Friday 11 February 2011

Birding terminology for the uninitiated

Robert is away today in an area of Libya which has no internet connection - he's chasing a pied kingfisher and I'm sure his blog'll be full of exuberance tomorrow. In the meantime, here's a blog from his Tripoli-based mate, Andy, on the thorny subject of Birding Terminology.

I’ll let you into a little secret – when I was a young lad I was a trainspotter. Yes, this urbane, streetwise giant you now see was once a seven stone, notebook-toting anorak (without the anorak – I couldn’t afford it). I mention this because there are surprising similarities between the two hobbies:

• They appeal to odd people

• There is a dress code

• It’s about collecting and ticking sightings

• It’s often cold and lonely

• People avoid you at parties

First, let’s get the terminology of the hobby right – it’s birding. (Birdwatching is just about acceptable but birdspotting is a no no.) Twitching is for the real crazies – it’s about constantly being on edge (hence the name) for the next report of a rare bird to come in. The twitcher is ready-clothed, scope in hand, waiting to dash out that door and charge to the sighting with reckless abandon. Pagers are used – I was once at a twitch, fortuitously, I might add, where a couple of hundred twitchers were looking at the unfortunate and bewildered Rustic Bunting (extremely rare) when someone’s pager went off. All the twitchers immediately searched their voluminous pockets to see if they’d got the message. Off they dashed, piling into their haphazardly parked cars to get to the next bird, asap. Nothing gets in their way. You can just hear that phone conversation:

Wife: “Tom, the baby’s coming, I’ve got to get to the hospital now!”
Tom the Twitcher: “Sorry, love, gotta dash. A Pied Wheatear’s been spotted in Scunthorpe. I’ll try and catch the next baby.”

Useful birding expressions:

Lifers, Lists and Ticks: A lifer is a bird that you get for the first time. You must be confident about its ID or you may be caught ‘stringing’ it (see below). The ‘tick’ that you get can now go on your ‘life list’. Many birders also keep other lists, e.g., Year List, UK List, Europe List, etc. A Tart’s Tick is a tick of a common bird that you really should have got earlier: “What! You’ve got Zitting Cisticola already but you’re ticking House Sparrow! Leave it out!”

Field Guide. A must for all amateur birders is a good guidebook with pictures, descriptions and locations of all the birds in a particular area. Well-respected in Europe is the excellent ‘Collins Guide’, although this has consistently been found wanting in Libya by our  Benghazi friend.

Bins and scopes: binoculars and telescopes. A word about bins: go for a 7x40 or 8x40 pair. Don’t bring along your grandad’s 20x50 monsters that may have been good for spotting Germans in the trench 500 yards away but are utterly hopeless looking into a bush 20 meters away. Furthermore, keep your bins on a short strap lest you be called a ‘dude’.

Dudes and Grockles. A dude is a conspicuously new birder. Inappropriately clothed (high heels, fashionable top), bins on long straps and, the ghastliest faux pas, lens caps on the bins, in the box! However, he is not as bad as a Grockle: a birder with all the right gear but no knowledge of birds or fieldcraft. He wants to look the part but really just looks a prat.

• If a bird is showing well it may be giving a cracking display.

Jizz. It means ‘general behaviour’ or the unique idiosyncrasies that allow the bird to be identified. “I was pretty sure it was a Meadow Pipit before it flew off, then it’s jizz gave it away”.

Twitching expressions have found their way into the general birder’s lexicon. Here’s a taster:

Stringing. Claiming to see a ‘good’ bird when your sighting is, shall we say, somewhat dodgy, or ‘stringy’. It’s no good recording a tick when you first say: “Well, I think it was a Rose Coloured Starling…”

Dip Out (intransitive, phrasal verb). You have dipped out if you went to see a bird, possibly a lifer, and got there too late. A common wind-up from other birders who didn’t dip out is to playfully remark: “Shame. You should’ve been here an hour ago. It was giving cracking views.”

Grip Off (transitive, phrasal verb). The guy above who saw the bird has gripped you off. His schadenfraude is best rewarded by a smack round the chops with your Collins Field Guide.

General birding terminology and hints:

Eagles, hawks, falcons, buzzards and harriers are known as ‘Raptors’. Members of the crow family (crows, rooks, magpies, ravens, jackdaws, jays, choughs) are known as ‘Corvids’. ‘LBJ’s are ‘Little Brown Jobs’: a collective term for the thousands of birds that tend to look like sparrows and are a nightmare to ID.

There’s no such thing as a ‘seagull’; call them ‘gulls’. What we think of as the seagull, the big one that makes the loud noise at seaside resorts, is probably the Herring Gull. The most common gull in Britain is the Black-Headed Gull which, bizarrely, has a brown head in the mating season and is much more common than the Common Gull.

Remember, when you’re going birding, try to dress inconspicuously. A clown’s outfit will not endear you to the other birders. Also, keep your bins at the ready – you never know when that fleeting glimpse will come.
When you spot the bird, normal etiquette is to direct your fellow birders to it so they can tick it. It’s no good saying:

“It’s over there!”


“There, in the tree”.

What tree?”

“That one, with the leaves”.

“Which one?!”


Be specific: “It’s in the third hawthorn bush from the right, at eye-level, flitting, facing left on a branch at 3 o’clock from the tree’s centre.” That’s better.

It’s not always possible to actually see the bird. Recognising bird sounds can enable you to get the bird ‘on call’. This is particularly the case in spring when the male’s song is at its strongest as he tries to get the girl. Indeed, this is often the only way to distinguish certain species like the Willow Warbler and the Chiffchaff.

The male is almost always more brightly coloured and striking than the female, who is often drab. The male walks a deadly tightrope in spring between being the sexiest geezer in the bush and sticking out like a sore thumb to the bird of prey sitting on the telegraph pole nearby.

Enjoy your birding and try to be honest. As I often remind my students – don’t cheat as you’re only cheating yourselves. After all, could you sleep at night, knowing you had just strung a robin into a bluethroat?
I think we all know the answer to that one.

February 2011, Tripoli.

PS – I feel no apology is necessary for the use of the masculine pronoun – birders are almost exclusively male.


  1. There isn't much technology involved, is there? Imagine if they made bins that could id birds automatically... I suppose that would take out half the fun though...

  2. Khadija,

    It would take ALL the fun out of it. Indeed some birders do the next worst thing. They don't bother to try to Id the bird in the field. They take photos and do all the Id by book when they get home. I have been guilty of this myself on occasions.


  3. What an amusing post. As a New World birder, some of the terminology is new to me. I especially love, 'Tart's Tick'. Around my neck of the woods we call it a jinx bird or a nemesis bird. I like Tart's Tick better.
    When I started birding many year's ago we never heard the terms, twitching or ticks. Now they are commonplace. We picked them up from our British friends.