The Hollywood film The Big Year presents what seems to be an exaggeration of the extremes birding enthusiasts will go to in boosting their number of sightings, particularly of rare birds, with camaraderie turning to cut-throat competition in the blink of an eye, or the twitch of a feathered tail. But the reality is that competitive birding, referred to as “twitching”, has reportedly become an obsession with some birders as they attempt to beat rivals at adding birds to their list. While this activity is very popular in the United States, according to those in the know, British twitchers are among the fiercest competitors in the world.
There are various definitions of “twitching” and descriptions of “twitchers”, but in general it refers to birding enthusiasts who are prepared to stop whatever they are doing immediately to follow up on reports of birds not yet on their list of sightings, or that they have not yet ticked off their list of birds they hope to see. The verb “twitching” is thought to be a reference to the nervous anticipation, stress and anxiety experienced by a birder in pursuit of his/her hobby which often includes traveling long distances and overcoming physical and other obstacles, with the single-minded goal of getting to see (or hear) an elusive bird. There are also varying rules as to when a twitcher can tick a bird off a list, with some saying that hearing the bird is enough and others insisting the seeing the bird should be the rule. Either way, twitchers are not required to provide photographic evidence of their sightings, so the system relies on honor among twitchers.
As with most serious hobbies, twitching has its own vocabulary, and when a twitcher fails to sight the bird he rushed off to see, he considers himself to have “dipped out”, and if his competitors managed to see the bird, he is likely to feel “gripped off”. Some twitchers have compiled a “life list” of birds they hope to see in their lifetime, while others set goals for a season, or specific time period such as 24-hours, which increases the competitive spirit.
Modern technology has aided twitchers immensely as information on rare bird sightings can be sent out immediately, with updates alerting twitchers to the bird’s whereabouts as they are en route to view it. Based in Norwich in the United Kingdom, Rare Bird Alert has been operating since 1991, with a team of experienced birders making information available to birders fifteen hours a day, every day of the year. Similar organizations exist in other countries where birders take their hobby seriously.
While the subspecies of the European robin (Erithacus rubecula melophilus), more commonly known as the ‘robin redbreast’, is widely considered to be Britain’s national bird, the fact is that that there is at present no official bird for the United Kingdom, and with a vote currently underway, the robin redbreast may very well find itself dethroned in favor of one of the other fifty-nine bird species voters can choose from. Voting for the top six contenders closes at midnight on the 31st of October, and re-opens in January 2015, when the field of six will be narrowed down to one which will receive the title of Britain’s National Bird on the day of the general election in May 2015.
The European robin was first described by renowned Swedish botanist, zoologist and physician Carl Linnaeus in his 18th century journal Systema Naturae where he built upon the formal system of naming species devised by 16th century Swiss botanists Gaspard and Johann Bauhin to make a detailed record of the Animal Kingdom, Plant Kingdom and Mineral Kingdoms.
Measuring between 12.5 and 14 cm in length, male and female robins are similar in features, with orange-red breast and face, bluish-grey on the sides of the neck and chest, grey-brown upperparts and a whitish belly. A familiar sight around Britain, robins are insectivorous and are welcomed by gardeners as they feed on garden pests, although beneficial insects, of course, are also on the menu. They are quite unafraid of being around people and will also eat seed mixtures in backyard feeders. During breeding season, male robins become very territorial and may viciously attack intruding birds. They are known to nest in some unusual places, including disused barbecues, machinery, watering cans, flower pots and other items. They use moss, leaves, grass and other items to make the nest, and line it with hair, feathers, finer grass and anything else that is soft. The female lays between two or three clutches of eggs in the breeding season, each of which may consist of five or six eggs. Mortality rate in the first year of life is high, but robins have been known to live as long as 12 years if they make it past the first vulnerable 12 months.
Among the contenders for the title of Britain’s National Bird are the mute swan, mallard, tufted duck, eider, red grouse, pheasant, great crested grebe, gannet, cormorant, grey heron, golden eagle, osprey, red kits, hen harrier, buzzard, kestrel , peregrine, avocet, oystercatcher, lapwing, curlew, snipe, herring gull, puffin, feral pigeon, wood pigeon, turtle dove, ring-necked parakeet, cuckoo, tawny owl, barn owl, swift, kingfisher, great spotted woodpecker, skylark, swallow, pied wagtail, waxwing, wren, robin, nightingale, black redstart, song thrush, blackbird, blackcap, chiffchaff, blue tit, long-tailed tit, magpie, jay, jackdaw, carrion crow, starling, house sparrow, chaffinch, linnet, goldfinch, greenfinch, bullfinch and yellowhammer.
Featuring more than 1,300 maps describing patterns of distribution for nearly 300 bird species, the new British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) Bird Atlas 2007-11 has recently been released to the public. This comprehensive study of bird distribution trends in Britain and Ireland was compiled from data gathered by more than 40,000 volunteers over a period of four summers and four winters. The information was analyzed by scientists and authors Simon Gillings, Dawn Balmer, Brian Caffrey, Bob Swann, Rob Fuller and Iain Downie and compiled into a treasure trove of information for all who are interested in the birdlife of this region.
Among the wealth of interesting information presented in the Bird Atlas is the fact that as many as forty exotic species have taken up residence in Britain and Ireland. These include the white-cheeked turaco from Ethiopia and Sudan; the red-rumped parrot of Australia; the pin-tailed whydah of sub-Saharan Africa; and the Alexandrine parakeet from Sri Lanka and India, as well as zebra finches and Chinese pheasants. While these are most likely originally escapees from private owners, they have adapted to their surroundings and many have started breeding. So, although they are not indigenous to Britain and Ireland, it appears that they are there to stay and should therefore be monitored along with local populations.
This monitoring becomes even more important when exotic species start posing a threat to native birds, as appears to be the case with the ring-necked parakeet from Delhi. These birds were first reported in the wild in Britain in 1971, having escaped from aviaries. The survey notes that there are now more than 30,000 ring-necked parakeets resident across southern Britain and they appear to be moving northwards. As they use holes in trees to lay their eggs, they are encroaching on the nesting territory of the nuthatch and other birds – and are not shy about taking over.
Observations regarding native birds include the disheartening fact that nightingales, yellowhammers and woodcocks numbers are declining. On the other hand it’s been noted that the little egret and avocet is experiencing an increase in numbers. In addition to listing statistics, the Bird Atlas provides explanations regarding changes that have taken place. For example, the decline in Dartford warbler breeding pairs from 3,214 pairs in 2006, to 600 pairs in 2010 is attributed to the harsh winters experienced in two successive years. It’s not all doom and gloom for Dartford warblers though, as the Bird Atlas notes that they have the capacity to recover and expand their range.
For more information on the new British Trust for Ornithology Bird Atlas 2007-11, visit the BTO Website.
Bird watching as a hobby has been traced back to the late-18th century as portrayed in the works of English naturalists and ornithologists Gilbert White, Thomas Bewick and George Montagu. During the Victorian Era, the study of birds became fashionable, but not necessarily in their natural habitats, as collectors obtained specimens of eggs and preserved dead birds sourced from around the world. In the late 19th century the Audubon Society in the United States and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain were founded to protect birds from these collectors and from the increasingly popular feather trade. In 1901 a book published by British ornithologist and writer Edmund Selous, entitled simply Bird Watching, is thought to have been the origin of the term describing the practice of observing birds in their natural habitat – a pastime which requires plenty of patience.
In today’s society which is increasing becoming accustomed to instant gratification, patience may sometimes be seen as a hindrance rather than a virtue, and this may be the case among birding enthusiasts who are using mobile phone apps to mimic birdsong in an effort to attract birds. Wardens on England’s Brownsea Island have recently reported instances where visitors have used these mobile apps to mimic the unique call of the Nightjar, apparently so they could get a clearer photograph. What these visitors may not realize is that they are breaking a law (the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981) which was put into place to protect nesting birds from being intentionally disturbed. Designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), Brownsea Island is home to a host of bird species, including the Nightjar which, thanks to conservation efforts, has experienced an increase in numbers in recent years.
When a recorded birdsong is played repeatedly it is likely to divert the bird from essential duties, such as feeding its young. It may also prompt a bird to interrupt the mating process to chase off what it perceives to be a rival in order to protect its territory.
Giving birders the benefit of the doubt that they may be unaware of the negative impact their birdsong apps are having, the Dorset Wildlife Trust is launching an online campaign to warn people of the harm they may inadvertently be causing. To reinforce the message, signs will be erected on each of the 42 reserves overseen by the Trust requesting that birdsong apps not be used in the reserves.
The hen harrier is one of the most endangered birds of prey in Britain. Their numbers have fallen incredibly in England in the past, with just ten breeding pairs having been counted last year. While this bird species was once very widespread across Britain, it now seems its domain is limited mainly to Scotland where there are about 630 breeding pairs.
The main reason behind the dramatic decline of hen harriers in England is systematic persecution – namely, the shooting of these birds in their natural habitats in the Pennines and the Peak District. This is an area where these birds come to prey on grouse chicks and it is here that they are most ruthlessly persecuted. However, it seems that government officials are not content to sit back and watch extinction in action. Natural England, a government conversation agency, has been hard at work at drafting up plans to save the hen harrier in England. They would like to reintroduce the bird into the ranges that it formerly inhabited, such as lowland farms, heathland and upland areas including the Exmoor, Dartmoor and New Forest areas. All this will hopefully take place during the course of the next two years. Until now their plans have been put forth somewhat clandestinely, with the proposals gaining approval from bird conservation organizations, environment ministers and moorland and country sports organizations. The detailed proposals will be officially released to the public in early April.
Why all the secrecy? It seems it is feared that there will be some opposition from certain conservationists and landowners. Caution certainly is the order of the day, since these birds can pose a threat to resident land owners in the proposed areas for release. Farmers in the area are already struggling with a surge in the number of sparrowhawks, red kits and buzzards and the addition of another feathered predator will no doubt only add to their worries. Some landowners use their estates primarily for pheasant and partridge shooting and are concerned that the birds could get in the way. Basically there are fears that the widespread and non-specific reintroduction of these birds of prey could cause havoc to a number of already established farm and gaming practices. What’s more, Scottish sheep farmers are already complaining about decreases in stock numbers due to the much higher numbers of hen harriers in those parts of the United Kingdom. While the reintroduction of the hen harriers to the English wilds is widely supported due to the fact that they are endangered, it seems it is hoped that conservation officials will choose wisely as to how many of these birds will be released and where they will be allowed to make their new home.