Shoes, Ships & Sealing Wax…
(This article first appeared in the December 2014 edition of Birdwatching magazine)
Birding has gone all hi-tech lately, with apps and software, anti-shake bins and pictures taken through your scope by mobile phones, but have the essentials really changed?
I started birding with nothing more hi-tech than eyeballs. Sitting by a lake fishing, unable to move due to a freak roller-skate accident (sadly true) the first birds I noted swam into my field of vision or hung about in the trees and bushes around us.
The big white things that annoyingly swam between my fishing float and me often pulling the line and dislodging my bread paste bait were easy; they were swans. A decade later I started calling them Mute Swans, although they were very vocal if I discouraged them with a pebble plopped into the water close by. Dad – my fishing companion – would allow nothing to hurt any of nature’s critters, and I followed suit appreciating natural beauty.
More than fifty years ago the Great-crested grebes that danced over the water in spring were a sight seen only by the privileged, they were not the everyday birds they are today. On the other hand the Spotted Flycatchers that flitted out for their mosquito meals were guarantied everywhere, not in today’s desperate decline.
Swallows and Swifts scooped aerial soup over the lakes, Tufted Ducks dived for aquatic insects and a lanky Grey Heron could be seen in the secluded shallows spearing small fry.
A few years on and technology helped me to tell a Redpoll from a Siskin high in the distant Alders if I could hold the binoculars to my eyes long enough. Old Russian Navy 10×50 bins took some hefting, making up for in magnification what they lacked in clarity, just good enough to tell a Royal Navy Corvette from a Soviet Battleship. I grew into them by the time I lay on my belly on a bank overlooking mudflats distinguishing between godwits or in Minsmere Marsh Hide following a fly-by Marsh Harrier.
Fast forward to the early 1980s and I swapped some heavy Bresser’s for Swift Alpins the lightest binoculars I could find to ease my aching back. A few years on and I developed the usual birder’s need for a scope… Kowa obliged with what then seemed unsurpassable brilliance.
I reluctantly abandoned Alpins on finding that Swaro’s were an order of magnitude better. Not as light but such clarity, colour-true and crisp image right across the lens.
About then was my one and only proper twitching year and I’m surprised at how encumbered I became wielding fieldguide carriers, tape playback machines, waterproof clothing, scope slings and all, you name it and I acquired it, convinced that all were birding essentials.
In my incipient dotage I have necessarily paired back. Sometimes I take the scope, but mostly I sling the bins over a shoulder and thread the lightest weight waterproof jacket through the strap and I’m set for a morning in the field.
They say that once over 42 you can no longer take in new technology… not quite true as when I’m overseas I upload the relevant fieldguide to my iPad and they weren’t even invented when I was that age!
How about you, apart from the bins or scope what are your essential traveling companions or must have tech?
A while back I had a couple of problems when birding overseas. When returning to my hotel from Queensland’s Cairns foreshore I dropped my tripod handle. When I looked for it later the grass had been mechanically mown… only mangled ironmongery remained. In South Africa I pressed the quick release on the tripod head and springs flew in all directions. So I spent three weeks with my scope permanently tied to the tripod.
So now I have one other essential high-tech gadget when I am abroad, a 12-inch dowel wrapped in Nylon cord, together they meet my every hi-tech need!
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