Are You Sitting Comfortably ...
I enjoy watching birds -
the colour and sound and light, the changing days, the birds of the wood and of the field; its woven embroidery so beautiful, because without design - so wrote Richard Jefferies, a constant companion, and inspiration, throughout my life; there is always one of his books on the coffee table. His writings as fresh today as they were in the 1800’s.
When I Was Young ...
Growing up in the 1950’s and ’60s in the country I enjoyed reading my parents and grandparents books on Nature, especially of birds. I remember sneaking into the lounge - we weren’t allowed in as a rule; it was for grownups - to sit in the rocking chair getting lost for hours in the books of animals, birds, trees and flowers, by the likes of Denys Watkins Pitchford ('BB'), John Clare, W H Hudson, and Richard Jeffries; Henry Williamson, R M Lockley and E M Nicholson. And being enthralled by the illustrations of Seaby, Thorburn, Roland Green, Vernon Ward, S R Badmin, Rowland Hilder, Tunnicliffe and Peter Scott.
But what really got me hooked on birds was reading a children’s book, written in 1957 - a story about the adventures of some children holidaying on a cousins farm, discovering a pair of Bee-eaters nesting in a local quarry, and their efforts in trying to protect them. It was my first day at my new Junior school - I remember it well - we were told to choose a book to read whilst waiting for the Headmistress ... Bennett come here ... what are you doing ... reading Miss ... three raps with the ruler across the knuckles. Hard as I may, while I recall the story vividly, I cannot for the life of me remember the title or author. However I think it must have been inspired by the discovery of Bee-eater nesting in Streat Sand Quarry, in 1955.
However it was Charles Tunnicliffe and Eric Ennion both masters of composition who put the ‘Art’ into ‘Nature’ for me - both, were able to capture the essence of the birds in their natural environment and place them artfully, on a page, in such a way as to fill the space in a pleasing yet natural way.
Just as Tunnicliffe and Ennion captured the essence of the living bird in their paintings, to hear the records of Ludwig Koch is to obtain a true picture of the birds' voices.
When I first heard his records I was immediately struck by the way in which they called up the natural environment of the singers. As the Nightingales voice escaped from its ebonite prison under the touch of the needle and the scientific magic of the sound-box, I felt myself transported to dusk in an April copsewood. The clear notes of the Cuckoo with their blend of clear spring feeling and irritating monotony, the Chaffinch's simple and cheerful strain, were equally evocative; and with the laugh of the Green Woodpecker (a triumph to have recorded this!), the yellowing July fields and darkening green of July woods were in the room.
So wrote Julian Huxley in his introduction to 'Songs of Wild Birds' by E M Nicholson and Ludwig Koch and published as a text with illustrations in the form of sound, by H.F.& G Witherby Ltd in 1936.
All Growed Up ...
Mum and Dad encouraged me to get out and about and see the birds and animals that I’d read about for real. So I spent many a happy hour rambling around the Countryside near home, watching birds, bats and badgers, often until well past bedtime. They also introduced me to - the late Jeffrey Boswall, and Bernard King. - two greats of the bird world.
I’d always wanted to work for the BBC Natural History Unit so I was thrilled when my Dad arranged for me to meet Jeffrey Boswall. Chatting with him it was soon clear that I was probably not cut out to be the wildlife cameraman that I’d dreamt of being. But he did lend me his copy of ‘The Courtship Habits of the Great Crested Grebe’ by Julian Huxley – 1914, and this fired my interest in studying birds and bird behaviour in depth. I spent the next year spending all my free time, in all weathers, with bins’ and ‘scope watching and recording a pair of these birds at Orchardleigh – a small privately owned estate in Somerset, with a lake just big enough for a pair.
At around the same time my Dad also arranged for me to go out for the day with Bernard King, a work colleague of his. Bernard was already well known in birding circles so this was a heaven sent opportunity for a bird mad teenager. He subsequently invited me to join his Duck Counting Team, run by the Wildfowl Trust then I think, and I spent many happy hours in his company counting ducks and spotting many other birds besides for a good number of years - a few ‘firsts’ too - Red Crested Pochard, Black Winged Stilt and the first ever occurrence in the UK of a Pied Billed Grebe.
I still hankered after a job with birds - perhaps an RSPB Warden - so I also became an early member of the Chew Valley Ringing Group, then run by Roy Thearle. I spent the Summer of ’66 - the year I left school - happily camped out at the edge of the lake near the ringing hut totally immersed every day, and many nights, learning the craft and skill of bird ringing. Many’s the story I can tell - mist (flick) netting for Swift, ringing hirundines at their reed bed roost, and ‘jumping’ Mute Swan (a great spectator sport) for ringing ...
However I suppose I was always a bit of a loner happy in my own company - it enabled me to be at one with nature, especially birds, totally absorbed in the moment; it's art and beauty - what would be called mindfulness today or as Rosamond Richardson has called it
Now most of my birdwatching is around home - I have my own Rocking Chair in which I sit and read the self-same books, reflecting on childhood adventures, walks and picnics in the country. I collect old paintings, prints and books - of landscapes and wildlife; especially of birds. I am discovering new delights in the paintings of Ennion, Lodge and Harrison, D M Henry and Winifred Austen; and in the work of Leo Paul Robert, Alan Ingham, Gordon Benningfield, Basil Ede and Raymond Watson; not forgetting that of Robert Gillmor, grandson of Allen Seaby, and Terance James Bond - 'Britain's best-loved bird artist'. It is my passion! Occasionally I have some for sale.
Round About Home ...
The whole area around home is dominated by the nearby Iron Age hill-fort - Dinas Dinorwic. The hill-fort sits on one of the summits of a long ridge running NE-SW. On the NW the ground falls away steeply to a small tributary of the River Seiont and on the SE the ground falls away less steeply to the marshy valley in which the River Cegin rises.
Many birds have all but disappeared as breeding species over the last twenty years: including Whinchat, Yellowhammer, Cuckoo, Swift and Skylark. Barn Owl too.
However Raven and Buzzard still nest in the trees along the wooded ramparts of the old hill-fort and an occasional Red Kite quarters the valley below. Song Thrush have increased in numbers; Mistle Thrush and Nuthatch breed in the Churchyard. Bullfinch, Chaffinch, Goldfinch and Dunnock nest in the lane, as they always have; Great Spotted Woodpecker and Coal Tit in the nearby wood; Sedge Warbler in the marsh in Spring. And Stonechat on waste ground in autumn. In winter rutted rain-filled tracks in the field gateways and damp marshy field corners sometimes turn up Jack Snipe, and Woodcock probe the soft soil under the wild crab at the woodland edge. I have even seen a Short Eared Owl hunting over the marsh one winter evening.
Welcome to my Blog
I enjoy watching birds
... the colour and sound and light ... so with a nod to those who started me out as a 'proper' birdwatcher, the following passage from Rosamund Richardson, herself an admirer of Richard Jefferies, I think says it all ...
The great silence of waterscapes. That evening a single tree on the shore of Hickling Broad was reflected between low-lying strands of land. Reeds made squiggly lines in the water, masts and rigging of sleeping boats impaled an orange sky splashed with magenta and lavender and blue. The orb of the sun turned to gold. A family of Great Crested Grebe floated in silhouette on water ablaze in a final fling of tomato-red and violet. Sunset in the water, fading into darkness as the flames of day melted into the blue dark.
Waiting for the Albino Dunnock Rosamond Richardson 2017.
So welcome to my blog. A celebration of birds - in art and anecdote, poetry and prose - part memoir, part anthology, part nature writing, with biographical snippets about various artists and writers - that brings the birds of my childhood back to brilliant life. I hope you enjoy it, and in it find something fresh and new and that watching birds for you, too, becomes in the words of Viscount Grey ‘a pleasant path for recreation’.
... Follow me, if you will, as I ramble through the year writing about birds. Share your own encounters - leave a comment, tell me about your patch - be part of the story ...
I've drawn extensively on the resources of the Richard Jefferies Society in particular the Blog of Dr Rebecca Welshman and Simon Coleman who have already done much of the transcription of Jefferies writings enabling me to reference quite long passages without having to copy type from the original text of his books and essays.