Learning How To See

Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The Importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin’s Lost Notebooks by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Charles Robert Darwin by John Collier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Robert Darwin by John Collier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Darwin towers over modern biology like an intimidating, white-bearded colossus with a looming, furrowed brow. Even the theory which made him famous can come over as somewhat cold, clinical, almost cruel. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is not a warm phrase, though of course it is something of a misnomer and a set of words that Darwin himself never actually used.

Despite this seeming distance I have for a while felt a kinship with Darwin, given that he was in fact a somewhat shy, nervous Englishman who was never more in his element than when rooting around, finding and observing wildlife. In addition a number of Darwin-themed projects have helped to soften his image in my mind, chiefly the wonderful Darwin Song Project album of original folk songs and Ruth Padel’s Darwin: A Life In Poems.

pilgrimonthecoverIn this charming book, Lyanda Lynn Haupt takes another step closer to Darwin the man. Focusing on his encounters with birds during the Beagle voyage, she affectionately narrates his transformation from feckless youngster – judged by his father to be interested in “nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching” – to fully-fledged naturalist, one who, as Haupt puts it, “could draw scientific truths from the simple stories spun by the creatures that crossed his path.”

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Alter Ego

I wish to alert regular readers of this blog to a new project over at chrisfosternature.wordpress.com.

Ever since starting this somewhat anonymous blog (if having my name at the top of every entry can be called anonymous!) I have resisted having a more eponymous web presence. However, self-promotion seems to be the name of the game in ecology and conservation nowadays – ironically for a field which purports to be all about wildlife – so for those times when it becomes useful, I have put together a simple site on which I can plug the various things I’m involved in.

Continuing with the marvelous WordPress platform that I’ve become used to means I also have a new blog space to play with. I’ll be posting more of a jumble of content on chrisfosternature, from quick nature notes and observations to updates on my PhD research. I will post more often and edit less carefully*. Don’t go to it expecting ‘art’, in other words, but I do hope it will be interesting! I confess I’m slightly pleased to have somewhere to blog that doesn’t have the word bird in the title, since I write about all kinds of wildlife nowadays.

What I hesitate to call my ‘polished’ material will still be arriving here on a roughly weekly basis (more or less, as time and inspiration allows). So have no fear, Considering Birds lives on and moves on, hopefully towards a great and glorious future! Every so often, I’ll also post a roundup here of posts on ‘the other blog’ as well as links to any writing of mine which appears elsewhere. Thanks for sticking with me.

*My wife Rebecca a.k.a. Bookish Beck is wholly responsible for the high standard of editing on Considering Birds!


A portentous astronomical week saw a solar storm, the moon at perigee, a solar eclipse and the spring equinox culminating in a spectacular tide. We made our way to the Devon coast near Paignton to go rockpooling, hoping that the rapidity and reach of the tide would have washed something interesting in from the depths of the ocean. A heron beat us down to the shoreline.

It was a magnificent specimen, with plumage sharp and crisp in black and white as though freshly laundered. It stood tall and still on the pale red rocks against a backdrop of constantly moving waves and spray. Then in a flash it struck, thrusting its lethal javelin into a shallow pool and hauling it back with a flatfish impaled on the end.

There’s something slightly comic about the outline of a flatfish, and it robbed the heron of its dignity. Rather than tipping back its head and swallowing the fish whole, as usual, it stood motionless as before, fish dangling like an incongruous ornament. The heron seemed unsure what to do with it. Eventually it took a couple of steps, dropped the fish, and stalked off to look for something more manageable.

Once we were sure the heron would not be disturbed by our approach we clambered to the spot where we’d seen the fish fall. Ironically, it was our friend Fish who found it, a subtly spotted topknot now sporting an ugly stab wound. He returned it gently to a pool, and we watched it hang there in the clear water, admiring its beauty whilst trying not to be disturbed by the gentle wash of blood drifting from the hole in its side.


It was hard not to feel a little sentimental about the fish – I don’t think it will have survived long – though usually I would have cheered the heron on in its angling. Is it in the eyes that we find a connection with other vertebrates? Elsewhere in the algae-strewn intertidal zone countless other animals live out their bewilderingly alien lives. Would I pity an anemone, or a sponge?

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