Behind the Binoculars

Published on 18 September 2015 in Book reviews

Behind the BinocularsBy Mark Avery and Keith Betton

Pelagic Publishing, 2015; hbk, 252pp; 18pp of colour and black-and-white photographs

ISBN 978-1-78427-050-6, £16.99

Behind the Binoculars is a print version of Desert Island Discs with a very specific category of castaway. Subtitled ‘Interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers’, this book is just that: a series of Q&As with a familiar roll call of Birdfair stalwarts – plus a few individuals who probably aren’t Rutland regulars.

The 20 interviewees range from celebrity birders to eminent ornithologists. There are scientists (Ian Newton, Stephanie Tyler, Debbie Pain), administrators (Mike Clarke, Andy Clements), writers (Mark Cocker, Stephen Moss), listers (Steve Gantlett, Lee Evans), a photographer (Rebecca Nason), an artist (Robert Gillmor) and the late, great Phil Hollom. The co-authors also interview each other!

The interviews range over the subject’s introduction to birds and birdwatching (usually very young), their first bird books and binoculars, their career, their special interests, their favourite music, films and books – and, yes, only one bird book is permitted on the notional desert island.

The first interviewee is Chris Packham and we do indeed revisit his Desert Island Discs with the story of a teenage Chris and the Kestrel Falco tinnunculus he (illegally) took from a nest, and which became his constant companion. The subsequent story of his academic studies, his camera work and how he became one of the nation’s favourite wildlife broadcasters makes very interesting reading.

Stephanie Tyler initially did research on the social behaviour of New Forest ponies before starting her long-term studies of Dippers Cinclus cinclus. And she gives a matter-of-fact account of her family’s kidnap in Ethiopia in 1976 – and subsequent eight months as hostages. (When they were released, her husband sold the exclusive rights to their story to the Daily Mail, which provided them with the money to buy their cottage in Wales).

Ian Newton’s rigorous research has made him one of our most respected scientists with an unrivalled knowledge of finches and the Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus. His informed analysis of the conflict between grouse shooting interests and the Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus is dispassionate and depressing. Not only the evident illegal persecution of breeding birds on the moors, but also the systematic targeting of birds at their winter roosts.

Robert Gillmor, whose bold prints have been an ever-present backdrop to British birding for nearly 60 years on book jackets, stamps, calendars and Birdfair posters, is disarmingly modest. (A characteristically striking study of Turnstones Arenaria interpres adorns the cover of this book.) Our foremost bird artist and founder of the Society of Wildlife Artists in 1960, he concludes: ‘I have been extremely fortunate. I’ve met lots of wonderful people and been to some marvellous places. And I’m not sure what else I could have done!’

For many of the people within these pages, birds are indeed ‘the only thing they could have done’. There is a common thread of youthful enthusiasm for wildlife that is nurtured by an inspirational teacher or bird group leader – and fired by early exposure to The Observer’s Book of Birds and/or The AA Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds.

All the contributors appear in the photographic section in the centre of the book, often with a youthful version alongside their older self. There’s a great black-and-white image of Ian Wallace releasing a Leach’s Petrel Oceanodroma leucorhoa on St Kilda in 1956, a moody teenage Chris Packham in 1980 and our very own Roger Riddington on Shetland in 1992.

There are many fascinating tales in this collection of birders’ biographies, some of which have passed into birding folklore. But the book could have been better edited. Some of the entries appear to have been transcribed verbatim and read like extended curricula vitae. This has allowed the occasional error to creep in, for example Lee Evans’s desire to see Japan’s ‘twelve overwintering species of crane…’ (p. 36) when six is the maximum one could hope to see.

The authors speculate on how good the support is for young birders nowadays. And we do live in an age of heightened child protection where children are discouraged from venturing into the countryside unaccompanied – and where adults have to be vetted before they can provide the companionship that so many of today’s birders benefited from in their youth. However, in a connected world where social media informs much of young people’s lives there are now new opportunities for young birders to develop their skills and enthusiasm. It would be good to see that new generation of birders profiled in an updated version of this book in 20 years’ time.

Adrian Pitches

Buy this book from the British Birds bookshop, which is run by Wild Sounds