Big Men and Optical Delusions
This article first appeared in Birds Illustrated
Is it just me or have you a loathing for the great and good? I can’t help it but I do… not, you must understand, the people in person but their public persona; in person these people are personable [try saying that after leaving the pub]. Take, for example, Nigel Marven of ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ fame – he who I had occasion to criticise in these very columns for his overt enthusiasm… when he came up to me at the Bird Fair it was not with wind-milling arms and fists flying, but with a wry smile and a handshake – he actually enjoyed the piece, and even signed up as the latest patron of the ‘disabled birders association’ – he turned out to be an absolute gentleman. So I am sure that, face to face, the doyens of the birding world are [for the most part] fine fellows.
I am not just referring to those well-known on the national public stage but the local leaders both official and self-appointed. The leading lights of some bird clubs or even some of the long-established patch workers who become the apparent fount of all birding knowledge are among their numbers too.
Whether it be by inclination, or as a result of the adoration of their coteries, somehow these types come to define our hobby’s tenets and mores; and thus the limits to the trepidation of the majority. What are some of the rules which are thus laid down so solidly they might be in stone?
The first is never to ‘call’ a bird, as getting it wrong will result in derision. Someone once told me that they preferred to look a fool than open their mouth and confirm that status. I once saw one of the most famous of all birders pontificate on a hoopoe telling all around him that it was moribund, had a damaged beak and would not see out the day… it stayed for four months before moving on. Another time I heard a local leader dismiss a duck as not a rarity at all and pontificate that someone had called it all wrong – the trouble is he was looking at the wrong duck! My personal view is that everyone should call out any birds they see because it is far worse to miss a potential lifer than to seem a fool.
The second rule is that one should never use a field guide in the field! Apparently this not only shows that you are a rubbish birder but also means that you never learn to ID for yourself. Overseas, when one is not familiar with local birds, even the pontificators will spend half their time in the field with a book open trying to get a bird’s ID right; at home even novices are supposed to make notes and confirm ID at home. Doubtless this suits some people but not most. I say use any aid you can to be sure of ID as, as you get more experienced, you will get better and need such references less… but, unless you have seen every bird in the world many times have a good fieldguide at hand.
There are many such unwritten rules that should be exposed and ignored but I’ll confine myself to just one more rant… about optics envy.
If you are ever lucky enough to find yourself on a busy road on the outskirts of Delhi and stand for an hour or so watching the manic flow of traffic you have every chance of seeing every type of vehicle ever made from Rolls Royces to Citroen C5s along with a smattering of camels, elephants and carts powered by old water pumps. Similarly, birding at a hot spot or big twitch you will see just about every optical aid from leather-clad concertina telescopes to lenses more suitable for looking at the stars.
Two things follow from this observation. Different strokes suit different folks and some people’s pockets are deeper than others. Scratch the surface of a birding guru and they will swear by one of the great names in optics but the fact is that there are half a dozen companies out there that make brilliant bins. Some love their battered old gear and insist that they ‘don’t make ‘em like they used to’, others vow that the newest and latest are best. However, one thing is for sure, and it is that the quality is not effected one whit by whose neck they dangle from!