Diary

Tim Dee

From the first time I first looked through a pair of binoculars, aged seven, I wanted to be a bird-spotter, even though I’d picked the binoculars up because I was a bird-lover, intrigued by the ways birds’ paths crossed with mine. Nowadays bird-spotters are known as birders while bird-lovers are more commonly called birdwatchers. In terms of etymology and ornithology, there is barely a difference, but it matters greatly to those involved. It’s easy to distinguish between the two types. Birders are the green-clad, kit-festooned action men of blasted headlands, sewage farms and reservoir causeways. They take pelagic trips and dribble a bucket of rancid bouillabaisse behind a boat to entice rare petrels: this is called ‘chumming’. What is crucial for them is the moment between sighting a bird and identifying it. There is a potent second or two (this can extend to hours if a tricky rarity is glimpsed) when the bird is wrested from a backdrop of wind or sea or marsh, or singled out from a cloud of lookalikes, and then named. In their itch to tag the wild, birders travel through the world as if they were closing it down.

For most birdwatchers – a far more numerous category: in Britain, the million-plus members of the RSPB, as well as anyone anywhere who notices a bird and consciously looks at it – birdwatching is a more occasional occurrence, an activity which doesn’t usually require binoculars and which happens whenever a bird asserts itself by its presence, beautifully or intriguingly or annoyingly. Birdwatching offers a kind of sentimental education, permitting a momentary entry into a bigger world, even if only to gawp. To the birdwatcher, the wish to name matters less than the delight at the fizzing otherness of the thing, its flying or singing: a grey heron gobbling a live eel, swifts mating on the wing, arctic terns dive-bombing intruders above their nesting beach, a feral pigeon jumping onto a District Line train at Edgware Road.

All birders were birdwatchers once. At eight I was smitten by a yellowhammer in Surrey; by nine I was hardcore. Since then I have had periods of being a birder and periods of retirement from active service. Now I think of myself as somewhere between the two, an inveterate namer (you cannot unlearn the habit) but motivated primarily by the otherness of birds. Most birders are hatched in their teens and become full-fledged only if they remain teenagers in spirit well into adult life. Almost every book written on birders is alive to their peculiar cast of mind: the comedy of the nerdish pursuit has been told and retold. Several hundred men and their telescopes in a supermarket car park in Kent watching the first North American golden-winged warbler to be recorded in Europe, a few grams of yellow feathers blown across the Atlantic: the anoraks and their obsession are weird but recognisably British. If birding is associated with the comedy of teenage gawkiness it also has the intensity of first love. For some men, nothing else – human or otherwise – will mark their lives to such an extent.

Jeremy Mynott’s Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience is an attempt to put birdwatching back into birding, to reconnect the obsession with rarity and listing to a world that thinks more humanly about birds.[*] Mynott is unquestionably a birder. He keeps a list of birds seen in Central Park on business trips to New York (where he was once asked to identify a vagrant tufted duck); he has singled out a copse in East Anglia where he fully expects to see a red-breasted flycatcher one coming autumn day. The jacket photo shows a bearded man partly concealed by a reedbed, wearing binoculars and a green cap, standing to a curious half-attention. It is like a picture of a first meeting with a member of a previously unencountered tribe, a birder fresh from the bush.

My most memorable youthful twitch was in the autumn of 1975. I was 14. At Breydon Water in Norfolk a greater yellowlegs had been found, a very rare North American wader, like an attenuated redshank, with thin straw-yellow legs, a delicate long bill and washed-out grey-green plumage. I’d never seen one; few people in Britain had. I was offered a place in a car travelling from Bristol and eagerly accepted. My bird-listing years, long dreamed of, were about to begin. The four of us spread out along the bank at Breydon between 20 other observers and stared at the mud. I was schooled in the awful disappointment of the ‘dip’: the absence of the main attraction, the spreading slump infecting the whole crowd.

We waited. The tide shifted and someone spotted the bird. I borrowed a telescope and down the end of the long brass tube saw it, far away, jerkily stepping through rising water. It was wonderful – a bundle of specialness, a bird from America that had flown across the Atlantic Ocean, and had been seen by only a few dozen people in Britain before – but though I remember a sensation of relief I can recall little else about it. Human behaviour that day was more striking. My friend Anthony had wandered further along the bank and missed the wave of excitement. As he came back he saw us intent on our scrutiny and panicked, ran and slipped, tumbling into the mud with flailing arms, his binoculars spinning around his neck like a slingshot. Our driver, Roy, grew tired on the long road back to Bristol and stuck his head – ginger beard and curly hair – out of the window of his black Austin A40, yawning and moaning into the autumn night as he steered along the motorway.

Surprisingly little has been written recently about birdwatching. For Mynott, the image of the old lady paying her sub to the RSPB, hanging out fat balls and talking to the robin in her back garden can’t do the subject justice. His book is dense with evidence of the penetration of birds into our lives and vice versa. It is interested in American sports team mascots and Homer’s eagles, in Victorian feather hats and musical imitations of birdsong, in Sumerian ornithology and birds in pub names. His intention is to see beyond birding as extended adolescence and describe what it means to be a birder in late middle age. What did these ancient mariners coming back into port actually see? What did all that chumming add up to? How thrilling were the pre-dawn starts, the boring days when not much was about, the packed lunches and freezing fingers, the lack of female company, the rain and worse, the humiliation of zip-off trousers and missed birds, of identification mistakes made in front of other men, the pathos of chasing after exhausted vagrants at death’s door, or counting smaller and smaller numbers of formerly common birds around the same patch? And what of the compensations? Being kick-started into every day by clocking the swifts above you, noting the spread of buzzards from the red soil of your West Country childhood to the grey sand of your East Anglian retirement, mourning lost redpolls but finding solace in siskins, watching lapwings mopping at a wet sky, or hearing a woodcock grunting its love song overhead at dusk, or feeling redstarts tug you in pursuit of them by quivering their rusty tails?

That list is mine; every birder will have their own. To me ducks seem hard to love while thrushes are easy. Some birders in recent years have chosen to spend their free time at landfill sites watching gulls scavenge our stinking rubbish. Great rarities have been identified. Glaucous-winged, Caspian and Baltic gulls have been added to the British bird list. Mynott believes that even observations made in fetid places by the few persistent devotees who annotate the feather detail of such freakish species (medium large gulls are among the toughest of all bird families to separate in the field) inevitably become part of the mosaic of British birdlife, and can over time become part of our wider sense of nature, moving into our imaginations, our dreams and our culture. Since I was a child birdwatcher the little egret has done just this, while the red-backed shrike, now all but extinct as a British breeding bird, has done the opposite. In the last 20 years the raven and the peregrine have come back from the mountainous edges of Britain to the heart of the country and have come back too into our minds. Mynott argues that any bird can do the same. But while he writes fluently about real birds his energy is reserved for the thoughts these birds prompt in him.

Birds are not easy to recall, unless you look hard and then work at the remembering. Every how-to book tells you to keep notes. Many birders instantly recognise most British birds but would struggle to describe the arrangement of blue and yellow on a blue tit, or the wing pattern of a chaffinch. Birds’ elusiveness is a considerable part of their appeal: they are hard to capture, harder still to hold. Their flightiness is intrinsic to their meaning, and for this reason the simple recording of numbers and names has seemed the best approach. In 1798, the Lyrical Ballads added the nightingale to the Somerset county list. ‘In Nature there is nothing melancholy,’ Coleridge says, then proceeds to make an exquisitely melancholy poem full of fresh observations and received ideas about nightingales. But for birders ‘The Nightingale’ could seem – as it did to me – extravagant, wordy and possessive. I would have preferred something plainer, and thought of naming and dating as somehow closer to the truth. The austere prose of county bird reports, the abbreviations of field guides, the mapping of feather details in handbooks and the hush of observation hides, with their muted whispering: these are the appropriate modes for writing about nature. Watch, name, count, and then shut up.

Mynott knows this, but he’s a birder who wants to talk. He dedicates his book to his wife, saying he has ‘never yet succeeded in persuading her to take the slightest interest in birds’. In a chapter on birdsong, after a 3.30 a.m. start to listen to a Suffolk dawn chorus, he comes out of the jungle once more: ‘I brush the dew from my beard and head home.’ In these moments we seem to glimpse Mynott the quiet man; and both moments run counter to his repeated assertion that there is more to be said, and his hope that someone will listen. A lone man who has been sitting silently in a hide watching tufted ducks and is now walking back to his car in the half-light is garrulous because everything is interesting when you haven’t been able to speak for hours, when there is no one to talk to, when there are only birds that mustn’t be disturbed.

Birdscapes is built around groups of questions: why and how do birds make us think and feel, and what do our thoughts and feelings say about us and the birds? The book is full of such questions, panoramic in its scope and liberal in its interpretations. Each chapter starts with a birder’s account of a place and its birds. We travel to Delphi, the Volga Delta, the Scillies and the Flannan Isles as well as Mynott’s home patch in Suffolk. The scenes and species have been picked to establish the theme of the chapter ahead: why are we attracted to birds, why do we like to identify them, why are rarities appealing, why do some birds seem more beautiful than others, why does song sound like music, why does the place where we see a bird add to the effect, why do we seek to manage nature, why are we drawn to naming it, why have birds flown through our lives as symbols for as long as they’ve flown about us? Mynott scarcely begins to answer any of these questions before another occurs to him and he rushes us off, via the Ponzo illusion and the Kanizsa triangle, the naked women of the Windmill Theatre and the neuroscience of V.S. Ramachandran – all invoked to challenge the objectivity of birding – to another conundrum. Allusions come thick and fast and often I wished for less, wanted more birds, fewer words.

The antecedent of Birdscapes is James Fisher’s still unsurpassed Shell Bird Book of 1966. Fisher seemed to know all there was to know about birds and had much to tell us on subjects ranging from the fossil avifauna of Britain to John Clare’s poetic bird tally. A naturalist and conservationist, he had previously written the most detailed biography imaginable of the fulmar; was one of the editors of the New Naturalist Library; and regularly appeared on the BBC. The Shell book covers ornithology, bird archaeology, art history, literary criticism, the lives of great birdmen and much else in a monologue of immense confidence, capturing a moment when the passionate enthusiasms of an amateur could coexist, in a single person, with the ambitions of the rapidly professionalising scientist.

Mynott probably knows just as much, but times have changed and he is nervous of coming to such firm conclusions. Fisher’s hauteur and confidence is replaced by a more generous, perhaps too generous, inclusivity. In his chapter on birds’ names a mention of Shakespeare prompts a reference to Plato, followed by John Stuart Mill, with George Orwell and Lewis Carroll bringing up the rear. Then come ten sections on the naming of birds, the ninth dealing with those named after people. He mentions my favourite of these, the ground-dwelling forest cisticola with a rufous face, throat and breast called Mrs Moreau’s warbler, a vulnerable (i.e. rare and restricted) Tanzanian species in a monotypic genus that is named for Winifred Moreau, the wife of the great ornithologist Reg. But Mynott is keener on the Isabelline wheatear and the Isabelline shrike. He says that the word isabelline, meaning ‘sandy coloured’, is derived from Isabella, the archduchess of Austria and daughter of Philip II of Spain: ‘He laid siege to Ostend in 1601 and in a moment of filial loyalty she vowed not to change her underwear until the city was taken. Unfortunately the siege lasted until 1604, by which time the garments were the colour in question.’ There follows a footnote and then a note on the footnote:

The Oxford English Dictionary reports this anecdote only to refute it by pointing out that the word was first used to describe this colour in 1600. But as Michael Quinton suggests in his ‘World Wide Words’ note on the internet, the reference may well be to another Isabella and another siege, the siege of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella that ended in 1492 (this one lasted eight months – quite long enough for the purpose). A more prosaic derivation could be that the word comes from the Arabic izah meaning ‘lion-coloured’, but the Isabella story deserves to be true.

Mrs Moreau’s opinion of her warbler is not recorded.

[*] Princeton, 367 pp., £17.95, March 2009, 978 0 691 13539 7.