Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Twitching. Again.

Yes, I went twitching again the other day. I went to see this beauty…

White-throated Robin - Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland

White-throated Robin - Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland

A 1st-summer female White-throated Robin (Irania gutturalis) at Hartlepool Headland, Cleveland. This is a mega rarity for the UK, and in fact for anywhere in Western Europe – its breeding range stretches from Turkey to Afghanistan, and it winters in eastern Africa. Yep, a mega rarity.

A lucky bird-ringer trapped and ringed the bird on the morning of Monday 6th June 2011, and after a initially thinking it was a Red-flanked Bluetail (a less-rare bird, but rare one nonetheless) he realised he was holding the birding equivalent of gold dust in his hand. There are only two previously accepted records in the British Isles – one on the Isle of Man (an area not covered by the ‘British List’) in 1983, and an untwitchable bird on Skokholm Island in 1990.

The news was released fast and the really (mad) keen twitchers were there by late morning, watching the bird as it fed on a municipal bowling green. Unfortunately, by the time most birders had finished work and got up to Hartlepool, the bird had retired to the garden of the local doctor’s house, no doubt for some peace and quiet. This particular garden was surrounded by a very high wall coated in anti-vandal paint. This wouldn’t stop you average hard-core twitcher though. Oh no. Here’s some footage of the scene from YouTube…

And here’s my favourite picture from the Birdforum thread about the bird. Being such a mad twitch, the press took quite an interest in the story. As usual, they didn’t get many of their facts right, but these articles in The Sun and The Daily Mail make for entertaining reading all the same.

With such a rare bird, and all that craziness going on, the decision for me to go and see it was no-brainer. And see it I did. By the time I arrived most of the fuss had died down, and the good doctor had generously opened his garden to allow viewing of the bird. I had a wonderful couple of hours sat on the flattest lawn ever, enjoying great views of this sprightly, long-tailed beauty. Here’s my own low-grade video of the robin:

Job done a super-rare tick, some banter with good-humoured twitchers and locals, and all with the minimum of fuss. But, why was I feeling so guilty?

The question, “Was it worth it?” was going round my head as I drive my passenger-less car back down the A1. “Of course it was worth it”, I thought – it was cracking bird. And it only stayed for five days and was gone before the weekend, so it was a good job I went when I did! But really, really, was it worth a total of four hours driving, using most of a tank of petrol (and the associated climate-changing effects of burning it), just to get that special tick on my list? Err… yes? Maybe? I don’t know. I did put £5 in the bucket at the doctor’s house, to aid the local bird group, but that hardly balances the £50 I spent on fuel.

If I’m honest - really honest - it’s not the harm I may be doing to the environment that makes me feel remorseful, although that’s bad enough. It’s those few stolen hours away from my family I feel the most guilt about. Just the other day my six-year-old daughter gave me a lovely Fathers’ Day card she’d made at school, complete with a generic poem urging dads everywhere to make the most of those early years, when their kids are young. “You’ll never get those years back” it said, “and you’ll feel really guilty if you spent any of that time twitching or watching football or jetting off to music festivals you selfish, heartless pig”. Okay, I made that last bit up, but you get my point. If the poem was intended to induce pangs of conscience in the dad reading it, it did its job. It reminded me of the time I spent twitching a Great Grey Shrike (a bird I’d seen before, and didn’t need for my list - I just wanted to show it to my friend) on the morning of my daughter’s 3rd birthday party. I got back in good time and everyone was happy, but thanks to that card a strong feeling of guilt has come back some three-and-half years later….

But, I’m not a complete rarity-obsessed monster. Honest. I’ve been doing plenty of non-twitching wildlife things recently, including things with my kids, which I hope redresses the balance in favour of responsible birding. In the past ten days alone I’ve helped with the monthly BTO WeBS count at Rodley Nature Reserve; done my own monthly WeBS survey on my section of the River Aire; written an article for my local bird group’s magazine; launched a new RSPB youth group for my local area; done my final site visit for this year’s Redshank Breeding Survey; taken my children to a local Springwatch event; and spent an evening in the rain listening to Nightjars at a traditional local site.

All that and I still feel guilty about the twitching.

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