GOB 52 – Curious Beaks

GOB 52 – Curious Beaks

 (This article first appeared in the June 2014 edition of ‘Birdwatching’)

There must be many ageing birders who use their mind’s eye to travel back to their birding roots. They say that, once you are past thirty you think about death every day of your life. Birders, past fifty start to remember the ‘good old days’… and this month I ‘celebrate’ incipient dotage as I hit the official retirement age, so my birding is increasingly ‘virtual’.

Sometime before WW2 John Players issued cigarette cards called ‘Curious Beaks’. When I was about 8 I found them at my gran’s house and that was the spark that became the burning passion of my adulthood. The spark was fanned alive by hunting for ‘ouzels (Blackbirds) eggs’ and ‘bottle tit (Long-tailed Tits) nests’. Even today the sight of such a nest of feather, moss and gossamer curiously moves me.

I often say that my love of birds began the day a kingfisher landed on my fishing rod and used it as a perch to catch a fish, but in truth that day the slow burning embers burst into glorious flames

I became a birder as a teenager… by which I mean I started noting what I saw and began going out specifically to see birds, rather than just getting to know them incidentally on country walks or fishing trips. I recently uncovered my 1960s birding notes – what birds I saw where. At that time, on summer evenings I accompanied my parents to a rutted farm track running alongside a wood. Dad carried a gallon bottle of water in the car boot to fill one of the dry ruts creating a puddle that we could see when we retreated into the car. Soon The rut soon became fringed with sipping Tree Sparrows and Redpolls and awash with bathing Yellowhammers. From the Sweet Chestnut coppices the evening air was a delight of Nightingale song. Corn Buntings rasped from a fence post and, if we were lucky a Little Owl would perch to preen on the same fence.

I wasn’t yet a ‘birder’. On our last family holiday, we passed Chew Reservoir where a ‘proper’, khaki-clad birder pointed out a Temminck’s Stint, but I was far more enchanted by a family of Kingfishers. They screamed up and down a feeder stream then lined up on a pipe under a bridge to dive for minnows.

My birding days came slightly later when visits to family in East Anglia included outings to Minsmere and Walberswick. My ancient tea-stained RSPB checklist then has new lifers underlined and year ticks given a circle. I never chased rarities but started going where I could build my lifelist. Moving to Scotland extended it when I saw my first Ospreys and Golden Eagles.

My dalliance with twitching was brief. The 1980s culminating in a sort of junior ‘big year’ when I set out to see as many birds as I could subject to the constraints of a more than fulltime job. I’ll still ‘twitch’ in my county for ‘world lifers’ – I travelled the 1.5 miles to get the Margate Dusky Thrush last year… but I’m mostly back to just enjoying birds.

I managed to get a few of those ‘Curious Beaks’ over the years like Hawfinch and Puffin, Spoonbill and Flamingo. Maybe I can still hope to get the rest of ‘the set’ if providence allows me, although I think Huia and Great Auk will stay beyond my reach unless time travel becomes possible. How many others like Shoebill, Bristlebird or Spoon-billed Sandpiper are on their way out too?

As for the commonplace birds of my youth a lot of hard work now might save them for my grandchildren, but fundamental change is needed for them to be around to delight their children. We must stop tying to exploit or tame nature and instead find ways to share with her… she is, after all, our mother, not our enemy.

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