27/10/2008
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Misery and the Zoothera

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"It's better to burn out than to fade away"—Neil Young

So there you are, watching a White's Thrush, the second you've seen in a week. The very best views of a White's Thrush you could probably ever wish for. Magnificent views of one of those dream birds that you are sharing with fewer than 30 people...and you feel as miserable as sin. How come?

White's Thrush
White's Thrush, Fair Isle, Shetland (Photo: Craig Shaw)

Birdwatching, for many tens of thousands of people, is a wonderfully relaxing pastime. A way to unwind, to forget about the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a chance to leave the real world for an hour or two and be immersed in the good things in life. What better than to take yourself away to a verdant woodland in spring and enjoy the harmonies of songbirds high on hopes for the summer ahead? Or head away to a coastal marsh, teeming with waders, ducks, herons and much more besides, as the pools and reedbeds provide the perfect antidote to the office or the factory? Birdwatching provides a glorious release valve to the pressures of modern living; it's one of those hobbies that the local GP would recommend as the perfect way to keep the stresses and strains of these economically fraught times at bay.

Birding, for many thousands of people, is a wonderfully rewarding way of life. It too offers a grand way to relax, to forget about the hustle and bustle of everyday life, a chance to leave the real world for a few hours, days even, and be immersed in the good things in life, hoping upon hope for that heart-stopping moment when something wacky pops up. And if that doesn't happen you can still be content as you scan a flock of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits on a Norfolk marsh, hoping to find a nominate-race bird; pore over gulls at an inland roost in the Midlands waiting for a "white-winger" or, better still, a "cach" or perhaps search for migrants and vagrants on a coastal headland. What better than to take yourself away to a verdant woodland in spring and wait for the first Nightingale? Or head away to a coastal marsh, scanning the mass of Dunlin hoping for a Curlew Sandpiper, or better still a Temminck's Stint, or what about a White-rumped or a Baird's? Cast your eyes across a swathe of brown autumn Teal in case a Garganey's striped head pops up, counting the ever-increasing roost of Little Egrets and much more besides, as the pools and reedbeds provide the perfect antidote to the office or the factory. Birding also provides that glorious release valve to the pressures of modern living and, again, your local doctor's practice would probably be only too willing to suggest that the great outdoors and the life of a birder are a sure-fire way to keep the stresses and strains of these economically fraught times at bay.

Thayer's Gull
Thayer's Gull, Pools Brook CP, Derbyshire (Photo: Paul Bagguley)

Twitching, for many hundreds of people, is not even a way of life, it is their life. No real chance to relax, the hustle and bustle of everyday life is amplified and accentuated, and any chance to leave the real world for a few hours and aim to bang another species onto the list will be taken at almost any cost. The plane must be booked at a moment's notice to head off and secure that vagrant on a coastal headland. The flock of Icelandic Black-tailed Godwits on a Norfolk marsh may be given a cursory glance: if a limosa pops up all well and good, it may be a split one day (and where's the "Hudwit" when you want one?). The gulls at an inland roost in the Midlands won't be worth a look at all, no matter how many "white-wingers" or "cach" may be there; only a Thayer's Gull will do. And never mind the "verdant woodland" and Nightingales...it's Collared Fly that's wanted, needed even, while the coastal marsh is only any good if there's a Semi-p or Sharpie to bag, and who cares about Teal and Garganey, even Blue-winged Teal won't really do. A first-winter Cinnamon Teal is what's really required, while the Little Egrets are only any good if they draw in a Western Reef Heron. Twitching is full of testosterone, tension, pressure, frustration and elation, often adding to the drama of life in the Noughties. Blood pressure soars as the pager's Mega Alert goes off. A few seconds before the reveal of the species involved can feel like an age; heart beats faster in an instant. "What is it, what is it?" the repeated refrain, over and over again before the head-rush euphoria of the "Black Lark? BLACK LARK!!!!!" moment. The nervous energy kicks in straight away; tension, stress and unbridled excitement combine to gnaw away at the senses, a feeling that doesn't subside from a restless, sleepless body until the moment you see, or (catastrophically) don't see, the bird in question. These two incredibly contrasting moments present the ultimate highs and lows and almost defy description: from "man hugs", high fives, broad smiles, even impromptu rounds of applause and cheers, to moments of quiet devastation, reflection, crooked "if only" grins, pin-drop silence and occasional tears. What the Doc would make of that is anyone's guess, but the psychologists, well they could have a field day.

Black Lark
Black Lark, Winterton Dunes NNR, Norfolk (Photo: Mike Lawrence)

Now all of the above is, admittedly, a slightly cartoonish way of looking at the way different things and different perspectives make the birdwatcher, birder and twitcher tick. It's very simplified and perhaps a little tabloid too, but they are the basics. There's nothing wrong in being a birdwatcher, birder or twitcher—I've been the first for as long as I can remember, the second for almost as long and the third for over 25 years.

As a birdwatcher, I have loved many hours in those verdant woodlands, marvelling at dawn chorus after dawn chorus. Only today, I marvelled at a tenacious squadron of Starlings challenging a young Marsh Harrier over the Cley reedbeds as the sun cast an orange autumnal glow across the pools.

As a birder, there have been those heart-stopping moments of unconfined joy: the first glimpse of the Desert Warbler on Blakeney Point still lies top of the tree, a jaw-dropping, spine-tingling moment as the realisation sinks in: a county first, a first UK spring record, no-one nearby, no-one within 30 minutes of me while a milky brown Sylvia hopped around at my feet, all staring yellow eyes and ever so rare. But it doesn't have to be rare—those Black-tailed Godwits still give me hours of pleasure and so does tramping around the local fields, hedges and coastal marshes for hours on end. You may see nothing, but often, it doesn't matter too much. If you find a Yellow-browed Warbler in the local copse, great. If you don't, no worries.

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As a twitcher, the elation has been almost endless: from the early days of sneaking off school to see Hudsonian Godwit and Franklin's Gull, through legendary trips to see the Ballyvaughan Belted Kingfisher, an epic double-header which saw Lundy offer up Ancient Murrelet and Shetland provide Pallas's Sandgrouse in 48 hours, a broken exhaust ensuring the noisiest twitch ever for the Cape Clear Sapsucker, a 20-year-old "dipping" ghost laid to rest when seeing the Cream-coloured Courser on Scilly...and so it goes on.

As a twitcher though, the elation is all-too-often countered by the despair, the dismay and the depression of missing some incredible birds; the genuine upset at missing the same Blue-cheeked Bee-eater in Humberside (as was) and Lincolnshire within three days in July 1989 still hurts, genuinely hurts, nearly 19 years on (the Lincolnshire episode continues to replay itself like a sad movie in my head from time to time, the crop sprayer that flushed the bird never ever goes the other way...)

Glaucous-winged Gull
Glaucous-winged Gull, Beddington SF, London, Greater (Photo: Johnny Allan)

As a twitcher, as I've grown up, got older and wiser, I'd like to think that I have certainly become more philosophical about my lot. My work has ensured being unable to go for any number of outstanding rarities (several firsts have bitten the dust, gone by the time a day off or two came around) but I've got accustomed to that situation—and as the Brown Shrike at Flamborough Head proved, these things do have a habit of turning up again. But sometimes, just sometimes, the adolescent mood swings back in to my head, and I find it impossible to explain why. What does it all mean? Why did the day in the pouring rain not seeing the Glaucous-winged Gull in Wales turn so bad? Because I couldn't abandon work for the Saturday; because the five-man crew voted 3–2 to head back to Norfolk; because if I'd stayed (as planned) I'd have seen the thing on a sunnier Monday; because the even sunnier Tuesday drew a second blank for me and the feeling of sadness, utter misery and the desire to hide behind a bush and weep became stronger as every moment of the dropping tide ensured a massive, enormous, calamitous dip. Missing the bird on a pleasant April day in London a few weeks later was only relieved by black humour (something birders and twitchers do so well—do they all own Bill Hicks CDs?) and prescription drugs to curtail a particularly nasty bug. March hurt like hell, April didn't. How come?

And until Fair Isle, October 8th 2008, I thought that the black mood of birding had been put to bed again; how wrong I was. Rewind to the top of the piece, there you are watching a White's Thrush, the second you've seen in a week, the very best views of a White's Thrush you could probably ever wish for, magnificent views of one of those dream birds that you are sharing with less than 30 people—and you feel as miserable as sin. How come? Because you are on Fair Isle watching a White's Thrush, that's how come! It seems ridiculous, but a carefully chosen two-week break (a gamble, yes, heading to an island), which had started so well, was now falling around my ears. I'd gone through birdwatcher, birder and twitcher modes on Fair Isle already, but now, for the first time in an age, the green-eyed, depressive twitching teenager was coming out to play and ruin my day.

Little Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron, Letterfrack, Galway (Photo: Ronan McLaughlin)

October 5th had seen the Little Blue Heron make its debut. I could just about cope with that. "It could hang on," I thought. October 6th saw a huge sign of relief: a dead Nighthawk on Scilly meant that the events of 1988 (when I was on Fair Isle and a Nighthawk—so long on top of my "wants list"—was on Scilly) weren't going to be repeated. October 7th brought a modicum of panic and the paranoia-meter clicked forward a few notches as a live Nighthawk flew in off the sea in Cornwall. Luckily, for my mood, I didn't know the bird showed late in the day, but the mood was beginning to darken anyway as a third tick, a Scarlet Tanager, was new in to County Cork. Two new birds for me in Ireland, one in Cornwall—this was really not that funny. And then, on October 8th, the hammer blow: a British first; an Empidonax flycatcher in a Cornish valley, unidentified for the time, but I knew, just knew, that "they" would make sure it was nailed on before you could say "trap it". And then, a crackle on the radio: "RED FLAG, THE VAN'S GOING ROUND WITH THE RED FLAG". Fantastic! "This is it: Fair Isle's instant response...". The best thing you can see on Fair Isle is the Observatory vehicles careering around the road with red flags billowing in the wind, like joyous Socialist birding insignias. Prayers offered up to a (non-existent) birding deity ask for a Rubythroat. Nerves are frazzled to nothing before the radio crackles again: "it's a White's Thrush, White's Thrush at Quoy". The sense of despondency at hearing the words "White's Thrush" cannot be conveyed by words on a screen. I was frustrated, upset, fed up, annoyed, angry and couldn't believe the discussions in my head telling me not to bother with the Thrush. Lunacy!!! It's a bloody White's Thrush! The twitching senses kicked in as I hurried across from the eastern geos and, for a while, as the bird performed marvellously, the massive rarities in Cornwall and Ireland were forgotten. How can you not enjoy a White's Thrush hopping around the edge of a field, in full view for minutes on end, before taking flight, a blur of gold, black and white? When the twitcher in you wins the fight to ensure that the potential Alder Flycatcher, the Little Blue Heron, the Scarlet Tanager and the Common Nighthawk are all banging away at the front of your mind for the rest of the day. No way of getting off, it's grin and bear it time. Oh, if only it was as easy as that—my mood on the evening of the 8th was darker than any Shetland night sky.

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager, Garinish Point, Cork (Photo: Sean Cronin)

By the time the Fair Isle adventure was done, the Flycatcher, Tanager and Nighthawk were long gone. I hadn't been for them, so I hadn't dipped, so that was OK-ish. I adjusted to birding again, the crowded hides at Cley hard to get used to after two weeks of island life, but that was thanks to the splendid (first on the reserve for 21 years) Wilson's Phalarope. I consoled myself with the fact that I hadn't missed any Cley Square ticks and, in and out of work, managed to see some super adult Pomarine Skuas (some resplendent with "spoons") to help ease the pain felt by my aching twitching heart. The Little Blue Heron was on the agenda for the weekend, so at least I'd see one of the firsts; but, of course, complacency is such a dangerous thing: an empty (beautiful) bay met us on Saturday. Disbelief and (more) utter dismay was soon overturned by the grown up philosophical me. It kind of summed up the past few days: the nailed on dead-cert gone. The Connemara mountain backdrop couldn't help but lift the mood and spirits, the "it's only a bird, there'll be another one, look at this place!" voice working overtime in my head again.

And lo! Just six days after the Irish Little Blue Heron decided that it wouldn't grace us with its presence, that magical second bite at the cherry comes again: a Little Blue Heron in Wales. Fantastic! The day that follows though is anything but fantastic. A busy road overlooking a few wet areas of marsh and a vast expanse of grazing marsh and tidal creeks on a grey, overcast, and eventually wet, Welsh October day that are devoid of the main attraction. Two impressive Peregrines, a ringtail Hen Harrier and a changing cast of birds on the pools are no consolation when I'm in a mood like this. Such a contrast to that positive state of mind after the Connemara miss. Why? The weather, the scenery, the crowds, who knows—though I suspect that the horrendous two days dipping the Glaucous-winged Gull just up the road were gnawing away at me, heightened further whilst sitting in the excellent café at Ferryside—not even egg and chips could lift the dipping blues. In Ireland, and in Wales too. I kidded myself that I'd actually seen the bird of the autumn, the one I wanted to see most: Cley, and Norfolk's, first Melodious Warbler for 51 years. I can't begin to think of how I'd feel if I'd missed that. The philosophical me has returned. I suppose I'm more fade away than burn out, but who knows what mood will appear next time the pager bleeps a new (potential) heartache into my (slightly tortured) birding soul.

Written by: Mark Golley