Monday, 24 October 2011

An avian observation post

I’ve only got two ‘Observer’ guide books but I treasure them.  I can’t fully explain why – maybe it’s the combination of them being pocket-sized (this always makes things which aren’t normally that small seem extra attractive for some reason) and also that they’re old.  They have an appealing vintage look, feel and scruffiness, like the Penguin paperbacks I’ve written about before on here.  So I’m holding on to my collection of two - well, it’s not as if they take up much room. 

‘Observer’ books were discontinued in the eighties, after 100 titles had been published in just over fifty years. There is even an ‘Observer’s Book of Observer’s Books’.    I’m not quite sure how they managed to fill two hundred plus pages on some topics: ‘mosses and liverworts’,  sewing’ or ‘glass’,  for instance, but there are others about which I think the opposite, wondering how they managed to condense vast subjects such as ‘modern art’ and ‘wild flowers’ into relatively small volumes.  Birds and trees are just right for these little guides, though. 

‘The Observer’s Book of Birds’ was actually the very first in the series.  I’ve plenty of books about birds but I still refer to this one from time to time, it’s simple to use and it doesn’t go out of date.  It also has a notably endearing way of describing bird note/calls phonetically; for example, apparently the bearded tit makes the sound: ‘ “Cht, cht” and a twanging “ping” ’ and the tree pipit’s song is described as having ‘…a sweet rallentando at the end: “tweedle, tweedle, sweet, sweet, sweet.” ’ Well, I’ve never seen a tree pipit nor come across the term, ‘rallentando’ before, but I like the sound of them both already. 

I’m somewhat fanatical about birds. It’s just a love thing.  They make my eyes light up and my heart lift.   I’ve tried to analyse many times what exactly it is about birds which makes them special, but I can’t really nail it.  I love the fact that they are the only wild creature we share our lives with so visibly, so obviously, every day.  No matter where you are, whether it’s on a city street or in the middle of a forest, you’re bound to notice a bird at some point.  I love the way they are entirely free-willed but we can still find ways to interact with them – like the blackbird who comes to the back door for sultanas, or the robin who surveys as you do some gardening, almost seeming to urge you to notice him.  You can learn a lot about life just watching and trying to understand birds – recognizing all those behaviour patterns which are not so dissimilar to our own when you consider the basic motivations.  They get on with every aspect of their lives without fuss, clearly aware of us but relatively unperturbed.  The more time you devote to observing ordinary birds going about their business, the more you get out of it, and the more you get out of it the more you will want to share in their lives. 

Even when you can’t see them, you invariably hear them and once you’re tuned in it seems you become more aware of birdsong than any other sound.  Earlier today I could hear the jarring metallic clatter of a pneumatic drill somewhere up the road, but the sweet whistling of a territorial robin drew my attention away.  I think there may even have been a rallentando in his song somewhere.

For some reason my love of birds seems to be directly linked to my inability to represent them well on paper.  You’d think it’d make it easier as I spend so much time watching them, but it’s almost as if that’s all I can do: observe.  Observe and enjoy.  My drawings don’t do them justice; maybe I’m inhibited by the challenge of how to capture their spirit and essence, although occasionally I do I try the odd quick sketch…

 Images copyright C / Sun Dried Sparrows

But I’ll leave the proper pictures to the illustrators of my pocket guide. All I really want to do is see, hear and experience birds for real, and if I’m lucky I may get to hear the ‘ “fullock”…”chirrick” and “quark” ’ of a moorhen or the ‘ “whitz” and an explosive scream or groan’ of the water rail.

A musical tribute - Alan Ross: Blackbird (not the Beatles' song of the same name)

Not sure what species this is, but it isn't in my Observer's Book...
Image copyright C (aged about 8)


  1. Love the drawings - you do them more justice than you give yourself credit for - the last one looks like one of mine!

    Never owned an Observer book me, but the one I was always nearly tempted to buy was the one about the Seashore. Maybe I'll go and get buy it after reading this.

    And I'm pretty sure they serve "rallentando" on a bed of linguine....

  2. Many thanks, A. Linguine alla rallentando, eh? Is that something MPW serves up at the Angel?

    I've been reliably informed that the last picture is of the now extinct sausage-bird (turdus sausagus). Perhaps hunted for its meat?

    Enjoy your Observer's Seashore if you get one. I've got three other similar little guides that I love, The Reader's Digest Nature Lover's Library Field Guides to: 'Animals of Britain', 'Water Life of Britain'(lots of seashore stuff) and 'Butterflies & other insects'. I wouldn't be without them!

  3. Lovely post, C. Thanks for leading me to it. Your edition of 'Birds' is definitely older than mine, so I'm a bit envious. The front cover illustration is gorgeous compared to the photo of some tits that they used for my later copy. Why do they always seem to think that being 'modern' needs to preclude a nice illustration? Seems to happen with a lot of books. As for Alan Ross, I've not heard of him but maybe, if I'm wait long enough, I'll catch another glimpse of him one day. If you don't mind, your post reminded me of a 'poem' I once penned and here it is:

    Whistling to Robins

    The woods are filled with robins,
    threading the trees with a thin wire of song.
    Halfway along the ash path,
    beneath the spread of beech and chestnut trees,
    we stop and listen:
    a sharp ‘chirrup!’, with a twist and a ‘peep!’
    I’ll never be a bird amanuensis,
    but that’s a rough idea.
    A russet joker flits through air;
    pugnacious puff-ball,
    it skips along a fractured branch,
    curiously eyeing our movements,
    then scatters its wild triplets
    and quarter tones into the blue –
    a true jazz maverick.
    Impulsively, I whistle back;
    my song a sad mockery
    of its quick-witted trilling.
    You look at me open mouthed,
    and you whisper, ‘Don’t do that!
    People will think you’re mad’.
    ‘Yes’, I say, ‘they will’.

    Not much, I know but there it is.

    1. Thanks, SB and I'm glad you enjoyed. If I ever find another older version of the book of birds in a charity shop spree, I'll send it on!

      Thank you too for sharing your poem. It's perfect. I love it. Beautiful.

      (I talk to the birds... like pets... if I'm in the garden or leaning out the back door Mr SDS says just the same to me. "Sshhh! People will think you're mad!" But I really don't care.)

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks Martin, I'm sorry I missed this comment earlier. But 'great minds' re. this topic!


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