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Thursday, 23 February 2012

Birding Without Bins


Just recently my very cherished pair of Zeiss binoculars had an unfortunate accident. I wasn’t anywhere near them at the time but another inhabitant of the household was. In fact, it’s safe to say that they were near enough to have had something to do with their downfall. After some tense conversations (“So, take me through this one more time: How exactly did this happen?”) and after all the facts had been established beyond reasonable doubt, one indisputable fact remained: they were broken.

Now, any good birdwatcher has more than one pair of bins knocking around the place so, resigned to a lengthy wait until the return of my favoured pair, I dug out an old pair from the bottom of the drawer. Looking through them it became apparent that I may have well lashed together two jam jars smeared with beef dripping. I may be exaggerating but, nonetheless, they weren’t great. This left but one option: Going for a walk on the Hampshire downs without a pair of binoculars.

This, in relative terms, was not the worst tragedy that could have befallen mankind but it was unusual for me. The downs are, in the most literal sense, on my doorstep and going for a walk without binoculars was strange to begin with. But, and here’s the good part, it made me realise how much it improved my experience of birds, the wildlife and the landscape. And it was the appearance of a relatively common bird that brought this home with almost palpable force. Because If I was asked to pinpoint the moment and species where I learnt by heart my first birdsong then that’s an easy one: Skylark, allotments.

I grew up in the fens of west Norfolk, just a short distance from the Wash and it’s big sky country. The salt marsh itself provides a gluttonous visual diet of greens and huge pulsating bundles of waders and geese rolling their way across the mudflats. The utter flatness creates indescribably vast and distant cathedrals of cloud and in your ears roars a wind arriving, almost without interruption, from the steppes. It was here that I saw my first marsh harrier. Here that I swam in the salty cuts and picked up salty gashes. Here is where we collected samphire and here that every ingredient of the sheer experience of being out of doors is driven home by a sensual assault.

But I can remember, and the memory is fresh and strong, looking across the flat fenland from the family allotment in the blinding sunshine and hearing the skylark’s song and my Dad telling me what it was that sang it. From then on the skylark was there, ‘dropping silver chains of sound’. The song of the skylark then became talismanic; forever associated with the fields, farms, the sky and that place.

Since then I’ve seen thousands of skylarks perched on posts or sitting on the ground and I can recognise them as skylarks, especially through binoculars. But perched on a post it’s only half a bird, only a picture in the round view of the binoculars. Only when they take to the wing and hover high up, trilling their complex and dipping cadenza does it properly become a skylark, filling the whole space and showing us why it’s there. It shouts out to be admired and looked-at and heard. Once it’s in the air then binoculars are useless, or rather they should be abandoned, in favour of taking in the whole of the picture: the fields, the crops, the grass, the big big drifting sky and that sound. It and its song are absolutely and indescribably part of the landscape. And when I saw it on my bin-less walk on the downs I knew what the poet Edward Thomas meant when he said that it has the power to sing “in some keyless chamber of the brain.”

Now I’m not proposing that we don’t use optics for our birdwatching, that would be madness. But I’m slowly re-discovering the joy of seeing birds without binoculars because it somehow allows me to have a total experience. When I choose not to use optics I’m not just seeing a bird but experiencing it in a shared environment. With binoculars all my concentration is on the bird. Without them there is no need for concentration and only the enjoyment of the animal and the outdoors remains. And on a simple walk in the Hampshire downs the kites, the buzzards, the whitethroats and even the stone curlew can take on another level of significance when I’m not looking at them through binoculars; they can make more sense.

Similarly, if you were to go to the lagoons off the coast of Baja California for the life-defining experience of being close to and even touching a grey whale then a good guide will tell you, for just one occasion, to leave your camera behind. Why? Because just once you should not be concentrating on getting the perfect picture, fiddling with the aperture settings and peering into the display on the back of your camera after every click. For just that one occasion, it’s important that it’s just you, the sea and the whale, undisturbed by any distractions; disconnected from everything but the experience and the landscape, its inhabitants, its birds, its shape and, ultimately, our place in it.