This is an indulgence. We have reached the quiet(er) time of summer when most birds have fledged their youngsters and have gone off to hide in the leaves and keep quiet until its time to migrate south again. Thus, not a lot of interesting things to record on the patch right now. I could write about Ash trees, and indeed will do so in a while as I have interesting things to say about them, but today it’s birds.
It struck me some time ago that books by birders seem to be obliged to include a section about how the author got into birding in the first place … why should I be different? You always wanted to know this didn’t you? Well …
My father and grandfather were both engineers. They understood science, and observation and the experimental processes but had little idea about matters biological that could be pursued in the fresh air. Fresh air was freely available when you went hiking and had picnics but otherwise, while nice enough, was not considered of great utility. Nevertheless, they wanted to encourage my youthful and at times annoyingly enquiring mind that had already turned to an interest in matters animal and vegetable well before the age of ten. One day, I am sure they were thinking, this enthusiasm will turn to serious, career enhancing things involving grease and metal and chemicals but if the scientific mind can be engaged by what must surely be just a passing interest in birds and insects, then so be it.
I was about ten years old so this was the late 1950s. We were staying with my grandparents in a small village on the edge of Exmoor National Park and they, being sensible grandparents who thought their younger relatives should not wish to waste their days playing cowboys and indians (the popular childhood occupation of boys of the period) they presented me with some books to try to stop me asking questions they couldn’t answer and to start looking stuff up for myself. What I could have achieved had the internet been invented back then.
Not just any books, but the three volumes of James Fisher’s “Bird Recognition” published by Pelican. I still have the set, a bit dog-eared, plus a companion book, “Watching Birds”. OK, not actually the originals but replacements sourced with some difficulty and expense from second hand book dealers. Worth reading even today – birding was a very different thing back in the innocent days before twitching and big years were invented. Anyway, there I was with my wonderful early field guides and a vague idea in my young head that watching birds involved going out and, well, watching birds. What you did then other than probably write down their names in a notebook – I was and still am pretty keen on making lists of things – was somewhat hazy but clearly the first step in this new career was going to be to find some birds to watch.
My father drew the short straw and before supper one golden, sunny day (days back then were always golden and sunny of course) we set out across the fields to the banks of the Barle River to watch some birds … preferably somewhere where nobody was fishing as this was, and still is, a famous trout and salmon river and men with cane rods are famously grumpy about small boys. I have since done my fair bit of fly fishing for trout and can totally sympathize with their grumpiness. I seem to recall there were several European Blackbirds, some ducks, a number of wheeling Swifts or Swallows taking insects over the water and I clearly remember my father sitting on the grass overlooking a fast-flowing section of the river to fire up his pipe while I climbed into the low fork of a tree to watch birds. We were allowed to climb trees back then as health and safety had yet to be invented.
We watched birds – and that’s pretty much it. Nice birds, I liked anything like that but we still had no idea what we were to do next. Then I saw it. A small, rather nondescript brown bird with a white belly appeared on a rock in the river, bobbed up and down a bit, then jumped into the water and ran about on stones below the surface (the water really was clear) before bobbing up onto the rock again. It kept doing it and I was entranced. Birds, as everyone knew, are supposed to fly or perch, not play at being fish. This was magic and I could have stayed there for hours but Dad was getting bored and supper was calling so we set off home … where Mr Fisher’s books were waiting for me. Fifty-five years later this is a clear as yesterday. My very first lifer, had I known it.
There my bird was. On page 144 of volume 3. A Dipper (Cinclus cinclus), “a bird of shallow, clear water, especially swift-flowing rivers”. A bird that walked under the water. How could I not become a birder and eventually a biologist with lots of letters after my name after discovering that the world contained such wonderful creatures? How could anyone not? There is no appeal in metal and grease that could compare to this. Actually, there is no appeal in metal grease at all and i have spent my life trying to avoid the things. Bugs and birds, they are the stuff for me.
Dippers are still living along the river Barle, I am happy to report. There are even films of them on YouTube pretty much where I saw that first one. I think my elders eventually got over the fact that my hands were never going to be covered in oil and the chemistry lab was not to be my natural environment. They were certainly pleased that I unexpectedly managed to make a living out of things biological – actually, so was I.