The dark side of birding

When I looked into those glazed eyes, I could tell I had lost him. He was no longer listening. With a sense of dread, I realised I couldn't reach him. Couldn't stop him. He was going to carry on, no matter what I said. And the birds that I have worked tirelessly to protect were going to suffer for it.


I never really counted myself as a 'birder' in the traditional sense, despite working for a bird conservation charity. Partly because I am a young (ish!) woman, when the stereotypical birder is old, white men, with top of the range binoculars. But mostly because I am too easily delighted. I can watch what may be deemed common and therefore boring birds, like crows and pigeons, and be completely engrossed. I do not need to see something rare to get my birding 'fix'.


This is something that used to concern me. A shameful secret I used to hide early on in my career. I was often surrounded by bird fanatics. People that wouldn't go anywhere without their binoculars. Who could identify even the most challenging birds. Those who kept lists and travelled far and wide, just to get a glimpse of another rare migrant that's turned up on our shores. Another bird to tick.


For a while, I followed suit to a degree. I made sure to have my binoculars permanently on me, although I tended to hide them, as I was embarrassed by my comparative 'budget' pair. I poured over bird books and worked hard to identify every bird I saw or heard. A classic example of trying to fit in.


However, I had my limits. I remember one occasion, when I was working as part of a ranger team, there was suddenly a report of an albatross being sighted on another island. A rare treat indeed for the UK.


The response was immediate and frantic. Within moments, my team mates were scrabbling with their binoculars and scopes, hastening to travel a fairly remarkable distance, to see this bird. I won't ever forgot the look of pure bewilderment when I decided not to join them and instead stick to my plans of a gentle, local nature walk that I had been looking forward too. Yes, I was likely to see the birds I have seen a hundred times, but to me, they held just as much value. This decision was a tentative step towards finding my own path in this conservation world.

Monitoring puffins on the Farne Islands

Years on, I no longer feel the need to prove myself. In fact, I often find it amusing how different I can be, for someone who works for the RSPB. Its also interesting, that, by being openly myself, others feel they can be the same. It turns out that I am not the only one that found this expectation of being a bird expert difficult. I'm proud to love all nature and will continue learning about it, at my own pace. Choosing to let wildlife cross my path when its right, rather than hunting it out. This suits me far better.


I have huge respect for dedicated birders. They often care deeply for their study species and I can certainly relate to their enthusiasm. However, like all groups, there are those that go too far. Birding becomes an addition. So much so, that they are actually putting these birds at risk. This is something I cannot tolerate.


Now I work with capercaillie, a rare and iconic Scottish species, I have been faced with the real dark side of birding. Capercaillie are in serious decline, with only 1000 or less remaining in Scotland. One of the main threats is human disturbance, whether intentional or accidental, which can have a devasting impacts on their breeding success.


This is a message we have worked hard to communicate. Whatever you do, don't go looking for capercaillie. Especially during the breeding season. However, to our despair, this message is being completely ignored by the audience group that we thought would be on our side. Birders.


Hence, my introduction, where I confronted 4 birders (all men), that I spotted mere metres from the birds that I had been monitoring (under license). If they had arrived 10 minutes earlier, the birds wouldn't have mated, and that may have scuppered their entire breeding season.


I tried to remain professional. But I was furious. This morning, they agreed to leave, although I knew they would be back. Perhaps not to this forest, but another just as vulnerable. They needed to add capercaillie to their 'list'.


The rarer the bird gets, the more desirable they become. This breeding season has been the worst we've ever encountered. My team have worked tirelessly to try and prevent capercaillie being disturbed. Almost becoming a human shield. Giving them the vital chance they need. But our resources are stretched and we cannot protect them all.


These are the birders that do not care. That have gone past viewing birds as living creatures and are now just something else to collect. Something they can show off about on social media. This arrogance is slowly killing capercaillie. Yet they continue.


That's why I had to write this blog. In a last ditch attempt to reach those that I still can. To ask, if you care about capercaillie, or nature generally, please leave them alone. Its the only chance we have to save them. Do the right thing.


In the meantime, we will continue our relentless work to bring this species back from the brink. It is my hope that one day, if we all play our part, capercaillie will become common enough that they are not even worth noticing. Only then will we know that we have done our job and these birds are, finally, safe.



If you want to learn more about capercaillie and the work we are doing to save them, check out the Cairngorms Capercaillie Project website. I'm so proud to be part of this fantastic team that is really making a difference.