Time for a Cool Change*
(This article first appeared in the December 2012 edition of ‘Birdwatching’)
Is it about age?
No, it can’t be as I’ve met twitchers in their sixties and seventies.
Perhaps then, it is about how long you’ve been birding?
No, it can’t be that, as I’ve met rabid twitchers who’ve been at it a lifetime and newbies who wouldn’t look over the hedge at the end of their patch if a Passenger Pigeon had turned up in the next field.
It must be me then… I must be changing.
Fear not dear reader, birding is in my blood and bones and I’ll still thrill to a passing Swift or the call of a midnight owl as I shuffle off this mortal coil. Nevertheless, I am undergoing a profound change.
Yesterday was as dead a birding day as we get… hot, humid and in a summer when heat and rain have turned hedgerows into jungle. In the classic birding parlance there was ‘not a lot about’. That is to say there were no rarities to rattle the pagers, or at least not in my corner of blighty.
A week ago I had walked around a bit of one of my local reserves and, while it was an enjoyable stroll (or as enjoyable as the arthritic hips allow) no Red-footed Falcons or American Coots threatened to enhance the year list. I’ve birded so little this summer that several Garden Warblers were a high point as they did make it to the 2012 list for the first time.
A day or two later I struggled to the viewing ramp at the other end and sat undisturbed on a warm and windy day. No Common Sandpipers or Gargany, which I still ‘need’ for the year.
The thing is that I cared less for these omissions than at any time in all my birding years. During the stroll around the wet woods we had been serenaded by Blackcaps, heard a Great-spotted Woodpecker drum and watched massive spawning carp rolling in the shallows. Sitting on a bench on the viewing ramp I could look heavenwards and watch a Hobby lazily on the hunt and a passing buzzard drift by. Despite the strong breeze I caught sight of a Bearded Tit poorly flying for a few yards across the reedbed and was nearly deafened by a sudden burst of Cetti’s Warbler song. An hour or more passed on that bench with nothing more exciting than a distant Common Tern hovering over a pool and a Swift passing so low it practically parted my hair… and I loved every sedate and serene second of it.
Yesterday I watched a Ring-necked Parakeet clinging to one of my feeders and munching his way through the sunflower seeds. I saw a Blackbird on my shed roof feathers fluffed and wings out letting the sun see to his ticks and panting, beak open to dissipate the heat. Later I pottered among my pots and a young Dunnock hopped up into our lilac bush three feet from my head and I chatted quietly to it. Sitting in the sun with Maggie, catching rays to ensure our daily 15 minutes of vitamin D, a Bluetit family ignored us completely and fed on our feeders inches from us, while less brave Goldfinches twittered at us from the telephone wire into our house, basically telling us to get lost so that they could eat us out of house and home.
The cool change has crept over me and I see that such every day birding; such ordinary ornithology, gives me more pleasure than a barrow load of avian accidentals.
I haven’t managed any overseas birding for well over a year and would love to expand my world list, but I no longer care if UK rarities pass me by. Even the world list has become less of a goal for me and while I want to see new exotic species the manner of the birding will have to change. I cannot contemplate chasing my tail to get every endemic. I want to just enjoy the novelty and entire environment not one bird at a time, but en masse and at leisure.
On one of my first overseas jaunts more than thirty years ago, getting the most out of a round-the-world ticket I pitched up in Fiji right after a hurricane had taken the top off every palm tree on one side of the island. Most birds had been blown off or were hiding and I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of birds I saw in three days!
I had pre-booked an outing to a coral atoll and saw flying fish gliding along our bow wave then beachcombed for coral on sand too hot to stand bare foot on. We had a ‘cook out’ on the beach then took the leftovers in a glass-bottomed boat and fed the fish. I snapped away like a mad tourist trying to capture the exciting novelty on film when I had an epiphany so profound it affected all life thereafter. I put down the camera and stopped making a record of the experience in favour of actually enjoying the experience. In an instant I had realized that, instead of enjoying the moment I was wasting it, being a spectator not a participant.
Well folks, as I gazed from my office window, and when I lolled on the viewing ramp I experienced an epiphany as profound, if rather more drawn out. I don’t care if the grass is greener on the other side of the hill… what’s the point of worrying about that if I can’t even appreciate the colours of everyday life?
Thomas Hobbes said that life is ‘nasty, brutish and short’. Well, sad to say for half of the world that’s true. But I think for the rest of us Joni Mitchell had it right when she sang: ‘you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone’. I don’t give a flying fig that sitting with Joni watching the sunset is a cliché, I am going to appreciate the birds I do see!
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*’Cool Change’ was a minor hit for the Little River Band; Australia’s answer to the Eagles.