Part three: early books of influence

Let us return to 1974.

It soon became obvious that I should get hold of a book that illustrated the birds that I was likely to observe 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 local 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 back-bedroom window overlooking the garden, with my Father’s 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. My claim of a Tree Sparrow bothered me as soon as I made it, this swiftly being removed within an few hours. 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. All I needed to do was 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 of a wicket, although these ‘bird identification victories’ possessed a deeper level of fulfilment than any sporting achievement 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. Summer-evening games of cricket became a battle of wills between my concentration on the game or on the skies above. The latter often won, as I was able to add Swift and House Martin to my ever-expanding list of birds, although no list yet existed consciously. I did not write my observations down, did not count the number of individuals that I saw. Everything stayed in the moment. I saw, I tried to identify, I moved on. If ‘moving on’ suggested that I treated the birds as a mere commodity, something to trifle with on an intellectual level before dismissing them, that was not the case. I just didn’t have a system in place to record what I was seeing. My observations remained in my memory and could be replayed at will. And they were, repeatedly.

I tagged along with my Father when he went fishing, usually to the River Mole at Leatherhead, on arrival abandoning him at his bank-side station to prowl the nearby meadows; I cycled to Oaks Park, wandering through the open copses and dodging golf-balls as I searched the grassy fairways on the golf course for lurking avian prizes; and I took a bus to Nower Wood, losing myself in the rides on a quest to find woodpeckers. 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. It was becoming all-consuming. Wherever I went I looked for birds, whether that be on foot, in a car, or on a bus. What was out there? I wanted to know. But I needed further help.

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. I could no longer assume that the Jarrold books would illustrate everything that I could possibly come across. They obviously didn’t, but at the same time how on earth would I know what a new species was when I came across it? So, within a matter of a few weeks I had outgrown my very first reference books. This birdwatching roller-coaster ride was starting to speed up.

My new field guide’s colour plates had been illustrated by Arthur Singer. Unlike the constraints imposed by 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. Each turning of a page would kick-start a fresh round in the creation of hopes and dreams. Would I ever see a Green Woodpecker? What chance was there of coming across a Hoopoe? Could I ever hope to bump into a Hawfinch?

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. As I glanced through the distribution maps, they brought me joy and sorrow in equal measure, as they threw into sharp-focus exactly which species were present in southern England. I was delighted on realising that I stood a very good chance of seeing a Kingfisher. I was crestfallen on accepting that the range of the Bee-eater did not extend across the English Channel.

This wasn’t the only ‘proper’ field guide on offer. I had looked at, and rejected, both the ‘Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom, plus the ‘Collins Pocket Guide’ by Fitter and Richardson. My choice did not do justice to the ground-breaking nature of either of these guides, but merely reflected my seduction by the increased number of species and illustrations within the Hamlyn book.

A family holiday to the New Forest was the first meaningful test for this publication, and with it my first visit to heathland; although I did not return 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 to separate a lark from a pipit, and gave me false confidence to begin the long, and at times, difficult process of taking on the warblers. I had, by now, 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. My childish enthusiasm took over, and I made a pledge to see at least one bird species on each page of the field guide, and even, if time and luck permitted, to see every species that was depicted on at least one page.

As the summer 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 replied, 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.


Gibster said…
Steve, this brings back so many of my own teenage memories - particularly of the hours spent poring over my first proper bird guide, wanting to see one species from every plate (the shearwaters/petrels took a long time to accomplish just that) and hoping to see ALL on at least one plate - I thought that was just me!!! Fantastic stuff, buddy. When exactly did you say the book was coming out...…?
Steve Gale said…
Thanks Seth. I’ll get one copy printed then!

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