Why Birdwatch?

At the scrapes. I am chatting with Bill, who visits twice daily, before and after his work. He does it, he says, to make sure there is a record ( his count), so that the Council, which makes the official record, can’t misrepresent the deterioration in the numbers of waders using the site, and cut it’s management funding even further. And then, once the point’s been made, he adds,’ And this place is always changing.’

This is manifestly true – in the Fall. Of leaves, but also of birds, landing lightly on marginal places, via translocations of lesser or greater flights, for shorter or longer stopovers, and with greater or lesser success.

Depending on how you look at it, a bird is either always en route, or always about to land.  Guidebooks define the avifauna  in chauvinistic relation to a mythic heartland (‘our birds’) where they are either resident, summer or winter visitor, passage migrant, vagrant or escapees. The birds simply see a patchwork of habitats and potential territories for feeding, resting and nesting,and the ability to fly over the uninteresting bits in between.


Typical birding – waxwing at twilight, January

They play constant hopscotch – and these  movements can happen within a garden, for a dunnock or a house sparrow, or over an area of  four hundred square miles, for gannets or shearwaters. These movements are repeated each day, and extended over annual and life cycles. So we could say, the great migration through life only pauses for feeding and resting, and localises for nesting, repairing feathers(moults) and muscle tissue. Even flightless birds like kiwis and penguins make these movements, and selection has led to a diversity in how they are done.

Between two trips to the Scrapes late September in the Fall, a week had past, and ruffs, sand martins, lapwings, sandwich terns, curlew sandpipers, whimbrels and ringed plover had vanished from the site, while pink-footed and brent geese, shoveller, grey plover, greenshank and black-tailed godwits had arrived. And that’s only in terms of species. In terms of individual birds flocks will rise and fall daily, as Bill’s counts show,  although in patterns, which like the weather, have seasonal rhythms.

And birds we constantly see, are in fact individually different. Local birds -starlings, blackbirds,wood pigeons, herring gulls are not the same birds in the summer as the winter.

At some point in the not too distant past or future I encounter my last swallow of the year. I may encounter it again on my half-term break in Spain in October. And curiously, if it survives the hunters guns and nets in the Med, the flight across the Sahara, and the vagaries of a winter in the Okavango, I am quite likely to see it again next year. Or another bird looking more or less the same. Gilbert  White is often remembered for his insistence in trying to prove that swallows hibernated in mud during the winter, and without the evidence from ringing, modern optics, and international studies, that seems more reasonable than the truth.


I know this is an awful picture , but it does illustrate the way i started to birdwatch. What are all those different ducks?

I got my bird watching habit as a pre-teen when no-one knew what cool was, and knowledge seemed to equal power. I started doing it again when I realised some of those early companions – stonechats, skylarks, corn buntings, ptarmigans, tree sparrows- were not rotating around any more.

There are two types of response to this type of recognition and I own both. One is to prosyletise, hence this post, and Bill’s regular and obliging concern to show the casual visitor what’s up at the Scrapes . The other is to cherish – invest attention in the meeting with the bird. The effort spent in encountering a rarity is the most apparent way of doing so. Thus the birdwatcher*becomes a migrant like the birds – and becomes a twitcher.

I have enjoyed an occasional twitch, but almost prefer the dips of non-achievement and misidentification. I stared out at the sea off Dunbar for two hours one late November afternoon, in search of a windblown phalarope, but didn’t think it wasted time, even though the bird had flown.

Mostly this type of thing is done by middle aged white blokes with a lot of technology. If they didn’t form part of the Brexiteers it is only because they are concerned it might affect their ability to go on twitching trips to the Azores. Maybe its this kind of association that makes me nervous about collecting names and facts to staple to my encounters. It’s a bigger question, and  as it comes up, the Deep Ecology movement washes over the shallow birdwatcher..

‘Does it really matter what it’s called?’

My own answer might feel like an evasion. The effort of identification, that selective attention to the Thing that makes it stand out of its background, makes us notice, expands the field of our senses, and to consider the presence and absence of those Things more,. I was gratified when I heard the manager of a retreat centre I frequent say more of less the same thing as we discussed the virtues of mosses. A bigger world, is a more wondrous world, a less anthropocentric world, and a world in which our home is provisional, and therefore more special.

But twitching has it’s limitations for me. I don’t want to go on long car journeys in my spare time, carrying increasingly complicated optical and satellite equipment in search of increasingly misplaced and indistinct birds. I have joined another tribe, I think, who are gradually evolving amongst the deluge of bird related material. We are interested in learning more about what we see – behaviour, chronology, local movement .What comes to us. I think you could call it patch birdwatching.

The staples are garden feeding and breeding surveys,  and there are  still novelties on show. This week  (January) I was watching the ducks on the river go through their annual pair bonding displays, and despite having known goosanders since I was ten ( for a brief period my sister pushed a dead one around in a pram. It was the seventies..) I watched their display for the first time.


Some geese – in homage to KL

I like Konrad Lorenz’s description of bird pair bonding as an attempt to diffuse the tension of intimacy. Goosanders do this by synchronised swimming. Ducking their heads in the water with their necks outstretched ,which means the female’s crest sticks vertically up out of the water, they swim along like an overwound clockwork toy, and occasionally emerge to resynchronise their direction with a sideways glance, and do that predictable head tossing thing popular with goldeneye, and other lesser ducks.

One thing that comes up watching stuff like that , and flirtiing with the anthropomorphic fringe , is’ Is it fun? ‘ There is a post I hope to get round to one day about whether an aesthetic sense exists in the natural world , and how it might transpose into our own, and it will probably be based on the work of David Rothenberg. What I will add as an original thought is that it doesnt matter if goosanders do (or dont) , and that that is the basis of another type of thinking which is ultimately about aesthetics, as being beyond purpose, and probably not something ducks have to bother about.

 *There are conventions in birdwatching. One is that some groups prefer to say ‘birding’, perhaps in recognition of their multisensory quest, or  because its quicker to text.


One thought on “Why Birdwatch?

  1. When did Autumn become the Fall? I’m teasing. I enjoyed this.
    I am spending a lot of time at my parent’s house because they are struggling through a patch of serious ill-health. Parents cannot be neglected when they need help.
    I liked Konrad Lorenz and his imprinted geese as a child. I read King Solomon’s Ring too. I was criticised for liking someone who had been a member of Nazi party (I liked books by Knut Hamsun too…). Quite confusing for a child of 12 to worry about. What about Eric Gill? I was in a muddle about what people wrote, drew, ‘did’ and their politics/ethics/religion etc etc Asking anyone just seemed to make them cross.
    The above is only on my mind because I’ve found old books and pictures. Nothing to do with your writing except that you mention Lorenz.

    Do write about the aesthetics of woodworm. The beauty of the tunnel, the junction and arch? Again I am teasing. It is hard to watch a flock of golden plover in low winter light swirling in unison without wondering if they are aware of their beauty.


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