Rare Encounters

Hugh Venables [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) via Wikimedia Commons

I often wonder what it is that gets us more excited about one thing than another. I get more excited about birds, than I would about, I don’t know, a very rare plant. Last year my wife Rebecca rescued a book being thrown out of her library, which offered a summary of the state of Britain’s wildlife in 2001 — there is a chapter for about any group you could thing of, and the authors of the mollusc chapter presumably find slugs more thrilling than eagles. Speaking just of birds, you might think that the more bright colours a bird has, the more interesting the sighting. Or simply that it is always more desirable to spot a rare bird than to see something common. But my own experience tells me the truth is somewhat more complex.

Last summer I went to see a white tailed lapwing at Dungeness: we parked, walked up to the line of twitchers, asked where the bird was, found it, watched it, left again. The bird did not move throughout, and barely lifted its head into the wind. Given the huge rarity of the bird, only the 5th seen in Britain, I think, I should have been jumping through my car roof on the way home with uncontrollable excitement. Clearly, rarity alone does not control how much I enjoy seeing a bird because to be honest that kind of twitch leaves me feeling a little empty inside, even if for the sake of the list it must be done from time to time. (Especially if I am to hit 200 this year!)

To give another example, over a week ago now I took a few friends down to some favourite birding haunts in and around the New Forest. The woodland hide at Blashford Lakes, a Hampshire Wildlife Trust reserve, is one of the best places I know to watch woodland and garden birds feed; they not only get the regular feeder species in the winter, but flocks of Siskin, Redpoll and Brambling. A Chaffinch is a stunning bird, really, but the perhaps more intricate plumage of a Brambling, with its black tipped yellow beak, combined with that rarity factor, meant that these were the birds I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Or consider the Goldfinch, surely one of the most beautiful birds of the English countryside — hard to say whether or not it is less pretty than a Redpoll, objectively, but presented with both on a feeder I’ll focus on the pink blushed red capped little ones. Marvelous streaky little bird.

The high point of the day came with our spotting a species which is widespread and common throughout Britain — the Tawny Owl. The key to our excitement here was of course the difficulty of seeing an owl in broad daylight; fortunately, I know of a tree in the New Forest where I had heard an owl often roosts visibly in a hole during the day. I’d never found it before despite trying three times, but on this occasion I struck lucky, and in fact could hardly believe my eyes, when I looked at the tree with my binoculars, to find an actual real life owl blinking back at me. It didn’t seem particularly concerned by our presence, occasionally half opening a deep black eye to regard us, disdainfully, before going back to a contemplative rest.

And there’s the other factor that makes seeing an owl special:  the place they have in our cultural imagination — the idea of the wise old owl in the forest, perching loftily and regarding us lesser mortals with a detached, all knowing gaze. On one level anthropomorphic nonsense of course, but I don’t see the point in spoiling the mystery of something wonderful by getting too hung up on being rational. Indeed, why not let a species bring its baggage with it? I think our owl was made all the more special by watching it through the lens of thousands of years of human thought and history, rather than simply regarding it cooly as a well marked individual of Strix aluco.

Our vision of the owl was what American ornithologist Lyanda Haupt dubs ‘Rare encounters with ordinary birds’, described in her beautiful book of the same name. I had one of these at Otmoor on Wednesday, just before filling the reserve’s feeders — as I waited to approach them, Great tits began hopping closer and closer to me in the hedgerow, eventually perching on twigs about three feet from my frozen form. Just for a few minutes I almost felt like I had melted into the background and become part of the scenery; the birds completely ignored my presence and carried on feeding — and let me tell you, a Great tit had never looked so beautiful to me. Their head is not just black, but a deep, rich, soulful night sky black, their eyes bright and inquisitive. I’d trade three boring immobile White tailed lapwings for one of those moments.

Author and naturalist Mark Cocker wrote about all this a column for Birdwatch in 2009, much more concisely and elegantly than I have, first explaining our fascination with the rare, or hard to observe, and how this has driven conservation in Britain. He went on to say this:

“If, however, we had set out to preserve what is most commonplace in each place, then we may have secured a more viable version of the British landscape.”

It may be that small revelatory moments watching wildlife like these add up to an explanation for why one million people are members of the RSPB, or the existence of wildlife trusts in every county. People experiencing wildlife in a special way informs the why, what, and how of conservation. If wildlife meant nothing to everybody, there would be no conservation movement. So if, as Mark Cocker wrote, the common is of keystone importance in protecting the environment, it can only become so in practice if we celebrate it. For me this means I need to go outside, and make an effort to be fully present, and aware of my surroundings. I won’t have rare encounters if I don’t make myself available to them, and if common birds no longer register with me, I might stop caring for them. To put this more pithily, you might even say this — ‘Wildlife: Use it, or lose it!’

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