In 1899, ornithologist Howard Saunders wrote:
'It is true, that the scientific study of migration does not consist in the acquisition of new or rare visitants: yet even a severe migrationist may secretly feel a greater pleasure at the occurrence of a Red-rumped Swallow than at the passage of a continuous flight of Starlings or Jays'.
Even back then there were people who thought it unseemly to place the rarity of a bird above the practice of 'worthy' or 'pure' birding. His use of the word 'secretly' suggests that the occurrence of a rare bird should be regarded as a guilty pleasure rather than an event to be openly announced.
Rarity was a lot rarer back then. There were fewer birdwatchers, no field guides, identification techniques were in its infancy and there was no grapevine - you most probably found out about a rarity in your village when an account was published in a journal the following year, or received a letter in the post announcing the find if you knew the finder.
When I started out back in the mid-1970s rarity was something that was desired, but to be honest only if it was bumped into. I did sometimes hear about a rarity, normally because it had made it into a newspaper or was cultivating a local reputation, but the idea of actually going to specifically see the rarity was not considered. I don't know why I didn't, but it was certainly not born out of any morality. I was aware that there did exist a small number of people who chased rarity, but my peers by and large were most disparaging about them, normally likening such behaviour to being a train spotter. I can clearly remember an analogy being drawn up that once a twitcher had seen a species then they would rip its picture out of the field guide as they had no more use for it...
In time I did twitch myself, but not for very long and certainly not for everything. I had my successes and I had my failures. The same applied to actually finding rarities for myself, although I am way behind many birders, some who seem to possess magnets that draw in rare birds within their orbit. I withdrew from twitching for several reasons - didn't particularly like long journeys, didn't enjoy the dipping when it happened and, more importantly, was increasingly uneasy standing in large crowds trying to glimpse whatever it was we had gone for. My list was not something that bothered me, I was not competitive, so quietly withdrew.
For today's rarity hunter times have never been so good - excellent optics, superlative identification guides, instantaneous communications and, if you have a car, spare cash and time to burn, then a 500+ UK life list is yours for the taking. I am a keen student on what turns up in the UK, avidly consume every tweet that informs about the what and where, the who and how, but do not feel the need to actually go along and look at the rarity for myself. When I do go birding, by dint of my choice of location the chance of rarity is low, but, in the back of my mind there is still hope that it will happen. I would be a liar if I were to suggest that the appearance of a rare bird would not enhance my birding day - but it is not a pre-requisite to any success or enjoyment.
So, give me a big fall, a visible migration or a line-up of chats along a fence line anytime over rarity, although if the birding Gods want to bestow rarity as well, then that's OK by me!