Ee by gum! Birding has changed a bit since Bill was a lad – but is it really for the better?
“When I were a lad, we didn’t have binoculars. We had to make do with two toilet rolls and an elastic band.”
“And if you wanted a telescope, you carved one out of a marrow.”
“And there were no bird books.”
“None at all.”
“I tell a lie, there was one. Only it didn’t have any birds in it.”
“It didn’t have anything in it.”
“‘Cos we never saw anything.”
“Nothing at all.”
“But that didn’t stop us going birdwatching.”
“Every weekend, we’d ring our friends and tell them where we’d seen nothing, so they could come and see nothing with us.”
“Things have changed since then…”
They certainly have. What’s more, I am old enough to have witnessed – and benefitted from – the many advances in birding equipment and techniques.
I have seen telescopes turn from burnished brass into grey, rubbery plastic stuff, and shrink from the size of a blunderbuss to that of a small vacuum flask, thus evolving into ‘spotting scopes’.
Binoculars have basically retained their shape, and presumably always will (unless we evolve a third eye) but they are lighter, optically impeccable, and bank-breakingly expensive.
Bird books are arguably out of control – indeed, there may well now be more books than birds. In fact, a cull may be necessary to make way for the proliferation of DVDs, websites, apps and the like.
The advances in communications have been entirely beneficial. Time was when birdwatchers rang each other and relied on ‘the grapevine’ for news.
Then came Birdline’s ‘Rare bird alert’. It could be consulted on a new-fangled mobile, which begat the pager, and has now evolved into the smartphone.
The truth is that, having been out of the loop for a year or two, I have only recently re-emerged onto the birding scene. I chose to dive in at the deep end by going on a trip to Guatemala, where the birds were almost totally unfamiliar and the forests dauntingly dense.
My first day out, I floundered.
“Lost it. Aaagh!”
I have rarely felt so inadequate – nor so envious of my companions, who were mostly calmly and confidently calling out the sort of names you only get in South America: “Scaly-throated leaftosser! [Honestly.] Blue-crowned chlorophonia! [Is that a bird or a disease?] Northern bentbill! [Oh come on! It can’t be.]” It is. Just flown out of the palm tree.
And… “What’s that?” This time there was no ‘call’. I realized that I was about to get my first demonstration of birding in the digital age. This is how it works.
The first requirement is physical. You need to be strong enough to carry binoculars and a telescope on a sturdy tripod hooked over one shoulder, as well as a huge backpack containing all manner of digital gear – soon to be revealed – and a laser pen.
More than once I watched the routine spring into action. It went like this.
1: Someone spots a little brown bird. But 2: No one knows what it is. And 3: I can’t even see it. So 4: Somebody points the laser pen, and a red or green dot flits up and down a huge tree until it hovers and stops.
Pen-man announces 5: “The bird is six inches above the light.” Which 6: It is. But what is it? Then 7: strong man steps forward, his digital camera fitted with a lens as big as a bazooka.
The bird is tiny and half a mile away, yet the camera clicks and whirrs. Next 8: We all peer at the screen.
A brown speck is just about visible, but 9: the digital zoom is activated, and the image magnifies so rapidly it is as if the bird is charging straight at us. Magnified to ultra-close-up, we can now see every stripe, streak and feather margin. The cameraman is even able to calculate the length of the wing.
So 10: An identification is mooted: “Probably a yellow-bellied flycatcher”.
By now, at least three smartphone screens are touch-scrolling through Flycatchers of Central America, whilst a nearby iPod broadcasts a wispy snatch of virtual bird song, at which the non-virtual bird flies closer and joins in; then, finally, 11: ‘probably’ becomes ‘definitely’.
Yellow-bellied flycatcher. Tick.
So, is it progress? Or is it cheating? And do you miss the days of toilet rolls and marrow? I do.
Former Goodie Bill Oddie, OBE has presented natural-history programmes for the BBC for well over 10 years, some of them serious and some of them silly. This column may well be a bit of both.