I recently had my sanity called into question. And in true ‘Catch 22’ style, it was me that had reason to query it. The reason for such personal uncertainty was my overly competitive response to a colleague having told me he had just seen a Smew (for anyone wondering, an uncommon but beautiful duck). My jealousy was not reserved for him out of personal dislike. Nor was it due to the extraordinarily striking bird, which I have seen previously. Indeed, I would have been equally envious had it been any number of other species. What drove me to such disdain was that he had seen it this year, and I had not!
Before you label me a petty and childish fool, please read on as I attempt to dig myself from the self-inflicted pit of misery that I currently inhabit! You see, in 2010, I am ‘year listing’. Year listing is a birdwatcher’s checklist of all the species of bird he or she has seen in the entire calendar year. Most birders (what we generally call ourselves!) have one list or another; life (or world) lists for everything you’ve ever seen, garden lists for those species you’ve identified on (or from) your property, a UK list for birds seen within our national boundaries, or county lists for those more local still. We keep a ‘Roseland’ list for everything we have found on ‘our patch’. For many birders the patch list is the most important one, as it usually represents those species that you have found yourself, and correctly identified. For many birders, this is the most rewarding and satisfying aspect of our addiction.
I do not use this term lightly, as there are people for who this obsession becomes dominantover and above everything else. I have read several excellent books about Listers*, and the recurring theme seems to be that, at its most extreme end, the pursuit of new species (‘lifers’) has been responsible for marriage break ups, family hardship, job losses and bankruptcy. Why would anyone put themselves, or those they love, through such an ordeal? What is it that drives someone to the far ends of the earth in search of birds? Without going into a lot of detail, or plagiarising much of the excellent literature available on the subject, I simply can not answer that.
Instead, I can try again to explain how I found myself in the shameful position of ‘list envy’ that I’ve now grown accustomed to. I was invited to take part in a year listing competition by two friends. These are fellow RSPB employees, and, like me, they gain pleasure from seeing a variety of avian fauna. In order to improve their knowledge, and encourage themselves to venture into the great outdoors more frequently, they have taken on this challenge. As a bonus, a bit of witty banter and friendly rivalry has been passed among us. But what started as a small and select band of amateur enthusiasts has grown exponentially into a feverish mass of birding knowledge, with more and more competitors flooding in. We now have a huge range of abilities taking part, from ‘newly fledged’ to ‘experienced’, and it is hard not to feel left behind by some of the more serious birders taking part. I have even had other birders tell me that they’ve heard on the birding grapevine that I’m year listing! Where previously my motivations were personal, now the competitive spirit has been awakened.
Ultimately I think it is this competitiveness that drives me, my colleagues, and the listers mentioned above, to such extremes. In some cases this can be detrimental, but in others it can be controlled and focussed in positive ways. For example, in order to maintain parity with my friends, I now carry my binoculars with me more frequently, and have taken the time to go for more walks than I otherwise would have done. Equally, by knowing what other people have seen, I have studied these species to be sure that I could identify them if I were to stumble across them myself. I now know that a cattle egret has a shorter bill than a little egret, and that the bill is yellow instead of black – a useful fact to know when I saw them side-by-side recently! Despite my colleagues and I being in direct competition, I have also ‘shared’ a number of birds with them, which one or other of us would not have seen had the other ‘suppressed’ the sighting. A male Garganey (a small duck, unusual to see in winter) and a beautiful Short-Eared Owl were two recent highlights – added to both the year list and to our ‘Roseland’ list!
Therefore, I make no apologies for my strange obsession. It has, at its worst, resulted in me being slightly too competitive. However, at its best, it has caused me to expand my knowledge, to help others develop theirs, to get out into our beautiful countryside, to keep fit, and to follow a rewarding career path where I truly feel happy to get up to work every day. If I manage to see something new for the list then so much the better!
*I’ve enjoyed several books about listing, but the three below stand out:
‘To See Every Bird On Earth’, by Dan Koeppel, depicts the reality of living with a world lister. Dan’s father, Richard, has seen over 7,000 of the 10,000 known species of birds on our planet. In doing so, he pushed his son away, ruined his marriage, and damaged his career. Ultimately this book is about understanding the obsession and learning to live with it.
In ‘Around the World with 1000 birds’, Russell Boyman narrates his own mid-life crisis, and how he escaped it by birding. In the midst of a stressful job, with failing relationships, he decided to pack it all in and spend months travelling in search of 1000 species of bird. This is less obsessive and more escapist, as the target is actually quite modest, but it was a personal challenge he felt he needed to reach.
Personal challenges do not come much bigger than ‘The Big Year’, by Mark Obmascik. A ‘Big Year’ is a year list in North America. Mark Obmascik tells the story of three men who attempted this challenge in 1998. Each had their own style, each followed their own path, and each one knew they faced stiff competition from the other two. A series of fortuitous circumstances, including an El Nino climate event, and galvanised by the hunger of the three men, culminated in the greatest ‘Big Year’ of all time, and set a target that may never be beaten again.