Seabird jizz

When you see a bird often enough, its jizz begins to rub off on you—if you'll pardon the expression.

Jizz, proper birdwatchers call it. The sort of birdwatchers who refer to themselves as birders, I mean. The sort who can tell a dunlin from a knot at 200 paces. The sort who can tell a dunlin from a knot at any distance, come to think of it. Jizz is their word for the indefinable je ne sais quoi that enables them to identify a species by the cut of its jib: a dunlin's dunlinity; a knot's knottiness. It's a vibe thing. They can cast a glance at a linnet and know it's not a twite from the not-quite-twiteishness of its hop. They're super-humans, basically. Nerdy birders.

The derivation of the word jizz is unclear—in its birding context, I mean. Some claim it's a misspelt acronym, standing for ‘general impression of size and shape’. Others would have you believe it's a corruption of the German word gestalt. I'm calling guillemot-crap on both these hypotheses. To this creative etymologist, the word's derivation seems obvious. It's clearly a contraction of the phrase ‘it just is’, as in: “How the hell do you know that's a pochard?” “I don't know, it just is.” Just is… Jizz. So there you have it. Mystery solved.

Me, I'm no birder. I'm a mortal; an unabashed bird-spotter. But, even so, I find I've unconsciously begun to identify certain species by their general demeanour: the flitting and bobbing of the wheatear in the heather; the flopping flight of the swallow; the in-and-out feeder grab-raids of the coal tit. When you see a bird often enough, its jizz begins to rub off on you—if you'll pardon the expression.

Like in Anglesey last summer. As Jen and I stepped out of the caravan to head off for a walk along the coast, a small, otherwise nondescript bird flitted untidily out of the hedge at the side of the gate, spun round, and flew straight back into the hedge.

“Whitethroat,” I said.
“How do you know?” asked Jen.
“I don't know, it just is!”

I was right: it just was:

Whitethroat
Whitethroat.

Later that afternoon, having returned to the caravan from our walk, I decided to take a stroll down to the rocks. The wind had picked up. Experience shows that, when there's a strong onshore wind in Anglesey, there's a good chance of spotting some gannets out at sea. Gannets have a jizz all of their own: a combination of their wash-day whiteness, their distance from shore, and their high-soaring flight above the waves. You can tell they're gannets even before you train your binoculars on them, or see them dive spectacularly into the sea. Those dazzling white blobs are gannets all right. No doubt about it.

Sure enough, there they were: gannets. Just a handful of them, soaring high above the waves, way out at sea. I sat on my favourite rock, took out my flask of tea and my binoculars, and prepared myself for a pleasant session's gannet-watching.

The wind had grown even stronger. The sea was decidedly choppy. I watched the gannets for a good quarter-hour, but didn't see a single dive. Perhaps the sea was too rough to risk diving, or perhaps the fish they were after had swum deeper to avoid injury.

Then, as I followed a juvenile gannet sweeping down to check out an imaginary mackerel, I spotted something out of the edge of my binoculars. It was only for a split second, but I knew instantly what it was. It was a jizz thing. Even though I'd never seen one before, I knew I'd just caught a glimpse of a Manx shearwater.

All thoughts of gannets were immediately banished. Holy crap, a Manx shearwater! I began to sweep my binoculars back and forth above the waves, trying to relocate it. There it was—damn, gone again! And another—or was it the same one? Definitely two. Maybe three. No, more than three. Bloody hell, there were loads of them—and they were so bloody fast!

A bird's jizz, being, as I said, an ‘indefinable je me sais quoi’, is, by definition, impossible to describe. So how to go about describing the jizz of a Manx shearwater? Perhaps the following notes made in my notebook immediately after seeing these wonderful birds convey something of their essence:

Tue, 8 Sep 2015: …My first ever MANX SHEARWATERS. About a dozen of them. Stiff-winged, skimming just above waves—often disappearing behind them. Continually banking from side to side—white bellies then dark backs. Seemed to plough back & forth along same path—lined up one behind the other. Fantastic to watch… Reminded me of spitfires. Wonderful. Make flying in high winds seem effortless… Long, thin wings, rigid. They fly recklessly close to the waves, rising occasionally, losing speed, then down again, twisting constantly from side to side. I am smitten!

The shearwaters were much too far away to photograph, but I didn't let that stop me from trying:

Manx shearwater
Manx shearwater (it's there, trust me).

The blurry, heavily cropped image I later extracted from my long-distance shot will never win any prizes, but it was still one of my favourite photographs of the year:

Manx shearwater
Close-up, cropped from the same photo.
Richard Carter is a writer and photo­grapher living in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletter

One Reply to “Seabird jizz”

  1. Fab post Richard - makes me want to dash to the sea. As a not-birder too, my id skills are pretty rubbish, but I do know when I see/hear a bird I haven't seen/heard before and mostly I couldn't say why - jizz works for me, as it were.

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