I love birds. And butterflies. And dragonflies. And reptiles. And amphibians. And wild flowers. I keep records of the species I have seen, and am as excited as anybody when I see a new species for the first time. Lots of people do this. They go round collecting lists of things they have seen, some travelling long distances to get a “tick” on their list.
But I’m not a birder, twitcher or any other kind of highly-travelled collector of “ticks”. My approach to wildlife watching is different.
Years ago, I would get in the car and set off whenever there was a report that a certain butterfly had emerged in a particular location, and head off to well-known bird-watching haunts to see species I had not seen before and were known to be there. But I found this very unsatisfying. There was no real connection with the creature I was viewing, no really deep understanding of this creature and its relationship to other species within the ecosystem in which it lived. Likewise, I found wildlife-watching holidays, in which we were conveyed round in groups to look at wildlife for a brief moment before moving on to the next location to be rather empty. So I’d seen bee-eaters, or flamingos, or hoopoes – so what? How much did I really know about the habitat in which they lived, and why they were there, and what pressures they face, and how they behave, and what interactions they have with other creatures in the local area? Not a lot, really.
Also, I have a weakness when it comes to being a birder, or other type of “collector” in that I actually like watching all birds, all butterflies, all dragonflies, all wildflowers. They are all fascinating, common or rare, frequently seen or rarely viewed. I find it endlessly fascinating to watch common little brown birds, just as I find it fascinating to watch a rare species. I love to watch how they behave, how they interact, what they feed on, where they nest, and how they fit in with the other species in the habitat in which they live. A knowledge of, appreciation for, and enthusiasm for collecting rarities on a list can be a wonderful way of getting people involved in nature-watching, and protecting our diminishing wild places, but it isn’t the way I like to enjoy nature.
For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is in knowing the habitat well, something that gives each sighting of a different species some meaning and context. Obviously owning a woodland is a wonderful thing, and allows me to form a close and deep connection with the land, the trees, the plants, the insects, the birds, the bats and all the other creatures that choose to live there. New species are exciting, not just because they are new, but because they represent the fact that the ecosystem can support them. They are there because they want to be there, because the conditions are right for them to be there.
I also like wildlife watching whenever I travel elsewhere for business or pleasure. Wherever I may fetch up, I like to watch what wildlife is there, and what it is doing. I like to travel to nice places with diverse ecosystems, and enjoy walking in other woodlands, countryside, hills and valleys. But nature-watching isn’t only about going somewhere that you know is going to be populated by spectacular wildlife. It is about learning what you can about the local habitat and then seeing what is there in context.
This year we went to Doncaster for our business. We stayed in a hotel in a very ordinary edge-of-town retail and leisure development. And yet there was great wildlife there. Early purple orchids by the edge of the ornamental lake. Long-tailed tits in groups flitting through the young amenity trees by the chain restaurant in which we dined. Pied wagtails in the hotel grounds. Wildflowers growing in profusion in the as-yet-undeveloped areas around the edge of the development.
It didn’t matter that the wildflowers and birds were common. What mattered was learning about, and enjoying, what the habitat had to offer, even a very “ordinary” urban-edge habitat on a brownfield site.
In short, I like to learn about whatever ecosystem I find myself in has to offer. I am sure that some “tick-collectors” like to do this too, but my experience is that quite a few do not – the tick matters more than anything else. Maybe at heart I am an ecologist, rather than a birdwatcher, butterfly-watcher, bat-fanatic or anything else. For me, the pleasure of nature-watching is about taking the pulse of the land and becoming part of it, so you can understand it in depth, and appreciate everything that is there, from the common to the rare, the plain to the flamboyant and the drab to the colourful. There is so much all around us all the time and that is what makes being a nature-watcher so exciting – provided you don’t mind your birds being small and brown, your butterflies being white, and your amphibians being common. I don’t. I enjoy watching them all.