Twitcher devotes his life to an obsessive flight of fancy

IT WAS the advent of an Isabelline Shrike, vacantly flapping over Dorset, which ended Lee Evans's second marriage before it had begun.

Britain's most obsessive bird- watcher had just plighted his troth to Cheryl when a guest at the Bedfordshire church revealed news of the Asian bird's sighting.

'As soon as the photographs were finished I should have been whisked off to the reception. Instead, I left for Dorset. My wife kind of expected it. But her parents weren't too pleased. Neither were mine,' Mr Evans said. Eighteen months later, Cheryl left him for another man.

He travelled the equivalent of three times round the world to see more birds than anyone else - 352 of the 390 species recorded in the UK last year.

Mr Evans's hobby dominates his life. He never makes arrangements and always carries a pager. 'It's like a drug. I can't control it. If someone rings me with news of a bird, I get jittery. I can't cope with not seeing it,' he said.

His compulsion began when he was eight. He would gather dead birds from the road, storing them in the garage until they decomposed. Then he began stuffing them. When his uncle gave him a pair of binoculars he progressed to the live variety. Now 32, he is in the Guinness Book of Records for seeing the most species of bird in a calendar year in Britain - 359 species in 1990. He is the most obsessive of the UK's 1,000 'mad birders', also known as twitchers, for whom he founded the UK400 club - named for those who have spotted 400 or more of its total 554 species.

Mr Evans, of Little Chalfont, Buckinghamshire, spent 11 years searching for a way to fund his passion. Inspiration came in 1986 when he quit his job as a design stylist at Vauxhall Motors to open an 0891 'Birdline', recording up- to-the-minute sightings. The line earns him about pounds 30,000 a year. When an unusual bird is seen, twitchers descend. Last October the arrival of a storm-tossed Siberian Thrush in the Orkneys triggered the arrival of 400, pouring in by bus, boat and aircraft.

Mr Evans travels by private jet, at pounds 1,000 an hour, or by road. He wears out a car every nine months, sleeping on the seats and cramming in twitchers to save money. But the birders' enthusiasm was not shared by their feathered subjects, he said. 'Unfortunately, that Siberian Thrush in the Orkneys got hounded so much it flew into a brick wall. Finally it went and hid in a quiet bit of hawthorn.'

Carmel, 38, his present partner, has a theory about his obsession. 'She thinks it was because there was no love in my family,' he said. 'That's why I escape to birds and am not interested in people. But I'm normal compared to other twitchers. Most are weird misfits. They run away from the sight of a woman.'

He said he could talk about subjects other than birds, but he preferred to enthuse about his favourite sighting. 'It was a Wallcreeper, a species which clings to the side of mountains. That was in Cheddar Gorge in 1980. I spent six hours watching it. Now that was really fantastic.'

(Photograph omitted)