Geared up for some serious twitching

This is a big weekend for birdwatchers - not such a rare breed. Willy Newlands explains

Related Topics
My first birdwatching kit was simplicity itself. Binoculars that worked quite well on sunny days, and a bird book with some artistic but inaccurate portraits of British birds.

Today I would be ashamed to go near the local reserve with anything so modest. Birdwatching has gone from small-scale hobby to multi-million pound industry in 20 years - and along the way it has managed to shed its image of being a nerdy pastime for would-be trainspotters in camouflage jackets. Now you need designer waterproofs, hi-power scopes and 2kg binoculars, the "designer jewellery" of the pastime.

There are an estimated 2.2 million birders in Britain, of whom about 150,000 are hard-core enthusiasts who spend up to pounds 2,000 on the kit - binoculars, scope, books - and often pay pounds 3,000 or more for guided trips to exotic locations. They are the subject of intensive advertising that supports several birding magazines, shops and an annual fair. Good bird books sell more than a million copies.

This weekend more than 30,000 birders in the UK - along with those from 77 other countries - will take part in World Birdwatch. The RSPB is running the British activities at 140 sites around the country, putting the spotlight on the beauty and value of birds. They are also trying to dispel the traditional view of the obsessive twitcher: the solitary, strange and inadequate man lurking beside the reservoir.

Experts such as Dave Cromack, editor of Bird Watching magazine, say that that image just isn't true any more. The birdwatcher's wife is no golf widow. She is likely to share in the hobby, which has the great advantage that you get better at it as you get more mature.

The dedicated collector of species will hire a helicopter or charter a boat to catch sight of the latest rarity to be blown to British shores. Hundreds of 'scope-toting fans turn up when an American warbler lands in a Surrey car park or an obscure Asian wader takes up temporary residence on a Hebridean islet. The man who has seen the most birds in the British Isles is Ron Johns, of Salthouse, Norfolk, with 502 on his list.

But the damage to farm or garden when a five-alarm twitch turns up can be devastating. When a houbara bustard landed in the east of England a few years ago, the farmer on whose fields it took up residence was nearly bankrupted by the trampling of his crops.

Birding literature is full of mini-dramas starring rare creatures. Twitchers have pursued an American thrasher into a loo in the Scillies, where it drowned; and stared solemnly for a day at a night heron on a Midlands marsh, which turned out to be a stuffed example hoist into a tree by a prankster. More than once they have seen their star rarity killed and devoured by some slightly less rare hawk or owl.

On a Shetland island, watchers photographed a Scops owl for days, until it quietly dropped off its perch and expired. They then had several months of arguments about whether it was "genuine".

The cognoscenti particularly enjoy these esoteric arguments about the likelihood of an owl or a marbled teal being a genuine thousand-mile migrant on a south-easterly airstream or an escapee from a Kent aviary two miles away.

At all levels it is a classless and good-natured hobby. Chris Meads, of the British Trust for Ornithology in Thetford, Norfolk, says that it is the continuation of the Gilbert White tradition - "people of a certain class, the squire and the parson, started our interest in local natural history and that spread down to teachers and pupils".

When the first field guides were published about 40 years ago, the RSPB's membership was 7,000. It has gone up a hundredfold. The RSPB admits that many of its members would rather watch wildlife on television than put on their wellies and go out into the woods to see real birds, but they generate a lot of money.

The main objection to birding is that some birders are obviously just out-of-context stamp collectors. On a recent trip to Moravia, I was with some twitchers who refused even to focus their binoculars on some wonderful wild ibex because "they are not birds".

But if even 10 per cent of birdwatchers are hoisting in some awareness of the natural world, of ecology and even rural manners, that is a bonus. As biologists say: it may not be a good thing, but it's not bad either.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Service and Support (Financial Services, ITIL, ORC, TT)

£75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of Service and Support (Financial Ser...

Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, JAXB, ...

Service Delivery Manager - ITIL / ServiceNow / Derivatives

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading Financial Services orga...

Senior Quantitative Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Next they'll say an independent Scotland can't use British clouds...

Mark Steel

Once I would have agreed with Dawkins. Then my daughter was born with Down's Syndrome

Jamie McCullum
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home