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 to them, and enjoyed too, 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 (a 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 encourage me to start looking stuff up for myself. Just think what I could have achieved had the internet been invented back then.
Not just any books, but they gave me the three volumes of James Fisher’s “Bird Recognition” published in paperback 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 not inconsiderable expense from second hand book dealers across the Atlantic. Very much 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 and exclusive and expensive 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.
Well, 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. Six decades later this is a clear to me as yesterday. My very first lifer, had I known it.
Back home, a cup of tea, some cake and out came Mr Fishers field guide. The bird’s identity was revealed as 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 once I had discovered 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 stuff. Bugs and birds, they are the things for me.
A short digression here. Dipping is what birders say they have done if they have failed to see an expected bird. So to ‘dip a Dipper’ is to not see a Dipper where you expected or hoped to see one. Well, I had Not-dipped a Dipper and was a happy and contented child. Recently, I happened upon a short video of a Dipper (on YouTube, of course) that was filmed within a mile or so of the place where I saw “my” Dipper and was again, fascinated by this little brown bird. It is really a good thing to know that despite all that has happened to the world, these birds are still able to make a living along that stretch of water. Admittedly that’s probably because the value of the river for fishing means it is kept in good condition. One day I will go back and see for myself.
One final thing. I thought I had seen the bird walking on the river bottom, but I now know that I had not as the laws of specific gravity and relative density apply to these birds as they do to anything else and in fact Dippers ‘fly’ under the water using their wing muscles and only occasionally gripping pebbles with their feet in order to remain submerged. Effective, anyway. To confound things even further, the bird’s name comes from its bobbing or dipping activity on the riverbank, not from the dips it takes in the water.
From such small things does a career and a lifetime interest grow. “What do you want for Christmas?” “Animal books”. “What do you want for your birthday?” “Animal books”. “Where shall we go for the day?” “The countryside, up on the moors”. So here I am, sixty-some years later, a Chartered Biologist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology plus a few other letters after my name, past-President of Bird Protection Quebec and with enough spare time to put this down in a computer file knowing that almost nobody is likely to read it … but it pleases me to remember.
All children should be taken birding or botanizing or bugging and helped to see what is around them. I like to believe that every child who finds his or her “Dipper” cannot fail to care about such things for the rest of their lives and hopefully, be prepared to protect wild creatures and the places they live.
Dippers are still living along the river Barle. 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.
All thanks to the Dipper.