On Lists – by David Higgins

Esquimaux Curlew (Numenius Borealis) by Henry Eeles Dresser – Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The Eskimo Curlew is a small wading bird, similar in appearance to the Eurasian Curlew but around half the size. It has longish legs, a mottled brown body, and the familiar long beak: “for poking”, as my young son puts it. To describe the bird in the present tense may be misleading. Once abundant in North America, its population crashed in the late nineteenth century due largely to mass slaughter by hunters. Homo sapiens has never needed much of an excuse for wiping out other species; the Eskimo Curlew seems to have suffered for being too damn tasty, especially just before southern migration. According to a contemporary account, “they are frequently so fat that when they strike the ground after being shot flying the skin bursts, exposing a much thicker layer of fat than is usually seen in other birds”; they were sometimes known as “Doughbirds”. The last confirmed sighting was on Barbados in 1963 (the bird was shot, of course), although there have been several plausible later sightings. The British Ornithologists’ Union accepts four British records for the bird. The most recent is from 1887.

I first encountered the Eskimo Curlew through an app on my phone, which I began to use in 2019 to record birds that I’ve seen. Whenever you make a new entry, you are presented with a checklist of “Birds of the United Kingdom”. The Eskimo Curlew nestles comfortably between Eleonora’s Falcon and Evening Grosbeak. It is unlikely that I will see either of those two species in the UK, as they are normally to be found (respectively) on Mediterranean islands and in North American forests, but at least they are known still to be in existence. It can be a fiddly to navigate through such a long list as I record more mundane species – “Blue Tit: Yes”; “Blue-cheeked Bee-eater: Probably not” – but I get to experience the promise and the glamour of exotic-sounding names. I don’t know what a “Bobolink” looks like, but I imagine it as a kind of flying monkey.

Despite its inclusion of many species that I am unlikely ever to encounter, the app makes it easy to keep records by date and place. It tells me on the ‘Summary’ page that today I have seen nothing: it is 4.30am and, if I kept records of “Heard Only”, I could tick blackbird. I have seen 54 species this week, 64 this month, and 125 this year, compared to my personal record of 186 last year. My life total stands at 191, although this figure does not include species seen before 2019. I can also get more detailed information with a few taps; for example, bringing up a list of the 66 species seen this April, during which I did all my birding on foot from my house due to the COVID-19 lockdown.   

Bird List App

None of these numbers would impress a hardcore birder. My partner’s father, to whom I owe many of my sightings, has seen 300 UK species in a single year and his world list stands at nearly 6000. I still consider myself a relative novice; the limit of my ambition is seeing 200 UK species in a year. I have neither the time, the money, nor the inclination to travel halfway across the country, let alone the world, to tick a rarity; that is, I consider myself more a birdwatcher than a twitcher. The distinction, though, is rather like that between tourist and traveller: a matter of perspective. I compiled a year list for the first time in 2016. Before then, I could only have identified the most common species and could hardly have distinguished between a crow and a rook, or a great tit and a coal tit. I have improved, but I still struggle at times. Gulls, waders, and raptors are particularly challenging. I can only look with envy at those birders on social media who, during lockdown, have been able confidently to identify distant ospreys, hobbies, and rough-legged buzzards from the confines of their houses. 

I don’t list every day, but I do whenever I go anywhere interesting. I keep a careful eye on my month list and have a garden list and a local walking list. Due to work and family, my birding opportunities are limited; and the lockdown means that I have yet to find some of the species that I would hope to encounter in spring. That I have yet to see or hear a cuckoo bothers me more than I feel it should. It seems shameful and selfish to worry about something so insignificant as the world lurches from crisis to crisis. And yet my rising anxiety about events largely outside my control only intensifies my desire to encounter birds. 

I hope that those encounters remain more important to me than getting ticks, but it would be disingenuous to think of the list merely as a record of what I have seen. It has more power than that. It gives me an incentive to get up at 4am to try to find the local tawny owl. It generates additional excitement when I spy a herring gull calling high above at the end of the month, or a solitary rook on a neighbour’s roof for the garden list, or my first ever ring ouzel just a few feet away on Barden Moor. It takes me to beautiful, calming places. Perhaps I won’t find the rarity that I seek, but I am certain to see something: a swarm of house martins preparing to fly across the Channel; a family of willow warblers frolicking around a hawthorn; a song thrush bouncing a snail off a rock.

Ring Ouzel, Bank Top
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Pauline E – geograph.org.uk/p/4451657

If there is poetry in lists, there is also politics. The connections between Western colonialism, imperialism, racism, and the development of natural history as a discipline are well documented. Birding has a diversity problem, and is still largely (although not exclusively) a hobby followed by middle-class white men like me. There is an odd and not entirely salubrious pleasure in the power and control that taxonomizing provides. There is also self-aggrandisement: birdwatchers can be highly competitive. Sometimes listing can feel like a computer game in which I need to collect ticks to level up. Perhaps when I hit 200 species for the year, I will no longer fear saying something idiotic whenever I enter a hide.    

‘If there is poetry in lists, there is also politics.’

Naming another species can be an exercise in domination. As nature writers going back to Charlotte Smith and John Clare have known, it can also be an act of recognition, even of love. By identifying a bird, I am saying to it, to myself, to anyone, that it matters. Despite the havoc that humanity has wreaked, the birds are still out there, still not entirely comprehensible. Their combination of fragility and resilience perplexes me. We all know the dreadful, ongoing stories of decline and extinction. And yet, two hundred and fifty years after Gilbert White excitedly noted the arrival of swifts, swallows, and other migrants in his naturalist’s journal, I and many others are doing the same. I dare not imagine the state of things after another century or two, and I fear that even the next generation will inherit an overheated and drastically denuded planet. But in my more hopeful moments, however fanciful they are, I like to think of my son as a boring middle-aged man who has little better to do than stare at birds.

Manuscript of The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Rob Farrow – geograph.org.uk/p/4521228

by David Higgins, May 2020

Author’s Note

My main source of information on the Eskimo Curlew is Tim Melling, ‘The Eskimo Curlew in Britain’, British Birds 103 (February 2010), 80-92 (https://www.britishbirds.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/V103_N02_P080–092_A.pdf). For a valuable recent article on the lack of diversity in the UK birding community, see Sorrel Lyall, ‘Birding in the UK: Where Are the People Like Me?’ on the Rare Bird Alert website (https://www.rarebirdalert.co.uk/v2/Content/Birding_in_the_UK_Where_Are_the_PeopleLikeMe.aspx?s_id=558059018).

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