Thursday 9 June 2016

Birding on borrowed time

About 30 years ago, when we lived in NE England, my friend P came to visit from Boston. We decided to take in a short section of the Pennine Way, the original and best long-distance footpath in Great Britain. It runs 430km up thje spine on England from Edale in the Derbyshire Peaks to Kirk Yetholm, just across the border in Scotland.  Most people, especially the through-hikers go from South to North but we went the opposite way: from Alston to Garrigal on the East of the Pennines to the top of Cross Fell and down to Dufton on the West side and then back over the tops to Middleton in Teesdale past High Force waterfall.  Eeee it were lovely: because of the clouds you can often see nothing at all from the top of Cross Fell but the whole of Northern England was laid out before us as we ate lunch on the top.  P, as a professional biologist, had bought a Peterson's Field Guide to the BIRDS of Britain and Europe and proceeded to check off the species as we encountered them. Peterson's has 7 pages, double-columned, listing the common names of each species to facilitate this essential part of the twitcher's life. At the end of her visit, P went back to America and presented her Peterson's to us.  I have checked precisely 5 species: me, I can't see the point.  But I have a couple of very good friends, shining examples of scientific success, who are mad about the birds and have an absurdly long list of species bagged.  Maybe I would have done better as a career biologist if I'd paid more attention to the prettiest and most obvious examples of biological diversity. One of my twitching pals from Ireland started at a very young age on the Wexford Slobs and was Secretary of the local bird-watchers chapter before he was eligible to vote. The other came to it much later, when he was a full professor at one of the Irish Universities. When you reach the top, you have a rather short teaching load and as a Living National Treasure LNT nobody is going to complain if he seizes his binoculars and take two days off in West Kerry after being alerted to an accidental vagrant in a bush on the Beara Peninsula.

Like the LNT, Phoebe Snetsinger came to birding late. IT wasn't until she was in her mid 30s that she paid full attention to a Blackburnian warbler Setophaga fusca - a small passerine with a distinctive yellow and black head.  It's the sort of bird that you can find in your back garden if you live in the NE of the USA and have some trees. Shortly before her 50th birthday, she was given a terminal melanoma diagnosis, (this was years before Pembro and other effective treatments) with 'a year to live', and was thereby induced to ramp up the birding. Northern Mexico, Alaska, New Guinea, Africa. She had money and soon built up a mighty reputation as a dedicated follower of feathered life. There are, certain-sure, birds in tropical jungles which are unknown to science but the best estimates suggest that there are about 10,000 different species of birds on the planet.  That's about 2x the number of mammals. Phoebe Snetsinger clocked off 8,300 of them before she died in 1999, in a car-wreck in Madagascar.  At the time that was the highest score recorded. She out-lived the year-to-live by almost two decades and spent much of her remaining time peering through a telescope or binoculars at little brown jobs LBJs, which make birding such an agreeable challenge. Her memoir Birding on Borrowed Time [review] is temporarily out of stock on Amazon. That could be because it's her birthday today which features as the Google Doodle.

Birding is an excellent training in patience, attention and ecological awareness. To find your birds you have to internalise all sorts of aspects of their habitat and life-style.  Swans Cygnus olor don't nest in trees, blackbirds Turdus merula eat worms but not midges, swallows Hirundo rustica eat midges but not worms. Behavioural traits can be as important in diagnosis as the detailed anatomical differences among the the LBJs. By all accounts Phoebe Snetsinger was a walking encyclopedia of all aspects of bird life and good company too.  I reckon she made a difference.

No comments:

Post a Comment