Behind More Binoculars

Published on 21 May 2018 in Book reviews

By Keith Betton and Mark Avery

Pelagic Publishing, 2018, ISBN 978-1-78427-109-1

Hbk, 212pp; 16pp of colour and black-and-white photographs

£16.99buy it from the BB Bookshop

This is the follow-up to the same authors’ Behind the Binoculars published in 2015 (Brit. Birds 108: 552–553), which this reviewer referred to as ‘a print version of Desert Island Discs with a very specific category of castaway.’

Both books are subtitled Interviews with acclaimed birdwatchersand this volume contains 15 of those interviews (with 17 people, as two of the interviews are with married couples). ‘Acclaimed birdwatchers’ who feature in this book and who would need no introduction to readers of BB include Tim Appleton, Dawn Balmer, Tim Birkhead, Roy Dennis, Tony Marr and Richard Porter.

Other interviewees include BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, whose birding took off when he was living in the Middle East; world birder Jon Hornbuckle, who had seen more than 9,500 species by the end of 2016; and Britain’s most famous birder, Bill Oddie. But the inclusion of fisherman Kevin Parr, who wrote a novel called The Twitch, seems odd.

As in the previous book, the authors quiz their interviewees about their early interest in birds, their mentors and birding companions, their careers, their favourite films and books, the places they’d most like to visit – and the birds they’d most like to see.

The subjects range in age from those born in the 1930s to those born in the 1970s but there are common themes to most of these birding lives: an early interest in birds, often encouraged by a parent, school teacher or contemporaries with a similar interest; a childhood roaming about the countryside unhindered by modern fears of ‘stranger danger’ or the distraction of digital devices; academic study of biological sciences; and gravitation to a research or conservation agency to further the study and protection of birds.

As in the previous volume, there are fascinating insights into the development of British ornithology in the last half century. Serendipity plays a large part in so many of these birders’ lives – the chance encounter or decision that led down a hitherto unexplored path. Tim Birkhead’s story is a good example: his 40-year study of Common Guillemots Uria aalge on Skomer might never have occurred if Puffins Fratercula arcticaand Razorbills Alca torda were not already ‘taken’ by other researchers – and David Lack and John Parslow had not nudged him towards a postgrad summer on Skomer. Forty summers later, he’s still learning more about these fascinating auks whose social dynamics take place in the open on their communal nest ledges, unlike the troglodyte Puffins. ‘Puffins are so boring! They live down muddy burrows,’ he says. (Robert Gillmor’s linocut of Puffins on the book cover is very attractive, though.)

Tony Juniper became an expert on parrots – and tropical forest biodiversity – after he was hired by the then ICBP (now BirdLife) on a postgrad contract to draw up an action plan for parrots, because he had kept Cockatiels Nymphicus hollandicus as a child. He subsequently wrote the definitive family guide (Helm, 2003) and went on to be Campaigns Director of Friends of the Earth.

At school in the late 1950s, Roy Dennis was being groomed for a career in atomic engineering until an invitation to be assistant warden at Lundy Bird Observatory arrived when he was 18. He never made it to university and progressed from Lundy to Fair Isle and Loch Garten. He subsequently spent 20 years with the RSPB in the Highlands before embarking on his work as a reintroductions consultant, primarily with raptors. Eventually he hopes to see Lynx Lynx lynx and Wolves Canis lupus reintroduced to the Highlands (three of the four photos of Roy in the book show him wrangling a Honey-buzzard Pernis apivorus, Lynx and European Beaver Castor fiber).

The photographs in the centre of the book document the social history of British birding as much as the text. A gleeful Richard Porter aged seven holding a parrot and a cockatoo (at London Zoo?) in 1950 and then bird ringing at Dungeness in 1958 in a photo taken by Tony Marr; Tim Appleton and Bill Oddie in 1987; Dawn Balmer and student friends twitching the Lesser Crested Tern Thalasseus bengalensis on the Farne Islands in 1990.

The two couples featured in the book are Ann and Tim Cleeves and Carol and Tim Inskipp. The book was published just before Tim Cleeves’s untimely death so this section makes poignant reading; Jon Hornbuckle has also passed away since the book was published. Unlike Carol Inskipp, who is as passionate a birder as her husband, Ann Cleeves has no interest in birds but her hugely successful crime novels nevertheless portray landscapes that include birds as incidental characters. She recounts how the eminent Bristol birdwatcher Bernard King (Brit. Birds 81: 166–170) was very protective of the young men he mentored: ‘I remember him taking me aside and saying that Timothy was a very skilful birder and it would be a terrible shame if I were to cramp his style!’ And she didn’t. Like Tim Cleeves, Tim Inskipp did an overland trip to India in the 1970s. It fired his interest and expertise in Oriental birding, which Carol and he still share. His return home, sleeping on the deck of a cargo ship from Bombay to Kuwait, taxi to Iraq and hitching most of the way from Turkey to Belgium, makes modern-day trip reports sound rather bland in comparison.

It is the recording of this birding folklore that makes books like Behind More Binoculars such valuable historical documents. But in the digital age such a collection of interviews perhaps lends itself more to an online resource where the reader can cross-refer between individuals who occur in more than one account, underlining how a relatively small number of acclaimed birdwatchers have contributed so much to British ornithology.

Adrian Pitches