(This article first appeared in the March 2015 Edition of Birdwatching)
Regular readers will know that I am a greybeard. My tertials show signs of wear, I’m in moult and my plumage is leucistic! It’s as well I am in captivity as I am no longer as well equipped to thrive in a world full of those in their prime.
My articles indulge in reminiscences that wax lyrical about the past, rubbish the present and fear for the future. My salad days were golden… or at least seem so when bathed in hindsight.
I recently came across a psychosocial concept that I instantly recognised as the truth. Hindsight has a built-in rose-tinted filter… nature filters out past down times and disasters and over-emphasises the good times. It’s not just me, but it’s all of us! Apparently, one’s most vivid memories are laid down between the ages of 15 and 25 and you tend to remember the best things. We all tend to mourn the losses and dismiss future gains.
So for this month only, I’m going to try and see what is better in birding now than it was half a century ago.
Obviously, technology has changed out of all recognition and there are apps and optics out there now that floor the very best of the past. Even cheap optics are only marginally below optimum performance and way better than the optic options when I started birding.
Fieldguides are another great leap forward. The ‘Observer Book of Birds’ seemed detailed and dazzling then, but things began to slowly improve. Then along came Collins and set the bar to a new height an order of magnitude above the rest with their European Guide, Sibly did it for the US and others followed and now we have Richard Crossley’s fantastic new way of showing us birds in all guises. Collins have stepped back up to the plate anew with their must have app, – songs, images, photos, and info all, almost literally, in a nutshell (or at least an iPhone).
Moreover, at least until recent austerity, many more of us can afford to take overseas birding trips. This is great in itself, but also means that many more of us can ID a vagrant Yellow-billed Cuckoo or a prospecting Short-toed Eagle with skills and experience developed where they are two-a-penny.
But its not just technology and relative wealth making birds more accessible to us… changing practices have brought some birds back from the brink, at least on a local scale. Yes agri-business still decimates farmland birds and climate change is shifting the borders of what can breed or visit our island, poor conservation across the world has destroyed habitat and reduced population sizes of many birds… but there are successes in the battle against threats like shooting.
Buzzards & Raven were birds that I had to travel to see. I had to go north or west to be sure and, of course, Red Kites dwindled to twenty pairs in Wales. Now Both Buzzards and Ravens breed in every county in England when only a few decades ago none bred in East Anglia, the Southeast or much of the south midlands. Even fifteen years ago they were a rare sight wintering in Kent… now I can bump into a buzzard on my way to the shops.
Red Kites are a public success story although that has more to do with conscious conservation than the absence of persecution, although the latter has to be a given before the former can succeed.
I remember the first Ospreys coming back to Scotland and now they are widespread and increasing.
I can also recall showing a friend Little Egrets flying to their only British roost… now every ditch and damp patch seems to hold a pair.
So there you have it – some things that are very definitively better now than when I was a lad. But don’t worry, my normal service will be resumed next month!
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