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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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.