2 November 2004

A Guide to Birdwatching

OK, so this isn't going to be a full guide to birdwatching. Plenty of people more qualified than me have written those, and if you are really interested you would do well to take a trip to the local library, bookshop or even have a quick browse on the Internet.*

However, I would like to present a personal view of this absorbing hobby, if only to help make the rest of The Hornet's Nest slightly less incomprehensible to non-birding visitors. A quick visit to my glossary of birding terms might also help!

What is Birdwatching?

Perhaps the first thing I should make clear is that 'birding' and 'birdwatching' are largely interchangeable terms.

If that is so, you might ask, why do you prefer to call yourselves birders rather than birdwatchers? Well, that's a good question, and to be honest we just think it sounds cooler. Sad but true.

The second thing I should make clear (and probably most important of all) is that 'birding' and 'twitching' are not the same thing at all.

Birding (birdwatching) is a catch-all phrase that refers to anybody whose hobby is watching birds, whether for pleasure, to draw, as an amateur contributor to natural history surveys and so on. Twitching on the other hand refers to the practice of chasing rare birds in order to build as big a list of sightings as possible.

Twitchers are driven creatures, often travelling hundreds if not thousands of miles to ensure they see every rare birds that turns up on our shores. I am not a twitcher (although I might go on the occasional local twitch if a rare bird turns up close to home) but I do recognise that it is a perfectly valid hobby for those that like that sort of thing. The only thing I ask is please don't call me a twitcher!

Remember the golden rule - all twitchers are birders, but only a minority of birders are twitchers.

Birding Types

So, that leaves one question. If birders don't twitch, what do they do?

Well, this is a hugely varied hobby, with many different approaches. As an overview, here are a few different types of activity that fall within the catch-all of 'birder'.

1. Garden birder - Perhaps where the majority of birders start, watching the birds in their own back gardens. It might sound a trifle dull, but if you put a bit of time in, plant a few of the right plants and put out a bit of food you might be surprised what turns up. When I get the chance I'll tot up my own garden list to prove my point.

2. Patch birder - someone who closely studies one area of land, often close to their home. This allows them to become familiar with the changing nature of their patch over the year, hopefully becoming something of an expert on that area. However, no matter how good your local patch is, there are always other temptations nearby, and that may lead you on to becoming a...

3. County birder - or someone who puts most of their efforts into studying the birdlife of the county (the UK equivalent of a US State). This can be most rewarding, since it blends good local knowledge with reasonably wide area in which to operate.

4. Trip birder - most of us want to see birds further away than our own county, particularly if there are habitats and types of birds we can't find locally. I live in a landlocked county for example, so if I want to see sea birds then I have to head for the coast. Similarly if I want to see the birds of mountains, moorland or northern coniferous forest. The UK, like most countries, is awash with places of great beauty and majesty - birding is one of the best ways to visit them.

5. Artist / photographic birder - many birders are principally there for the aethetic beauty of the birds, and who could blame them. Many of us dabble in photography or drawing as a complement to our core birding activities, but when you find a real artist or photographer birder you quickly come to realise how much talent and dedication it requires to become a specialist in those fields.

6. Scientific birder - many birders contribute in one way or another to scientific work, whether through close study of bird behaviour (leaning towards ornithology) or through helping carry out surveys of bird populations, whether breeding, wintering or migrating. Birds are a fantastic indicator of the health of any environment, so this work is critical to understanding how our environment is faring.

However, there are probably as many different types of birder as there are birders in the world.

Most of us are a combination of many if not all of the above types - I try to focus on my patch, contribute to bird surveys, get around the county a bit, travel further afield a few times a year, and take photographs and sketch much of what I see.


So there are many different types of birder, and many many different areas a good introduction needs to cover. Out there is a world of primaries and secondaries (feathers), bins and scopes (optics), LBJs and juvs, waders, raptors, treeps and groppers. Twitchers are getting gripped off every day, and dudes derided wherever they go (you might want to take that trip to the glossary of terms now, if you feel up to it.)

The point is that behind this seemingly incomprensible world of jargon is one simple truth. What we do is far more important than what we are called.

At its most basic, birding is simply about being outdoors, feeling connected to nature and loving the world around you. And that is plenty good enough for me.

*As a proper introduction to birding, I would recommend tracking down a secondhand copy of the RSPB Guide to Birdwatching by Peter Conder. Although now sadly out of print, it is fairly easy to find, and is by some considerable margin the best introduction I have found to the hobby.

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