50 years

With Easter about to be celebrated it has come to my attention that a personal landmark is fast approaching. During my school Easter holidays of 1974 I experienced a Damascene ornithological moment that instantly turned me from somebody that thought little about birds into an obsessive. That event occurred 50 years ago, or, if you want to make it sound more like ancient history, half a century. I do have to come clean that Easter 1974 happened in mid-April, so the anniversary is three weeks away yet, but with the holiday fast approaching it seems like a good time to reminisce. I have written about 'that moment' before on this blog (and you can read a fuller account if you so desire by clicking on the 'ND&B publications' tab above and then visiting the 'Of My Time' account. Here's an abridged taster:

And there it was, on the garden lawn. A Jay. 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.

So, having been struck down by the Jay, there followed a path that would be familiar to some of us who have been bitten by the birding bug - getting hold of a pair of binoculars, watching the local gardens and parks; graduating to sewage farms and reservoirs; visiting coastal locations; finding friendship groups and affiliations to bird observatories and reserves; twitching and foreign birding. My birding has, over the years, slowly made its way back to the local scene, a path that is worth exploring in another post maybe.

50 years. That's a lot of birding. There have been times when I've expended more energy looking at butterflies, moths or plants but in all reality it has been a birder who has done so. Birds have never left. When I am out not birding I am in all reality still birding. When driving. Sitting by a window. Even lying in bed at night. Any movement, any sound is scrutinised. What is it? How many? My evolution as a birder (and, to a large extent a perceived deceleration) was nailed in these words that appeared in Luke Jennings excellent book, 'Blood Knots':

The late Bernard Venables, author of the classic Mr Crabtree fishing books, used to say that there are three stages to the angler's evolution. To begin with, as a child, you just want to catch fish - any fish. Then you move to the stage where you want to catch big fish. And finally, with nothing left to prove, you reach a place where it's the manner of the catch that counts, the rigour and challenge of it, at which point the whole thing takes on an intellectual and perhaps even a philosophical cast.

I read that and can only draw a comparison to my own take on birding over the years.

Half a century. What are the highlights? Well, the time spent, and friendships made at both Beddington SF and Dungeness Bird Observatory - both places have had an enormous effect on me, both  where I cut my ornithological teeth and met some wonderful, inspirational people. Migration - it has always and still excites me, from the earliest of days when I awaited my first ever spring Wheatear to the visible migration watches that I still conduct, especially on autumn mornings. Certain species that have become firm favourites to the point where I will seek them out regardless of how many I may have seen that very same day - Wheatear, Stonechat, Whinchat, Brambling and Hawfinch all spring readily to mind.

Of course there have been changes. There are fewer birds, especially passerines, with local losses of Turtle Doves, Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers, Spotted Flycatchers, Wood Warblers, Willow Tits, all sadly replicated on a national level. But there are gains! I can sit in my Banstead garden and expect to see Common Buzzard, Red Kite and Peregrine, and not turn my head when Ravens and Little Egrets are seen nearby - all of these back in 1974 would have been the observations of a fantasist. 

Today's birder has so much information at their fingertips, from internet resources, superb field guides, sound libraries and optics. My 1974 armoury comprised a pair of clunky binoculars from Boots the Chemist, a 33rpm vinyl album of selected bird songs and the Hamlyns Guide, but they were what I knew and they served me well.

I do not take any of these 50 years for granted, nor whatever extra years I may yet have. To live at a time, in a place and have the means to pursue such a leisure activity is a pure blessing, and to have maintained a level of health that has enabled me to do so is another. 

Happy birding!


Paul Doherty said…
Congratulations Steve. An interesting post. My birdwatching started properly in 1969 so I am 5 years ahead of you. The milestones you describe are almost identical to mine. And like you I am still inspired by migration. I think it's the uncertainty of it - will there be something of note, probably not, but who knows. A trip to Batumi last autumn was fabulous, but nearly all of my birding now is done locally, and as long as you recalibrate your expectations in terms of rarities, that's fine.
Good birding
Paul Doherty
Stewart said…
Congratulations Steve, what memories and tales you have accrued over that half century...it is truly a blessing.
Paul Snevets said…
Probably my first bird memory was when I was about 4 or 5 I guess. Although it seems unlikely now at that age, mum let me wander about area near the house including the nearby roads, but she did (Pyrford in the 60's). I saw a bird in the sunshine perched on a lamp post. It was amazing and, like you say, the blue bar on the wing was like nothing I had ever seen. I ran home and said "Mum, Mum, I've just see a bird that has escaped from a zoo".

I like your blog by the way and keep meaning to write re the Alton Barnes photo you posted a while back.


Paul Stevens
Steve Gale said…
Thankyou Paul D - it's been a few years since we last spoke face to face - maybe Dungeness in the mid-80s?

Stewart, I reckon that you have just as many, if not more!

Paul S, thank you for the kind words. Jays are the business...

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