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?