Fête of Nature

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?

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Birdfair was so busy I took just two photographs. I don’t entirely recall why one of them is of otter poo.

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.

And this 'blurry ceiling moth', which I feel pretty sure is actually a canary shouldered thorn.

And this is ‘blurry ceiling moth’, which I feel pretty sure is actually a canary shouldered thorn.

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!

More post Birdfair reflections: ‘Birdfair Blues’ (Lucy McRobert), ‘Only at Birdfair’ (Beth Aucott) and ‘Heroes and Villains‘ (Mark Avery)

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

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Nature’s Brand

A scandal has unfolded this week that is rocking the foundations of UK nature conservation.

Yes, that’s right. The RSPB – now referring to itself in lowercase as the ‘rspb’ – has changed the name of its members’ magazine! The self-explanatory Birds is to become Nature’s Home.

I assume this is partly in order to recognise the work done by the RSPB to conserve non-birds. They know that birds cannot exist in isolation, and are also responsible for looking after plenty of rare invertebrates and plants on their nature reserves. But it also forms part of a general drive towards an all-wildlife agenda, which is presumably an attempt to attract a more diverse membership base, and a highly visible attempt at that, to the extent that they’ve commissioned the society’s first ever TV advert:

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Bottling A June Afternoon

IMG_7997A couple of weeks back we went, with some friends, to one of Berkshire’s pick-your-own farms. These provide probably the tamest sort of back-to-nature experience possible: a controlled, regimented and essentially wholly manmade environment that still allows a frisson of contact with our inner hunter-gatherers. Freed from our suburban shackles, we were a band of plundering monkeys, with eyes, noses and taste buds fixed on the tasty prize. Sweet, yielding strawberries, sherbert-sharp rhubarb and unpromisingly tart yet ultimately delicious gooseberries: all this and more could be ours! So for once we really worked for our supper, labouring quietly in the hot sun. If we spoke at all, we employed language only for what I recall reading is supposed to have been its original purpose: telling each other where the ripe fruit was.

IMG_7987The only potential draw back of the PYO I can think off (besides sunstroke, nettle stings, cleaver-induced rashes, etc.) is that our ancestral urge to gather as much good fruit as we can combines with temptingly low prices to ensure that one often comes away with a nearly unmanageable haul of rapidly decaying fruit. So what followed after our afternoon’s picking was a rather frantic few days in the kitchen attempting to capture the fresh, fruity, floral flavours at their best before rot set in. Jams, sorbets, ice creams, cordials, fruit sauce, curd – two kitchens can seldom have been more productive in such a short space of time (nor, alas, can dirty dishes ever have mounted up so fast).

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