Go Ahead… Make My Day
(This article first appeared in the January 2015 edition of Birdwatching magazine)
I was lying in bed counting diving Gannets. (When you get to my age sleep is like a birding tour, every day you go to bed late, get up early and there are usually a couple of toilet breaks along the way). I got to musing about ‘rubbish birds’ and ‘stonkers’
I think these terms define the ‘sport’ of twitching. A rubbish bird can be virtually anything if you see enough of them like starlings and Wood Pigeons, House Sparrows and Herring Gulls. In the US Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds, Mockingbirds and Meadowlarks fit the bill… but they would be ‘stonkers’ if they turned up in the UK. A House Crow that bores in Haryana would be a ‘stonker’ in Staffordshire.
For twitchers a glimpsed Lesser short-toed Lark is a ‘crippling’ view but to most birders they are an LBJ; good to have seen, but you wouldn’t need to level the bins at one for several hours. Five minutes sorting out the ID features might be a good investment, but only the first thirty seconds or so will get the pulse racing, and then only if its a ‘lifer’.
Let’s say a juvenile Common Rosefinch turns up around the corner. Yes you’d go see it, but would you set aside the whole day or just turn up for a five-minute gander and make a nice bold tick on your county list. After all its merely a wing-bar and pink-fringed, black beak away from being a Corn Bunting.
If you don’t twitch, which would you rather see… a Kingfisher or a Richard’s Pipit? Seems to me that those twitchers who can swear to the latter are sportsmen and women not budding birders. They may switch to odonata and coleoptera once they’ve run out of new birds to see, becoming a bugger to satisfy their hunting urge.
On the other hand, if you are a birder whose been building a list then that Kingfisher will stop you in your stride every time and your bins will stay glued to it until it flies and the Richard’s Pipit will be a ‘good find’ or a ‘nice tick’ not the object of hours of adoration.
But what makes a bird make your day?
There is some common ground, but I suspect our sinews strain for different species. I’ve never yet met a birder who could just peek perfunctorily at a woodpecker. Owls and Peregrines always demand our full attention. But we will all also have a special craving, favourite birds that quicken the blood and force our phizogs to grin.
One Swallow may not make a summer, but one Swift does! The first one I see makes me turn the calendar to summer and the last one leaving saddens me. Every screech passed my study window makes me follow their twists and turns of these absolute masters of the sky.
Long-tailed Tits charm us all and its easy to see why Redstarts delight with their smart and colourful clothes, but Blackcaps and Lesser Whitethroats muted yet they thrill me too. You may share the warm glow that a singing Song Thrush engenders and all Brits love Robins; but its their plaintive winter song that would be one of my Desert Island Discs.
I’m willing to bet that I’m alone with my pick of the day makers. I’ve spent more binocular hours with this bird than any other. After everything I’ve just said about the drab dullards that get twitched I have to swallow hard and humbly when I say that Dunnocks do it for me. Their plumage is so subtle that its unappreciated; all wonderfully cryptic patterns in semi tones. As songsters they are disdained… I’ve seen their song described as weak and scratchy… but for me its like a deep but simple Motzart motif gracing my one good ear as I potter among my patio pots.
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