By Jack Ashby, on 30 June 2011
Natural history has always been a field largely populated by amateurs. This is one of its biggest strengths. Without the passion and interest of millions of people worldwide it would be very hard to get anything done – both politically and financially. And by referring to people as amateurs I’m certainly not suggesting that they can’t also be experts.
Hard-core natural historians regularly fall into one of three groups – birders, mammal-tickers and herpos (those obsessed with reptiles and amphibians). A common trend among them (though not true of all members of each group) is the desire to “tick off” as many species as they can, and create a nice long list of everything they have seen.
In the UK, we have relatively few herpos because of our paltry six species of reptile, though these tend to be the most extreme and quirky characters. I know of one who has different classes of “tick”. In ascending order of value: whether he has seen it dead, seen it wild and living, trapped it, photographed it, wrangled it (a term used by herpos for handling), been bitten by it and finally whether he has eaten it.
Mammal-tickers certainly have their eccentricities. I spent several days winning the trust of the wolf-watchers of Yellowstone, and they only let me in because I’m a zoologist. There are about 30 of them who spend weeks or months each year camped out on the American plains following the handful of wolves that live in Yellowstone. Only one of them (they treat him like a king – he has the radio tracking receiver) is collecting data for science. In order to stop any tourists listening in and finding the wolves they have learned to speak Navajo over the CB radio and, on top of this, refer to each of their locations in code.
The most common breed is certainly the birder, which is also the group most comprehensively composed of amateurs. This is undoubtedly because birds are everywhere, there are loads of species and without much effort one can achieve a nice long list in a single day, just by sitting in one spot. Birding, most birders will be quick to tell you, is not the same as twitching. Twitchers are birders who get a tip-off about the location of a particularly unusual bird, or a bird well outside its usual range, and travel huge distances just to glimpse it and then go home again. It can be quite an esoteric practice. I know birders who have seen thousands of American robins in America, where they are common and boring, but when one popped up in London then traveled the length of the country to see it here.
Being a mammal fan (a much harder pursuit because most mammals don’t fly, are nocturnal (at least in Australia where I do most of my ticking) and generally mouse-sized) I rarely get the chance to spend much time alone with hard-core birders. However, last week I found myself at Broome Bird Observatory (BBO) in tropical Western Australia. This fantastic sanctuary is composed of very dry coastal forest, huge mudflats and some mangroves. I’m not sure if such species need an administrative centre, but the BBO claims to be “Australia’s Shorebird Capital”.
I was at the BBO for a bit of a break after the intensities of mammal-trapping before I flew home. Rather than concentrating on the birds, I had a reliable tip that I could see Australian snub-fin dolphins there. On arrival, though, I was asked to join a cannon-netting session to trap and ring some birds. I was pleased to join in, and on the day we were joined by about 30 keen birders (professional and amateur).
Cannon-netting is when a net is fired by cannons (for which no artillery license is required) over a load of birds standing on the shore. They are then put in containers where they await processing – ringing with a unique combination of plastic leg-rings and having some blood and measurements taken. Once ringed they can be identified at a distance and data are collected by birders as they migrate across the globe.
I’ve never been involved in a military operation, but I now have a good sense of what one is like. As one of the few people under 50, I was one of the sprinters who, once the cannon fired, would run and lift any part of the net that was in the sea and shuffle it forward. Speed was required as any birds caught over the water may drown. The sprinters had to get as close to the cannons as possible without being visible from the beach. It felt like trench warfare. We, crouched as low as conceivable so as not to break the horizon and weaved and ducked through gullies and dunes to get into position for the attack.
Our leader, perched in a hidden scouting post controlled the troops by radio. Some of the birding soldiers had the job of carefully herding the birds down the beach, into the firing line. This role has the ridiculous name of “Twinkling”. It’s a sensitive maneuver as at no point can the birds take flight so the twinkling must be so gentle that the birds stay walking. From our hidden trench the radio crackled with whispered instructions as the twinklers were choreographed. After nearly two hours we heard that about 200 birds were in the net’s target area, and the count-down begun.
Three… Two… One…
…Nothing. There was a silent pause, then we saw 200 birds fly over head. Two birds of prey had flown over at that exact moment and they all spooked.