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Wildlife Camera » Forget birdwatching - it’s birding and it’s big

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« The Man with the Golden Binoculars -

Forget birdwatching - it’s birding and it’s big

12 April 2012


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Hoopoe

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, a zoom camera and 2kg binoculars, the “designer jewellery” of the pastime.


There are an estimated 2.5 million birders in Britain (they don’t call themselves birdwatchers any more), of whom about 150,000 are hard-core enthusiasts who spend up to £2,000 on the kit – digital zoom camera, binoculars, scope, books - and often pay £3,000 or more for guided trips to exotic locations. They are the subject of intensive advertising that supports magazines, shops and an annual fair. Top bird books sell more than a million copies.
Meanwhile, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is busy trying to dispel the traditional view of the obsessive twitcher: the solitary, strange and inadequate man lurking beside the reservoir.
Experts 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 really keen guys have seen more than 500 different species in and around Britain.
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. The late Chris Meads, of the British Trust for Ornithology in Thetford, Norfolk,  once told me 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 50 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 do generate a fantastic amount 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 on the cliffs 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 very good thing, but it’s not bad either.      Willy Newlands

(Photo: Hoopoe, by iStockphoto)


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