The Seafarers by Stephen Rutt

Scotland, 2005. That’s the trip I always cite as my ‘conversion experience’ as a birder. Perhaps the most memorable element was a boat trip out to the seabird colonies of the Treshnish Isles. Puffins were the draw, but other memories are more vivid. The sudden appearance of a great skua, powering through at low level causing consternation among other birds and excitement among birdwatchers. A minke whale blowing spray near the boat. The dark eye of a shag up close, inscrutably ancient, a pterodactyl that somehow survived to the present.

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On Lunga in the Tresnish Isles, 2005. The hair!

Captivated by the peace and isolation of Scottish islands and the incredible sights, sounds and smells of seabirds we did it all again the following year, heading farther north. We started on mainland Orkney, travelling overland by train before catching the ferry from Thurso. During a few days on the Westray we experienced a small island community, intriguing to a child of English suburbia, though mostly I remember the rain and superb traybakes in the village café. Finally on to Shetland, making our way up to Hermaness, the very northern end of Britain on the island of Unst. Towering skua-ruled cliffs with the most inquisitive, trusting puffins I have ever known, no land between us and the North Pole. Some four years later we visited Skomer in Pembrokeshire, another famed seabird destination, but since then our visits to Britain’s seabird islands have, alas, largely dried up. I’ve caught up with seabirds on and off since but perhaps let the full wonder of seabirds and the magic of islands drift out of my life.

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SeafarersIn that respect The Seafarers was a timely read. It takes the reader, via a series of personal journeys, through the major groups of ocean-going birds that visit Britain while also introducing a significant seabird location in each chapter. It’s an appealing blend of travel, descriptive nature writing, popular science and biography. Author Stephen Rutt balances a highly personal account of what seabirds have meant for him with some solid seabird facts which are well explained, detailed but not at all dense. Rutt is a young birder, naturalist and writer. Since I too am a bearded, balding young (though not nearly so young as he) birder who is not fond of crowds I was probably predisposed to enjoy his voice, and I did, but I also admired its freshness. He successfully avoids the ‘lone white male’ clichés often accused of dominating nature writing, so far as I can tell, though I’m probably susceptible to them myself and not an expert witness. The writing is accomplished throughout and Rutt’s prose is distinctive, concise yet poetic.

It is also a highly persuasive read in places. The life-affirming simple joy of birding shines through. The particularly well-crafted short chapter on vagrant birds may be one of those rare pieces of writing to actually change my mind. Where I have lately been inclined toward the view that twitching exotic vagrants is ‘..a morbid act, a premature wake for a waif that won’t last out the day’, as Rutt puts it, I was won over by his “faith in the wondrous, sense-defying, thrilling capacity that birds have of being lost and making that seem…OK”. Couple that with the pleasure of catching up with old friends (the seabirds themselves), being reminded of favourite places from travels past (or places I’ve been wanting to spend time and I’ll most likely be seeking seabirds again sooner than I would have done if I hadn’t picked up this book.

The Seafarers is an original contribution, despite having elements in common with a number of other recent books. One notable similarity is that it weaves in biographical details of significant literary and scientific figures from the past. R.M.Lockley and James Fisher feature here and both seem good inclusions as perhaps slightly overlooked figures in 20th century ornithology. The biographical passages, together with elements of cultural history, are well-judged and put the authors experience into context rather than distracting from them.  The Seafarers also follows on just two years after Adam Nicolson’s The Seabirds Cry. The latter is the more complete (and global) treatment of seabirds, what we know about them and why they matter, but that’s not really a criticism of Rutt’s book. The Seafarers is as much an autobiographical account of the transformative power of birding as it is a compilation of seabird lore. What they have in common is that both books are love letters to this extraordinary group of animals. With The Seafarers Stephen Rutt has added his own unique chapter to the shared history of people and seabirds on these islands, as well as establishing himself as a writer with real promise. I look forward to seeing what he turns his thoughts to next.

Thanks to Elliot and Thompson for providing a copy for review. 

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Review: Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? Lev Parikian

Lev Parikian is a professional conductor, a writer and, until the beginning of January 2016, a lapsed birdwatcher. Then, while he was on a simple walk through the park, eight Canada geese flew low overhead and left his year transformed in their wake. The “everyday beauty of the spectacle” reawakened a long-neglected interest in birds. Reviewing a childhood list that was, in birding parlance, rather ‘stringy’, and considering the birds one could realistically hope to see in a year, Parikian formulated his New Year’s resolution: 12 months, 200 birds.

Why anybody would lose interest in something quite so wonderful as birds is a profound mystery. But I sympathise. It’s happened to so many of us. As a child I was keen on birds – on the shelf I still have my copy of Spotting Birds, with its un-lifelike illustrations (already old-fashioned when it was published in 1964), which nonetheless I pored over, dreaming of seeing a white-spotted bluethroat, roller or woodchat shrike. Pity I didn’t realise at the time that the book was a translation from the Czech and came with no warning that I would have a hard time finding any of those in England circa 1990.

Anyhow, the world is full of interesting things and some have to fall by the wayside; besides, we’re encouraged to give up ‘such fripperies’ when we ‘grow up’ – aren’t we? Thankfully, I found birds again a few years after graduating; or rather, I should say they found me. They made themselves too obvious to ignore, from the oystercatchers stark and incongruous on the lawns of a Scottish castle to the sudden white flash of a wheatear’s rump skipping over a coastal rock. And so it is that I’ve been Considering Birds in the field since about 2005 and on this corner of the web (perhaps the name should have been Reconsidering Birds) since 2011.

Not coincidentally, that’s also the year that I, too, resolved to see 200 species. I don’t remember exactly why I decided on 200, but it seems to be a sweet spot: enough to ensure a bit of a challenge and plenty of varied birding adventures whilst not unduly risking family, finances, career or sanity. Many birders see a fair few more than 200 in a year – 300, even – but unless you’re spectacularly lucky the only way to reach those heights is to spend pretty much all of your spare time twitching – that is, pursuing rarities already reported by somebody else, and often criss-crossing the country to do so.

I don’t particularly hold twitching against anybody (though consider my eyebrow raised at the carbon footprint), but Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? won me over from the start by obviously not being another  straightforward narrative of twitching and listing, as much as I enjoy books like The Big Year. I admire the way the author set about building his list: for the most part, planning extended stays in good birding areas and trying to track down the species that are usually found there*.  This book is much more about the journey, the joys and frustrations of birdwatching, and the assortment of characters you meet in the often strange but ultimately wonderful community that is Britain’s birdwatchers. In pursuit of his target, Parikian never loses sight of the things that matter most to him, with the elements of family memoir woven into the narrative lending a touching emotional depth.

Obviously, the developing bird list does have to feature, and this is a potential pitfall for any bird writing. I’ve read plenty of trip reports that end up as total yawn-fests despite describing an extremely exciting day’s birding. Fortunately, this aspect of Why Do Birds is handled notably well. The ornithological cast of the book parades before us in entertainingly varied fashion without getting tedious.  The pace is helped along throughout by pithy prose that’s sprinkled with wry humour, the overall effect calling to mind Douglas Adams: a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Birdwatching, if you like.

Many of Parikian’s experiences along the way will be happily, or occasionally grimly, familiar to fellow birders, from the travails of describing the location of a small, well-camouflaged bird in a large, homogenous patch of vegetation to shadily toting binoculars through a residential area in pursuit of waxwings (honest, officer!) to the reticence to speak up in a bird hide for fear of sounding like an idiot. But above all, Why Do Birds is a timely reminder of the pleasure of watching birds in an increasingly distressing and confusing world. It isn’t a book solely or even primarily for bird-nerds: I can see many uninitiated folk being prompted by this book to pick up a pair of binoculars for the first time. Those of us already devoted to birding will be reminded why we started in the first place – for the love of birds, for their beauty, for the sheer exhilaration and fun of engaging with these wonderful, wild creatures that are all around, waiting for us to notice them.

This post is part of the blog tour launching Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? Do check out the other posts! 

*I don’t begrudge him the odd twitch, and enjoy the various ways he attempts to justify them to himself. I wouldn’t have made it to 200 in 2011 without a bit of indulgence; indeed, by my rough calculations, I would have ended up four species short. Did Parikian make it? Sorry, you’ll find no spoilers here!  

Review: Mozart’s Starling

In 1784, Mozart heard a starling in a shop sing a variation on the theme from his Piano Concerto No. 17. Enchanted, he took it home. Just over a century later, New York pharmacist Eugene Schieffelin, a member of the American Acclimatization Society, imported 80 starlings from England – apparently as part of an attempt to introduce to the Americas every bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays – and released them in Central Park. Another century on and starling numbers have exploded in North America – there are perhaps 150 million.

Thanks to starlings being an introduced species that may out-compete native birds for nest cavities, they are probably the most hated bird species in North America today. But anybody who has ever looked at a starling close up, especially when its plumage catches the sun, will have noticed that they’re quite beautiful birds with fascinating behaviours. When naturalist and author Lyanda Lynn Haupt noticed these qualities in a flock of starlings feeding in her garden, she recalled the strange little story about Mozart and, to paraphrase her description of how book projects come about, “an idea flew into her brain.”

Recounting in parallel the twin tales of Mozart’s relationship with his bird and the author’s own experience of raising a nestling starling, Mozart’s Starling is a thoughtful reflection on the relationships between humans and our wild neighbours. It is also an insightful commentary on how that relationship is complicated by perceptions of invasive species; Haupt points out the contradiction between how we judge individuals versus a whole species: “Do I want starlings gone? Erased from the face of North America? Yes, unequivocally. … And do I love them? Their bright minds, their sparkling beauty, their unique consciousness, their wild starling voices? Their feathers, brown from one angle, shining from another? Yes, yes, I do.”

For a relatively short book this has an impressive blend of genres, moving through popular science, nature writing, philosophy, a smattering of travel (as the author explores Mozart sites in Vienna and Salzburg) and an exploration of the creative process. The real star of the narrative, though, is the nestling Haupt sneakily rescued and raised – keeping a starling is illegal in Washington State, where she lives. Named Carmen, the bird becomes an essential part of the household. The many little observations about her behaviour scattered through the book are quite charming but not merely included for the sake of whimsy, instead providing a fascinating glimpse into the often surprising world of wild bird behaviour.

Seen close up in this way, the intelligence of birds can be misinterpreted as making them seem more human, but what the two starlings portrayed here teach us is not to see birds as pseudo-people but as more fully birds, while seeing in the possibility of relationship with them a way of becoming more fully human ourselves. Continuing a common theme that runs throughout Haupt’s work, Mozart’s Starling shows that the key to a life enriched by nature is most often found in the commonplace, often overlooked wildlife right on our doorstep. “Mozart found inspiration in the presence of a common bird. For us, too, the song of the world so often rises in places we had not thought to look.”

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A tree full of starlings at Otmoor RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire