My favourite hobby is watching birds. My second favourite hobby is watching men watching birds. I got hooked on both at my first ever twitch, the 2007 American Robin in Bingley, West Yorkshire. I enjoyed the bird showing off on top of a mound, then I turned around. A bank of strangers with cameras, 'scopes and bins: half a million pounds of optics pointed at this unlikely little visitor.
"What an odd thing to do", I thought. And yet compelling. I'm a much better birder now than back in Bingley, but watching other birders is something I still enjoy, and it’s got me through some long and grumpy twitches. I know not all birders are men. But out in the field it's clear that birding is mostly a 'Man Thing'. As a species they're easy to spot: obligatory bins, three long thin legs held together with gaffer tape and scruffy plumage made entirely out of pockets.
The species is mostly solitary, but at times they flock together, sharing knowledge like berries on a tree. They're easiest to spot at migration times: October vis-mig between Penzance and Scilly can produce fine results. Habitats vary; you're as likely to see them in open countryside as leaning over the wall of a suburban garden, particularly if there's an Oriental Turtle Dove on the other side.
The jizz is unmistakable: that trot-run from car park to twitch, the little nod as the 'scope goes up. A new arrival to the flock will quickly assess how anxious the group is feeling before giving the distinctive call. Voice: mostly silent, only occasionally uttering a few discreet syllables: "Any luck?", "Is it showing?", never mentioning the name of the bird.
This American Robin in West Yorkshire in 2007 got the author hooked on 'birder-watching' (Marc Read).
And then my favourite: "It's up!" and the ripple that goes through the flock when the bird relocates, and everyone has to decide whether to grab everything and follow it. Like waders huddled on a scrape before the tiny shudder that sends them all up, to land in no time on the other side of the same pool.
They're not always the most confiding of species. On first meeting they might seem gruff and grumpy (particularly if it's been ages, and the Green Warbler is skulking in a thicket and calling once an hour, so that nobody dares give up and go home). They can go a long time without needing to feed, grazing on nuts and seeds bound together with chocolate and secreted in one of the many pockets.
But it's the thaw I enjoy best: the smiles when the bird shows well, the sighs of relief, the shoulder-drop and the step-back for a chat. The shared observations, the swapped details of last-sightings and First-for-Britains and the time the alarm was set just to get here from Nottingham. The recognising of each other from twitches past, sometimes years before: "Didn't I see you at the Crested Lark?"
There's generosity, too – offering the 'scope to someone who can't get onto the bird, the patient directions to that particular branch of the particular tree. I've been the grateful recipient of that patience, that putting off going home until everyone's had a look.
And I am in awe of the knowledge worn so lightly. The intimate understanding of immature gull plumages, malar stripes and tertials, the difference between buff and brownish and how to tell an Arctic Skua from a Bonxie two miles out. As ever, it's the quiet ones that know the most, but when they open up and confide it's like the sun coming out. More charming than a flock of Goldfinches.
Awe is good for us, and so is enthusiasm, particularly other people's. So, if you happen to be looking for a second hobby, might I recommend birder-watching? Those pockets are amazing.
- This article first appeared in the January 2023 issue of Birdwatch magazine.