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Monday, 4 May 2009

The Lack of respect in British Birding

Following up on Derek's earlier email about behaviour at twitches and a few consequent responses, I must say that British birding for me seemed to die in or around 1999. Despite that year being an exceptional and most incredible autumn on Scilly, the following year saw a heavy slump in visitor numbers. Sadly, it has never recovered.......and perhaps never will.

Now I know that the main reason that many birders no longer travel to Scilly is because of the ridiculous costs now incurred (very little change out of £1,000 for a 10-day visit), but the demise of Scilly really has gone a long way to decimating British twitching as we once knew it.

For over 35 years, Scilly was the highlight of my life and I would look forward all year to my 4-week stay. To be a good all-round birder, one really has to serve a long apprenticeship and after spending say 8-12 years learning all of the field characters and vocalisations of the 259 most common and easily seen of British birds off by heart, the Scilly years would put you in very good stead in terms of the rarer scarce migrants and blinding vagrants to be seen. Scilly was THE place to get experience in the most difficult of plumages with these rarer species and THE best place to get experience and learn from others. It was also THE place to form brilliant birding relationships with other like-minded individuals (many to last a lifetime) and to spawn and plan mind-blowing international trips. It was second-to-none as a birding meeting place and as a birding destination in terms of variety.

It was Brian Mellow that first introduced me to Scilly in 1974 and I instantly fell in love with the place. At that time, Brian and Pete Maker were obsessive Cornish rarity-hunters and their enthusiasm soon rubbed off on me. The feeling when we all saw a Cetti's Warbler at Skewjack Pools was ecstatic, and after they took me to St Ives Island in Cornwall, I became hooked on seawatching.

In those (relatively) early days of Scilly, I soon met my birding heroes - Dave Holman, Steve Broide, Paul Dukes, Keith Vinicombe, Baz Harding, the late Rupert Hastings, the late Peter Grant, Ray Turley, Tim Inskipp, Richard Grimmett, Dick Filby, Andrew Moon and Mick Turton amongst others. All were excellent field observers, very meticulous, highly observant and always willing to offer a young boy like me help and guidance. I was overwhelmed by their knowledge and badgered them relentlessly for more information.

Later I was to meet Chris Heard and Grahame Walbridge - very slightly older than me - but boy absolutely red-hot and a mine of information. Chris Heard was to grow into an exceptional birding being in every way and it was he that spurred me on to get better and strive for that extra mile, even to today. And then there was Craig Robson and John Eames......and then Richard Millington and Steve Gantlett. These guys were my heritage and I will be forever indebted to them. In the early to mid 1980's, many more stood in their shoes, and we had Paul Holt, Julian Hough, Mark Golley, Mushaq Ahmad, Richard Crossley, the late Tim Andrews and Tim Lawrence, Barry Reed, Kevin Shepherd, Ian Lewington, John Hewitt, Kevin Wilson, Graham Speight, Bob Hibbert, Tony Prater, John Marchant and countless others serving their respective apprenticeships on the archipelago, as well as all the Scilly-faithfuls such as Tony Smith, Lester Mulford, Bryan Bland, Pete Milford, Martin Coath, Ted Griffiths, Vic Tucker, Viv Stratton, Harry Robinson, Rod Hirst, Ken Shaw, Doug Page, Brian Short, James Wolstencroft, John Cooper, Richard Fairbank, Richard Drew and Ray O'Reilly all learning their trade and sharpening their identification skills.

The 1980's also saw the establishment of international ties with powerful birding minds with the Eilat phenomena and birding migration spectacle being the playground and meeting place for many years. Birding skills were honed further here and identification abilities nurtured. It was here that I made many friends, including Per Alstrom, Dick Forsman, Annika Forsten, Killian Mullarney, Mika Ohtonen, Renee Lafontaine, Klaus Malling-Olsen, Hadoram Shirihai, Antero Topp amongst others. Again, invaluable knowledge was gleaned from sharing field observations on North Beach and in the Moon Valley Mountains and in intense identification struggles and discussions. Killian and Dick were particularly good 'teachers' and during that early period, Lars Svensson was particularly instructive, after years and years of handling birds of all species and studying museum specimens.

What all of these guys had was a genuine passion and enthusiasm for birding and a real love for the hobby. They wanted to help others and bent over backwards to do just that. All were extremely keen to learn and exploit advances in knowledge, and all served a very long apprenticeship in order to grasp the knowledge that was to put them in such good stead today.

I see very little sign of this comradery today. I see fewer and fewer notebooks but more and more pagers and technology. Rarely do I get questions from youngsters (Josh Jones, Will Bowell, James Lidster, Chris Batty, Stuart Piner, Paul French and Andy Holden perhaps being few exceptions) and ideas of a birding apprenticeship seem sheer folly. Fieldcraft has gone by the by and good manners out the window. Respect for elders has been diminished and sites such as Birdforum just crass over golden days of birding and prized reputations, Everyone and everything is up for grabs and discussion.

Such desecration is not restricted to birding though with many hobbies and interests suffering in the modern era. Somehow we need to restore order and try and get birding respectful again. I will try and play my part but don't expect miracles to happen.

Lee G R Evans