Brent Stephenson is an ornithologist who spent years studying the breeding biology of Australasian gannets in New Zealand. He co-re-discovered the "extinct" New Zealand storm-petrel in 2003, and has traveled virtually everywhere, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, Australia, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, French Polynesia, China, the Americas, and Africa. Brent shares his enthusiasm for birding, and it's lingo, with us.
Birder’s are weird! I should know, as I consider myself one, and have since I was a young child. I was perhaps 6 or 7 years old, running around the fields near my house, toting an ancient pair of binoculars that you could hardly see through. I tried to convert my friends into birders at a young age, but that didn’t work too well—they all went on to accounting, horticulture, or trucking companies. But something got under my skin; before I was even a teenager, I met with the Head of Biology at the university I ended up graduating from, and asked the question, “What do I need to do to study birds?” It was simple, he told me—study biology, chemistry, maths, and English at school, then complete a Bachelor of Science, Masters of Science, and a PhD in Zoology. And that's what I did!
Through all those years, I began to realize it wasn’t so much attaining the qualifications that was important, it was the learning and, more importantly, getting out into the field and actually seeing birds in their natural habitats that mattered! So here I am now, a fully fledged birder (oh dear, please excuse that pun), managing to combine my love of travel, birding, and people, into something of a career.
But is it birding or birdwatching or, indeed, bird-watching? To me, it has to be birding! The other two sound far too voyeuristic; watching a bird, well yes, is a bit passive perhaps. But birding sounds like you are actively doing something, like surfing or rock-climbing or base-jumping or some other extreme sport. Something active that thrusts you into action!
And, much like other active interests, birding brings with it an entirely unique vocabulary. If you walked into a room full of birders—though, why you would ever do that if you aren’t a birder, I simply can't imagine, but work with me—it would almost be like listening to people speak in a different language. There would be all sorts of words that would have little or no meaning to you! And so, as a matter of survival training, should you ever find yourself in this situation, I present to you a crash course in Birding Jargon:
Crippler—A mega (see below) that shows really well. It seems like a strange term, but is perhaps derived from the fact that such a fantastic sighting of a mega would make it very hard to move on from the bird, thereby leaving the observer stuck in the same spot.
Dude—A person who is a bit of a novice, perhaps not very quick or lacking in skill. A slightly less diplomatic name would be a robin stroker; but to be honest, neither are very diplomatic!
Lifer—A bird seen for the first time by someone, then added to ones life list.
Mega—This has nothing to do with size, but with a birds' rarity or appeal. A sighting of a generally rare or exciting bird could elicit, “What a mega!” Not necessarily a lifer or a tick, though if it was, it would make the sighting even more significant.
Stringy / Stringer—If the sighting of a bird is a little dubious, or the person reporting it is a perhaps not reliable, the sighting is stringy, and the person could well be described as a stringer. This is not a term to be used lightly; once tarred with this brush a stringer loses all credibility in the birding world.
Tick—A new bird for a list, but not necessarily a lifer. Like I said, birders are weird, and they keep more than just life lists! A tick could be a bird that has been seen for the first time that year, and therefore on a new-for-the-year list, or it could be new for a county/state/country list, or a lifer.
To Dip / Dip Out—To miss a bird you have specifically gone to search for. Perhaps a rare bird or vagrant that has turned up somewhere, or just a bird you haven’t seen before that you had gone to seek out. If you can’t find the bird then you dipped out.
To Grip Off / Be Gripped Off—To see a bird that somebody else missed seeing, or hasn’t seen, or dipped out on. If you saw the crippler that Bob didn’t see, you gripped Bob off!
Trash Bird—A bird that has been seen a lot, perhaps over the preceding hours, days, or weeks. It is often used in jest for something that was considered a mega an hour ago, but has been seen commonly since.
Twitcher / Chaser—The term twitcher is primarily a British-based term, though it seems to be used everywhere these days. It generally describes someone who travels far distances to see rare or unusual birds that have turned up. It comes from two birders in the UK, in the early days of birding, who showed up in a motorbike and sidecar, shaking from the cold (and perhaps excitement!)—the term twitching was born. Nowadays, non-birders seem to use it to describe any old bird-watcher, though no self-respecting birder would ever call themselves a twitcher. Chaser is more commonly used in North America.
Join Brent on one of his upcoming expeditions: