Monday, December 5, 2016

A Reflection on Fifty Years of Birding..............Part One

It dawned on me last week that I have been involved in birds, birdwatching  and birding at various levels of participation for almost exactly fifty years.  How can this be? How could it possibly be so long? What have I seen, and what have I learned during all this time?

And what brought about the revelation?  I rediscovered an old school book that I used as a kid as a birding journal.  I spent the entire evening sitting in the game room reading the entries and taking a long trip down memory lane aided by some splendid 18 year old single malt

I can still recall an early summer morning so long ago when my Grandfather called me to come inside while I was trying to catch sparrows that were eating loose spilt seed from his outdoor aviary.  He summoned me inside to give me a copy of "Our Bird Book" by Sidney Rogerson and Charles Tunnicliffe.

I still have that book, and like me it's not in the best of condition and it's showing it's age a bit but the stories are good.  This book has wonderful illustrations and is written in a charming rambling narrative style rather than as a description of each bird.  For my money Charles Tunnicliffe is one of the very best illustrators, his art work is first class.  For that matter, and I'll digress a bit here; Basil Ede, AW Seaby, and Archibald Thorburn and Charles Tunnicliffe are all outstanding artists.  Each one of them has the knack of being able to add a piece of the birds environment with each illustration, giving it a more authentic look.  In fact Archibald Thorburn's paintings are incredibly detailed in the portrayal of the bird in its environment, its almost like you are looking at the bird through binoculars.  Each one of those now dead artists painted in what I like to think of as a Victorian style - highly detailed yet with some romanticism in the execution. One of the things that I find detracts from modern photography is the obsession with the background being totally out of focus and creamy blurred.   I appreciate the technology that makes this possible and the difficulty in achieving this look whilst in the field.  However, what you end up with is a sterile studio style portrait.  I much prefer to see and be able to identify the foliage  and the habitat in which the bird (or mammal) was situated.  I know that this flies in the face of the established ideal but it is what I prefer.  Whilst on that subject, it's interesting to note the same branch being used time after time on some photosites with different birds perched on it.  The back ground is nicely blurred as that was how the shot was planned, however, it's just using the backyard as a studio.  Each to his own I suppose, it's just not my definition of bird photography.  I believe that my bias stems from taking up photography when I gave up bird hunting.  So I prefer crawling through mud and briers and being exposed to the elements, then trying to portray some of that in my pictures.  

Getting back to the story,

Later that same morning, after giving me the book, we were walking across the fields behind his house in Sussex where my uncle was the farm manager.  That very first introduction had me hooked.  I was shown Whitethroats, Blackcaps, Yellowhammers, Swifts, House Martins, Swallows and even a Mallards nest in a field ditch.

For the next couple of years I must have read that book from cover to cover 3 or 4 times and memorized every illustration.  I taught myself to draw by copying those illustrations.  It was a great way for me to learn to identify each one of them.  Even today, when I see a lifer, I sketch it to help ingrain the memory. 

I used to spend a good part of the annual summer break from school with my grandparents in Sussex, although I grew up in Somerset and later in Cornwall.  When not competing in sports I was constantly outdoors in the woods or on the banks of rivers and lakes, and whilst I was more often fishing or rabbiting I still took delight in being able to identify all the local birds.

When I was around 11, I received a copy of Kirkman and Jourdains "British Birds", a copy of the Observers Book of Birds, and a pair of 10 x 50 binoculars as Christmas gifts  These three gifts were the introduction to, and the catalyst for the start of two life long passions.  Birdwatching (as it was known back then), and collecting bird books.  Beware:  One takes up all your time, the other all your money.

Armed with Binos, the Observers Book of Birds, notebook and a few sandwiches in an old second world war gas mask bag I would disappear all day listing all the birds I could find and making drawings of those that I couldn't readily identify.  The fact that none of my friends found this hobby as fascinating as me didn't bother me in the least.  I would walk the few miles to the coast, through the local Penrose Estate woods, ( I think I knew those woods as well as the gamekeepers), or along the River Cober looking for Dippers.  The fact that they were not likely to be seen, or there would be more chance of winning the lottery didn't ever deter me.  My parents never seemed to mind me disappearing all day as long as I was home not too long after it was dark.

After I left school, I went to college and still continued birdwatching.  I had traded the cliffs, trout streams, pools and small hilly fields of Cornwall for the wooded estates of the home counties, more specifically Surrey.  There were species that I had never seen before, Canada Geese, Lesser-spotted Woodpeckers, even Nightjars.  It has to be admitted that Birdwatching had some serious competition during those years in the shape of studies, Rugby and of course, Girls. After failed attempts to get a jobs with the BBC Natural History Unit and the Natural History Museum.  I decided to join the Army and enjoy some of their much advertised travel all around the world - all for free.

From a Birding perspective this was to prove to be a great decision.  Within a year I was halfway up Mount Kenya in the jungle seeing all manner of birds and mammals.  While in Kenya I also had the opportunity of go out into the Rift Valley for a couple of weeks on foot.  Birds galore!  I vividly remember creeping towards a troupe of baboons and stepping out from behind a tree to see a Secretarybird about 15 feet away.  Most of all I remember the Eagles and Vultures on those plains.  That's not to say that the other inhabitants weren't impressive, elephants, baboons, lions, giraffe and leopard. 

The most impressive birding area I got to visit on that deployment was Lake Naivasha.  I don't confess to know anything about the lake now, but back then in the mid to late 70's it must have been a birders paradise.  Without a guidebook I couldn't identify hardly any of the scores of different birds, apart from the UK birds that were wintering in the area.  I did make a whole book full of notes and drawings and spent some time on my return trying to put a name to some of them.  I wish I could find that book now that there are good field guides and reference books to aid identification.  What I wouldn't give to go back one more time armed to the teeth with long lenses and digital cameras.  If only they had been invented way back then.  At the end of the posting they asked for volunteers to stay behind for another 3 weeks, I nearly dislocated my shoulder raising my arm, only to see I was the only one volunteering.  That volunteering led to another lucky break, looking after military stores in Mombasa, I spent nearly all my spare time on the beach or just inland.  If gave me a chance to see Indian Ocean birds I had never seen before nor have I seen since. 

Mention must also be made of the many snakes that I was lucky enough to observe whilst in Kenya.  Filling a water bottle in a mountain stream and seeing a python up close, patrolling through secondary jungle and seeing a green mamba from three feet.  How about walking over to a weaverbird colony whilst out on the plains and seeing a black mamba in the tree.  Maybe it was just me, but that was one bad tempered dude, and man they are fast, I don't think I've ever seen a snake move that quick.  Although the memory has faded somewhat, if it still serves me correctly, I don't think I could have out ran it.  It reminded me of mercury, the way it seemed to flow through that acacia, all grey/silver and sinister.  I also recall walking up in my sleeping bag one morning with what I think was a puff adder about 6 feet away.  Let me tell you, that was about the fastest that sleeping bag zipper ever worked.

Shortly after the Kenya deployment came another outstanding birding opportunity.  Six months in Cyprus, followed by a further two year spell also in Cyprus.  Cyprus is tucked away in the North East corner of the Mediterranean Sea, close to Syria, Israel, Greece and Turkey.  Whilst the island is populated by both Turkish and Greek Cypriots who had a falling out followed by a Turkish invasion and subsequent United Nations peacekeeping force being deployed, the island is everything you can imagine a Greek island paradise to be.  Beautiful sandy beaches, turquoise water, inland scrub and seasonal streambeds, mountains and very old villages that don't appear to have changed since St Peter visited for a long weekend getaway.  But best of all Cyprus has Akrotiri salt lake.  There are Two birds will always be etched into my mind when remembering Cyprus, Griffon Vultures and Flamingoes.  Partly due to the fact those were the names of the two rugby teams I played for and partly because these are the more famous avian residents of the island.  Griffon Vultures are huge, imposing birds and at the time they were not uncommon.  I'm sure the status has deteriorated by now which is a shame as they are really cool birds.  I spent quite some time searching for a nest just so I could say I managed to find one, I eventually found one about 15 feet from the top of a three hundred foot crumbling limestone cliff.  Needless to say I didn't get a very close look.  Akrotiri Salt Lake used to hold a nice flock of Flamingoes that were always a joy to watch, mosquitos permitting.  Around the edge was a marsh that contained some of the tallest rushes/reeds I have ever seen.  During migration this area was like bird central as many European migrants pass through Cyprus when they return from Africa and this was, as far as I was aware, their number one stopover spot, in much the same way that High Island is on the Gulf Coast of Texas.  The list of birds is endless but the more memorable birds such as Hoopoes, Rollers, Bee Eaters, Night Herons, Warblers, Wildfowl, many species of birds of prey, but especially Honey Buzzards all bring back memories.  I can still remember the first time I saw each of these birds.  By this stage in my birding career I was carrying a copy of Peterson's Birds of Britain and Europe, as well as a copy of the Birds of Cyprus,  but I was still using the same Binos.  In fairness, it wasn't all sweetness and light, there were also some less positive memories.  The lime sticks and the mist nets used by scumbag poachers to trap songbirds.   I recall walking into a Greek restaurant and being offered some kind of stewed/grilled songbirds and getting into an argument with the staff.  This BS continues to this day, I understand that this is somewhat of a heritage thing but this is 2016 people, there is no need for it.  There is no excuse for decimating migratory songbirds, STOP IT!. 

On return from Cyprus it was across to Germany.  There I got to see many European species that whilst common in Germany were rare to a kid that grew up in Cornwall.  I suppose the most impressive birds I remember from Germany were the Black Woodpecker and the Storks.  I also seem to remember that birds were pretty hard to find in the middle of the German winter.  For those of you that haven't experienced it, Germany can get real cold, but the weather in summer is I also seem to remember that the Germans were also much more possessive of their woodland than the Brits were.  There were several times I was putting in a "guest" appearance in one woodland or another when a Jaegermeister or Forstmeister would invite me to leave.   The birding then became a little bit sidelined as tours of duty to hot, dusty and dry places doing my small bit in looking for things that may or may not have existed intervened.  I always thought it somewhat ironic that the so called "Cradle of Civilization" was almost the end of it, and may well still prove to be.

After the long extended stay in the Army ended, I managed to get a position as a Gamekeeper on Salisbury Plain.  To many it is just a windswept grassy area that contains Stonehenge, or its a 90,000 acre Military Training Area that you try to avoid doing Exercises on.  To me though, it is one of the most inspiring places I have ever been to, the amount of history and prehistory is breathtaking.  From Mesolithic through Neolithic to Saxon to Roman its all there.  The wildlife, thanks to the military presence deterring the public, and minimizing farming, is also abundant.  In Deer, foxes, rabbits and even the Doormouse can be found.  The bird life was also interesting.  If and when we received permission to cultivate an acre or two for planting winter game bird food, Stone Curlews would appear and on several occasions nested successfully.  Getting permission to cultivate was not easy due to the chance of hitting unexploded ordinance or disturbing a site of archaeological importance.  Dealing with Military and Government rules and regulations is never easy, especially when you want something from them. 

In the spring Wheatears appear overnight like magic, so do Cuckoos, and then later come Nightjars.  Lapwings were always to be found on the fields not long after they were plowed and the winter wheat was growing strongly in the Spring.  Their four dark green eggs with the pointed ends toward the center were not hard to find.  There were just masses of Skylarks, it seemed that their singing was constantly to be heard.  Their nests were harder to find, usually located in a dried up cows footprint in medium length grass.  I can't believe that I read they are now becoming scarce due to changes in farming patterns.  I saw my first ever covey of Quail, flushed by my pointer, and many coveys of Grey Partridge and Red-legged Partridge as well. In some years there were more partridge than other years, this I think was more to do with how wet and or cold the spring was rather than farming patterns. Cold and wet is not good for young game bird chicks in long grass and it also limits the availability of insects - their chief food.   By this time I had got to know a few birders and I would occasionally drive one of them out onto Salisbury Plain if there was something interesting to show them.  For instance, I once found a Hobby nest with eggs being incubated, or another time I recall showing a friend where Stone Curlews would roost and we counted them coming in.  In the winter, I knew where you could find Great Grey Shrike, Short eared, Barn and Tawny Owl, Harriers and my favorite, the Woodcock. There was one fenced off archaeological site covering about 2 acres that in the winter you could park up close to the fence and watch as Harriers came in to roost.  They would fly past a couple of times then circle round and plummet into long wiry grass as if on prey.  Pretty cool to watch.  I'm told that these Harriers are also becoming rare now.  I remember seeing my first ever Red Kite at very close range in the mid 90's and not believing what I was looking at even though I knew what it was.  I wasn't aware of the program to reintroduce them at the time and thought it must have been a stray from continental Europe or a Welsh bird doing some sightseeing.

I was still not using expensive equipment, the old Binos had died, to be replaced by some cheaper, but much better Nikon ones and an Opticron scope.  I was now also becoming dangerously aware of bird photography, wildlife filming and those beautiful long white lenses.  Indeed there were a couple of times that I bumped into TV people filming wildlife out on the Plain.  On one occasion in March they were filming Hares without much success, when I pointed out they were upwind of them and perhaps they should consider moving.  We managed to relocate their hide to an area at the bottom of a large wheat field where the wheat was about 6 inches high and they called me later to say that they managed to some good footage.  I was pleased for them but also a bit resentful in that that they got a job filming wildlife and I didn't, yet they weren't knowledgeable enough about wildlife to take wind into consideration and to position themselves in the right place.  To be fair, I didn't know hardly anything about cameras back then.  I was now starting to collect a lot of bird and natural history books.  Not least those by Richard Jefferies and "BB".  How those books have stood the test of time.  What gift it must be to have the ability to draw pictures so vivid with just words, to have the ability to transport someone to a different place and time so effortlessly.  I envy them.  After all this time I'm still not sure who I envied the most, those wonderful writes or the cameramen.  I'm guessing the writers, as the books will be around for ever, for each new generation to discover.  The way technology is changing so quickly, almost anyone with a reasonable budget today, can take bird photos that were practically impossible back then.

All good things come to an end, and one day the job was gone.  But then another opportunity arose in of all places, Texas.  Why not? I thought, and never one to miss a chance to try something different, I decided to take a chance, sell up everything and give it a go.  I didn't have the slightest clue that I would end up in arguably one of the best birding spots in North America.  That's to say close by to the Gulf Coast, High Island and Freeport.  Within a year of arriving, I was opening the gates of my own (small) ranch, most of which was Columbia bottomland.  Live Oaks, Water Oaks, Sugar Hackberry, Toothache Tree, Viburnams, Hawthorns everywhere, with creeks and a good sized pond .  In short, it was great habitat.  Of course I knew nothing of farming or ranching or of livestock.  I did know game and birds and set about improving the land with game and birds foremost.  In three years I got over 225 species of bird on piece of land as well as a bunch of snakes and mammals.  But I also got something much more important, I got first hand knowledge of the Texas Master Naturalist  Program.  I think I'll cover those remaining last 16 years in the next blog posting.  Texas is too special and big to be tacked on the end of this rambling entry.

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