I am a birder. This means that I actively search out birds, look at them, identify them, write them down in a little book and maybe take their picture (it also involves spending a lot of time sitting in damp huts with a load of old men). I do this for several reasons; firstly because I love/admire/care about and am greatly interested in all wildlife – birds are simply large and the easiest to observe. Second, it gets me out into the fresh air and sunlight, into the depths of the countryside and takes me to fantastic wild locations, it also involves walking, which is exercise. Thirdly, my sightings can and do contribute to the conservation of these fantastic beasts in this country as well as raising awareness and subscribing to wildlife charities. Fourthly, I get to spend time with my best birding buddy and am part of a thriving community of birders in the UK which are very helpful to each other and stay connected on social media. Finally, it means I get to keep several long lists that I can tick off and keep increasing – and who doesn’t like a good list?
Every now and again a bird or birds will arrive in Britain that really do not belong here; these rarities may have flown off course from as far away as deepest eastern Russia or even North America. When they plonk down on our soggy island and are found by some excitable birder there is usually a big hoo-ha and crowds of people turn up to stare at it for hours on end. Some people make it their sole objective to accumulate the longest list of birds seen in their country, they run around all year trying to tick off every rare and vagrant bird so they can have the satisfaction of the tick and beating everyone else.
As a birder the ethos and activities of a twitcher (as they have become known) are not appealing to me; I see little point in going miles to see a bird that is not in its natural habitat, is on its own, is most likely in a juvenile plumage (so it will be dull coloured) and does not breed/winter or regularly stop on passage in Britain. I think there are far too many very beautiful and very interesting birds to see that are native to this country to bother looking at a grey/brown American wader. But how dislocated from this country does a bird have to be for me to declare it twitching to see it?
For example, last month a Red-necked Phalarope turned up in Sussex in breeding plumage; these are very small, cute and beautiful waders that breed in the far north, the closest are a small population that breeds on the Shetland isles – this individual had clearly overshot its intended destination. But should I have gone to see it? It does breed within the UK and can be found throughout the country in winter (though it is still rare), yet last month it was in the wrong place at the wrong time and on its own, and I would really rather see one on its breeding grounds. I suppose it depends on why I would be going to see it; would it just be so that I could tick it off my list? Or would it be to enjoy and appreciate this remarkable, colourful, biologically-interesting bird?
A more tricky example would be the Terek Sandpiper that also turned up in Sussex last month; this is a distinctive-looking wader with an upturned bill which breeds only as close as Finland and only turns up in Britain when it overshoots on migration. Personally, it would require a long trip to Finland or Russia to actually see this bird breeding in its natural habitat (such a trip is unlikely) so probably my only chance to ever see one is a vagrant in the UK. Of course that would involve me travelling to see just one bird so that I can have it on my list, which would be twitching and morally suspicious, though I could argue that it is an unusual-looking wader which does breed at least within Europe and does turn up every now and again, so it is not just a random one-off species.
Every year many rare vagrant birds turn up across the UK, they can be quite exciting if they are exceptionally rare or attractive but very few of them contribute in any way to the UK’s ecosystems or have anything whatsoever to do with it – indeed many of them are very boring brown waders or juvenile pipits from the other side of the Earth with no chance of getting home. I am not interested in seeing such birds when we have lovely ones all around us all the time that need our attention and conservation, I have no desire to see a bird for no other reason than to have it ticked on my list. However, if a group of extremely gorgeous brightly coloured Bee-eaters swooped across the channel from their native France and flew around near my house, catching insects in the air and making strange calls then I would certainly attempt to see them – after all Bee-eaters have bred in Britain and appear here regularly every year, plus I would definitely be seeing them just to awe at their beauty rather than tick them off.
For birders whether to twitch a bird or not comes down to their personal morals and reasons, it is up to the individual where to draw the line – after all these are living organisms with real, delicate lives that can feel fear and pain – treating them as objects with no value other than how rare a ‘tick’ they are is not in my opinion how a birder should behave. As long as we are respecting the animal that we observe then running to try and see a rare Savi’s warbler is perfectly fine.