The second in a series of posts that could be laughingly described as my birding autobiography. Lockdown obviously gives us too much time on our hands and a chance to reminisce, but it has been enjoyable resurrecting old pieces of text and embellishing them. Part one can be seen by clicking here.
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. For the next few weeks they hung around my neck and helped me to observe the birds coming into the garden. As happy as my Father was with me using his optics, 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. He had been blissfully unaware of any signs that would suggest that I was about to jump feet-first into such an interest. That was hardly surprising as I was still coming to terms with it myself. ‘Birdwatcher’… was that what I now was? Was I prepared to admit to being one? Was this merely a passing fad? I could imagine the double-entendres that would come my way if I told friends and family that I was a ‘birdwatcher’ – the nudging and winking that would accompany such retorts as “not the feathered kind, I bet” and “I like looking at birds myself, but not the sort you do!” Bird watching had certain stigmas attached to it – a pastime beloved of the meek, geeks and vicars. The only celebrity birdwatcher that I knew of was Robert Dougall, an elderly news-reader who dressed in drab suits and was hardly a role model to aspire to. But these concerns were for a future that might not yet evolve. I was merely dipping my toe into water that was still murky with a cloud of uncertainty, although the water did appear to be clearing quickly. I was falling into a parallel universe, one populated by packages of intrigue that flew in and out of the garden, cost nothing to observe and demanded attention. Had there been clues in the past that could point to an earlier appreciation of natural history, if not birds? It didn’t take too much rummaging around in the memory banks to come to the conclusion that there had indeed been moments when the natural world had reached out to touch me.
I was born in Balham, South London in 1958, and after several house-moves around the edges of the city we moved to the Hertfordshire market-town of Tring, in 1962. It was a wonderful place for a young boy to grow up. We lived in a new-build on the edge of town, literally a stone’s-throw from open fields that stretched away towards the reservoirs. The new estate on which our home was built had attracted mainly young families, so that there were plenty of children about - and as we lived in a cul-de-sac, the boys that also populated it with me formed a ready gang. Back then 'stranger danger', health and safety and paranoia were largely missing from the world of the grown-ups, so us kids were left alone to get on with our lives.
Because open countryside was on our doorstep we would frequently to go off and explore it, sometimes on foot, at other times on our bicycles. We cycled the pavement-less country lanes as a peloton of seven and eight-year-olds, oblivious to the little traffic that shared these roads with us. We found farmers gateways in which to rest up, apple trees to scrump from and blackberry bushes to raid if we were desperate. Our travels might take us to the canal, where we would hang over locks in feats of daring-do, scoop up frogspawn or try to master the art of skimming stones - and not one of us could swim. Our time was also taken up, depending on the season, by conker fights; throwing burdocks and grass arrows at each other; blowing on grass leaves until they squeaked; popping bindweed flowers out into the air; seeing if we liked butter by holding up a buttercup to the underside of our chins (we always did!); daring each other to grasp Stinging Nettles and see how long we could hold on before the pain became too much; trying to find bird's nests; creeping through crops that were taller than us; sneaking into barns to chase rats with sticks and then beating a retreat if the farmer came along the track (and heaven help us if his dog got a sniff of us...) We made camps in the woods, and in them took our first puffs on liberated cigarettes.
The sun always seemed to be shining. My six-week summer holidays appeared to last a lifetime. I was fortunate in that my early childhood was without problems and full of carefree happiness. When I look back now, a lot of that was down to the relationship that I had with the outdoors. It was there to explore, a giant natural playground where I felt at total ease. It was full of adventure and possibility. We were whippet-thin, as fit as fiddles and fearless to boot, all through our walking, running, cycling and climbing. The odd broken arm, cuts and bruises here and there, but by and large no harm done. And who didn't enjoy picking the scabs off of the wounds a few days later?
To climb a tree, to lay out in a field and look up into the sky, to get grass stains on our knees, to pick goose-grass balls and grass seeds from your jumper - these were all just a part of our life - a part of our growing up. We left home in the morning and appeared again at tea-time. If we were very late our parents weren't so much worried about our wellbeing, they would be more concerned that our food was getting cold.
None of us were aware of nature as a separate entity, it was just there. But today, from down the ages come forward vivid memories, events that obviously resonated then and still sound over fifty years later. Maybe the natural world was burying her seed within my childish frame, getting ready to germinate when the time was right. The first was of being armed with a jam jar and catching butterflies that were flitting around the flowers in the neighbouring gardens. I didn’t know what they were called, although I had been told that they were Cabbage Whites. By cupping a hand over one I guided it into the glass container and therefore into my possession. My friends also joined me in this dubious exercise. Our aim was to start a mini zoo. Before we went in search of ants, earwigs and spiders to add to the collection, we felt obliged to give the butterflies some leaves to ‘feed on’. Each jam jar was then covered with greaseproof paper and, once that was held in place with elastic bands, holes were punched through the membrane with a pencil. We believed that this would allow the butterflies to breathe and the jars were then placed in a line along the pavement for us to better admire the collection. After half an hour, and with several of the wilting butterflies succumbing to the effects of slowly cooking in the sun, we would get bored and liberate those that remained alive. Not all of our prisoners were white. My memory is of an orange, black and brown butterfly with a studded blue necklace rimming the wing edges – a Small Tortoiseshell.
For want of something better to do we would lay down on a nearby grass verge and stare up into a pure blue sky, idly chatting. I was aware of birds passing overhead, quite large birds. What was most striking was the formation in which they flew. Each flock was quite clearly a V, some flocks larger and more stretched than others, but the lead bird was always at the sharp point of the V. One of my fellow butterfly-kidnappers said that they were geese, because his Dad told him that geese always flew in V formations, so from then on it became clear to us that these birds were geese. As Tring Reservoir was only a couple of miles away the presumption was that these birds were heading towards the water. It was another indication that the birds we were watching were geese. This gentle procession of birds occurred on each subsequent afternoon and I used to make a point of looking out for them. Then one afternoon I showed the birds to my Mother, proudly announcing them as geese. “Oh no they aren’t, geese have long necks. These are gulls.” My first, but not my last, bird misidentification.
My parents may have picked up on my flirtation with wildlife as the first volume of ‘The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Animal Life’ arrived at our house, followed by each of the subsequent 15 volumes over the coming months. The lemon-yellow covers were decorated with highly colourful depictions of various habitats - each graced with a cast of applicable wild creatures – and became a much-browsed set of books. I cannot pretend that I cherished the volume covering birds beyond all the others – that accolade went to the one that included the big cats. Killing machines that were dangerous to Man were far more interesting than things that flew.
I was also fortunate that Tring was where Lord Rothschild had decided to build a museum to house his collection of mounted wildlife specimens. I would regularly take myself there to wander through the glass-cabinet-lined halls of the charming red-brick house. There were stuffed big cats to look at, their glass eyes and yellow fangs frozen for all-time in lifeless poses, but even they would play second-fiddle to anything to do with dinosaurs. A pile of bones trumped sawdust and fur.
I almost forgot about the owl! How could I?...
…the family moved to Sutton, on the very edge of south London, in June 1971. Our back garden (where, three years hence, the Jay would appear), was of modest size and backed onto a much larger garden which had within it a number of mature trees, including a small line of conifers. During that first summer, on an almost daily basis over the course of a week, an owl would appear at the top of the conifers, appearing as dusk fell. I got in the habit of sitting in the garden awaiting the owl’s arrival. It took little notice of me, would stay only briefly and leave as it had arrived, on silent, rounded wings. It didn’t occur to me to specifically name it – it was ‘an owl’ – and that was enough for me. I could have told you that it was brown and that it had a large head. At night I heard it call. It hooted. It would take a further three years before I could confidently say that I had been in the company of a Tawny Owl.