I like a good bird hide. A good one: well designed and built, a good view in a peaceful setting, a decent selection of birds, and good company. Hints of all these things can be seen in the three hides closest to where I Iive, all of which are dotted around Lavell’s Lake local nature reserve. The Bittern hide is relatively new. It’s spacious and well built, with a triple aspect (multiple aspects always score highly with me) over a feeding area, a reed-fringed scrape, and the lake itself. As the name suggests, its popularity has in the past been linked to the presence of wintering bitterns, although almost as soon as the newly named hide opened most of them decided to be difficult and switched to nearby White Swan Lake.
The Lea Farm hide, overlooking an ex-gravel pit and ex-landfill to the north of Lavell’s Lake, is a members’ only hide for the ‘Friends of Lavell’s Lake’ local conservation group. As befits such exclusivity (although at £5 per person per year membership is hardly out of reach, and members are welcome to bring guests) it’s both plush – the special quiet springy floor is lovely to walk on – and domestic, being equipped with notice boards, spare binoculars, old field guides, brooms, etc.
Last up, the Teal hide is rather more crumbly, with something of a sordid reputation: evidence of illicit drinking and snacking (and worse) is often left strewn under the cigarette-burned windowsills. But I’m very fond of the view out over the neglected and quieter end of Lavell’s. There’s not often much bird activity, but it’s a great place to sit and reflect, simply letting the world go by whilst corvids come and go from their roost site across the lake. And occasionally a longer stay is rewarded: confiding bullfinches working through the bushes on the left of your view, displaying teal at close range in the sunlight (the hide was named for a reason!) or, on one special occasion, three heron species standing in one field of view.
Despite being in by far the worst state of repair, I think of the three the Teal hide comes closest to what I look for in a hide. That is, it feels the most secluded, as if its occupants are indeed hidden and we are looking back onto a world from which we have temporarily been able to withdraw, a bit like an out-of-body experience. Freed from being hyper-aware of my own impact on the birds I’m looking at, I feel as though I’m getting a privileged glimpse into their private lives, as I imagine them being lived when safely away from human observation. At best, that’s what hides are really for. That and a place to get out of the wind for a while and eat your sandwiches, anyway.
In fact my ideal home would be a hide. No, I don’t want to live in a draughty shed with cobwebs in every corner (mind you, built-in insect traps!) and no glass in the windows. What I mean is that I’d love to live in a tucked-away dwelling with a good view of some nice piece of habitat, somewhere jumping with birds. Like, say, a house we and a few friends borrowed near Inverness a few summers back, which was in a beautiful out-of-the-way place in the woods and had redstarts, whitethroats and spotted flycatchers in the garden. The perfect countryside retreat.
Of course, in my own home I’d also have control over who got in. And, if I’m being honest about the hide experience, that leads very nicely on to some of the drawbacks. Human beings being all too human, we don’t always share space well. For one thing, hide etiquette is a minefield, as you can never really judge the relative experience of the other occupants (what would be the collective noun for birders in a hide: an obscurity?), who might on the one hand sneer with disinterest if you called out upon seeing something common but lovely, say a jay; but on the other might be novice birdwatchers who’ve never seen one and would have been ecstatic if you’d been helpful enough to point one out.*
Then there’s every non-camera-wielding birder’s favourite pet hate of late, photographers. Hogging the best spots for hours on end**, sticking obnoxiously large lenses out of the window, and generally not being birders. However, perhaps said birders should consider the 500mm planks sticking out of their own eyes before moaning about the specks in the photographers’, given the numbers who have forgotten that birds have ears and that even when muffled by wood planks it might be a good idea to pipe down if you want to see anything. Or indeed hear the birds calling outside (see photo for the excellent French version of this principle). Don’t even get me started on mobile phones.
Beyond intra-hominid pettiness, there’s the criticism that the hides too literally do what they say: that they offer a false, overly domesticated experience of nature akin to watching on TV at home. For this reason some avoid them altogether, seeking a more authentic wilderness experience of the sort they imagine our ancestors had.
I wonder if that’s why hides, at least the fully enclosed kind, seem to be rarer in America, where nature tends to be treated more as ‘other’: something you go to a wilderness area to immerse yourself in; to shut yourself away in a wooden box would be to miss the point. The best you will tend to find there*** is a viewing platform or screen, the sort that leaves you standing around in the cold. Or it could be that I’ve missed the point entirely, and that hides are simply unnecessary in America because the motorcar performs the same function (we’ve certainly done a fair amount of successful birding by car in the States) or maybe I’ve just happened never to visit a reserve that has them whereas the country at large has plenty. I’d be interested to learn from the experience of American readers on this point.
For me, as usual, I’m very much on the fence. (Perhaps on the fence that usually screens approach paths to hides.) As you can tell, I’m fond enough of the hide experience to write over a thousand words about it. There’s not an easier way to get really close to otherwise skittish wild birds. But my best birding experiences have invariably been out in the open, sharing space with the birds I’m pursuing and feeling like a part of the same world. Plus I have to confess to a growing intolerance for clacking lenses, inane birders’ banter, and a general air of mistrust. I’m not a good enough person to be accepting of the faults of strangers, nor to feel comfortable exposing mine to them, so when birding I prefer to choose my company.
So as with GMO, the problem is not so much with the ‘technology’ but how you use it. Though they’ve been around a while now (see below..) the perfect hide doesn’t yet exist, but if and when I ever find it, or should I by some quirk have the opportunity to build and design my own, I know I’ll have come home.
Some examples of early hide architecture, in Cornwall, left, and Brittany, right:
*Of course, it reflects much more badly on the person jaded enough to find a jay disinteresting than it does on the ‘beginner’ who is still able to appreciate their wondrous beauty. But that’s a discussion for another day.
**Especially a problem at the bittern-tastic Ivy North hide at Blashford Lakes in Hampshire, where there is only one (side) window that you can actually open and properly see through, as the others are covered in some sort of reflective film. The magical Woodland Hide suffers from the same design ‘flaw’, although it isn’t really a flaw but a deliberate attempt to accommodate school parties, for whom shutters and catches would be fiddly. Just proves there are few hides which please all the people all of the time, which is part of the problem!
***I should say here, as there is where here is at the moment – of which more to come!
CAUTION! Hides can be dangerous places: