Friday, 11 December 2009

Lists have a value

Many female readers may subscribe to the view that certain men (and I don’t want to generalise here) have a thing about lists. For some men this fascination with listing and cataloguing takes the form of a collection, perhaps of stamps or coins; in others the item being ‘listed’ or ‘collected’ is more ephemeral and one can include train-spotting or twitching within this particular form of listing. Twitching, for those who do not know, is an extreme form of birdwatching where the object is to see as many different birds as possible, keeping a list for a particular area (say Britain) or for a particular period (a year list or a life list).

Needless to say, there is an element of competition that comes from such listing and twitchers will often brag about the size of their list (assuming it is bigger than that of those to whom they are bragging)! While this competitive element can generate light-hearted banter among birdwatching friends, it can sometimes lead to angry scenes as birdwatchers jostle to view a particularly rare bird. Such behaviour gives birdwatching a bad name and is the main reason that I avoid large twitches.

As a birdwatcher with a much wider interest in natural history, I have never really been into keeping lists, at least not in the form of ‘collecting’ birds as if they were stamps or coins. I keep field notes, listing what I have seen when out and about, noting down the numbers of individuals involved and any interesting behaviour that I have been fortunate enough to witness. Such records are then fed into county bird reports, periodic surveys (such as the BTO’s Bird Atlas project – or into the articles and books that I write. Over the last few years, however, I have been transferring many of these records into site lists for BirdTrack – an online project that uses lists to monitor the arrival and departure patterns of migrants and the change in status of species over time (see for more information). To me, such projects greatly improve the value of my birdwatching, helping to underpin conservation efforts and support important scientific research.

I am always amazed by how few of the birdwatchers that I encounter at Norfolk’s nature reserves have notebooks into which they record sightings. I am equally disappointed when I do end up at a twitch by how little attention is given to the other birds that happen to be at the same site as something rare. Surely, these other birds are as important as something from the other side of the world that has turned up here by chance. Just think, if these ‘listers’ kept proper lists they’d get more from their birdwatching.

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