I'm heading off for a major business trip next week, covering four countries in ten days. Like many of us in a similar situation I'm getting into the mood by constantly reading-up before I head off.
We birders like to convince ourselves that when we study bird books before travelling, we do so in order to prepare ourselves; to study the difference between species we're familiar with, and those we're not. How, exactly, do you tell the difference between the Steppe Buzzard (Buteo buteo vulpinus) you know and the Mountain Buzzard (Buteo oreophilus) you don't? And - let's remind ourselves once again - is it the Greater Sandplover (Charadrius leschenaultii) or the Lesser Sandplover (Charadrius mongolus) that has the longer legs and the squarer head?
There's some truth in this. Studying bird books like this does help us to learn. I have an extensive collection and I look at them with staggering regularity. I simply must be better informed and a better birder as a result. I also remember reading a blog by The Urban Birder, David Lindo, describing himself as curling up in bed with "The Bible", meaning the 2nd Edition of the Collins Bird Guide. He certainly thought then that he was learning something, and I don't doubt that he was. I spent a couple of days birding with him in Serbia once, and he put me completely to shame with his identification skills.
But the truth of the matter is that for most of us most of the time when we do this, we're not so much preparing or informing ourselves as indulging our desires. It's about imagining that we're going to see species we've dreamt about for years. In my case, with this trip in mind, I've got a fixation on Pacific Golden Plovers (Pluvialis fulva) and Bonelli's Eagles (Aquila fasciata). The point is that I'm not sure that I'm better informed for having looked at texts and pictures of these specific species for days on end. I'm just fuller of desire to see these damned things which have eluded me for so long.
So this activity, which I suspect we all indulge in, isn't always about informing ourselves; it's often just smut, it's informed fantasising. It's pornithology.