24 July 2014

Birds and Books

Posted by David Lea

I've been watching birds for as long as I've been reading, which is to say, for as near to half a century as makes no difference. Early forays were to our local RSPB reserve, to be confounded by winter plumage waders. Even if they stayed still long enough to get a good view through borrowed binoculars (they hardly ever did), their almost total lack of field markings made identification as much a matter of intuition and guesswork, mixed with a bit of wishful thinking, as of certainty and knowledge. Then to the coast, to be equally baffled by immature seagulls and invisibly distant auks.

And if it was too wet, or cold, or windy, or dark to go to the lake or the cliffs, then my forays would be to the tiny local bookshop or library, to pore over their collection of bird books. So, my first encounter with a peregrine falcon was literary, in the pages of J.A. Baker; my first golden eagles came courtesy of Seton Gordon; and my very first goshawk sighting was in a book by T.H. White that I still rate as one of the finest books ever written about the human-animal relationship.

Birds and reading went together: a surprise sighting of a snow goose on the Mere (probably an escape) would send me off in search of Paul Gallico; a possible glimpse of a whooper swan would send me back to Yeats; Keats encouraged me to imagine nightingales in the voice of every robin singing under a streetlamp.

Once you start reading about birds, it's impossible to stop. Some recent authors who have continued the tradition of those greats who inspired and informed my childhood forays are Mark Cocker and Bernd Heinrich on corvids, Tim Birkhead and Colin Tudge on everything, and Julian Hume, Michael Walters and Mark Avery on birds I now will only ever encounter in books or in museums.

Two of the most recent authors to enter my ornithological pantheon are Tim Dee and Helen Macdonald, and I'm very excited to be able to say that they'll both be appearing at the shop in August, in conversation about birds and books (and Helen Macdonald's book is an explicit homage to T.H. White).. I do hope you can make it – although I can't myself. I'll be out in the hills, hat brim pulled low, binoculars in hand, field guide in pocket, scouring the horizon for that fleeting glimpse of an elusive something.