Before I found 'the way' and settled on Moore as the perfect local patch I used to spend a fair bit of time on the Wirral. Quite an interesting place, truth be told, and formative in a way, as it regularly got me musing about birds, birders and birding. Take, for example, the following extract...
It’s early autumn at Inner Marsh Farm. You fight your way to the hide against the strong westerly that’s been blowing for days, looking for some shelter from the elements. You open the door to the hide and find it already occupied by ;(1) a dishevelled looking, camouflage clad, middle-aged bloke, (2) a keen looking young lad in his early teens and (3) an elderly lady wearing a Puffin sweater, corduroy trousers and walking boots. You notice a variety of optics in use by the assembled trio; (a) a pair of RSPB Compact 8 x 23 bins, (b) a second-hand Kowa TS 611 scope and (c) a Leica APO 77. Various other items are also visible including (d) a rather battered all weather note book, (e) the new Collins guide and (f) the Reader’s Digest pocket book of British Birds. In a whispered voice you ask politely, ‘Anything about?’ and get, in no particular order, the following three answers; (g) ‘Quite a few different ducks’ (h) ‘First winter Med. Gull on the border pool’ and (i) ‘Not a lot’.
Your task, should you choose to accept it, is simple - first, match the optics and other items to their respective owners and then identify who said what. Easy… Hands up who matched ‘dishevelled camo-man’ with (c), (d) and (i); ‘elderly lady’ with (a), (f) and (g) and’ keen lad’ with (b), (e) and (h)? Well done. You’re absolutely wrong of course. No matter, you’ve just proved a point and that is, that whether we like it or not we all, to some extent, make subjective judgements about others of our tribe based on simple (often misleading) cues. The way we dress, the bins we carry, what we say, even the above example, rightly or wrongly, all lead to judgements being made about a persons ‘birding credentials’ or lack thereof. I can almost hear the voices… ‘Surely any self-respecting birder wouldn’t even BE at IMF off the back of westerlies at that time of year. They’d be somewhere between Hilbre and New Brighton looking for Leach’s Petrels, Sabine’s Gulls and assorted skuas? Or, they’d be checking their pagers for the latest storm blown rarity. Or, they’d be on the Scillies or Shetland?’ Like I said… judgements, judgements, judgments …so what?
Well, I guess that depends on where you are in the pecking order. Oh yes, believe me, there IS a pecking order and if you’re a relative beginner, your constantly reminded of it. It’s challenging enough trying to find the picture of the bird you’re looking at in your bird book without some hairy bloke next to you banging on to his mate about primary projection, lesser coverts and tertials. Besides, your book doesn’t even HAVE a picture of a Broad-billed Sandpiper in it… and how can they tell anyway, it must be a mile away…and, which one exactly is it among the ‘330 Dunlin, 27 Sanderling, 4 Little Stints, 751 Redshank, 16 Ruff and a Curlew Sandpiper’ scrawled authoritatively in the logbook?
Now, in a perfect world, the hairy bloke and his mate notice your puzzled expression, inferior binoculars and ‘Observers Book of Birds’ and ‘Hairy’ let’s you have a look through his scope at the Broad-billed Sandpiper, tells you where you can pick up some DECENT second hand optics and a cheap copy of the Concise Edition of the BWP and lets his mate explain why the ‘BB Sand.’ is different from the Dunlin feeding nearby - best still, in terms you understand and without a single mention of ‘jizz’! Hairy then helpfully explains the birds’ likely origin and why its rare in these parts, whilst his mate (i) tells you about other good birding spots, (ii) gives you directions for a Grey Phalarope down the road and (iii) directs you to Richard Smith’s excellent website for future refrence. Anybody recognise this scenario? Lucky you!
How about this one? ‘Hello’ you say innocently. Hairy raises his head from his scope and looks at you stony faced. ‘Dave’ meanwhile hasn’t budged, he’s still looking at the Broad-billed Sandpiper. As his eyes pause briefly over your leather cased 10 x 50s, Hairy grunts something and begins looking through his scope again. That’s it - end of conversation. Pecking order reinforced. You want to say something back but decide not to, after all, these guys have probably forgotten more than you know. If only you’d had a Manfrotto tripod slung over your shoulder and a pair of Swarovski EL’s around your neck. Perhaps then you would have been treated differently?
Maybe I’m being overly cynical. The above scenarios are, after all, rather extreme. Well, the first one certainly is. The second, I’m not so sure about! As a certain well-known Hairy once put it, ‘Bird-watchers are tense, competitive, selfish, shifty, dishonest, distrusting, boorish, pedantic, unsentimental, arrogant and – above all – envious’ and I reckon you can add uncommunicative and downright elitist to the list too. Put that lot together and if you’re a relative novice trying to hone your birding skills you’re in for a very hard time. Well, I reckon that’s a great shame. So to make up for being a bit of grunting Hairy myself at times, I’ve decided to have the birding equivalent of a full body wax, to whit a personal tale of double standards to prick the consciences of experienced birders everywhere…
Many years ago I had the privilege to be studying Dippers in Scotland. It was part of my PhD on nestling birds and the deal was that my friend (let’s call him Dave) would help me with my fieldwork and I’d help him with his work on Pied Flycatchers and Redstarts. Well, we’d just finished ringing some Dipper nestlings under a bridge and it was getting dumpsy. The colours had faded from the landscape and the night sky was upon us. Time to head off. The problem was we’d driven down a track to get to the Dipper nest site and had not left ourselves enough room to turn the car around and so had, instead, to do a 180 in an adjacent field. An adjacent, muddy, field. It was whilst we were pushing the (now stuck) car out of the field that a small owl flitted by, giving the odd squeak as it did so, before disappearing behind the silhouette of a nearby wood. We both said ‘Little Owl’ and thought nothing more of it. That was until the next day when we happened to mention it to the Prof. who was supervising us. He told us that you just didn’t get Little Owls that far north, in fact, and this was the killer… Tengmalm’s Owl was more likely! I guess, in retrospect, he was being sarcastic. My friend and I, however, took this particular piece of information at face value and neither knowing at the time what a Tengmalm’s Owl was, nor it’s extreme rarity in Britain easily convinced ourselves with a quick trip to the University library that a Tengmalm’s Owl was indeed what we had seen.
So, did we keep this to ourselves? And miss the perfect opportunity for some serious street cred? Of course we didn’t! I’d like to be able to say that we showed a little restraint, a little caution, that we at least used the word ‘possible’ in the context of the aforementioned owl. But I’m afraid I’d be lying. No, we simply told a friend who told a friend who told a friend about the owl, until when we arrived at the site the next evening, a sizeable crowd had gathered, scopes at the ready. Fortunately, as it turned out, we knew none of the assorted assemblage of dedicated twitchers, some of whom had travelled considerable distances for the chance of this sought after little gem. So, without further ado, and relishing the prospect of a little fame, we made our way anonymously, through the crowd and took up position. For what seemed like an hour, nothing much happened. Then as it began to get dark the owl flew past, silhouetted against the night sky, intermittently squeaking as it had the evening before. BUT, nobody said a thing. We looked at each other, questioningly. Had everyone missed it? Sensing that something was amiss, we too said nothing. By now it was getting really quite dark and many people if not disgruntled, were, shall we say, far from gruntled! The huge Scot next to me summed up the mood nicely. ‘Oh well,’ he growled ‘No owl. Still the roding woodcock was nice.’………… OOPS!!! Let’s just say there was enough egg on our faces to keep us in sandwiches for a month, and leave it at that!
And the moral of the story? It’s that we all had to start somewhere and painful as it may sometimes be, we shouldn’t forget our birding pasts. Perhaps that way we’ll all be that little bit more tolerant of each other and especially of people who have yet to enjoy some of those finer birding moments that we’ve taken for granted for so long. So next time you’re putting the finishing touches to the notes on that Caspian Tern that just flew east, spare a thought for the chap with the brand new bins who’s just been wowed by his first close-up views of Chiffchaff. And please, for goodness sake, explain to him, as tactfully and as sympathetically as you can (!), why it’s really not a good idea for him to tell the world about the ‘Greenish Warbler’ he’s just found – and if you’re feeling really brave…well, I’ll leave that to you.