— On birds, birders and blackbirds —
One evening last week I was looking out of the window and was suddenly staggered to find that birds can fly. There they were, just beyond the garden: the crows sweeping low over the contours of the rolling fields with langorous wing beats, alighting with ease amongst the glossy tussocks; starlings too, young and old, flashing metalic greens and purples in the low sun as they screeched and swerved back to the eaves; and, in the garden, isn’t that the venerable little robin making its way from rock to rock with a few effortless flaps of its delicate wings?
I’ve known all my life, of course, that birds can fly. That is what they do. That is what they are. In vast flocks or alone, for seconds or for days, from branch to branch or lost in the heavenly blue, they fly. They dart and they dip, they hover, they soar. The air is their arena. They are masters of it. We all know this. We know that nature has equipped them perfectly to perform such feats of skill and apparent daring. And, after all, without this ability, what on earth would they be? Devoid of wings they would be fascinating but ungainly, waddling little curiosities transfixing us for a few seconds before being gulped by a fox.
But this time something seemed different.
It wasn’t just that they could fly. In those few moments, as I watched them going about their business with such competence, it struck me that this ability to fly thrusts them into a wholly different world to our own, an instantly accessible space free of the ground, but which is relatively narrow on an atmospheric scale, and which, vitally, is closed off to hostile, flightless animals, including humans, with our heavy bodies and lack of wings. It gives them the opportunity to scavenge and hunt quickly and efficiently, to survive and proliferate. Our planes, helicopters or trampolines really can’t compete when it comes to retreiving a single seed from a minute gap six feet in the air. In a few seconds birds can be on the other side of a field; if a cat pounces they can swiftly remove themselves. It’s a world we can touch but not enter. Or to put it another way, birds don’t have to walk everywhere. They have literally raised their game up and away from most danger, and fast forwarded every action they perform by slipping through the air. And that is an amazing and beautiful thing, seen from our side of things. And it has helped make them evolutionarily immensely successful and incredibly varied.
And as I stood in awe at my window, it also seemed that birds are almost like unlikely pets which are always there, which you never have to feed or house, but which provide considerable entertainment for absolutely no cost. There are no vet’s fees, no licences needed. Fat balls and nuts are optional. If only it was possible to stroke them on demand, then they would beat all domestic creatures, excepting of course the Basset Hound which, on looks alone, proves that if God exists he also has an admirable sense of humour.
Occasionally I have dreams about flying; I have flown about all over the place, mainly above unknown landscapes, along strange roads and across wide open fields, two or three feet above the ground, belly down and facing forward. As soon as you doubt your ability to fly you sink to the ground. It is an act of pure belief and saves on bus fares. To be honest it’s more of a combined flight and hover, I suppose a bit like Superman. I have never felt a need for wings.
The strange world of birders
In my waking life the world of birds has recently been further opened up to me. Tired of cheap pocket binoculars which are rubbish, last September I bought a proper pair. Strange it’s taken me so long. I’m not an absolute beginner. But I’m very far from being a serious birder, a twitcher. I’m happy with that. Very happy.
I know for example that a blackbird isn’t merely a bird which happens to be black, like a crow or jackdaw, or a blackbird. I can distinguish a serin from a siskin. But I could not tell you the difference between Swainson’s Spurfowl and the Himalayan Snowcock. But I know people who could. Except only one of them would speak to you, if you’re not a twitcher. You’ve heard it before – twitchers are a strange bunch. It’s true. Very strange indeed. I’d say unfathomable. Usually elitist and snobbish, I have no idea how one would join their coterie, although frankly, one wouldn’t want to, believe me. They spend ALL their available time birding. Literally any minute not birding, talking about birds, or writing about them is considered wasted. Time spent shopping for food or talking with non-birders is wasted. In fact – and I have this on good authority – non-birders are viewed by twitchers in the most peculiar way: they are regarded as, at best and in all seriousness, sub-human. The irony. You’ll be lucky if they look at you, let alone speak to you. I’m not talking Bill Oddie here, or Chris Packham. They’re relative beginners and reasonable people compared to some I’ve met. And it’s not a class thing. They can be from anywhere and from all walks of life. So important is their time, one wonders how they ever bring themselves to bathe or go to the toilet, even allowing for the divine pleasure their well-splashed Pheasants of the World poster in their bathroom affords them. They are relentless and unswerving. A sleeping bag is forever in their car, in case when travelling back from Lincolnshire to Norfolk they get a call about a rarity in Wales, 200 miles away, towards which they will turn, returning home the next day. I am not exaggerating. There are even some who spend 14 hours a day, every day, behind a greasy desk in a bitterly cold room writing about birds you have never heard of and will never see, even on documentaries; birds no different from ten others lurking in the deepest jungle, no different, that is, except for a single, thin white wing mark on the male which has been seen four times in fifteen years and poorly photographed precisely once by a man in stale underpants and cheap boots.
Can you imagine living like that? The people, the experiences that are closed off to you, the rich variety which life could have offered dismissed as a right royal pain in the neck. The pursuit of a passion does not necessarily have to completely preclude normal human relations.
No, I’m happy with chance encounters with a flighty goldcrest. More than happy to have seen a hoopoe. And was delirous to see that blue rock thrush, six feet away, winking at me from an olive tree in the ripples of a perfect Andalucian afternoon. Also, I’m well-washed, open to new experiences and I always look people in the eye.
The king of birds
But, of course, you don’t have to go far to see a decent bird. My favourite is found close to home, and in part because of that, it seems the epitome of homeliness and security, and yet also has an uplifting simple beauty.
Not for me Bill Oddie’s favourite, the cocksure, acrobatic swallow. The blackbird is the less obvious and subtle choice of connoisseurs. What can beat its measured movements amongst the leaves, its unassuming, almost friendly countenance? It is clearly a very personable bird, a bird whose conversation, although philosophical, would tend towards the practical. Having taken on the role of chairperson, it would listen to all points of view in a balanced and level-headed way. It may consult an owl on difficult points, I’ll grant you that; whereafter it would make everyone a very nice cup of tea – served with Viennese Whirls – while matters were mulled over in a timely manner. Not for him the fizzy drinks dished out by starlings, or the poor stout no doubt served up by crows, choughs, nutcrackers and other corvids. It is steady, reliable, and keeps a tidy nest, is a bird from whom you could ask directions, receive clear instructions and rest assured in the knowledge that you will arrive at your destination safe and sound. Its weakness, admittedly, is its occasional snobbery. It will not, for example, be seen with a wood pigeon, despite its similar temperament, if not intellect. It regards the wood pigeon’s portly form and oafish stare as evidence of its waywardness, and frankly embarrassing to have around. And while the blackbird appreciates the skill of sparrows in drawing his attention to food, he considers them erratic, misbehaving simpletons, an underclass the sight of which leaves a bitter taste in the beak.
Yet, despite these flaws, for me he is the king. Everything else about him seems just right. The moderate size, the exquisite proportions, the lovely song. I am not enamoured of many things English. That’s just the way it is. But if I had to choose one thing that I like, and which confirms, if only for a few minutes at a time, that I should not be any place other than where I am, it would be while listening to the melodious call of a blackbird – it’s usually a male – atop a high bush, against the egg-shell blue of an evening sky; all is still, and woven through both time and space come those magical rippling bursts of familiarity and longing, falling across the silence of the dying day.
There is nothing to beat the blackbird.
* * *
An extra bit about binoculars
If you’re a beginner and are pondering the eternal question of whether to go for 8×42 or 10×42 binoculars, please let me assure you about one thing – you’re likely to see more with 8x binoculars despite the lower magnification. Birds will be clearer, brighter, you’ll pick out more detail to help you identify them, especially in low light. 10x binoculars are more subject to hand shake, often have a narrower depth of focus, and perhaps most importantly have a lower exit pupil specification – hence the less bright image. And unless you’re splashing out on Zeiss, Swarovski or Leica, I can very highly recommend the pair I have: Crossfire II, made by Vortex (or their Diamondback range). Verdict: stunning. Price: £125 very well spent (peanuts in the birding world). Unbelievably good optics for the price and also pretty lightweight compared to many. And they’re guaranteed for life.
And I don’t even get paid by Vortex.
Copyright © 2014 David Hansard / davidhansard.wordpress.com
All articles on davidhansard.wordpress.com are written by David Hansard unless otherwise stated.