Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Utter bollocks?

Why do you bother with natural history? What makes you pick up a pair of binoculars, switch on a moth trap or take a flower identification guide off of a bookshelf ? And are the reasons that you do so today the same ones that made you do so when you first started out on this great adventure?

The beginning is where we will most probably find our 'natural history purity', when our feelings towards nature were not clouded by detail. My beginning was staggered - a Tawny Owl that used to sit on a lone conifer in my parents back garden in 1971; an Elephant Hawk-moth that was found resting on a basket of washing in 1973; and the 'dam-buster' of a Jay that hopped around on a Sutton lawn in June 1974 that fired my imagination enough to go out and buy a field guide. The following weeks found me sitting at a bedroom window with my Dad's cheap binoculars, marveling at what type of bird came visiting. They weren't 'species', they weren't a number, they were purely birds, a Dunnock the equal to a Great Tit that was worth as much as a Goldfinch. My constant flicking through the plates in the field guide whetted my appetite not for rarity but for spectacle - could a Green Woodpecker really be that good? It was…

As we become more proficient in recognizing what we are looking at then we are faced with a choice. We stand at several forks in a road that can take us off on differing aspects of our hobby. It could be identification based, it might be of a more scientific bent or our main concern might be geared around the preservation and maintenance of habitats. Some of us try to wander down all of them. For some of us it becomes a career.

It is at this stage that things can change. It is when the chasing of lists evolves. It is when innocence is lost. It is when time spent in the field can replicate time in the office. This doesn't mean that we lose our joy or wonder at what we see, more a case that it can be hidden from view by our evolving approach to what we do and how we do it. It certainly happened to me.

The early excitement - stomach-churning excitement - that I used to get when visiting Beddington as a teenager will never be replicated. There was one particular settling bed that, during the autumn of 1976, played host to a conveyor belt of waders. Each visit provided good birds and each time that I approached the grassy banks (to crawl up on my stomach and peer through the nettles at the hoped for avian jewels beyond) I was knotted-up in anticipation. Typing this 38 years later I can feel the echoes of those emotions still - they must have been powerful. I assumed that this was what birding would always be like.

I started to visit coastal sites on a regular basis soon afterwards. That special suite of waders that I saw on the settling bed at Beddington could not compete with Minsmere's scrape, or Cley Marshes or Pagham Harbour. And after a year or two of visiting such places a day was deemed a failure unless at the very least a Temminck's Stint or a Pectoral Sandpiper could be found amongst the thousands of waders present.  And it wasn't long before even these rarities were not enough. I needed rarer rarity. This is a habit that could not successfully be fed. It is where disillusionment and disappointment lurks, ready to take down any birder that wanders into such territory. It took me down - to the point where my birding was then done on automatic pilot and with little joy.

Some of you reading this may wonder how anybody can get into such a state with birding. There are plenty out there who have. Some give up - or 'phase' as we used to say. Others find something else natural-history based to obsess on (orchids and butterflies used to be the phased birder's crutch). I started to look at moths. Then plants. Then anything else that was 'living'. But, if I were honest with myself, birding was always there. It never went away. It was my first love, after all.

My reconnection with birds, in the purest form, happened over a few years (1997-2004). I can be that specific as it was during this period of time that I had a serious illness. I was off work for two lengthy spells and my medical treatment was pretty tough. Part of my recuperation was to get out in the open and both clear my head and strengthen my body. One of my companions on these walks were my binoculars. Long journeys were not on the agenda, so I stayed local. 

It was like going back to day one.  I rediscovered the joy of walking through a winter woodland and coming across a mixed feeding flock. I went to local patches that had been long abandoned with renewed interest.  I watched the back garden with fresh eyes (maybe hoping that the 1974 Jay might reappear for old times sake). The wonder returned. Since then my birding/planting/mothing has been done on my terms, when I want to and where I fancy. I generally keep local, even though the birding is hard work at times, but I accept that. Dungeness calls now and again, as does The New Forest, the Wiltshire chalk and the Sussex coast. I'm as likely to be moved by a piece of natural history art or writing as I am a living thing. All these things are connected as far as I'm concerned. It's a good place to be.

A connection with nature is a personal thing. We will all see things differently.  For me, if it is based purely on listing (and by inference, collecting) then it will be undernourished and ultimately unfulfilled. But there again, for somebody who has not had the need to think too deeply about what they do, and have a UK list of 500+, this post is most probably utter bollocks.

4 comments:

  1. Utter bollocks? I'll have none of it - another brilliant piece. The listing thing is the element that caused me to ponder why I do this. This year it literally stripped me of any enthusiasm for birding. Madness really? Birds aren't bubble gum cards (remember them?) or a book of stamps. If I don't manage to add a Bar-tailed Godwit to my Surrey year list who cares apart from me? Now I've stepped away a bit more I'm more relaxed about it and enjoy just going out for a walk in the sunshIne (hopefully). However, it's a work in progress as missing out on that Bonaparte's Gull was a real downer last month! I'm spending less time out in the field these days (well, it is June) but will still go on the odd twitch - the Short-toed Eagle was enjoyable and was only 40 minutes away by car.

    I've no idea where all this will lead but we have to go through this journey of innocence lost before coming out the other side as more relaxed and balanced individuals.

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    1. Thanks Neil. We've got a lot in common really, haven't we...

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  2. You nail it completely, Steve. Particularly the stomach-churning sense of anticipation we all had as fledgling birders on 'our' patch. Proper birding teenage kicks. For me it was Sherborne Lake - where a drake Shoveler the day after the Great Storm of 1987 was the stuff of dreams come true, and occasional Osprey, Jack Snipe or Ruddy Duck (ha, remember those?) were longed for highlights.

    Reasons for phasing? Kids and adult relationships. The quest for new thrills as the birding becomes about seeing new birds, and the law of diminishing returns kicks in. Disillusionment. It was the latter for me, and I feel all the better for it. My birding never went away, but the relentless chasing did. Self-imposed confinement to local birding brought back the sense of keen anticipation. And my horizons broadened, and the sense of wonder returned with those new vistas.

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    1. Thanks Jon. I increasingly talk (or correspond) with birders of a certain age who have come back to birding refreshed after a dipping in enthusiasm (or a change in circumstance). It's most probably our supposedly more sage-like outlook on 'life in general' that makes this change painless.

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