Saturday 14 December 2013

Is this the end of the Birding World?

After reading Andy Mackay's post 'Killed by the Internet?', I found myself reminiscing about the 'good old days'. Receiving a copy of Birding World used to be one of the highlights of my month. Like others I cancelled my subscription a few years back when I stopped regular twitching (I found a cure). Whatever the real reason is for the Birding World team to call it a day, they must surely have been affected by the myriad of websites and blogs covering the same subject for free.

This is the end of an era as far as I'm concerned, but those guys were very instrumental in ending another great chapter in the history of twitching by starting Birdline.

I am old enough (just) to remember the birding grapevine. If you were lucky you would have a mate in the know who would ring you with bird news and then if you had another mate you would pass it on to him and so on. I also fondly remember the days of Nancy's Cafe in Cley next the Sea, Norfolk. As a poor teenager I would dig deep in my pocket to purchase food in the cafe, not necessarily because I was hungry, but so I could read the log book and pass on or receive bird news via the old fashioned telephone. The anticipation of entering the cafe to find out the latest news was one of the highlights of visiting Norfolk, so was scanning through the log book - a page from the log book can be found HERE. I was quite nervous the first time I went in, but I'm glad I made the effort and got stuck in. I can still remember the beans and well buttered toast as if I'd only just cleared my plate. On one occasion news of a rare bird at the Weaver Bend, Frodsham broke whilst I was in the cafe and I was offered a lift. No mobile phones in them days, so I had to call my Mum from a phone box and tell her I wouldn't be home for tea. Getting home proved to be quite a mission as my driver wasn't going back my way, but that's another story. Amazingly I can remember all that, but I haven't got a clue what the bird was.

On one occasion I had been in Wales scuba diving. On my return my Mum passed on the news that a Little Whimbrel had been seen near Salthouse in Norfolk. I quickly changed my clothes; begged my Dad to lend me his car and off I went on another great adventure - I must have caused my Mum a lot of worry in those days! The bird eventually showed well, I had a great time and made some new friends. Sometime around then, or a few years later, Steve Gantlett, Richard Millington and others started a venture called Birdline. Basically this was a recorded message, which contained all the rare bird news for Britain with the important stuff first. You accessed this by ringing a premium rate phone number and if you mis-heard a part of the message you had to re-dial and pay again. Spy like tactics were needed to record the news, so you could keep playing it over and over again. There was none of this SatNav stuff back then just rough directions and a map. However, it was perhaps at this point that some of the innocence in birding was lost if innocence is the right word. Any Tom, Dick or even Adey could get bird news then (sorry Adey I couldn't resist that one).

Pagers were the next great thing in twitching. I couldn't justify the cost initially, as I had a young family to feed. I eventually trained them to eat less, so I could afford the monthly direct debit. Before I had one I noticed that the owners of these devices were quite skillful, they could remove them from their pockets really quickly and read the information without giving anything away. If you asked if there was any good news most pager owners would look at you with pity in their eyes, but still give little away.

Of course twitching was made easier by Birdline and even more so by pagers, but I can't help looking back nostalgically to the days when we actually stopped to ask each other 'if there's owt about? '. The days when Norfolk was the hub of the British birding were special. It was always worth going on spec even if you didn't see anything good. Nights in the George at Cley were great as an eighteen ish year old. Lots of beer and birding talk, or at least trying to listen to the great tales being told - not many girls there though? The walk down to the 'Coastgaurd's Hotel' was fun after a few drinks, as it was very dark. On one occasion I remember sleeping in the beer garden, because I was a little worse for wear - Greene King was the root of the problem.

The 'Coastgaurd's Hotel' or 'Beach Hotel' was, and still is I think, a four sided bench with a roof in the beach car park at Cley. We were hard in them days, so we slept on or under those benches. I used to bus and hitch hike to Norfolk before I passed my driving test. After passing your test you could benefit from the luxury of sleeping in a car. Many years ago after twitching the summer-plumaged Ross's Gull at Cley, I bedded down for the night under a bench when I was rudely awaken. A big bearded bugger said 'any room under there kid'? Reluctantly I made room for him and he promptly fell asleep and snored that loud that he scared off all the birds in the marsh including the Ross's Gull. Needless to say I had a very poor nights sleep.

The 'Scilly Season', another big part of the British birding scene, appears to be going the same way as Birding World from what I've read. I haven't been to the Scilly Isles for a few years, so maybe I'm part of the problem once again. Over pricing and the discovery of other places seem to have reduced the amount of visiting birders. The lack of headline grabbing birds is another reason, but that's more likely the result of less coverage. It is a great shame as I'm pretty sure that the social side of the 'Scilly Season' on St Mary's hasn't been repeated elsewhere. The birds were great, but my fondest memories are the nights out and the sight of an army of green clad birders pushing shopping trolleys around the mini-supermarket in Hugh Town. 

Birders on the Scillies (I can't remember what we were watching this time either)
I've had many great days on the Scillies, but the standout day for me was when the eagle landed. I was on Gugh having just had reasonable views of a male Siberian Thrush when the shout went up 'EAGLE'. Looking up I saw a large bird of prey overhead. I wasn't even sure what species it was at that point. We raced after it and realised that it was a Short-toed Eagle - a first for Britain. The day continued with a wealth of good birds and finished with another tick. I was just heading back to the airfield when the birders in front of me started to run. They had spotted a wader that they thought might be an Upland Sandpiper. I could see the direction they were heading and realised I was closer to it. Off I ran towards the nearby field and as I looked over the wall I saw a really close Upland Sandpiper - they were correct. I had missed the White's Thrush that day, but I caught up with it the following weekend. I can't even begin to contemplate how I used to get away with these antics. To be honest it's better to be hung for a sheep than a lamb. I get in as much trouble going up to Shawell for a spot of gulling, as I used to do for travelling to the far corners of Britain at the drop of a hat.

So what of the future - well don't ask me I've become a recluse in a hedge at Shawell trying to read colour-rings and identify gulls. I'm sure that the 'cheque book birders' or more aptly the 'credit card birders' will continue to charter helicopters to far flung islands in their bid to join the 600 Club of the future; the dudes will continue to visit RSPB bird hides and talk noisily; good birders will find the birds for the previous two groups and we will all continue to be sucked in by the Internet and new technology - 'Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing'.

Of course I readily use the Internet and many of the things it offers, but be warned by the words of one of the people who commented on the end of Birding World - will we end up sitting at home watching virtual birds on a screen?

Of course the Internet aids us in many ways. I'm impressed how I can report birds straight to the BTO via an 'App' on my phone and how I can report a colour-ringed gull to a Norwegian website whilst I stand there watching it. I do think some of the magic of seeing rare birds was lost, however, when websites like Surfbirds gave us the ability to check the birds out before leaving home.

I'll finish my waffle by saying well done to everyone involved in Birding World over the years and wish them luck for the future.

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