Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers

Behind the Binoculars: Interviews with acclaimed birdwatchers

by Mark Dr. Avery, Keith Betton

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Overview

How and why did our most acclaimed birdwatchers take up birding? What were their early experiences of nature? How have their professional birding careers developed? What motivates them and drives their passion for wildlife? How many birds have they seen? Mark Avery and Keith Betton, passionate birdwatchers and conservationists, interview members of the birdwatching community to answer these and many other questions about the lives of famous birdwatchers. They take you behind the scenes, and behind the binoculars, of a diverse range of birding and wildlife personalities. Behind the Binoculars includes interviews with: Chris Packham, Phil Hollom, Stuart Winter, Lee Evans, Steve Gantlett, Mark Cocker, Ian Wallace, Andy Clements, Mike Clarke, Debbie Pain, Keith Betton, Roger Riddington, Ian Newton, Steph Tyler, Mark Avery, Stephen Moss, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller, Rebecca Nason and Robert Gillmor.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781784270506
Publisher: Pelagic Publishing
Publication date: 09/07/2015
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Dr Mark Avery is a blogger, writer, author and wildlife campaigner. He once, many moons ago, worked for the RSPB (and for 13 years was its Conservation Director). He has been prominent in the discussions over the future of driven grouse shooting in the UK - Mark hopes that their future is very limited. He lives in rural Northamptonshire and misses most of the good birds at his local patch of Stanwick Lakes in the Nene Valley.

Keith Betton is a media trainer, PR consultant and writer. He is a keen world birder having seen over 7500 species in nearly 100 countries. He has a particular passion for Africa, having been Chairman of the African Bird Club for the last 7 years. In the UK he is heavily involved in bird monitoring in Hampshire, where he is County Recorder. He has been a Council Member of both the RSPB and BTO, and is currently Vice President of the latter.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

CHRIS PACKHAM

Chris Packham was born in the 1960s and is best known as a nature photographer, TV presenter and author.

INTERVIEWED BY KEITH BETTON

What was your first experience of birds?

For my second birthday my grandmother bought me two books of British birds, with rather colourful pastel illustrations – I still have them, they're dedicated to me: From Granny and Granddad, 1963. I can still remember every single illustration – my favourite was the Merlin, and I also liked the Hobby and Wheatear. Looking back at them, the illustrations were very friendly – the birds had quite large eyes and were attractive – but I think what drew me to them was their diversity. One was Birds of Heath and Marshland and the other was Farmland Birds. I was into masses of other animals; I was into things you could touch and I had to put them in a box or a jam jar and of course I couldn't do that with birds. It was tadpoles and ladybirds, then slowworms and lizards, then snakes – I had a huge reptile collection by the time I was eight. But I remember being at a bus stop and there was a dead Starling in the gutter. I picked it up, and my mum said, 'Don't touch that dirty thing'. Obviously not listening to what my mum said, I held it in my hand and unfolded its wings and I think that's when I fell in love with birds – because it was perfect. The ladybirds had been perfect, the slow-worms had been perfect, but the patterning and overlaying feathers were just exquisitely beautiful. I remember stroking the feathers on its head and looking at the iridescence on its nape and I was just entranced by it. I still have its wings at home.

After that, like many other people, I started collecting birds' eggs at the age of eleven. I found my first nest, a Chaffinch's, in the grounds of Bitterne Park Secondary School, and I took and blew one of the beautiful marbled red-and-cream eggs. I had The Observer's Book of Birds' Eggs and I collected for a couple of seasons. At the same time my dad had bought me the Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow guide (The Birds of Britain and Europe, with North Africa and the Middle East) and my first pair of binoculars, which were from Boots (really shocking ones – they didn't last long, as they used to bounce against the handlebars of my bike when I had them round my neck and so they soon got smashed to pieces).

The first bird I remember identifying from the Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow guide was a male Baltimore Oriole at Gaters Mill on the River Itchen. I was on my bike, looked up and saw it, cycled home furiously, burst into the lounge where my dad was watching Grandstand and said, 'Dad, look at this, I've spotted one of these!' My dad, in his usual calm, collected way, took the book from me, looked at the bird, passed the pages through his fingers till he got to Grey Wagtail, and pointed out that it was far more likely to be that than a Baltimore Oriole in summer plumage.

I became an obsessive nest-finder. I only collected one egg from each species and started to map them in the diaries which I'd been keeping – I mapped all the nests, counted all the eggs. Then, one lunchtime, when I was twelve, I was speaking to John Buckley who was my biology teacher and he asked what I was doing. I told him about the nests and showed him my diary with all the maps. He pointed out that collecting the eggs was a waste of time and that the data was far more important. So the egg-collecting stopped immediately – I still went nesting a lot and wrote down all the information, and he would come and ring the young, so it was all about counting the nests, counting the young – and I couldn't wait for one of them to die so that we had a recovery! I remember we once ringed eight Little Owls in a nest on Itchen flood plain and one of them got handed in, having been shot by a keeper, who thought it was a rabbit coming out of a burrow. I also went out mist-netting birds with John Buckley, and holding my first Treecreeper in my hand in Decoy Covert on the Lower Itchen was amazing – it was at that stage where touching a bird was important to me.

Then I got massively into Kestrels, and I gave up mapping other birds' nests and just mapped Kestrels. I had a study area of 27 square miles, stretching from St Mary's College in Southampton to Winchester Cathedral and I was determined to find every Kestrel nest in this area. I did that for three or four years.

Then I took a Kestrel from a nest on 25 June 1975, I trained it and flew it. There were all sorts of shenanigans about this – I applied for a licence from the Home Office (as it was then), because at that time they were granted to people to take birds from the wild – but not to working-class oiks from Southampton. Falconry was still the preserve of gentlemen, even when it came to Kestrels. I'd sought the help of other falconers, notably Phillip Glasier. I asked for his help but he was incredibly nasty and the way he treated me at the age of fourteen had a profound effect on me, in that the way I behave towards fourteen-year-olds is the polar opposite – I will do anything to encourage their interest, not everything to destroy it. In the end, though, he actually made me more determined.

When I had the Kestrel I had all sorts of problems; for instance, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) wanted to take it away. Owning that bird was a formative period in my life because it really turned me against – and sowed the seeds of a total disrespect for – authority. It isolated me from almost everything: I was adolescent, but was massively into wildlife when other kids were going to parties and hanging round the ice rink. I just became an outsider and hung around on my own. The bird died on 6 December and that also had a profound effect on me, because I didn't get a lot of emotional support getting over it and I was very, very distressed about losing it. My father was – perversely – in favour of me having the bird: he didn't like the fact that I'd taken it illegally, but he recognised that it was important to me. He was a very matter-of-fact, letter-of-the-law kind of guy, but at the same time he recognised that it was unfair that I wasn't able to do it legally and knew that I was going to do it anyway. When it died, I was so distressed that I couldn't speak for a week, just couldn't make words come out of my mouth – my parents sent me to school but it was a disaster, as I couldn't articulate my distress and had no way of getting over the trauma.

So it's fair to say that, apart from your mum and dad, that's the closest relationship you had at that point in your life?

Yes. I've had other animals since then and had very intense relationships with them. They don't lie to me – my dogs now are the epicentre of my universe.

So the bird died, and then punk rock came along, which was brilliant as part of it was about alienating yourself from other people. In terms of birding, the Kestrel study continued; I won a Prince Philip zoology prize in 1979 – John helped me write it up; and I gave a talk at the Edward Grey Institute Conference in 1978, which was one of the highlights of my life. I'd sent them some of the findings of my Kestrel study and they invited me along – they didn't know who I was, of course, so when I turned up in trousers full of zips, a leather jacket and torn T-shirt and sat in the front row I could see the horror written all over their faces. Then the most brilliant thing happened. My birding hero at the time was Ian Newton, who'd written Population Ecology of Raptors. After I'd finished my talk everyone politely clapped, and Ian leaped up as I got off the stage, came over and shook my hand, and said my talk had been brilliant, and that meant so much to me, as I'd been totally alienated by just about everyone, but he could see past whatever colour my hair was, my trousers and studded biker jacket!

Who was your biggest early influence?

Definitely John Buckley.

What was your first telescope?

A Bushnell Discoverer 20–60 zoom, bought for me in 1979 by Joanne, my first girlfriend. I was at college. She had a job, saved up for it, bought it for ?163.50 at the London Camera Exchange and gave it to me for Christmas. I still own it and wouldn't part with it. I don't have many sentimental things, but I was eternally grateful to her for that scope, which radically changed my life as I could now see birds properly!

Did you join the Young Ornithologists' Club (YOC)? [The precursor to the RSPB's Wildlife Explorers.]

No; I was really anti-social as a kid. My parents tried to get me to do lots of things to expand my interests socially, so they took me to the Southampton Natural History Society (of which I'm proud to be President). There I was very pleased to meet and mix with people in their fifties to eighties, as they were a fount of knowledge and I remember really enjoying going on some of their forays. There was David Goodall, who worked with bats and lived in Otterbourne and became a lifelong friend, and Dr J.G. Manners who was a fungal expert (who I joined up with again at university). So I was happy mixing with older people but didn't want to mix with kids my own age.

Did you join the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)?

No, I didn't join until probably the early 1980s – I remember having a membership card when I was at university, and visited reserves such as Titchwell and Minsmere. I was a bit mistrustful of all those sorts of people, and for me it was all very much an individual thing, me going out on my bike with my binoculars. It wasn't something I ever shared.

And then you finished school and went to university?

I went to Richard Taunton Sixth Form College in Southampton, where I studied biology under Alec Falconer, who was crucially supportive. I was a full-on punk at this time and some of the staff were trying to get me expelled for looking like a freak and refusing to play football. I played football for the school but refused to play for the college because I was taking five A-Levels and didn't have time. Alec kind of looked after me there, otherwise I think they'd have found an excuse to throw me out. I was frequently getting beaten up for looking like a freak, and it was a tough time. I enjoyed my secondary education greatly, and university tremendously, but the bit in between was very tough.

Where did you go to university?

Southampton. I'd given up Kestrels and started working on Badgers. Colin Tubbs, who I'd met years before thanks to Buzzards, offered me a project to look at the population of Badgers in the New Forest because I'd already been working in the Itchen Valley. I was two years into that and getting some really good data, so I went to Rory Putnam at Southampton University because there was quite an active mammal ecology group there. I showed him the work I was doing and said I'd like to continue, as the Nature Conservancy Council were potential employers – that's who I wanted to work for and I didn't want to let Colin down and dump all this data. I wanted to finish the study and so the university made me an unconditional offer – they must have wanted me to go there, so that was fabulous.

When I left home, I'd go back every Sunday morning and meet my father at an agreed time, just before it got light, and we'd go out birding. He wouldn't say very much, but he and I would go out, walk up the Itchen, drive to the New Forest, find a few nests, see a few Otters, etc. My dad liked walking, being outside, history, context and place, and we'd just amble about and if he saw something he'd point it out. I don't remember us having many conversations, because we had little in common at that time other than going out birding.

When I got to university my sister's French teacher, Dave Scott, who was at the school I'd attended (he didn't teach when I was there), became very keen on birds. He was an extraordinary character and the antics we got up to were phenomenal; worthy of a book on their own. He was a very colourful eccentric, but obsessed. Every single Saturday morning, without fail, no matter what state he or I were in hangover- or sleep-wise, he'd rock up at Joanne's house, where I was living, and we'd go birding. We went out in his tatty crumbling Triumph Vitesse, and our birding range was between Portland and Selsey Bill.

Was this twitching or birding?

We birded, but obviously if there was something special about we'd go and look at it. I remember at migration time seeing a Savannah Sparrow at Portland (obviously ship-assisted), but mainly we were after Honey Buzzards, Hawfinches and Red-backed Shrikes (which were still nesting in the New Forest at that time). I could find nests better than most people at that point, but that's when I learned my skills as a birder – song, shape, everything else. Outside of a few key species – Kestrels, Sparrowhawks, things that I'd been obsessive about – in terms of general birding at that point I probably hadn't looked twice at Garden Warblers, Lesser Whitethroats or Whitethroats and identified them. I used to obsessively read British Birds and Bird Study, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO)'s magazine, between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two.

But you didn't join the Hampshire Ornithological Society?

I wanted to do something with Great Grey Shrikes. I'd been working with Red-backed Shrikes in the New Forest, mapping them and on a personal crusade to try to stop egg collectors – I used to spend all day at the nest. I lost that battle, but then I got a grant to do some radio tracking on Great Grey Shrikes. I approached John Clark and asked if I could see the Great Grey Shrike records, which were kept in the Southampton University Library, which he happily agreed to. I then got a letter from Eddie Wiseman saying I couldn't look at them. I spoke to Colin Tubbs and asked him to have a word with Eddie, which he agreed to do, but he reported back to me that Eddie was adamant that he didn't want me to have access to the Hampshire Ornithological Society records. This just fuelled my dislike for a collective of people who I saw as a clique – I couldn't understand why Colin was so generous. John Clark sent me a very polite letter back, but this bloke I didn't even know was being so unhelpful. So I just thought I'd just do my own thing.

And then you got your degree?

My degree was in zoology. In 1982 I had a PhD offer from Oxford University to study Marsh Warblers. My tutor said I should apply for it as I'd definitely get through to the interview stage and it would be good for me. I went up to Oxford on the train and I sat in the library waiting, reading an article about sharks, when a woman came up and put her hand on my shoulder and said, 'Excuse me, but I'm going to have to ask you to wait outside; you're disturbing the other people in the library.' This was simply because they didn't like the way I looked. I went and sat outside. I was called into an office where an academic scowled at me and said, 'Do you have a pen?' I said yes, and he said, 'Do you have a piece of paper?'

I said no. He handed me a piece of paper and said, 'Write down this formula,' so I wrote down the formula; a mathematical model I was vaguely familiar with. He said, 'I'm going to give you three sets of figures and I want you to do a calculation,' which I did, and I remember thinking that this algebra test was rather unusual and not the sort of interview I'd imagined. After a couple of minutes, he asked what my answer was. I told him I hadn't completed it yet and he said, 'I don't think you're the man for us – off you go.'

He struck me as a seriously, seriously unpleasant man. The difference between him and Ian Newton is massive. You don't treat young, impressionable, avidly driven, obsessive, ambitious zoology students like that, so I thought that, for all the endeavour I'd put into achieving something academically, maybe I don't want to be in a world which is going to take one look at my spiky hair and then abuse me like that. So I cancelled my PhD and gave it up.

Why don't you have blue hair now?

Takes too much time; too much faff. I thought about bleaching it back to something outrageous, like Andy Warhol, when I was fifty-odd. Maybe I'll do it when I'm sixty. I've never wanted to look like anyone else. I'm very comfortable with my appearance, and I don't feel I have to fulfil a stereotype of any kind. It's not confidence; it's that I don't care.

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Behind the Binoculars"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Mark Avery and Keith Betton.
Excerpted by permission of Pelagic Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Chris Packham

Phil Hollom

Stuart Winter

Lee Evans

Steve Gantlett

Mark Cocker

Ian Wallace

Andy Clements

Mike Clarke

Debbie Pain

Keith Betton

Roger Riddington

Ian Newton

Steph Tyler Mark Avery

Stephen Moss

Alan Davies and Ruth Miller

Rebecca Nason

Robert Gillmor

Index

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