Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Books that I urge you to read

Over the past few years I've recommended a number of books. Most of these have possessed a literary bent and are books that not only inform and entertain the reader but also transport them to the very places that the author is writing about. Each can also skilfully express the spiritual and personal side of observing nature, something that is entirely missing from academic tomes. In no particular order I would strongly urge you to pick up the following:

Waterlog by Roger Deakin. One man's journey around Britain finding wild places in which to swim, be they pond, river, moat or loch. The author is a keen observer of wildlife and with each swim unlocks the inter-connectivity of all around him.

Congo Journey by Redmond O'Hanlon. This is a book that leaves you frightened, soaked in sweat, confused and knackered after reading it. Mr O'Hanlon is an Oxford academic who decides to go in search of a mythical dinosaur that is said to still exist by the pygmy tribes of the Congo. The author frequently betrays his ornithological passion. This is more than a book about looking for wildlife as it is as much about confronting inner fears and meeting head-on the paranoia of a country teetering on the brink of collapse.

Island Years by F Fraser Darling. Just before the outbreak of WW2, one man, his wife/partner and their young son go to live on an uninhabited island off of the west coast of Scotland to study the wildlife. This book was bequeathed to me by a grand lady who was just approaching 100. She knew that I had most probably not read this book (published in 1940) and that I would get something out of it - she was right on both counts. You can smell the sea, taste the salt and have to put your hand to your eyes to shade the sun with each captivating chapter.

Blood Knots by Luke Jennings. I recently urged Gavin Haig to read this book which I'm pleased to say he did so with a positive outcome. A book about fishing? Is that really wildlife? Yes it is, on many levels. As much as it is a memoir of a life spent trying to catch fish it is also a reflection on friendship, death, wild places and much, much more.

The following are titles that I've bigged up recently, but will briefly do so again - all worthy of your time and all guaranteed to enrich your soul: Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham (trying to see as many species of the UK's butterflies in a year whilst splitting up with your girlfriend); Running Sky by Tim Dee (simply the most beautifully written book about birdwatching); A Single Swallow by Horatio Clare (Welsh birder decides to follow the migration route of a swallow, overland. from South Africa to Wales but doesn't bargain for his own mental meltdown at the end); Nature Cure by Richard Mabey (author leaves the Chilterns for Norfolk to try and get his life back on track and also rediscover his love for nature); The Jewel Hunter by Chris Gooddie (simply my favourite natural history book ever, the entertaining and awesome account of one mans attempt to see all of the world's pitta species in a calendar year. Does he achieve it? Buy it to find out...)

I must also mention 70 Years of Birdwatching by HG Alexander, the book that started me off and still gets re-read every couple of years; Britain's Rare Flowers by Peter Marren, and Weeds by Richard Mabey.

Finally comes The Big Year by Mark Obmascik. Forget about the goofy film that was recently made with such un-funny 'funny' actors like Jack Black and Owen Wilson pointing fun at such a strange enterprise. This waste of celluloid (or whatever film is saved on nowadays) did not do service to a well-crafted book, written by a journalist, focusing on what made three highly differing men attempt a big year list in North America. I've read this several times already and never tire of it. Could almost be classed as a thriller - or even a study of human behaviour.

Please support book publishers by buying such products or ordering them from your library. If we don't continue to do so we will end up with the diet of bland formulaic pap that can be regularly found in the High Street bookshops near you - if there is a Waterstones there of course - or, in these strange times, even a High Street.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Used to be a birder

With the number of introspective posts flying around recently I have become, well, a bit more introspective. There are people out there (yes, you dear reader) who may quite rightly ask why anybody who can see such negativity in the simple pleasure of 'bird watching’ bothers to carry on. I haven’t been out birding for over a month. It’s been cold and grey, the Six Nations Rugby has been a distraction at the weekends and I’ve nursed a troublesome head cold – all good enough reasons not to be going out into the field. But these are not the reasons why I’ve not gone out - I just haven’t had the inclination to do so. And I’ve not missed it. Maybe I need to come to terms with the fact that birding just doesn’t tick all the boxes any more, and most probably hasn’t for a while. This realisation has been masked by my interests in other wildlife. There were signs – my not rushing off for local goodies (such as Great White Egret and Bittern at Beddington); my perusal of natural history publications at bookshops that never starts in the ornithological section; the giving up of Birding World and most other county bird society memberships; not getting excited about ‘birdy’ documentaries on the TV but being gripped by the trailer for the BBC4 insect programme ‘Alien Nation’.

If I were honest enough I suppose it’s time to stop pretending to being a ‘birder who is interested in other avenues of natural history’. These other avenues are those that I would sooner be wandering in at the moment. I’m currently looking forward to using my clearwing pheromones, hunting down longhorn beetles and trawling the north downs for plants – with not a bird in sight.

No doubt, like a first love, birding will always be there. I still dream of living by the coast and, as an old man, sitting in my garden recording all of the visible migrants as they fly past, keeping counts of the hirundines, finches, pipits and raptors. But, for the time being, birding will be in the background. So, if you want birding thrills you need to go elsewhere (although you most probably knew that already). I cannot promise to not take the mickey out of the world of birding, but can assure you that when I do I’m having a pop at myself.

By the way, if you do have a blog, you might want to think twice about posting a picture of a Wheatear in the next few weeks – everybody else does and has done so for several years, from all angles and in all lights. Looking at birding blogs in March and April can be a bit like watching the film ‘Groundhog Day’. We’ve already done a bit of that so far this year with Waxwings... (that's the devil sitting on my right hand shoulder speaking there; the angel on the left suggests that if people want to celebrate the arrival of one of our most characteristic migrants by the taking of and sharing of pictures then all is alright in the world). You decide.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Top 50

I've made no secret about liking lists, and that doesn't just apply to birds, moths and plants. Because I'm a sad person with more time on his hands than is healthy, I put together my top 50 albums (after seeing several Top 100 album lists online) - I just had to have a go. If I did this tomorrow a few of them might change positions. I will apologise to Dean Stables in advance - there's nowt here to tickle his musical palate I'm afraid. Don't be shy, there's more to life than things that fly, come up with a few of your own choices and share!

They are, in descending order (ie Number One first...)

David Bowie – Ziggy Stardust
David Bowie – Hunk Dory
Neil Young – Everybody Knows this is Nowhere
Lou Reed - Transformer
Primal Scream – Screamadelica
The Who - Quadrophenia
Radiohead – The Bends
The Doors – LA Woman
Queen – Queen 2
Undertones - Undertones
Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark
Spirit – The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus
Beatles – Revolver
Kate Bush – Hounds of Love
Beatles – Abbey Road
Nick Drake – Pink Moon
Hall and Oates – Abandoned Luncheonette
Spirit – The family that Plays Together
Joni Mitchell – Ladies of the Canyon
Beach Boys – Surf’s Up
Belle and Sebastian – Tigermilk
Kate Bush – Aerial
Joni Mitchell - Blue
Massive Attack - Mezzanine
Crosby, Stills and Nash – Crosby, Stills and Nash
Nick Drake – Bryter Later
The Doors – The Doors
Fairport Convention - Unhalfbricking
Sufjan Stevens – Come on feel the Illinois
John Grant – Queen of Denmark
The Doors – Strange Days
LCD Soundsystem – LCD Soundsystem
Aimee Mann – Bachelor No.2
Suede – Dog Man Star
Sufjan Stevens – Welcome to Michigan
Pink Floyd – Wish You Were Here
Robert Plant and Alison Krause – Raising Sand
Sigur Ros - Takk
Fleetwood Mac – Fleetwood Mac
Blur – Modern Life is Rubbish
Rufus wainwright – Release the Stars
Peter Gabriel – 4
Kings of Convenience – Quiet is the New Loud
Go-betweens – Oceans Apart
Groove Armada – Goodbye Country
Judee Sill – Judee Sill
James taylor – Sweet Baby James
Neil Young – Neil Young
Bernard Butler – People Move On
Dandy Warhols – Come On Down

Kevin Ayres

Kevin Ayres, erstwhile member of Soft Machine, doyen of the fabled 'Canterbury Scene' and top-notch English music eccentric has died in France at the age of 68. You might wonder what place this news has on a blog that supposed to be about natural history, but the two are closely linked in my world.

When I was a wide-eyed teenage birder in the mid-to-late 1970s I was fortunate to be admitted into the 'inner-circle' of the Dungeness birding Gods. They were all a good 10 years older than me but treated me as an equal, even though I didn't mesure up to any of them in any way. There was Peter Grant, Ray Turley, Tim Inskipp, Tony Greenland, Mark Hollingworth, Dick Burness and Keith Redshaw. Keith lived in the house next door to the observatory and it was to his back room that we used to regularly decamp after an evening in the pub. We would then descend upon his ample record collection and play music into the wee small hours. It wasn't unknown to do so until it became light outside and then we would just pick up our binoculars and go birding. If I tried that now I would be a wreck for several days.

One of the regular artists whose music we would play was Kevin Ayres. To listen to him is to be at Dungeness in those carefree days in the presence of the people who I admired the most. One track in particular brings it all back - "Stranger in Blue Suede Shoes" from the album whateverwebringshesings. This would in fact be regularly put on the turntable much earlier in the day -  as we readied ourselves to go off down to the pub - a song to put shoes, hats and coats on to. It never fails to put a smile on my face.

If you don't know much about Kevin Ayres, please click here.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Take note...

What do you do with all of your sightings? After you have spent a day out in the field you will return home with a notebook (possibly) and a head (certainly) full of species, numbers, places and a hundred-and-one other snippets of information. What then?

We all differ at this point I’m sure. For the record I take my field notebook and make a computerised record of the day, possibly adding a bit of narrative (if the mood takes me). If I have recorded a particularly early or late date for a migrant, a high count or a ‘new’ species for a site/county, then these will be entered into another data base. If I’m involved in any survey then the records will be uploaded via the relevant software. Photographic mages that I have taken will also be sorted and filed. I try to do this on the very same day, so as not to get a backlog as much as to ensure that I remember to actually do it.

I have a cupboard full of notebooks, trip reports and lists. It is a personal history of my time in the field (1974 to date). Although most of the important and valuable records have been sent to local bird clubs, lepidoptera and botanical recorders, the BTO and the like, the notebooks still remain a very useful resource. I have often had to get them out and go through them to extract information for specific requests. I can, if time permits, luxuriate in a little time travelling, by picking up a volume at random and reading it for pleasure (or not, if a particularly painful dip is relived). I might decide to collate a list for a particular site years after my first visit there. If I do, all the information is here.

There must be thousands of such notebooks residing in thousands of amateur naturalist’s houses up and down the country. Much of the information contained within them will be in the public domain already, either with the relevant recorders or having been posted on the internet. But don’t lose sight of the source material – the original notes. You never know when you may want to revisit them!

I look at my cherished pile of notebooks and wonder what will become of them when I’m no longer around to add to them. My family insist that they will keep them, to look after them, although I can visualise the skip being lowered onto the driveway minutes after I’ve been laid to rest...

Sunday, 17 February 2013

First butterfly for 2013

The first butterfly of the year is always a highlight, so this short post is just to share with you my first for 2013 - a slightly tatty Red Admiral that was nectaring on a neighbour's cultivated heather, on-and-off, for a couple of hours early this afternoon. It was too flighty to allow a photograph. With a return to colder continental air promised by Wednesday that might be the only one I'll get to see for a while.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Little boxes. Big boxes

I was walking on Mickleham Downs this morning. Not a lot doing, but I was struck at how the Box varied in appearance. This very local plant is common here. You normally come across it in clumps looking like 'messy shrubs', although where it has grown to tree-like proportions it seems to ditch the lower branches (no doubt there isn't enough light for them to leaf) and become a different beast altogether. I took a few pictures to illustrate the point...

Box in the open, a collection of messy 'shrubs'
Mature Box. Note the lack of lower leafing branches and more tree-like appearance.
Baby Box at the base of a Beech

Friday, 15 February 2013

Mrs Malkoa

We shared some marvellous moments together - a Hooded Pitta perched in the open at Taman Negara; a Great Argus sweeping past us like a stately carnival float on the Jenut Muda trail; Cutia and Blue Nuthatch in the same field of view at Fraser's Hill; savouring her home made food; quaffing social beers and wines; laughing at the absurdities of life; walking around her garden being shown the latest successes. God bless you Janice. You will always live on in these treasured memories. Mark, my thoughts are with you.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

More worthy blogs

Let me introduce you to three 'new' blogs that I've added to my worthy list. The first is one that was on the list already but had 'dropped off' by accident (and I've only just noticed), and that is Jonathan Lethbridge's 'Wanstead Birder'. It really doesn't need any bigging up here, as it is already one of those blogs that everybody likes - well written, stunning photography - but I bet he can't tap dance or juggle! There must be something that he can't do all that well...

Second up is Bill's Birding, a teenage natural history obsessive from my home county of Surrey. What with him and David Campbell showing us old gits how to do it I'm going to have to reassess my view that birding is only populated by those that suck on Werther's Originals, wear comfy slippers and cultivate nose and ear hair.

Lastly (but of course, not least) is the Surrey Moths and Butterflies blog that a few enthusiasts have banded together to ensure that all of the local lepidoptera news gets out into the blogosphere. No doubt I will read all about stuff that has escaped my detection over the coming season.

You will find them all in the column over on the right hand side. As always, go visit them and enjoy.

Bathing in the glory of others?

“We look back on past ages with condescension, as a mere preparation for us... but what if we’re only an afterglow of them?” J G Farrell

Try putting  the above quote into a birding context. Are we currently luxuriating in a warm birding bath whose water was run by birders from time gone by – or are we constantly topping it up with our own hot water? Let’s look at the evidence...

Binoculars have always been half-decent. Zeiss and Leica have been around for quite a long time and there were even a few very good British binocular manufacturers in the post Second World War period. But not telescopes. The birder of the 60s and 70s had draw-pull monstrosities that seized up in cold weather and were optically poor. I had a Nickel Supra and it was pants. Then, sometime in the early 80s, a squat, green, rubberised scope came onto the market and blew the world of telescopes apart. It was an Optolyth, it was optically streets ahead of everything else and changed the way scopes were made for good. Since then, optics have improved in quality of course, but I would maintain that there hasn’t been such a’road to Damascus’ moment since that Optolyth was launched.

Bob Scott, Peter Grant, Lars Svennson, DIM Wallace. These are just four birders who took hold of groups of birds that hardly anybody had a clue about and taught us how to go about identifying them. Non-breeding plumaged terns were considered almost impossible back in the 1960s and as for gulls, well, unless they were in adult plumage then you could forget about them. Birds in the hand required an almost unattainable level of knowledge, but a single book soon saw to that. Rare migrants from the near and far east had, until these trailblazers came along,had  no such reference work. Such birders as these turned the impossible into the possible. There are latter day identification students who work away on honing our understanding of gulls, redpolls and pipits, but are they truly ground breaking in the same way as those earlier birders were?

Most ornithological historians site Peterson’s Field Guide as the hallelujah moment of the bird book. But another guide came along in the 1970s that redefined the genre, and that was Lars Jonsson’s series of guides that were ultimately combined into the first book that was illustrated to perfection. The Collins Guide that we all marvel at today, as brilliant as it is, has been heavily influenced by Jonsson’s original work. Also during the 1970s – 1990s publishers such as T&AD Poyser, Croom Helm and Pica Press produced a mountain of bird books on highly specialised subjects. It was a golden age. Has that now dried up?

The setting up of Birdline in the early 1980s was, maybe, the first entrepreneurial act by birders. It apparently made them a small fortune. Until this premium phone line bird information service was available to all, you needed to have cultivated a network of contacts to find out what was about. This one act swept away the way we twitched and birded overnight. It opened up a whole new world to thousands of birders. It saw the birth of a whole new industry – and I would argue that tour companies, optics manufacturers and publishers reaped the reward. For all of the many ways in which our hobby has embraced the internet and mobile phones, I don’t think that any of these has had the impact that Birdline did.

So, as you can see, I believe that we are, as birders, resting on the laurels of the past. Numbers of ‘birders’ are falling. The rise of ‘birdwatchers’ might be on the increase. The membership of the RSPB keeps growing. Popular TV programmes such as Springwatch and Autumnwatch help fuel this. Most of the books published on birds are catering for this generalist audience. Is this a bad thing? Well, the serious birder, who collects the information that the likes of the BTO can use to formulate scientific fact, is needed. For the pool of such people to remain healthy and populated, that water in that pool needs to be kept clean and oxygenated. It cannot stagnate or all will die within it. 

Please take a look at this post by David Campbell. You won’t read a more thoughtful piece on the birding scene, and at the risk of embarrassing  him  I must point out that he is only 18 years old.

Monday, 11 February 2013


Neil Randon has recently responded to my post ‘Then and now. Go figure’. This gave me further food for thought. If I really am asking where the originality and free thinking is in birding today, then I really have to ask myself (and any readers of this post) a simple question.

‘Why do you go birding?’

This question is easiest answered when you first start out to take an interest in this fascinating subject. My answer would have been ‘to see what’s there’, but it would also have included ‘to be able to put a name to what I see.’ And why did I choose  birds and not stamps, planes, football or beer mats? The chances are because it got me out of the house and gave me a sense of adventure – an afternoon wandering around the alien environs of a sewage farm beat sticking hinges on a stamp in my bedroom. 

So, forty years after I started on this voyage of discovery, why do I now need to get bogged down in ornithological mind games and when did it start? In my case, it would have been in the late 1980s. I then found myself questioning why I was going out birding. Until then, I just went and did it. I picked up my optics and went out regardless, no questions. It was like an unthinking knee-jerk reaction to spare time, a Tourette’s syndrome of leisure activity. About this time  I often wandered around birding and returned home utterly unfulfilled. I carried on doing it because that’s what I did. I knew that I still wanted to bird, that I hadn’t fallen out of love with it, but I had to accept that I wasn’t being a good partner to it.

My answer was to diversify my natural history interests. I took up the study of moths (1986) and then plants (1998). I took to these new interests with great enthusiasm and, at times, didn’t really bird for weeks on end. I never stopped birding – if I were out looking at chalk downland flora I would still keep an eye on the Hobby above me. Moth trapping was enlivened by roding Woodcocks, and I never lost the sheer joy of hearing them as they flew overhead. 

But still I came back to birding. But whenever I did there was a sea change, and that was, where as previously I had been a bit of a twitcher, a faithful patch watcher and someone that found a few good birds, now these statements were not true. My time was spread out amongst these other new interests and I realised that I couldn’t compete (on a list or prowess rating) with the active birders that I bumped into. So, I regrouped. I scaled down my expectations and birded locally, often on my own and on a very local level indeed, a level that I hadn’t visited since my early birding days. This I found fulfilling to a point. What I hadn’t expected was to find that the birders had seemingly changed. In my short ‘exile’ the fun and joy in a high proportion of my fellow birders had apparently been removed. Seriousness, po-faces and poor communication had taken over. I was aware that this was a bold conclusion to arrive at, but I kept an open mind and ‘watched the watchers’. I asked others if they agreed. Many did. So, why was this? 

New technology had a lot to do with it. Instant news, precise directions and superb identification aids had allowed the uninitiated and the ill-prepared  to gain  immediate access to a world that had, in the past,  needed a few years graft and a network of hard-won contacts. A major burst in twitching popularity (4,000 plus saw the Golden-winged Warbler in 1989) opened up this specialised section of birding to a new demographic. Flush with money, mobile and  - yes, one of my bug bears – middle-aged. The new ‘kids’ on the block had top notch optics, time on their hands and were all eyeing Stannah Stairlifts in the not too distant future. That’s got to affect the dynamics of such a small group, hasn’t it? These new birders were not young and impressionable, they didn’t need to exhibit social skills to obtain the phone details of those in the know (they already had the 0898 number) and they could stand silently in line whilst one of the old guard pointed out the bird. Think I’m way off the mark? Ask any active birder who remembers the 1970s. This had a knock-on effect in that the herd of active birders became less communicative due to either a perceived inferiority when it came to identification prowess and, on the flip side, a distrust of the ‘new boys’ who hadn’t paid their dues. It was no wonder that few young birders joined  this morose collective.

Bear with me, I’m getting there.

Over the past few years I’ve witnessed, first-hand several ornithological meltdowns. People with years of experience who have suddenly given it all up. There are often trigger points that make this happen – a massive dip mainly. But the seeds were sown before that point. Could they have been saved, or saved themselves from such drastic action, by analysing what is was that they expected from birding?  Have they found themselves ploughing that lonely furrow without questioning why? I’m sure it’s true of all hobbies and not just birding, which we elevate to a psuedo-science but conducts itself by a moveable set of rules such as weather, chance and ability.

I’m going to stop soon, there’s plenty of fuel for further posts, but before I do, let me ask you a further question:

'How many birders do you know who seem to go through the motions and not really get much out of their birding?'

If someone feels this way, and have half an active mind, they will start to question what they are doing. Those that survive will be the ones that do something positive about it.

Sorry about the rambling, but posting this overflow from the mind is cheaper than professional therapy...