Wednesday, 13 February 2013

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.

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