Monday, February 11, 2013

Why?

Steve Gale has started something here on his blog North Downs and beyond, yet again... . He askes why do we do it, this birding mullarky. I started to leave him a  comment but I got a tad carried away so here it is. Please check out Steve's blog, he's a great writer that certainly gets you thinking...

Anyway where was I, oh yes -

Why?


Why wake up? To me birding isn't a hobby or something taken up to fill in early retirement and to spend cash on now the kids and mortgage have gone. 

Its something I have done for ever, but maybe not in the form we 'birders' would recognise today. 

Aged  6 or 7 I liked books with pictures of birds or animals in. I didn't have any interest in cars or trains or football. Those things were all made by man, so by default, everything that it was possible to know, was already known. If you get the drift. Not that I knew that as a wee bairn, but I did seem to have some empathy for creatures other than my species.

I was given the first edition of Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow in 1972 aged 8. In this year my mother died so maybe that forced me to get stuck in, to blank things out, but I read that guide like kids would read Janet and John. Cover to cover. I could name the lot, and even recognised bits of text to show what bird was what, but I didnt know that people actually went out specifically to look for birds. Bird watching.

As a child, I just went out to play and took notice of the birds around the council estate where we lived. The only other people I knew who looked at birds were the older lads at school who went nesting. If you've seen the film 'Kes' I could have slotted in there, seamlessly.


I remember my first Goldfinch on a fence, my first Blue and Great Tits, known from the book, on a neighbours peanuts. My first Dunnock sneaked into view on our lawn when I was gazing through a rain spattered window. I could go on. They all came to life like seeing a famous person in the flesh for the first time, or like a footballer other lads idolised from the telly. 

My dad was the local park keeper and had to take me to work with him during the school holidays and on summer nights so I prowled around catching butterflies, frogs, hedgehogs and even finding nests in the hedges ( no eggs were taken, dad would have killed me).  

Aged about 10 or 11, dad took me to see a bloke he knew from the local working mens club. His name was Geordie. He was a retired coal miner with an allotment filled with strange wire mesh covered greenhouses. Imagine taking a young lad and dumping him in a secluded hut with an old fella these days!  The reason for it was that Geordie, bred cage birds. Not just canaries or budgies, oh no, this was the hard up north east, budgies seemed a bit too tropical, Geordie was a British bird breeder who specialised in finches. 

He was a bird catcher.

That first day 'down the garden' was a revelation. Dad kind of paraded me around several aviaries and sheds getting Geordie to test my id skills...'Whats that' he would say pointing high up to a shape in some gorse tied to the mesh of the well covered aviary. 'Siskin!' 'Male' ( or what ever) was the cry, and one after another I got them all right. There were Goldfinches and Bullfinches, Greenfiches and Siskins, Redpolls and Linnets many singing their heads off in their large secluded 'bioshpheres'.

Now I'm not getting into the debate of the legalities and rights and wrongs of this, but in 1974 no one was really bothered.

I went to see Geordie every Saturday and Sunday morning at first light where, during the late autumn and winter we would try and catch specific birds such as female Bullfinch or Greenfinches to breed from. When he had a target everything else was left to its business, so needless to say we never caught much. The few hapless individuals that were caught, where taken in a 'greenhouse' aviary with the door open and a string tied to it leading back to the shed. Male 'call birds' were hung in small cages  inside to sing and chatter to attract their own kind. If we were lucky and one went in, the string would be pulled and the door closed. No Bird Lime here, it was frowned upon, it would damage the feathers and feet of the birds.It was cruel.

During the summer Geordie and me would go out collecting wild food for his breeders, plants such as Fat Hen, Chickweed, Persicaria, Docks, Thistles and bunches of groundsel,  things like larch branches, broom and gorse as nesting cover were all  brought back. He would show me nests of Redpoll, and even Willow Warblers and Whitethroats, There were tales of Red Squirrels and Bats ( bats down the pit!?). Before I was 12 I could pick out a flying Redpoll half a mile away on call, and Bramblings likewise.

This was my learning ground for about 5 years, not Bird Forum.

Another real mentor of mine, I hope wont mind me saying, is still in the side column on the right, under the blog Abbey Meadows. Nigel lived near relatives of mine in another village several miles away. When I was about 9, Nigel was two or three years older. I used to stay over at the relations, and go to seek Nige at about 5.30 or 6 am when we would set off wandering the lanes and bridlepaths looking for wildlife. In those days Nigel had been on real bird watching trips to the coast seeing Merlin and Arctic Skua, just fantasy birds for me. I was over the moon to see Goldcrests  and Yellowhammers and Corn Buntings were widespread in Northumberland then. Nigel told me what various wild flowers were ( I still struggle with those) and he is still hunting them out now, 40 years later.

So thats HOW it all started, but WHY?

You know, I dont really know. I just know that when I am outside feeling the wind on my face and hearing my first Swallow overhead or jostling for my first Belted Kingfisher, or hearing the Tuk Tuk Tuk of a cock Pheasant waiting under my feeders in the garden, looking at the first Speedwell flowers in spring, or seeing a fleeting Stoat dash across the road, this just seems right. 

All problems are put in a different room even just for few minutes...It helps me breathe...

As for those that can just pack it all in because they dipped a Scarlet Tanager in Cornwall? Thats the real 'why'? Its all their loss... 

Thanks for your patience. Especially if you have read some of this babble before...








     



12 comments:

Steve Gale said...

Stewart, I read this through once and then went straight back and read it all again. Thank you for sharing it, my favourite post of the year so far on any blog. HGA couldn't better it...

MalR said...

Agreed. A wonderful post. Beautifully descriptive, nostalgic ... and true.

Northumbrian Birding said...

Yes a great read I just wished I had got into wildlife earlier and not got distracted by the likes of drink & girls !!

Andrew Hodson said...

Although the details of my 'growth' as a birdwatcher are different, there are so many similarities in what you say that it brings back many happy memories.

A great read.

Johnnykinson said...

Sadly, i didn't get into wildlife until in my fifties, like Brian (Northumbrian Birding) drink and dirty women were more than a distaction.
How times and ideas and the birds we see have changed. I totally understand where you are coming from and those early days were your apprenticeship and it has served you well.

Gavin Haig said...

Great stuff Stewart. My childhood memories revolve around fishing rather than birding, but even so I know exactly where you're coming from. And I suspect you too can relate to the Dick Walker/Peter Stone era...

ST said...

Your blog back to its best.
Pure Stewart.
I have memories of a lad with a 'pet' crow, moving in across the road developing my interest in wildlife,through his passion.



Birderwolf said...

A dabbler in my youth who let it slide til a couple of years ago, I agree entirely with the sentiment about the simple pleasures of any birding..a sort of middle aged salvation. Nicely written, thanks

abbey meadows said...

Hi Stew
Nice to know I was a mentor, I probably started around the same time as you but I didn't have a mentor but was inspired by the wonderful pictures in the Observers book of birds and went out to see if I could see any of them, plants, fungi, butterflies etc were inspired in the same way. My Grandad was a good amateur field botanist. I wouldn't say I became an expert in any of these fields but the enthusiasm is still there but I have fond memories of those early days because you didn't know what you would find.

Alan Gilbertson said...

I've just ordered an old copy of The Oxford Book of Birds from ebay for old time's sake.

I used to borrow it from the County Library and when it was due back I'd take it in and get it stamped out again, and again, and again.

Seumus Eaves said...

Brilliant Stewart I can relate to all of that! My first field guide was the Hamlyn guide and like you I used to thumb through it again and again. Even at a young age I was fascinated by recording as much as I could about the birds that visited my 'yard' or more to the point the garage roof that I fed them on. It still makes me smile when I look back at these old note books; I used to record the type of food I put out, the number of spceies that came to the food and the total number of birds per feeding visit!

Joining my local natural history society was the best thing I ever did, it blew my mind! I got to sites and habitats that I could only ever dream of and see some of those birds in the Hamlyn that I thought I would never see!

Oh, to be able to go back then with the experience and wisdom of today. In fact I think your posting did just transport me back for a few moments, so thank you!

Cheers, Seumus

Stewart said...

Cheers Seamus, many of us have a good tale to tell....