(This article first appeared in the July 2015 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
Waiting while Hawkeye found more ways to spend my ‘hard earned’ in ‘George’ at Asda my eye’s corner spied the Herring Gulls on the grass verge and their behaviour held my attention. We had a shower last night so the verges were damp and, despite being less than a mile from an ebbing tide half a dozen gulls were paddling for worms. Clomping up and down on the sward like kids playing in their parents shoes. I can’t remember when I first saw this behaviour, years ago for sure.
It got me thinking about what sort of birder I have slowly become and I realised that birding, not unlike drinking alcohol has followed a ‘career’. You start out unaware of booze, then become fascinated and take a tentative teenage tipple before rushing headlong into the student bar or music club. Similarly birds slowly register as things of grace and beauty that behave in fascinating ways before becoming an obsession. My alcohol use peaked in my late twenties and early thirties when the pub was the focus of my social life. Birding followed a similar path filling my spare time until I began chasing variety like the late night emptying of an hotel room’s minibar.
My work with substance abusers made drinking close to where I worked inappropriate and, when I bought my first car, I found myself going to new pubs, but making half a shandy last several hours or drinking a G&T without the ‘G’. That was when I stopped twitching and turned instead to foreign trips and, some years on, working a patch.
I may slip out and twitch a ‘world lifer’ if it turns up close to home, just as I might have a cold beer on a really hot day or a vodka and tonic at Christmas, but twitching and boozing are fast fading memories.
I may go for a local tick or lifer once a year these days, if that, and have a cupboard full of bottles that I have to dust off if ever I take them out at all. If I do take a drink I savour the flavour and allow its mild intoxication to stay just that, mild.
So, I’ve come full circle and find myself once again birding because of a fascination with what birds do and are, rather than how many new ones I can tick. My ID skills go on improving, but they come a poor second place to general observation.
Before I was a birder my dad took me fishing. When sitting by the edge of a lake with reeds on two sides and trees behind you, you are virtually in a hide. Whatever swam or flew was often close by and I recall seeing Great-crested Grebes in their mating dance and a Cuckoo ousting its Reed Warbler step-siblings. Field mice ate our bread bait and grass snakes swam up to us and rustled by. I realised I had become a nature lover by counting how many bites I missed because my float disappeared without me noticing it as I was pre-occupied with dragonflies buzzing my head or Spotted Flycatchers looping from their perch to bag yet another midge.
I now know I’ve come full circle because I am once again just enjoying what I see rather than looking for new pastures. It pays dividends too. In over fifty years I had never seen a water rail in flight… this year I’ve seen this happen twice in different places a few weeks apart. Yesterday my son told me he had seen a couple of Treecreepers actually perched on a fence post and realised he had only ever seen them work their way up a tree trunk or bough.
I think this circle has turned for many people although the most thumbed birding literature is still about ID rather than bird behaviour as it was in Gilbert White’s day.
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