They also bird who only stand and wait…
This article first appeared in Birds Illustrated
One of the most fundamental division of birders is into those who chase and those who wait; with the number of the former far outweighing the latter. Yet this has more to do with our collective understanding of virtue than with successful birding. Pompous pontificators assert that only those who stride out win out, and those of us who lay in wait, wait in vain.
We are told as children that exercise is healthy but also virtuous – like cleanliness it is close to godliness. If you doubt me try driving into a reserve [those which allow disabled access to vehicles] and see the obvious disdain on the faces of those you pass; it’s not consternation at your chutzpah but contempt for your lack of good citizenship. This attitude not only makes disabled drivers uncomfortable but causes an awful lot of people miss an awful lot of birds. Cars can be mobile hides – if you doubt me – try this – walk along a hedgerow and see at what point the perching birds fly away, then try driving along the same hedge at the speed of a walking cow and see how much closer one gets before they fly!
This is not me riding the usual hobby horse about disabled access but about the increasingly prevalent lack of field-craft. If ever you have been at a big twitch you would have been annoyed at ignorant photographers or selfish boors who attempt to get a little bit closer to a rarity by crashing through the crowd and taking up a stance two yards too close for the birds comfort, flushing it thirty metres along the hedge or dune. Yet the majority of people still stride out along woodland trails or seawalls, wind blown and rain lashed in the expectation that the next dune or the furthest scrape will hold something of interest… probably because it has been driven there by their over enthusiastic chasing.
Pause for a little thought… how many times has a major rarity turned up in a supermarket car park, lone suburban sycamore or seaside cemetery? Location is clearly not a consideration for the lost and lonely vagrant. I once watched a Spotted Crake in a puddle underneath a railway footbridge, hard to view hidden behind an abandoned supermarket trolley. I’ve seen a Pallas’s Warbler in a bush next to the noisiest of kindergartens, and many a Waxwing in the only tree on a housing estate. There are often Black Redstarts under the tables of a seaside café and Snow Buntings on a seawall on the edge of an industrial estate. The Marabou Storks sitting on every lamppost down Uhuru Road in Nairobi are just as comfortable as those atop a baobab in the bush. My point here is that most of us assume that birds want nature as unspoilt as we do and will always go for the most picturesque and isolated places. Whether you lie in wait like me or go search out the far horizons one fundamental holds; understand the habitat and bird behaviour. Some birds will ignore the noisiest blunderer whilst others will shrink even from those who tread carefully.
My bile boils hottest when what I spot is not a birder chasing a bird but some self-abuser with a dog! I have witnessed on four continents the game of ‘lets set the dog chasing after the shorebirds’ – what is it with these people? Dog ownership sort of implies a love for animals but the behaviour shows a total disrespect for wild animals and an even wilder observer of same – me!
I read on a website the other day that, ‘if you are not prepared to walk then you won’t see the birds’. I’ve not met the tour guide who wrote it but could he be one of those that rush past me when I am quietly watching a real stonker and then returns an hour later having done a five mile circuit without even hearing a snatch of song let alone seeing any birds. Damn it I’ve been to places where birding in the car is not just preferred but mandatory on the grounds that there are things out there that can eat you! Yet the myth persists that there is just the one way to bird… that is with hiking boots and a determined stride. As you get older you don’t just get grumpier you also slow up and even on my good days the best I can do is an amble to a hide taking a long rest before attempting another… but, even if I were young and fully able-bodied this would still be my preferred birding method!