Basin Notes - September 1997

Birdwatchers as Collectors

People are collectors - stamps, antiques, photographs - the list is endless. Some people cannot possess the object of their obsession so they record the event - Munros bagged, railway engines seen, countries visited and birds seen.

As with all collecting, in birdwatching there is a range of obsession, ability and skill. Beginners must grapple with the problems of fleeting glimpses of the quarry in poor light which don’t seem to fit the pictures in the field guide. Some have passed through that stage to become more skilled at identification. The most obsessive, those capable of identifying anything with wings are the gods to whom the others might aspire to join.

I have deliberately avoided naming the groups because of the pejorative use of the terms. Various names are used for participants in this hobby (or job in some cases). The name "birdwatcher" is fairly neutral although once, as I was walking up a farm road stopping to study the fields with binoculars, three lads rode past on bikes. One of them turned back and asked what I was doing. "Are you a birdwatcher?". On admitting that I was, he turned and yelled at the top of his voice to his two mates disappearing up the road "He’s a birdwatcher!". I felt like some deviant to be gawked at!

There has been a suggestion that "birder" might be a better title. Personally, I find this an unpleasant word (for reasons I can’t explain) but the Americans seems to prefer it. In the past people with an interest in birds, and the natural world in general, were called "naturalists" but this seems to have fallen out of use. "Ornithologist" is a name reserved for those undertaking a scientific study of birds at whatever level. The Scottish Ornithologists Club is one such organisation that caters for keen amateurs wishing to learn more as well as contribute their own observations to the cause of science. Here the goal is not only the identification of birds but also understanding their behaviour in their natural habitat.

The one name that arouses the greatest emotions is "twitcher". The national media use this term in all stories about birds and birdwatchers. Really, a twitcher is a person who is obsessed with seeing all available rare birds wherever they may be in the UK and will travel hundreds of miles at the drop of a hat to see a rarity. These people see up to 400 different species in a year and battle it out to get the most each year. There are plenty of skilled birdwatchers who are not twitchers and would not regard themselves as such.

We see all types visiting the Montrose Basin Wildlife Centre and on one afternoon last week there were four couples in the Centre ranging in skill from beginner to very experienced. Volunteers and visitors alike had a good time watching birds and chatting about all things environmental. A discussion about the finer points of distinguishing between curlew and whimbrel changed from academic to practical as a bird, first identified as the latter by one, was thought a small curlew by another. All of us learned a lot from the ensuing debate even though no agreed identification was reached.

The fact remains that whatever you might label yourself, or be labelled by others, there is enjoyment and satisfaction to be had at all levels for people who want to see and appreciate the beauty of birds. The arrival of autumn migrants to the Basin provides the opportunity to hone identification skills as well as marvel at the large numbers of geese and waders as they arrive from beyond the Arctic Circle - a source of wonder for all birdwatchers.