Friday, 5 March 2021

What of 2101?


I've got a little project on the go that has meant that I am trawling through back copies of the London Bird Report (LBR). In the past few days I have gone from 1941 up to 1980, which has been a labour of love. The London Bird Report has been published on an almost annual basis since 1936 and is highly regarded, having had a long-list of ornithological 'names' as its editor down the years.

I’m looking at the report from 1941. Observer’s initials personify the published sightings from all of eighty years ago, like ghosts waving at us from down the years. These observers are all now long dead, but here I am, in 2021, sharing with Howard Bentham, through the medium of ink on paper, his description of a pair of Mealy Redpolls that he saw at Tadworth on April 6th; or reading about L I Carrington’s prowess in finding London’s only breeding Cirl Buntings, on the rim of Surrey. Will somebody be reading of my records, 80 years hence, in the LBR of 2101? Almost certainly not from a printed copy I’ll wager, and certainly not coupled with ‘SWG’, what with the recent demoting of observer’s initials to all but the rarest of species, which is something that I think an unwise move - part of my early joy from birding came from the chest-puffing thrill of seeing my initials against my observations in bird reports, and the chances of seeing them increased by being able to appear against early and late dates, high counts and notable observations. What a wonderfully simple way of encouraging birders to submit their data! I was more than peeved to see that my enormous Hawfinch counts of 2018, the highest ever recorded in our country, let alone the London recording area, did not even merit my initials appearing. Then again, that probably says more about my fragile ego than those of the rights and wrongs of publishing them.

However, back to the 1940s. I carry on trawling through the sightings of these years. Whenever I see mention of my ‘local’ patch - Banstead, Epsom Downs, Walton Heath, Banstead Downs, Chipstead - I am stabbed by loss. Of Red-backed Shrikes, Wrynecks and Cirl Buntings, all of their breeding pairs being reported with the ease of reporting Goldcrests and Meadow Pipits. Wood Warblers and Willow Tits being a ‘given’, part of the ornithological furniture. Turtle Doves and Spotted Flycatchers common enough not to warrant any specific sighting. This is, in turn, fascinating and infuriating. How many? Where and when? But, back in these war-torn years, this was of little consequence. They were not to know that 70-80 years later we would hardly see them. Maybe the birders of 2101 will feel the same way about our treatment of Bullfinches and Yellowhammers.

I must come back to this viewing of the ‘local patch’ through the eyes of those from 80 years ago. It makes me realise that we are merely borrowing these lands, acting as ornithological tenants and being granted the privilege of recording them until we move on or pass away. The printed initials of those recorders, writ large in the reports, are what makes me think this way. They once wandered where we today wander. HB and LIC thought themselves invincible, destined to carry on looking through binoculars and recording the birds that inhabited THEIR plot of Surrey. No thought of there being no more shrikes and no more Wrynecks. No conception of Collared Doves and Ring-necked Parakeets. Would have laughed in my face at the suggestion of Common Buzzards, Red Kites and Ravens.

I’ll say it again - what of 2101?

9 comments:

Yossarian said...

That's very interesting... I think a lot of non birders would assume that most birds have 'always been there' other than parakeets obviously. The extent of change is quite surprising and you don't see a lot written about it other than 'bird X is rarer these days because of habitat/climate changes'. The detail is amazing.

Gavin Haig said...

Steve, you've made me go to the bookshelves...

A few years ago I was gifted the first 16 years of the stand-alone LBR (1936-51) bound into two volumes. Whenever I dip into the musty pages I am transported to another age. I looked up your reference to the 1941 report. Love the Mealy description! And as you say, the birdy demographic is staggeringly different. I struggle to imagine a time when Red-backed Shrike was barely a notable bird...

So many fascinating snippets in those old reports. Have you come across E R Parrinder's 'London Bird Life and the Flying Bomb Attacks' in the 1944 LBR?!

Bound into the first volume is also a section of the March 1929 edition of BB, mainly because of a paper entitled 'Birds of Inner London'. One of the observers who gets regular mentions is one Col. R. Meinerzhagen.

Skev said...

Initials still attributed here in Leics. & Rutland you'd be pleased to know; however the best way to immortalise your name in the Reports, at least for a period, is by writing for and editing them. I've had two stints at editing and written for several more in between. Currently not involved but give me another three or four years off and I'll perhaps volunteer again. It'll be a sad day indeed if and when formally printed reports are no more.

Paul Trodd said...

I too am a fan of the printed word; there`s something permanent and stolid about a published bird report, whereas who`s to say digital records will survive and not just disappear into the ether one day. However, I`ll bet that a hundred years hence (if humans are still extant) such items will probably be looked upon as curios from a bygone age, just like me!

Steve Gale said...

Adam - the data is out there and is fascinating (and horrifying) to read.

Gav - I will go and look that up. More hours that will be whiled away with my nose in a book!

Skev - my admiration for those unpaid volunteers who produce our local reports is high. Good on you.

Paul - Beddington’s annual report for 2020 has gone digital only.

Stewart said...

Steve, Northumberland never published initials until about 10 years ago, for anything! It was seen by those in power ( usually ringers) as being frivolous and not serious bird recording. I have an unbroken set of Northumberland reports back to 1970. Prior to that it was part of the Northumberland Natural History Soc way back into the 19th century. It seems that the use of them is to depress us all and be damned! Still we have lost a lot of common birds but we certainly get more rarities these days...as for 2101, I think this planet will be well buggered by then so bird populations will be well down the list of priorities even further than they are today...

Steve Gale said...

Sadly, Stewart, your last sentence will be closer to the truth than not.

Ken Purdey said...

I always found the initials in the LBR very worthwhile and added another aspect to the history of birds in that recording area. I think it's a shame that they have decreased to the extent they have but I know many others think differently.
A top class report nevertheless. Long may it continue in a printed format.

Steve Gale said...

Totally agree with all that you say there Ken.