously still inside me and has been wriggling about and reminding me how enjoyable it all still is...


Stewart said…
All you need to do is look at Ian Willis's drawing of Olive backed Pipit to see how little anyone knew of these birds. At this time there wont have been any decent photos let alone sightings!
Gibster said…
On the flip side, I used to say, "ooh nice, there's another turtle dove on the daylist". Hand on heart, I've seen more Yankee Warblers in the UK than I have Turtle Doves during the last 4 years.
Steve Gale said…
That's another aspect of birding that you've identified there Stewart, the largely innacurate illustrations that we had to put up with.
Steve Gale said…
Seth, the demise of the Turtle Dove is a sadness that I feel keenly. Two years ago I stayed at Sandwich Bay for a week and was delighted to find them purring still in small numbers.

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