It was a disgusting December morning in one of Oxford’s more suburban cul-de-sacs; a scene of driving rain, thrashing trees, pebbledash semis, and a postman with his collar up against the storm. It would have been a perfectly normal winter morning in middle England, really, were it not for the hundred cold, shivering men in camouflage clothing.
Extreme birdwatching takes many forms, but standing in the rain in pre-dawn Oxford is actually one of its saner manifestations. For decades a little reported army of birdwatchers have been quietly launching expeditions to Himalayan jungles or the war torn rainforests of Colombia, facing snakes, tigers, exotic diseases, armed bandits and Marxist guerrilla movements in the search for rare birds. In any other context this would be a heroic activity, up there with mountaineering or polar travel, but birdwatching is only marginally cooler than train spotting. It’s an image bourn not of overseas adventure, but of the kind of behaviour witnessed that morning in an Oxford cul-de-sac.
The crowd had been drawn by the arrival a Baltimore Oriole from the US; a small, starling sized bird that had been blown across the Atlantic by the winter gales. It wasn’t the amazing feat of having crossed the ocean on very small wings that attracted people, however, but the fact that no Baltimore Oriole had appeared on mainland Britain for fifteen years. This made it an ‘extreme rarity’ (better than a ‘rarity’ but not as good as a ‘mega rarity’), and explains why, throughout the latter half of last December, men with telescopes besieged the unsuspecting residents of Northfield Road.
Twitching, as travelling to see rare birds is known, is all about lists. Most twitchers have a British list and a life list – although some have county lists, day lists and even garden lists – detailing the number of different species seen within a certain context. It’s a largely male pursuit and it’s intensely competitive, but although there are no prizes beyond peer recognition, those who have seen more than 400 species in the UK are entitled to join the appropriately named ‘UK 400 Club’. For many, the motivation behind the Oxford Oriole was to add one more rare tick to that list.
It was an attempt to try and understand that mentality which saw me travelling down the M1 at 3am that December morning with three birders: Roy Taylor, Jim Wardill and Tim Cleeves. Tim is famous in birding circles for finding the first slender-billed curlew ever to be seen in Britain, and the last confirmed sighting anywhere in the world. But he was keen to put birders’ poor public image into perspective.
“The image is partly well justified,” he explained, “but most birders are pretty normal and just like watching birds. Maybe they’ll go to a few reserves every year and maybe they’ll travel a few miles if a rarity turns up, but for most, that’s it. As with any pastime, birding has it’s fair share of nerds – some haven’t got any social skills and some can’t speak to the opposite sex, which is why you see more mail-order brides at twitches these days. And then there are the global twitchers who are driven by trying to see all the species in the world. The unifying feature is that everyone is inspired by birds. They absolutely love them.”
Jim concurred: “Some of these guys put birds before everything else in their life – wife, relationships, money. I bumped into a mate I used to go birding with but hadn’t seen for years recently and asked him how he was. “I’m divorced,” he said. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear it.” I said. “Well,” he said, “she just couldn’t understand. It was the birds or her…” There were murmurs of agreement in the car. Everyone knew someone like that.
Even so, birdwatching in one guise or another is something of a national pastime, and as an industry it’s worth over £200 million each year. With over 1 million members, the RSPB has more paid up support than all the main political parties combined, although most people’s involvement with birds will amount to little more than putting food out in winter. Which is very different to driving through the night and standing for hours in the rain to see an American rarity.
As the grey sky grew light I discovered, somewhat unexpectedly, that twitching can incredibly tense. Not quite England-penalty-shoot-out tense, but tense enough for 7am. This was probably because people had driven a long way for the twitch (teachers Jean and Marc had driven from Belgium) and because there were no guarantees that the bird, which should have been in Central America, had not expired from the cold, been taken by a cat or simply moved on. If it didn’t show, a lot of people had gone to a lot of effort for nothing.
But that wasn’t to be how this story ended. An arm suddenly went up and pointed to the bushes, there was a collective gasp from the crowd and binoculars were raised as people took first sight of the small brown bird with the golden orange breast. People were transfixed; the atmosphere electric. But then, unnoticed by the crowd, a woman stepped around the corner and shattered it: “Excuse me!” she yelled. Everyone turned to look. There was a pause, and then she dropped the bombshell:
“If you want to come into my garden for a better view then you’re welcome. The only thing I ask is that you make a small donation – one or two pounds would be fine – to the cat’s home.” She rattled the coins in the ice cream tub she was carrying and disappeared around the corner.
Given the UK’s 8 million domestic cats kill an estimated 55 million birds each year, you could understand some prevarication or ethical anguish. Instead, there was a stampede. The cul-de-sac cleared within seconds. By the time I turned the corner most people were already in and Lyn, the owner of the house, was clutching a fist full of notes and a tub heavy with coins. “It’s not obligatory! Just a pound if you like…” she was chortling, a little stunned by the sudden success of the cat’s home. A man handed her a £10 note. “Here you go love – keep the change. Very good of you to let us in.”
In spite of the weather reaching a truly horrendous climax, a spiritual experience was taking place in the back garden. Sodden, shivering men with eyes glued to binoculars bumped into one another, or trundled off into the bushes for a better view. One almost fell into the pond. Other than the constant background of “Can you see it?” “It’s above the branch / twigs / fence”, there seemed to be very little worth saying, although a Brummie accent muttered to no-one in particular: “This is great” with the awed tone of someone having an epiphany.
The calm couldn’t last. Once everyone had spotted the bird briefly, tensions began to mount as it became clear which parts of the garden offered a better view. A shout came out: “Oi! Can you move? I can’t see anything!” Tim was right: some twitchers lacked a certain social nous.
“If you’d just stop moving around we all might be bloody well able to see something back here!”
“I’m not moving. I’ve not been here long!”
“You’ve been there bloody ages! Let someone else have a go!”
“People are so aggressive these days,” Jim lamented. “It’s just not the same as when I used to twitch regularly. Now it’s more competitive and some people will do anything to get their tick. Who would have ever thought we’d end up with bird rage?”
When large numbers of people get desperate to see small birds, rage isn’t as uncommon as you might think. Environmental consultant and author of several books on birding, Dr Joe Tobias has witnessed fights for the last place on a boat in the Scilly Isles, famous for its autumn rarities. “In mid October you can have well over 1000 birders on the Scillies, half of them with walkie-talkies,” he explained. “You’ll be standing in the middle of nowhere and then you’ll hear this noise from inside a bush: “Come in Little Bustard, this is R.B. Fly. Meet me on channel 6…” which means that everyone on channel 8 – which is the kind of communal short wave radio channel – will suddenly switch to channel 6 to hear what’s going on. Then if that person says something like “I’m not sure about it, but think I’ve just seen an Ovenbird at Borough Farm”, all of a sudden all hell breaks loose as everyone tries to get to Tresco. I’ve seen literally hundreds of men running along the beach on St Mary’s trying to get to the first boat to twitch a rarity. It was like the 400m hurdle – fat men in green bouncing along, tripods slung over their shoulders and binoculars bouncing up and down, trying to hurdle the guy lines tying the boats up at low tide. A couple of them tripped up and crashed face down into the sand: it was hysterical.”
Mega rarities do of course inspire the most extreme behaviour. A senior associate with a Bristol law firm, Paul Chapman occasionally hires light aircraft to twitch them, as he did last October when he flew from Blackpool to the Shetland Islands to see only the third Savannah Sparrow ever recorded in Britain. Two days later a Siberian Rubythroat turned up on the same island. “Fortunately I’d already seen the Rubythroat eight years earlier,” he said, “but otherwise I would have gone back. There were some people who did end up flying from Blackpool twice in the space of four days.” Whether flying or driving, the RSPB estimates birders spend around £25 million each year on UK travel alone.
By definition rarities don’t come along very often, which is why these days more birders are going to the bird. As world travel has become cheaper and more accessible, exotic twitching holidays have grown into a £10 million business, spawning numerous specialist birding companies keen to take twitchers to some of the most exciting ecosystems on the planet. But with exciting ecosystems come exotic dangers.
In 1990 Tim Andrews and Mike Entwistle were twitching in Peru in what has become one of birdwatching’s most widely reported tragedies. The pair were searching for Oilbirds when they were captured by the Marxist rebel movement known as the Shining Path: one was then shot while trying to escape and the other was taken for interrogation before also being shot. What they probably hadn’t heard were rumours of undercover US intelligence agents in the region having disguised themselves as birdwatchers.
Dr Nat Seddon, a research fellow at Newnham College Cambridge who spends much of her time in the Amazon, had more luck in another part of Peru in 1994, but only marginally so. Her research camp was attacked by armed bandits who demanded $40,000 or claimed they would take a hostage, so she and her colleagues sought shelter in a nearby village. “We spent three terrified days in the back room of the Mayor’s house guarded by twenty guys armed with sticks and machetes in case they came after us.” She recalls. “It was like a scene from some western”. And although they escaped without harm, losing only two backpack’s of clothes and equipment, she was later mugged for her binoculars on a beach in south Peru.
Gunpoint robbery and hostage taking may rank amongst the more sensational threats to extreme birders, but as David Hunt discovered rather dramatically on 23 February 1985, the natural world presents its own dangers. He was leading a wildlife holiday in northern India when a Spotted Owlet flew across their path. Unwilling to let such a prize disappear, he descended from the elephant and followed it into the jungle. When they retrieved his body and later developed his final film, they discovered a unique sequence of images of a charging tiger.
So what is it that drives extreme birders to risk so much for what is, to most people, a bundle of feathers? Jim Wardill knows because in the mid 90s he was part of a team that set out in to try and rediscover the Cerulean Paradise Flycatcher on the small Indonesian island of Sangihe, which at the time was thought to be extinct. The only record of the species was a stuffed specimen collected in 1874 and now resident in a German museum drawer, and despite efforts by Victorian collectors, no scientist had ever seen one alive. They launched two expeditions, each of which took a year to organise and cost around £15,000, but on the second, after spending three months living on a ridge deep in the rainforest, they finally found what they were looking for.
“It was pretty exciting setting off on an expedition not knowing whether the bird still exists or not,” Jim recalled, “so when we actually saw the thing I was in tears. It was definitely one of the most beautiful moments of my life. But although the bird was the main purpose of the expedition and actually seeing it was such a rush, it was also about the adventure. The places you go on expeditions are places people just don’t go to. It’s not easy or comfortable, but it is a magical experience.”
Birdlife International’s Dr Jonathan Ekstrom agrees: “I spent large parts of my PhD living in a mud hut in a remote Madagascan village where I learned at least as much about the indigenous people and their beliefs as I did parrots. For me birding isn’t just about the birds; it’s about the whole experience.”
Back in Oxford, Lyn didn’t really care what motivated the crowd in her garden because as far as she was concerned, they were mad. We sat in her kitchen which smelled strongly of cats and talked as birders dropped pound coins in through the cat flap, and she confessed that she was living in dread: “Four of my cats are too fat and sleepy to go for anything, but the other’s a real killer. I’m worried that it’ll get the poor little bugger and I’ll have some twitcher around here with an air rifle.”
If neighbour Mick Winters didn’t get there first, that was. Within the previous month he had picked up the carcasses of 2 goldfinches, a collared dove and a woodpigeon – a sore point for a man who spent £300 a year on bird feed. Nevertheless, by Saturday even he was fed up with the Oriole frequenting his garden. “It’s been madness here all week,” he said. “You hear their mobile phones going off at 6.30 and them hollering: “I’m in Oxford…Headingly…” I’ve not had a moment’s peace. I’ve even taken all my feeders in. I wish the bloody thing would just go away.”
Eventually the crowds did disperse and, a few weeks later, the Baltimore Oriole disappeared. No-one really knows the final fate of the long distance migrant that inspired so many twitchers on their pilgrimage, a bird that had survived a transatlantic crossing and the UK’s foul winter weather, but many say it was taken by a cat. Whose cat, however, remains open to speculation.