I first became a birdwatcher in 1965, at the age of ten. Armed with the Observer’s Book of Birds – bought with my own pocket-money – I began to observe, and tried to identify . . .
This was not at all easy given the illustrations on offer : fine Victorian paintings by the great wildlife artist Archilbald Thorburn, but not terribly useful as a field guide for the novice birdwatcher.
Fortunately, I was not alone. At school there was my friend Robbie; at home, my brother Ivor. Robbie and I were encouraged in our birdwatching by our class teacher, Miss Lorna Bayley. She put up a bird table outside the classroom window and provided bird-food. This was pioneering stuff. At this time feeding the birds mostly meant throwing crusts of bread out in the back garden or hanging up bacon-rind. Miss Bayley put up enormous bird identification charts on the classroom wall and Robbie and I competed to identify each bird. We thereby came to know birds which we had never actually seen – and a number of which in fact I have still not seen. Robbie will have seen them all as he has since become a serious ornithologist. He always won our competitions.
But even this was not the beginning of our knowledge of birds. We had already been keen collectors of Brooke Bond tea cards, including the series ‘Bird Portraits’, illustrated by Charles Tunnicliffe. We collected these mostly through games of flick cards. We would carefully scan our winnings to sort out the cards we wished to save from the ‘swops’. These would then go back into the game in the hope of winning yet more. In fact by this means we were not only knowledgeable about British birds, but also about ‘Tropical Birds’, ‘African Wildlife’, ‘Asian Wildlife’, and ‘Wildlife in Danger’. And then there was ‘Wild Birds in Britain‘ to educate us further still.
Such riches !
There was also a series on ‘British Butterflies’. This soon became my brother Ivor’s particular area of expertise. We had the great benefit of a neglected field immediately behind our house which grew tall with thistles and knapweed – and there was also a buddleia bush in our back garden. This meant a regular supply of butterflies throughout the summer months. We delighted in small tortoiseshells, red admirals, meadow browns, gatekeepers, orange tips and cabbage whites.
It was Ivor who instigated our most significant next step forward in our interest in birds. He was by then a member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists Club and through them he got in touch with a local volunteer leader, Miss Joan Spurgin. She was a wonderful, enthusiastic and very tiny lady whose whole life seemed to be about birds. She supplied a regular bird report to our local newspaper under the name of Meon Minnow – the Meon was our local river – and she was a member of every bird organisation available, from the national British Trust for Ornithology to the very local Gilkicker Point Bird Group. She had a collection of boys (no girls in those days) which she would squeeze into her Mini and shoot off with to local bird reserves such as Farlington Marshes (near Portsmouth), or Titchfield Haven (near Fareham), or to anywhere within reach where something interesting had recently been sighted. Nothing ever arrived without her coming to know about it.
On one of our early outings we stood on the southern-most shore of Hayling Island with the Hampshire Field Club. The grown-ups were staring out to sea at what, to our un-binoculared eyes, were no more than a collection of distant black dots on the water. They were Brent Geese, come down from Siberia for the winter. This was 1966 and Brent Geese were then a rare and novel sight. Things change. Now, all winter and all along the Solent, you have to watch where you’re putting your feet for fear of stepping on them.
Titchfield Haven is now a National Nature reserve, with hides and scrapes and islands – all especially designed for birds and for the birdwatchers that come to see them. In the 1960s it was privately owned and you had to be ‘connected’ to be allowed in. Miss Spurgin would transport us, and the party would be led by ‘Doc’ Suffern, whom I remember as a tall, elderly, silver-haired gentleman who dressed in what was even then an old-fashioned canvas great-coat, against the winter winds. Now, for the convenience of birdwatchers, there are both a ‘Spurgin Hide’ and a ‘Suffern Hide’ overlooking the scrapes. In November 2001 an anonymous note was found pinned to the wall of the former :
“I doubt I would be sitting here if it wasn’t for you.
You introduced me, and many other young – barely fledged – to the wonders of wildfowl and waders. The beauty and exhilaration outweighed the cold, wet tramping through the meadows.
Forty years on, there is a hide in your memory and your beloved birds still have the power to thrill.”
The next major step in my birdwatching career was a summer I spent in the US, in New Jersey and New England. Suddenly there was a whole new world of birds to be identified and to delight in – and not just the birds themselves, but their names too – grackles, flickers, chickadees, cardinals, catbirds, thrashers, vireos, phoebes. A new bird and a new name nearly every day.
And some old ones. Misled by the excitement of the new, I spent a week trying to identify some common back-yard birds – dull brown, masked and noisy. After lengthy and repeated rummaging through the pages of my newly purchased Birds of North America field- guide, it eventually dawned that they were in fact immature European starlings . . .
A couple of years later, in 1979, as a post-graduate student, I went to live for a year in rural South India. I went without a field guide. I had been so occupied with preparing for my academic work that I quite forgot to prepare for the birds. I traveled by train from Bombay to Madras and beyond, through a landscape of paddy-fields and untidy towns, villages of thatched huts and coconut palms, the whole route strung with track-side telephone wires on which strange birds sat in abundance. Black birds with crests and out-turned tips to their tails; white hawks with black masks and black shoulders; green, needle tailed Bee-eaters; kingfishers the size of pigeons with massive red bills; dumpy, dull-rust-coloured birds – until they exploded on wings banded with metallic blue. In the paddy fields small, brown herons sprung from nowhere on wings of brilliant white. On arrival at my destination there were : two varieties of crow; an orange-brown ‘magpie’; a bird with red cheeks and an oddly vertical black crest; kites with white heads ; a variety of egrets; a large ‘pied’ wagtail; green parakeets; raucous mynah birds.
I needed a bird book.
In fact there was no modern field guide available at that time. I did locate a book on South Indian birds by Lt.-Col. H.R. Baker, Indian Army (retd.) and Chas. M. Inglis, Curator, Darjeeling Natural History Museum, published in 1930. These chaps clearly knew their stuff. The descriptions were good. But there were also worrying remarks throughout, such as ‘they are shy and difficult to procure’, ‘I got one on the 25th March in Bihar’, ‘their flesh is much superior . . . ‘ and – without apology – ‘I have shot females with eggs ready to come out of their ovaries as early as the 27th January’.
This was not at all what I had been brought up on.
Anyway, when it came to illustrations the book contained just a few colour plates. I needed something different, with proper pictures. Miraculously, such a book appeared – by post – just in time for my birthday. It had been sent from the UK by my old friend Terry Johnson (also one of Joan Spurgin’s boys) : ‘Collins Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Sub-continent’, by Martin Woodcock (no, really – it’s called “nominative determinism”). It had only just been published. I must have been one of the first persons in the sub-continent to get a copy. It was not quite a modern field guide and it did not cover all the 1,250 or so birds to be found in the region, but it was beautifully illustrated, and just what I required. All I had to do now was abandon all the names I’d been inventing for the birds I’d seen and learn the proper ones.
Armed with my Woodcock, I observed and identified a good number of birds in my year in India. But that was just the beginning. I returned to India in 1984 and lived for two years in the city of Hyderabad in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. It was there that I met the Birdwatchers Society of Andhra Pradesh (BSAP). My wife and I were walking in the Public Gardens when we came upon a small note pinned to a tree inviting anyone interested in birds to make contact. I did so at once.
The Society had been formed not long before by a small group of really quite serious birdwatchers. They were led by Mr Siraj Taher, an avuncular and hugely welcoming gentleman who became and remained a good friend until his death – too soon – a few years ago. I quickly discovered that the use of the term ‘birdwatchers’ was really too modest. There was a buzz about the group based on the fact that there was real ornithological work to be done. Although much had been done in the now distant past, there was little up-to-date and specific information available about the birds of Hyderabad and its surrounding districts. The BSAP was on a mission to put that right at once.
Sunday morning field trips once a month, and checking my own observations in between with Siraj and others, helped develop my own knowledge of Indian birds. I have since put this modest expertise to good use in other parts of the country as well. I have been proud to say, wherever I have gone – in the UK too – that I am a Life Member of the Birdwatchers Society of Andhra Pradesh.
My friend Terry played an important part, many years ago, in providing the inspiration for these writings. We were teenagers at the time, and very much Miss Spurgin’s boys, when he lent me a copy of an RSPB publication, ‘Birds and Green Places – a selection from the writings of W.H. Hudson’. Hudson was one of the founders of the RSPB in 1889. The Society was formed in reaction to the then huge trade in feathers for women’s hats, a fashion responsible for the destruction of many thousands of egrets, birds of paradise and other species whose plumes had become fashionable in the late Victorian era. The book was a collection of gems. They were as magical to me as Tunnicliffe’s illustrations for Brooke Bond’s tea cards had been. It was a whole new way of delighting in birds and the countryside – and without the inconvenience of cold, wet tramping through meadows. C.F. Tunnicliffe (R.A.) had set me off painting and drawing birds, encouraged once again by my ever-enthusiastic school teacher Miss Bayley. She even arranged for me to have a one-boy show on the school corridor wall. It took some years for my art master at Grammar school to persuade me that there was more to art than detailed renditions of birds and scenes of the countryside. Hudson, similarly set me off writing about birds and the countryside. However, this proved only for my own consumption and, in any case, it didn’t last long. I was soon side-tracked – seduced by ‘literature’ as a teenager, obliged to write essays as a student, and then to produce reports at work. Nonetheless, the urge was always there and somewhere in the last few years I returned again to writing about birds, wildlife and places.
But writing is hard work, so while Hudson underlay the urge, there have necessarily been a couple of other motivations as well. One is simply to re-experience the delight of the places I’ve been and the birds and sights I’ve seen by recalling them – in detail, and with pictures which, more or less, reproduce the original vision. Another, of course, is the pleasure of story-telling – together with the hope that I have told them well enough for others to enjoy them too.