A Great Man’s Passing
This article first appeared in Birds Illustrated
Do you wonder from where each generation draws its birding inspiration? While many people seem to take up birding in middle or even later life and regret the opportunities missed, the overseas holidays unaccompanied by optics or the walks untroubled by an ear or eye out for the birds. But listen to the well-known figures in birding and sooner or later you will hear about that inspirational teacher or charismatic character that got them started early on the path to obsession. Sadly, many such great men have passed.
Let me tell you about the passing of another great man of birding. Eric, or ‘C-B’ to friends and colleagues, taught me all that’s really important about watching birds and appreciating their beauty and behaviour.
When I was six or seven I would lie with my head hanging over the foot-end of the bed so I could look under the eaves above my bedroom window where a pair of House Martins would construct their mud hut, as skillfully as any master builder. Sometimes I’d watch them drop into a muddy puddle, barely lifting off again armed with a gobbet of sticky mud they would transform into a pearl-like building block. So I had a passing interest shared by all country kids briefly aroused by ‘ousels’ singing melodiously and ‘blue birds’ making nests in ragstone walls; stoked by the mystery bird whose neat nest I found tucked between an apple tree and a brick wall and by the moss and cobweb globes exposed by Autumn winds in the ‘old man’s beard’.
Life changed when I was nine and an accident left me in a hospital bed for three months, and ‘confined to quarters’ for another nine. Scratching for a way to get me out of the house and my head out of a book, dad took me fishing; carrying me from car to lakeside where we spent many a summer’s evening drowning worms.
Coarse fishing should consist of watching a float for when it dashes away as a fish takes the bait… but we were distracted by the constant traffic of butterflies, bees and birds in the Reed Mace.
Sometimes we watched Sedge Warblers weaving their nests between reeds; sometimes we would see our fisherman’s patience echoed by a Spotted Flycatcher constantly going out and back from a dead limb in pursuit of midges. Often we marveled at screaming Swifts vacuuming up aerial plankton, or at the way Swallows took sips from lake surface whilst on the wing. Once we watched a fat Cuckoo chick, overflowing from a Reed Warbler’s nest, push out its tiny step-sibling. And once, that seminal moment when I was re-born as a birder, when the spangled jewel of a Kingfisher landed on my fishing rod, dived for a minnow and took its prize back to its waiting brood. All the while my dad would name the birds and butterflies and give me the names of the plants around us in a hushed voice. Somehow they carried an implicit assertion that the lakeside was a cathedral where we paid homage to Gaia and appreciated her bird and butterfly angels.
When I was a teenager, before sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll were invented, he would drive mum and me up to an old farm track on the edge of the hazel coppice. In the cooling summer evening we would listen to nightingales. Dad would bring a gallon can of water and pour it into the track’s ruts and then watch the subsequent puddle. Within a few minutes Swallows and Martins, Bullfinches and Meally Redpolls, Thrushes and Warblers, would be slaking their thirst a few feet from our quiet vigil.
The last time I visited my dad we went birding on a New Zealand beach the day after a storm. He used my scope with his good eye and watched hundreds of Flesh-footed Shearwaters dabbling among the gulls and terns.
When dad got it together after mum died, he made his last visit to England. His health was too poor to manage the plans I had to take him back to Skye to watch Golden Eagles as we once had, or even to manage a trip to Suffolk where we had once spent an entire evening watching Barn Owls bring food to their chicks at precisely 15-minute intervals. We managed just one outing, to a reserve in Kent where you can watch waders from the car window. It lifted his spirits and he forgot his infirmities as we discussed the miracle of the migrations of Arctic Terns, which we saw then and had seen together in NZ.
Dad told me the names of wild things and their ways, but his example taught me to love birds and so much more… quiet appreciation, patience, and awe. He showed me the wonder of nature and that all mankind should respect it. I knew a great man and he left this world on 10th of May 2008.