Two ospreys hung by their elbows on an updraft, drifting languorously out across the reservoir. In the foreground, flotillas of moulting mallards and gadwalls loafed about on the lagoons, quacking gently to themselves, whilst common terns and black-headed gulls squabbled raucously over small fish. For the birds I was watching it was, in other words, a completely normal late summer’s morning at Rutland Water Nature Reserve. There were only two clues to the extraordinary events taking place in a field not so very far away: firstly that I shared the Redshank hide, my vantage point on these avian comings and goings, with just one other person. And secondly that the other binocular toting chap was from Turkey.
What peculiar happenings could so distract birders as to empty the hides at one of England’s premier birding destinations, whilst simultaneously drawing in folk from all over the world?
That’s right – Birdfair!
I’m not sure how I’d previously avoided attending the world’s premier celebration of all things bird. Perhaps I had been listening too hard to the cynics: “why would you want to go to Birdfair?” they ask, “it’s just a load of grumpy old birders being sold expensive holidays.” Or maybe I’d just not got around to it, slightly unsure as to whether I really would have a good time. Here I admit that I did indeed find the crowded expanse of 12 marquees on the Birdfair site overwhelming at first. I didn’t quite know what to do or where to go next. That’s how I found myself seeking solitude on the nature reserve a mere 45 minutes after I’d arrived.
But since I was, ironically, at Birdfair to meet people – rather than watch birds – I didn’t linger long in the hides. Just before I stood up to leave, a medium-sized wader sprang up from the lagoon edge, let out a single descending cry and exited north. My companion watched it go with interest. “What is this bird?” he asked. I had no idea either. Doubtless it was something I should have known well. Something with a northerly distribution, since our Turkish friend didn’t recognise it. Whatever it was, I must be out of practice – best get out birding!
Clearly not holding this identification failure against me, my new friend handed me a leaflet for his guest house and bird guiding outfit high in the Aladag mountains. “If you want to see these bird species and make a good Adventure in Aladag please contact us”, it read, an invitation so sweetly and innocently phrased that it seems hard to decline. What could be better than to make good adventures among birds?
This very much set the tone for the quality of salesmanship at Birdfair: most people I spoke to were similarly sweet and subtle, and clearly both loved wildlife and really believed in whichever actually quite worthwhile thing they happened to be selling. If we overlook the vexed question of carbon emissions for a moment, I think if the Western world diverted more of its surplus cash away from iPads, fast fashion and nuclear warheads, and towards binoculars, books, eco-tourism and wildlife charity memberships, then the world would probably be a better place. A strange place, a sort of 8,000-mile wide, 365-day-long Birdfair, but definitely a better one, richer in wildlife, happier and healthier for people.
So for once, I was able to leave behind my usual distaste for commercialism and branding. In reality, Birdfair is more akin to an international village fête for nature lovers than it is an orgy of wildlife themed capitalism. Everybody (well, nearly everybody) is smiling, everybody seems to know each other, and if they don’t, they’re soon chatting away like old friends. Ideas are shared, new partnerships are formed, stories are told. In this way the rest of my day passed in a total blur.
Thanks to the wonderful ‘A Focus on Nature’ scheme (see below) I was introduced to all kinds of lovely people, where I would normally have found talking to new people quite a challenge. Amongst them were many of my fellow young conservationists (how nice it is to be considered ‘young’, still!) – writers, photographers, historians, naturalists, birders – all doing wonderful things and making me feel good about the future of conservation in Britain. I made it to just two talks, and by way of proving that the event has grown, over its 25 years, to encompass quite a range of global wildlife issues, neither was about birds. I snuck in a little more birding over lunch, which I took out to a hide just in time to see a peregrine materialise dramatically on the scene, scattering lapwings before it. Spellbinding stuff.
The day finished with a Birdfair birthday party, which was largely entertaining. Filmmaker Ceri Levy made an engaging host, Jackie Oates and Simon Emerson brought the folk, and artist Marcus Oates amazed and amused with his humans-singing-as-birds piece. I even got to tick Bill Oddie on my ‘celebrity birders’ checklist. If I may offer one small criticism, the evening was somewhat long. Fully 90 minutes longer than advertised, which I imagine could have caused problems for anybody with a train to catch who didn’t want to miss anything. But if all I can find to complain about is having the proverbial too much of a good thing, then all in all Birdfair must be pretty great. Here’s to the next 25 years: I’ll see you there!
A Focus On Nature is ‘The network for young nature conservationists in the UK’. Anyone aged 16-30 can join, but do also consider submitting an application via their website for the chance to receive career mentoring and sponsorship for books or equipment.
See here for excerpts from Dawn Chorus by Marcus Coates