The above quote is from the poem ‘Shore Birds’ by United States Poet Laureate (yes, they have one too!) W.S. Merwin, which I think captures something of the mystery of migration and ancestral memory that brings wading birds along their migration routes. Today I did something that, at first sounds particularly less romantic. I went on a twitch.
Wikipedia defines ‘twitching’ as ‘to pursue and observe a rare bird‘. In spite of the fact that my background in conservation started with working for the RSPB at Sandwell Valley, residential volunteering both at Minsmere and the incredible Havergate Island, not to mention the fact that I engage in an annual birdwatching trip with my girlfriends (recently to Norfolk and Dungeness, and this year’s trip will be to Wales), I am actually a relative stranger to twitching.
In fact, until today, I have only ever twitched once. (I actually once discovered a bird that started a mass twitch in 1999 – a spoonbill at Sandwell Valley – not that I knew what I was looking at, I jumped up, pointed and said something to the effect of “whatthehellisTHAT??!!”, after which the reserve was descended upon by dozens of men in anoraks and wax jackets until the bird flew off a few hours later – but, I digress...) My only ever previous twitch was to Sutton Park some years ago to see a Woodchat Shrike. Again, this involved a line of people in, lets say, outdoorsy gear, all pointing scopes and bins at a line of trees. Within 5 minutes, my friend Matt grinned, pointed at his scope and said: “There you are, our kid!” (always called me either ‘our kid’ or ‘wench’ for some reason). I looked through the scope to find an impressive little bird. Satisfied that I had checked ‘go on a twitch’ off my list of things to do before I die, that was that. My entire twitching career.
Until today. At lunchtime today, my boss @CountrysideKev (who also happens to be the county bird recorder – a very good twitter stream to follow if you’re a local birder) told me that Black-winged Stilt (Himantopus himantopus – a bird closely related to the Avocet – you know, the one on the RSPB logo) had been seen at Clayhanger Marsh. Something happened in my head in that instant – I thought “hmm, don’t recall seeing one of those before” quickly followed by “ohmigod I get a TICK if I see it!!” (For the uninitiated, a ‘tick’ is basically ‘permission’ from the bird world to, effectively ‘tick off’ that bird in your bird book as one that you have seen. Its a bit like stamp collecting, but if the stamps had feathers and you had to stand outside in the cold to collect them. A ‘ticked’ bird then goes on your ‘Life List’ of birds you’ve seen in your life. It gets complicated, with ‘year lists’, ‘holiday lists’, ‘British Lists’, etc). Needless to say, a ‘Tick’ is a good thing, and if you’ve been birding (or bird-nerding as its known in our house) for a fair while, new ticks tend to be few and far between – my previous tick was in Dungeness last summer.
So we went on a twitch. Okay, so it wasn’t a HUGE twitch – some birders get in a plane and fly to the Outer Hebrides on a twitch, whereas I drove 5 miles to Brownhills, which sort of pales in comparison, but a twitch it was, nonetheless. And what a fab way to spend my lunch, fumbling around trying to digiscope with my grungy binoculars and temperamental camera, and occasionally taking a minute to watch the stilts (a pair as it turned out) wading around in the shallows.
We all know there’s a geek for everything, but I had a moment there when I understood WHY they do it – you feel so privileged to have seen something rare, and are torn between the urge to keep this special thing for yourself, and to tell the world. I find myself thinking ‘where are the 200 men in anoraks? – they should KNOW about this!’.
Don’t worry, intrepid readers, I’m not about to don a wax jacket & go skipping off to Orkney or anything. I had this lovely moment with an incredibly rare bird (a county first apparently!) and wanted to share it… so here it is…
Right, I’m off to bed… Check out the full report on today’s bird sightings on the fabulous Clayhanger Marsh Log, and treat yourself to this before bed: listen to W.S. Merwin read his poem ‘Shore Birds’.