When more than 1,500 people descended on a Devon coastal spot last weekend it was to catch a glimpse of a seabird that is more typically seen in parts of Asia. Birdwatchers are a force to be reckoned with, but don't call them "twitchers".
By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Like a flock descending unexpectedly from the skies, they appear in their thousands in out-of-the-way places, identifiable by long lenses, green-rainwear plumage and a steely determination to tick a name off a list.
Howard Vaughan has been birdwatching since he was five
The birdwatchers are in the news again, after descending on the seaside village of Dawlish in Devon, where a long-billed murrelet had been spotted for the first time in Britain.
Some travelled from as far as Durham and Manchester - an awfully long trip just to spy a feathered creature that, on a murky day, might be mistaken by a non-expert for a sea gull.
"It's an amazing adrenaline rush. It's a bird you might have thought you'd never see. It's the sense of the rarity," says Howard Vaughan, who has been birdwatching since he was five years old.
Mr Vaughan works at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' latest venture - a wetland habitat at Rainham Marshes in Essex, reclaimed from the Ministry of Defence and officially opened this week. It shouldn't be a surprise that when his mobile rings, it plays a recording of nightingale song.
But for starters, let's get the language right. Birdwatchers are not "twitchers", they're "birders". And there's much more to their lifestyle and natural habitat that isn't immediate visible.
How do the birders all know to turn up at remote corners to look at a rare sighting?
Rainham Marshes is a new birdwatching centre in Essex
They use pagers. Dedicated birders use messaging services about where and when birds are appearing - and for the super-league of spotters, this can mean scrambling like fighter pilots to get to the destination first.
This doesn't necessarily mean battered Ford Fiestas or bus passes. A wealthy elite would think nothing of hiring a helicopter to get to the other end of the country before the bird disappears.
As with train-spotting or stamp-collecting, this is the obsessive male collecting gene (and it is a predominantly male hobby) in action.
Mr Vaughan says that he once travelled to the Orkneys on a day-trip to try to catch sight of a rare feathered visitor.
The battleground for this competitive side of birdwatching is the "list" - which is the catalogue of all the birds that someone has seen. Experienced birders could have more than 400 different types of bird on their lists.
'Tick and run brigade'
Such is the urgency for collecting more names, that Mr Vaughan talks of the "tick and run brigade" - those who spot the bird, tick the list and barely stop to eat their sandwiches.
There were 290,000 birdwatchers looking for ospreys last year
"We've had people who have driven down from Northumberland, spent 15 minutes here, got back in the car and driven home. They didn't even walk around the site."
There is no "list police"; no way of verifying whether someone really has glimpsed all the creatures they claim. Although anyone suspected of over-stating their "conquests" is known in the trade as a "stringer".
Anyone who travels to see a bird which refuses to show itself, has been "dipping". Mr Vaughan once spent a fruitless eight hours, waiting for a "no show".
But walking around Rainham Marshes, it's hard not to be impressed by Howard Vaughan's passion for his subject, and his ability to spot them at a distance like they were old friends.
When he points out a kestrel, I can make out its elegant lines clearly enough. But when he starts reeling off the birds on a stretch of marshy water, they look like a blur of wings and feathers.
How does he tell them apart? He says he has a sort of sixth-sense that tunes into not just shape and colour, but the way birds move and their behaviour. "It's almost instinctive," he says.
Thousands of "drop-everything" birders saw this rare murrelet
And this also means tuning into changes - and seeing the evidence of climate change. Little egrets, once a rarity, are "here every day now. It must be to do with the weather, there's no way round it".
This new reserve, a patch of green against a gritty industrial background, is a sign of the level of interest among birders. Mr Vaughan says that there were 11,000 people visiting the site before it had even officially opened.
It's certainly a popular hobby, with the RSPB estimating there are three million birdwatchers.
It's also a serious business proposition. Ian Dickie, senior economist at the RSPB, says 290,000 people travelled to see ospreys last year, spending £3.5m. Birdwatchers looking for the white-tailed eagle spent £1.5m.
And he points to trends such as the growth of short-break holidays for birdwatchers.
The 'wow' factor
But it's not all optimistic news. There's always one fishpaste in the sandwich selection.
Egrets are now becoming familiar creatures in the Thames area
At 34, Mr Vaughan belies the image of the retired, time-to-burn birdwatcher. And he sees "worrying signs" of a lack of younger enthusiasts.
In his formative days there were bird-spotting clubs for children, he says. But now there are few adult volunteers willing to run such groups and young people are not getting a chance to have such outdoor experiences.
What are they missing?
"There are those moments... like it's 5am and you're listening to a dawn chorus and it feels like you've got it all to yourself.
"Or you might have got up really early and been waiting for hours and then 40,000 birds fly overhead together. You get that same kick that means you just say 'wow' and start to laugh."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Sad though it is, is it any wonder that the young shun the hobbies you name - they are too 'uncool' and doubtless belong to a gentler era. As for older enthusiasts involving themselves with younger groups in the hobby - who would dare?
John Patston, Northam, Devon
Oh Dear, How sad why not leave the poor creatures alone. I mean the birds.
Brock Wood, Haywards Heath, West Sussex
I've been birding for nearly 20 years, since I was 5 or 6. I'm not one of those that drop everything and travel miles to tick off a bird. We DO call this species of birder 'Twitchers'. I do keep a list though, but I delight in seeing birds in their natural environment, whether it's the first time I have seen them, or the 1000th time.
I have 15/20 group of parrots in stanmore reguarly for some 4/5 months it seems they are now part of our wildlife.
I once pointed out to a fervent twitcher that the rarest birds were, by definition, in evolutionary terms, the least successful and arguably the least worthy of study. The blank expression on his face told me that cooling my porridge was a better use for my breath.
Kip, Norwich UK
Hard to explain but I get a thrill from seeing the same two pairs of gadwalls appear every winter into spring on the stretch of Thames where I live. Just the fact that their habits are so consistent and to see them as they really exist, not cooped up in a cage is enough for me. Oh yes, I have also seen a peregrine falcon hunt and kill its prey right outside my window. fantastic!
Kerry Dignan, London - UK
Real "birders" are both male and female, have a passion for birds but probably enjoy wildlife in general, do not chase around like maniacs collecting "ticks" and appreciate the peace and tranquility of the countryside rather than moving in packs of thousands. Those described in the article are I'm afraid twitchers - I know the difference as I am a birder and once suffered the horror of the twitchers when a rare bird was sighted near my home and the area became a battlezone
I'm sorry too; if you really need to ask why watch, then you have no imagination. Quite simply no explanation is necessary or deserved
les leeds, chelmsford
Before a trip to New Zealand, birds were to me just flying objects which went "tweet". It was in that country where the population is smaller and the birds consequently less nervous, that I started a love for watching our feathered friends. And it has persisted back in this country, to the extent that I was one of those 290,000 last year looking for opsreys. I hope I don't sound like a stringer (most of those terms are new to me) when I say that I photographed one coming out of the water with a large fish... and then accidentally reformatted my new digital camera, thereby losing the pictures. I shall always regret that, but still retain the thrill of seeing this magnificent creature no further than 50 metres away.
Alex, Edinburgh, Scotland
I'm not a "Birder" but fail to see the point in disdaining or ridiculing this delightful hobby as some people do. Ornithology involves respect for nature, fresh air, and exercise. It is non-violent, unlikely to result in an ASBO, and perhaps with some exceptions is a social activity. Given the alternatives (standing on street corners in "hoodies' terrorising the local OAPs) Birding should be encouraged rather than disparaged.
Tony T, Kansas City, MO, USA (ex-London)
Nice try but again a non-birder gets the terminology wrong. The 1500 people who went to see the murrelet absolutely were twitchers. That's what the word means: they hear of a rare bird and twitch. It's those of us who prefer to just enjoy what's around who object to being termed twitchers.
Michael Daw, Washington DC, USA
I do love the rush of seeing a species of bird that I have not seen before but I am also distintly female. I think the difference is that a bird spotting trip to an area is one thing, to go running all over the country on the chances that a rare bird will still be there when you get there is another. But I do love it when the rare bird and I happen to coincide.
Pauline Fearn, Herne Bay
I got into this hobby when I read on the BBC website about the decline of well known species like the House Sparrow. I decided to try and help, and have visibly grown the bird population around my garden in just a few months. In all I have seen about 30 species from my suburban garden, everything from a wren to a grey heron. I have been amazed by the variety of visitors. More people should take an active interest in this rewarding pastime.
Mat Dolphin, Solihull, UK
I can't name many at sight - thats not the point for me at all. I watch birds because they are beautiful, not existent by some chance but an amazing part of God's creation.
Dominic, Teddington UK
With so many different and interesting twitchers now around I am seriously considering becoming a Twitcher watcher!
My Son got into birding aged 8, with no encouragement from me, For the last 4 years my weekends have been taken up with driving him around the south of england in search of that elusive 1st sighting,and ticking off his life list, Obsessed would be too mild a describtion. So if you happen to see a bewildered dad carring a large spotter scope, a large pair of binoculars,telescopic lens and camera, have pity on me
Gordon, Sutton, Surrey
It was so strange to see pictures of Egrets in Britian...I just took some pictures of Egrets roosting at sunset on a tree in Ft.Lauderdale,Florida. I started snapping just before the sun set and within the 15 minute period of time they all flew in to roost, covering the tree like white blossoms. At sunset they were all profiled by the setting sun...really awesome!
Twitching is harmless and keeps them out of harms way. A sort of "care in the community" type project if you like.
John Harworth, Newcastle Upon Tyne
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