A Bird for Two Farthings
[This one never made the magazine – as a very similar article was published that month in a rival magazine…]
“When I were a lad we didn’t ‘ave two ‘a’pennies to rub together, and now look, they don’t even ‘ave ‘a’pennies anymore!”
I was nine when a friend lent me some roller skates; my parents had forbidden them as too dangerous. When I tried them out in the playground my legs took off in different directions – the consequently dislocated hip meant months in hospital, and the subsequent inability to walk led to quiet pursuits like fishing turning me into a passive birder. [This is like being a passive smoker; sitting quietly amidst reed warblers and spotted flycatchers is habit forming and causes serious eccentricity in later life.]
In those days ‘fishing gear’ meant an old tank aerial turned into a fishing rod, and whatever bits of tackle one could accumulate; it did not relate in any way to apparel. One’s ‘fishing clothes’ were whatever you had not too tattered to matter if it got torn or mud spattered. Such clothing was dull in colour but not deliberately camouflaged – this was the 1950s, EVERYTHING was dull… bright clothing came in at about the same time as colour TV; in fact, I’m pretty sure that real life was still in black and white back then.
Every Saturday morning I would serve petrol at my local garage at a wage of ‘two and a tanner’ – about 12p in today’s tender. I saved every penny towards the clothing of my dreams; perfect for fishing – an army surplus combat jacket! By the time I stopped growing up and out I had accumulated enough to buy it and it served me well into my early birding days. On the one hand it was the colour of the countryside and incapable of rustling, but, to be fair, it was about as waterproof as a sponge and weighed something over three tons.
You are probably thinking, ‘I need to hear this sad tale of post war poverty because…? I tell it merely to illustrate that you do not need flashy clothes to find mega birds. […each time I tell it I get poorer, and the era gets duller, but I never sacrifice a good story on the alter of veracity.] In a similar vein I once asked a fishing tackle purveyor whether colourful lures caught more fish and he said “no, but they catch more fishermen”. Herein lies my grump of the month – what is it with all this fancy birding clothing?
Last August I was on my stand at the British Bird Fair people watching birding humanity in all its forms. Top individual prize must go to the chap dressed head to toe in camouflage gear – even his rucksack and camera bag! I found myself comparing the couples who walked by wearing matching clothes – winners by a mile were the couple sporting matching ‘Bird Forum’ baseball caps, yellow shirts, waistcoats of many pockets, shorts and matching white trainers!
I’ve often wondered how people know who it’s safe to disclose their darkest desires to, such as wanting to commit horrible murders or share their bizarre sexual proclivities. Maybe they just instinctively realise that like-minded, or should I say similarly psychologically challenged, people dress alike? This was pointed out to me by Hawkeye who will immediately go and change her entire outfit if she inadvertently wears anything the same colour as me!
Incidentally, among the throngs one could see every T-shirt that was ever created sporting bird motifs. Some were so grey with repeated washing that ID became a challenge. After a while I saw another pattern beginning to emerge. I knew some of the people passing by and, apart from those wearing the uniforms of their Bird Fair stand, I began to realise that the best dressed people there were also most likely to be carrying 1954 editions of ‘I Spy Birds’ and opera glasses and only be able to tell a swan from a blue tit by using both. It put me in mind of a birding trip I was on to Trinidad. In my boat as we cruised around Caroni Swamp to look at the Scarlet Ibis roosts, an American lady sporting her 14th face-lift and wearing a floral print dress turned and said, to no-one in particular, “what’s that big red bird again?” [She might have been the lady we saw earlier at Trincity Pools wearing a very large sun hat and jodhpurs. On that occasion her tour guide said ‘There’s a caiman over there” and this lady responded with “Is it in flight?”.]
The natural corollary ought to be that the birders with no dress sense, wearing granddad’s old beret, tatty jeans, tennis shoes and my old combat jacket, can tell an Arctic from a Greenish Warbler in driving rain and dying light at 500 yards without optics. Having tried it, I can report that this is where logic fails. Heaven knows I’ve tried going into the field wearing my favourite pink shirt, my Fatbirder baseball cap, Bermuda shorts and my Kicker boots but it hasn’t done a damn thing to enhance my ID capabilities! It turns out, and please share this with your friends, that what you wear, so long as it doesn’t frighten the horses, makes not one iota of difference to your birding skills.