What will they think of next….
(This article first appeared in the September 2015 edition of ‘Birdwatching’ magazine)
“I’m not sure, I didn’t look to see if there is anything about”… was my reply to Hawkeye as we drove towards one our favourite local reserves. Her assumption was that my wish to go birding had been prompted by a rarity report or an alert on the mailing group.
It didn’t strike me at the time that this was evidence of a sea change in our birding habits
In the early 1980s I used to go birdwatching. If I had a few days I picked an area of the country where I could guarantee everyday birds that were not on my doorstep always hopeful, of course, that I would also see the unexpected. My in-laws lived in Bournemouth so a weekend there would allow a drive into the New Forest, a day at Arne RSPB reserve or perhaps an evening spent for nightjars.
Early in the year a search for Dartford Warblers might turn up an over-wintering Great Grey Shrike. A spring day in the forest after Redstarts might also turn up Hawfinch and any time of year at Arne could turn up, well, anything… over the years I saw everything from Spoonbills to Wood Warblers. A decade later and our visits coincided with Little Egret colonisation… you could see half a dozen all in one place? An erstwhile rarity has now become commonplace.
Mooching about in likely habitat was how the vast majority of us watched birds then, unless you were a more casual walker just noting what you came across or a perhaps dedicated patch worker covering the same territory every day.
By the late nineteen eighties I had joined thousands of others who had got the twitching bug and my outings were geared to getting to birds I’d never seen before. Nothing made me more aware of my growing disability than my struggle to see a twitchable Red-flanked Bluetail in Dorset or a walk back from a Derbyshire Richard’s Pipit twitch that, frankly, nearly killed me! Who new years later I’d see the former in my local park, and find one of the latter for myself? The thing is, for a while, I was addicted to bird-lines, pagers and rarity reports and never went birding without a rarity targeted
I didn’t twitch for many years, but by then had got into the habit of seeking out birds that other people had found for me… most of us still do. That’s not to say we don’t ever go to places on spec, or even find our own rarities, just that using communications technology has now become built into birding.
Our birding behaviour have been changed in many ways courtesy of bird song ID systems or master-classes in rarity spotting. Wandering about with your bins for the fun of it seems to be becoming a thing of the past.
I’ve just been reading about software developed to ID birds – apparently it gets the right bird in the top three suggested species 90% of the time… no matter how poor the snap. It made me check the calendar to see if it was April 1st!
It made me think… why?
Why would you want to leave ID to a machine any more than you would want to only ever go out to see what someone else found for you? Surely the enjoyment of finding ‘good’ birds and knowing that you have, along with just enjoying their beauty and behaviour is what birding is all about?
Are we draining the pleasure out of the pastime by abandoning field-craft and turning our hobby into a competitive sport with ever improving sports gear to take the physical and mental effort out of it?
When I re-run my sightings past my in-built computer I either know what I saw, or don’t and am content to let them go. I let what’s missed remain a mystery.
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