Bird brained?

The incredible enthusiasm of birders and twitchers

The recent stretch of good weather has seen the return of that most seasonal of visitors to the island: the tourist.

There are a variety of different species of tourist to be seen in Fair Isle during the course of the year. These include the ‘relaxers’: middle-aged couples and families who come to sit down for a few days, and occasionally stroll slowly down to the beach then back again, just in time for tea. The more elderly relaxers tend to be a little more adventurous, and sometimes make it as far as the shop during their stay.

Then there are the ‘explorers’, who come to island in mid-summer dressed for trekking in the Arctic tundra. They are easily spotted, wearing expensive hiking gear in pristine condition, striding assuredly around the island’s roads with a walking pole grasped tightly in each hand and a compass dangling pointlessly from their huge rucksacks. I’m not entirely sure what these people do once they have completed the few miles of roads; I have certainly never seen any of them venture off the tarmac. Perhaps they sit down and join the relaxers by the window, eager to tell their friends back home about their adventure.

By far the most numerous visitors to Fair Isle, though, and certainly the earliest arrivals, are the birders.

For over half a century Fair Isle has been a Mecca for bird lovers, particularly in spring and autumn, when rare migrant species take a break from their long journeys, or else arrive on the island lost and confused, after getting blown completely off course. The sight of a “mega rare” American warbler, half dead with exhaustion after its accidental journey across the Atlantic, is enough to send grown men (they are, invariably, men) into a terrifying frenzy, and anyone or anything that stands in their way is likely to get crushed in the stampede.

But birders too come in a number of different sub-species, or perhaps a hierarchy is a better description. At the bottom are the common or garden ‘birdwatchers’: people who enjoy looking at blackbirds and starlings from their kitchen windows, and who may even confuse the two.

Above them are ‘twitchers’, who are basically checklist birders. Like trainspotters, their interest is in amassing the longest list in a given year, area or lifetime, and they will often go to unbelievable lengths to see a new species. When the rarest birds appear in Fair Isle (usually in September or October) it is not unusual for twitchers to charter flights from England up to the isle, occasionally coming back again days later if another rarity appears. Our airstrip can be a very busy place at such times.

‘Real’ birders, at the top of the ornithological social ladder, tend to take themselves and their hobby very seriously, and they also like to exaggerate the difference between themselves and twitchers. The main difference, so far as I can see, is simply that twitchers have got the time and money to do what birders would like to be doing.

My brother is a recent convert to birding – a born-again birder, you might say – and like all converts he suffers from a certain over-zealousness. Everything else in his life, including his sanity, has been sacrificed to his binoculars. He wears them at all times now, even when in bed, just in case a bird should fly in through the open window and perch atop his wardrobe at night. He talks about birds, reads books about birds, watches DVDs about birds, listens to CDs of birds making bird noises.

I have disowned him.

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.