I have just returned from a few days in the north-west of England. I'll be blogging about it in the usual place sooner or later. The main thing I did up there was fail to see Mountain Hares at Dove Stone. However, I also mixed it up a bit by failing to see a Sabine's Gull at Pennington Flash, and this hurt a lot more than the hares. The hares were there, hopefully they will always be there, and I just didn't work hard enough to find them. (In my defence, it was raining. I know that's a pretty lame excuse but it's all I have.) But the gull, that was different.
This is how it went. Up-North friend Hazel said, a week or so before my trip, 'Ooooh, there's a Sabine's Gull at Pennington Flash, we could go and see that if it's still there when you come.' I replied along the lines of that would be lovely, but chances are it won't be <waffle about Sabine's Gull migratory behaviour>. But it carried on being there as the days ticked by. The day before I was to travel (Sunday), posts on the Manchester Birding forum enthused mightily about how it was showing better than ever, how great it looked in its adult breeding plumage, what an incredibly obliging bird it was, and I started to feel IT.
You know what I mean by IT. That slow-brewing emotional cocktail of excitement, hope, fear and above all finger-gnawing impatience - the twitch. I wanted that gull. I emailed Hazel and we arranged to go straight to Pennington after she picked me up at Macclesfield station at lunchtime on Monday. About 10 minutes before my train got to Macc, I risked blowing my data allowance by checking the Manchester Birding forum, and there was one new post on the Pennington Flash thread. It said, 'No sign of the Sabine's Gull so far today.'
I felt the other IT then. Not the twitch, the crush (and not the good kind of crush, of which more later). The bloody bastarding bird had gone. I was one day late. All the nervous excitement of the twitch turned to stone in my heart (or possibly adrenal glands). I should have been feeling pleased that this lovely Arctic gull had got over whatever ailment or psychological issue had sent it inland to sit by a Greater Manchester reservoir for a fortnight, when it should have been cruising southwards miles out at sea. But I didn't. I felt fed up, and personally aggrieved. Why didn't it just wait one more day, so that I could see it? Never mind all the many other birders who had seen it and whose days were much brightened by its beauty. What about me? ME ME ME ME ME ME!
And THAT'S why twitching is a bad thing. Great if you see the bird, but if you don't, it brings out the not-so-great side of human nature. Of course we went to the flash anyway, and it wasn't there, and I put a brave face on things (despite also dipping Willow Tit there, dammit!).
A short history of my twitching career. Back in the early 1990s, I joined the Sheffield University Birders' Club, what with me being a student of Sheffield University, and a birder. It was quite a shock to my system, after an adolescence almost completely devoid of fellow-birder contact, to suddenly find myself doing pub quizzes with a dozen young male birders who were, mostly, even keener than I was. I immediately developed overwhelming crushes (the good kind) on most of them, though none progressed beyond yearning glances over pint glasses of snakebite and black or whatever horrible abomination I was drinking at the time. Actually, make those furtive yearning glances, as I had a boyfriend, and he was also a member of the birding club. Boyfriend was not a mad-keen birder like the rest of us, BUT crucially he had a car. This meant that we often got phone calls from other club members, asking about doing a trip to Merseyside or Cumbria or Norfolk or wherever to twitch something.
This is why my life-list has on it a few early 1990s megas, like Semipalmated Sandpiper and Song Sparrow. But the twitch I remember most from that era was when we went for the Red-throated Thrush at Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex. We drove down at the crack of dawn on the morning after the day it was last seen, and spent several depressing hours with a few dozen other grumpy birders, all crushed under the crush (bad kind) that turns lovely nature-loving people into self-obsessed, self-pitying gloom monsters. The best moment of the trip was when Phil (one of our group, and one of my crush-subjects) thought he saw something promising on the other side of a fence and attempted to hurdle said fence with scope on fully spread tripod. The resultant cartwheel would have earned us a grand on 'You've been framed' if any of us had had the wit (and equipment) to film it. My crush on him only deepened after that (I do love a geek, especially a clumsy geek).
So after uni I hardly twitched anything, ever again. Twitching ALWAYS means the chance of dipping and when I dip I (briefly) become someone I don't like.Consequently my British List is very short and has some embarrassing holes - it's not exactly something that I can wear with pride and dignity. Other birders often express incredulity that I didn't go for some of the local-ish megas of recent years - the Short-toed Eagle being a notable example, but I just can't put myself through it any more. However, the twitch is powerful and when circumstances conspire to make twitching - or at least getting to the site of the twitch - very easy, and especially if there is a chance of a) good photos of the target bird or b) photos of other interesting wildlife in the area or c) both a and b, I can still get drawn in. At least these days the dip is only costly in terms of emotional distress. And I can feel good about saving money and the planet by avoiding impromptu 300-mile trips to here, there and everywhere.
Anyway, I'm over it now. Good luck to you, Sabine's Gull, I hope you're back out at sea and heading south (and were not eaten by a Pike, as some of the Manc birders have speculated). And there's only one photo that I can use to illustrate this post. Actually there are lots of photos, because this bird did not elude me, in fact it put on the best show I've ever had from its species. I give you Cinclus cinclus, demonstrating that there is a good kind of dipping.