When it all started
Part One: April 1974. Sutton Manor High School, Greater London. That morning’s art lesson was to create a picture titled ‘Conflict’. We pupils, almost as a whole, interpreted this as an excuse to let our 14 and 15-year old minds loose and depict images of battle, blood and weaponry. The poster paint and charcoal in our hands was soon being used to manufacture imagined violence. But one pupil had expressed a different take on the subject matter, and one that was to have a lasting effect on me.
I stood over this ‘alternative’ painting – that of a cat, leaping into the air with paw outstretched, a claw-tipped swipe narrowly missing a fleeing bird. The latter appeared exotic, and my curiosity was aroused. “Is the bird a parrot?” I asked. My classmate slowly shook his head, accompanied by a chuckle that suggested I had made a foolish mistake. “No, it’s called a Jay. You’d see them in your garden.” This, I could not believe. I had never before observed a bird that was so colourful, at least not outside of a zoo or the inside of a glass case in a museum. I doubted him. In fact, I just didn’t believe him. My attention was soon taken away from the painting before me, and the Jay was given not a moment’s further thought.
Maybe a week later, I glanced out of my bedroom window. And there it was, on the garden lawn. A Jay. The very same bird depicted on that classroom painting, now come to three-dimensional life. I involuntarily held my breath, keeping completely still, so as not to spook the bird with sudden movement. Ignoring me, it hopped across the grass, but soon took flight and was away. Gone. I still did not move, my thoughts a mixture of surprise, of wonder and of pleasure. It had been a larger bird than I thought it would be (not that I had given any thought about the bird’s size until that very moment). The dusty pink body had been set against pied wings, but most stunning of all was a vivid blue section of feathering, of which I could not tell of where it belonged, that appeared to be on a different plane from the rest of the plumage - dancing out in front, hypnotic and other-worldly. Had I ever seen anything so dazzling? I ached to see the bird again, but it did not return. There were two overriding thoughts - firstly, I had been able to identify the bird and give it a name. This was a new experience. Secondly, I wanted – no, I needed – to know what other birds came to visit the garden, and not just be able to see them, but to name them just as I had done so with the Jay. This had been a revelation, a hidden world revealed. And although I was not suggesting to myself that the appearance of the Jay - so shortly after seeing the painting - was an omen, at the very least it was surely a sign. A sign of what, I did not know, but I was convinced that pure chance was not behind it.
The next couple of days found me looking out over the garden, waiting for birds to visit. Some that arrived I could give a vague name to – sparrow, tit, robin, thrush, pigeon - but I could not be any more specific than that. There were also several that I didn’t know at all. I wanted closer views, not only to be able to see the bird’s plumage well enough to identify it by, but to appreciate their colours and form, to be able to observe what they did and how they did it. It became obvious that this was not a simple case of me wanting to name the birds for naming’s sake - bird watching was starting to reveal unsuspected depths. My Father owned a pair of binoculars that I soon liberated – I had not ever seen them in use and had no idea why he possessed them. They had rested for years, in their case, on top of a sideboard. As happy as he was to my using them, he seemed bemused that I was taking part in such a passive activity as bird watching. Admittedly, it was a departure from my usual diet of football and cricket, and not one that he could easily understand.
It soon became obvious that I should get hold of a book that illustrated the birds that I was likely to see in the garden. Without it I would be unable to put a specific name to almost all that I would see. A visit to the WH Smith book department gave little choice, and I came away with a set of three inexpensive flimsy guides, written by Reginald Jones and published by Jarrold of Norfolk - ‘Birds in our Gardens’, ‘Birds of the Hedgerows and Commons’ and ‘Birds of Woodlands’. Each was a 32-page booklet, with colour photography throughout, that depicted the commoner species to be found in the habitat of the title. They met my modest needs. I soon returned home, stationed at a bedroom window overlooking the garden, with binoculars and newly purchased guides at the ready. House Sparrow, Wood Pigeon, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Robin, Wren, Dunnock, Greenfinch, Blue Tit and Great Tit – all were quickly identified, each of which came with a level of confidence (and almost certainty) that was both novel and enjoyable. Several ‘garden sessions’ followed, each one eagerly anticipated. My eyes had well and truly been opened, and the photographic guides that I possessed teased me further, with images of other species ready to be discovered – but not necessarily at home - if I would only make the effort and step a little further afield.
I didn’t have to travel far. The local parks and tree-lined streets were enough of a change from the back garden to be able to provide me with new species. Two birds stood out in particular amongst the others – a Goldfinch, that sat motionless on its nest in the lower branches of a pavement tree; and a Grey Wagtail, that regularly haunted a water-filled ditch on an allotment. Each were greeted with a joy that I could only liken to celebrating the scoring of a goal or the taking a wicket, although these ‘bird identification victories’ possessed a deeper level of fulfilment than they did. And, with each ‘victory’, another photograph from the guide ceased to exist purely as ink on paper, but now had reality as blood and feather.
I tagged along with my Father when he went fishing on the River Mole at Leatherhead, abandoning his bank-side station to prowl the nearby meadows; I cycled to Oaks Park, wandering through the open copses; and I took a bus to Nower Wood, losing myself in the trees. All provided me with new birds and further tests on my ability to name them. I was starting to consider bird watching as more than a passing fad. I spent my meagre savings to buy my own (cheap) pair of binoculars and upgraded my reference material to ‘The Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Bertel Bruun. This was a major step up from the Jarrold booklets, as it depicted many more species in varying plumages, with the additional bonus of brief identification notes. These were most welcome, as I had started to ask more questions about the birds that were appearing in front of me.
The field guide’s colour plates had been illustrated by Arthur Singer. Unlike a photograph, the artist had been able to clearly depict salient features to enable bird watchers to successfully identify what they saw. The book was published almost entirely with this purpose in mind, rather than cater to an aesthetically minded audience. I avidly devoured it, spending hours looking at the plates, familiarising myself with what I might expect to see and dreaming about those that I most probably wouldn’t. The guide introduced me to many aspects of bird study for the first time – a systematic list; the existence of summer, winter and passage migrants; distribution maps; and the topography of a bird.
A family holiday to the New Forest was the first meaningful test for this publication, with my visiting of the totally new habitat (to me) of heathland; although I did not come back home with a long list of new identifications, it did help me to differentiate between a Stonechat and a Whinchat, it allowed me to attempt pipit identification, and gave me false confidence to begin the long, and at times, difficult process of taking on the warblers. By the end of the year I knew my way around the field guide and had allowed myself to claim being a proper bird watcher. I had started to note down what I was seeing. Whenever a new species came along, the details of the observation would be marked in pen underneath its description in the Hamlyn guide - the place and date of first observation - as neatly written as possible. I was consigning it to ‘having been seen’, and welcomed it into my ownership. Our hunter-gatherer relationship with birds was still being played out, via a mid-teenage boy, with a pair of binoculars rather than a bow and arrow.
As the year drew to a close, I went along to Sutton Library and borrowed a book that was to have an enormous influence on me – HG Alexander’s ‘Seventy Years of Bird-watching’. This was an ornithological autobiography and I was captured from the very first page, and read the whole book in one sitting. His recollections of bird watching during the early years of the 20th century, and how he kept note of his field observations, were of particular interest to me, and overnight I adopted many of his practices. Within days I had bought a ‘single page per day’ diary and a large hard-backed notebook in which to record my sightings. In them I would keep lists of site visits, I would count the numbers present of each and every species, and also make note of the earliest and latest dates of the migrants. I also decided to join a bird club, in an attempt to legitimise my efforts. The one organisation that I had heard about was The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), so I wrote to them enquiring as to membership. They wrote back, suggesting that as I had just turned 16, it would be more appropriate (and cheaper) for me to join their junior arm, The Young Ornithologists Club (YOC). This I did.
Within eight months I had gone from possessing an almost complete ignorance of bird watching to becoming a keen, but green, practitioner of its basics.