My attention was recently drawn to an interesting article authored for The Conversation by the esteemed and eloquent Dr Robert Lambert. Centred on the logic behind birding (or twitching, if you prefer), I found the piece highly interesting, both as a birder who spends a great deal of his time observing our feathered friends and as an individual intrigued by birdwatching culture. The article itself really was rather good, and I agree with many of the points stated; though, for me, the social media debate surrounding its publication was equally fascinating. With some choosing to criticise and others choosing to compliment based on the various points stated within. Well, to cut a long story short, this – coupled with a few queries from curious friends – got me thinking. Why exactly do I spend so much time and, in some cases money, in pursuit of rare birds?
My interesting in twitching is somewhat of a developing one: with long-distance trips and costly jaunts taking place more frequently now that they did in years prior. Why is this? Well, as Dr Lambert states, there are many reasons one may choose to pursue rare birds. There is, of course, a competitive element: with birders attempting to score points over their rivals and surpass them in ranking. While I do not profess to do this on a national scale, I am taking place in a “bird race” this year so I guess this applies, equally, to me. There is also the thrill of rarity itself; the buzz associated with observing the new and unfamiliar; something which, again, I feel applies to my own birding forays. I, like many others, certainly enjoy revelling in the sight of a new and intriguing bird species. There are, however, other arguably more important motivations underpinning my avian obsession.
Rare birds, while intriguing, are not always the most memorable feature of a twitch. No, for me, chasing rarities is only the beginning; and the thrill of a life on the move is of equal importance. Birding has a habit of taking you to some truly surreal locations – whether you are looking for eagles amid the sweeping vistas of the Cairngorms or searching for a dusky thrush Turdus eunomus amid the quaint stone houses of a quiet village in Derbyshire. These locations are always different and each boasts their own unique appeal; whether that be the chance to sample local food or drink (Caol IIa whisky springs to mind), the opportunity visit a new pub and engage with the locals, or the chance to engross yourself in natural spectacles far removed from your regular haunts. Indeed, on twitch earlier this year, I spent equal time enjoying large flocks of locally common farmland birds as I did our intended target, the Dunnington pine bunting Emberiza leucocephalos. For me, birding is paramount to wanderlust.
More important still, at least in my opinion, is the sense of community that comes with outing yourself as a birder. I am sure I speak for many people when I say that life for younger people boasting an interest in nature can often be a lonely and tedious affair – our interests met with indifference by some and outright ridicule by others. It can be frustrating at times and disheartening at others; though thankfully, the birding community is, for the large part, an incredibly supportive and caring fraternity. Sure, as with any hobby there are a few intolerable characters – those people you do your best to avoid amid the amassed crowd surrounding your chosen vagrant – but for each one of these there are ten more willing to offer advice, guidance, support and friendly chitchat; enough to lift the spirits of even the most downtrodden individual. I owe an awful lot my local birding network, the characters here in Northumberland that have nudged me in the right direction over the years, but also to groups such as Next Generation Birders for keeping my interests alive and preventing me from regressing to a more socially acceptable state. One that my peers at school would have preferred but I, myself, would have quietly hated.
At this point, the individual characters that make up the birding community are also worth a mention. As with any hobby, the sheer level of diversity here is great; ranging from the quirky, outspoken and cantankerous, to the incredibly genuine and accommodating. Those who will bend over backwards to make you feel at home. With so many personalities abounding, the likelihood of finding someone you “click with” in birding is substantial; and some of my greatest friends were first encountered amid the throng surrounding a wayward rarity. I am sure Sacha Elliot will not mind be saying that we met over a wryneck. Birding provides an opportunity to make the acquaintance of others; to bond and make life-long friends. Something which, in itself, far surpasses the importance of competition. Of course, these friends also add to the experience and come rain or shy, arduous ten-hour car journey or short walk to your local nature reserve, these people help make birding the wonderful affair it is.
To conclude: birding, for me, is about many things. It is about competition, the allure of rarity and, of course, the joy of experiencing nature first hand. It is, however, equally about a sense of belonging and friendship; about the people you meet and the laughs to be had. It is about post-twitch trips to the pub, communal meet-ups, carpools, inadvertant hilarity and the opportunity to enjoy surreal settings in the company of people you have come to know and trust. Birding, despite its name, is about a lot more than just birds. This is what I will tell those who ask in the future.