A bit about birds
Ever since I can remember, I have been a bird nerd. A nature nerd through and through - but it was the Avian family that really stole my heart.
I remember lounging on my parents’ bed, pouring over their copy of the Reader’s Digest Book of British Birds. With stunning illustrations by Raymond Harris Ching, it was a hefty tome for a four /five-year-old. The cover image - a gorgeous tawny owl that appeared to be squeezed into the space, leaving no room for a title - is ingrained in my memory. Even now, it stands out as a daring design.
British Birds filled me with awe and respect, and I treated it with due reverence as if it were the lectern’s Holy Bible. In the light and warmth of that quiet, south-facing bedroom, I dreamt of spotting all kinds of rarities. Meanwhile, house sparrows chirped outside, and wind-up wagtails made tiny sprints across the road.
The first bird guide of my own was a much-cherished copy of the Usborne Spotter’s Guide to Birds (chosen in place of an Easter egg, circa 1976). I loved that little yellow book. I have such a vivid memory of receiving it, immediately making a start on my list of birds seen (the first tick went to a pair of crooning collared doves in the neighbour’s pine).
But as the years went by, being a bird nerd filled me with shame.
Stupid, I know (now).
Back in the eighties, breakdancing, boomboxes, Bon Jovi and the Boss were cool. The Brat Pack were cool. Being a teenage birder was not.
It wasn’t until 1985 that naturalist Chris Packham ‘crept nervously and naively onto the set of the Really Wild Show with a blonde quiff and crepe-soled shoes.’ It’s reported he was told, “you’re passionate about wildlife and you look weird. You’re perfect.” I was already fifteen years old - so he arrived too late to sway my teenage peers (even so, I loved the Really Wild Show). I continue to admire him today.
By then I was volunteering with the RSPB; taking twilight walks to hear the churring of nightjars; making 5 am starts for dawn chorus walks; and pishing in the bushes.* It was like my secret identity. And when mates came around unexpectedly, I’d shove my pile of bird magazines under the bed as if they were porn.
My favourite local birding haunt was some flooded gravel pits in Sandhurst, Berkshire. I’d cycle there with my binoculars and ‘scope slung across my back; dump my crappy racer in the hedge and squeeze between the barbed wire.
Over the years, I spent many happy hours spotting, noting and sketching some gorgeous birds: breeding little ringed plovers, goosanders, kingfishers, green and common sandpipers, grey wagtails, sedge warblers, water rails, great crested grebes - all duly submitted to the local bird group (whose logo I designed). I was there once, savouring a rare treat - a grumpy-looking little owl, hunched up in the crook of an oak tree. At the same time, two teenage girls approached on the bridleway that ran parallel to my path behind the hedge. They passed by on their horses, mocking and sniggering at the teenage birder. I felt such a loser and dared not turn around. Mainly because I didn’t want to face their ridicule; but maybe, more importantly, one of them (an old friend from primary school who I’d recently become reacquainted with) was a former crush. (I made her a Valentine’s card when I was about eight years old, which she promptly ripped into pieces in front of my classmates. Ouch. I said I related to Charlie Brown!)
But now I’m not ashamed to identify as a birder. I will perfectly happily walk along the road with my binoculars on display! No need to try and hide them anymore. Because what makes me different makes me great!
My lifelong passion for birds led to my decision to add lots of them to the art for Only You Can Be You - What Makes You Different Makes You Great!
52 birds in all, each one an incidental detail. Illustrating them - mostly with collage - was a real joy. They definitely liven up the art with their colour and movement. And they got me thinking: One day, I’d really like to illustrate a book all about birds.
That would be awesome!
* ‘By understanding what pishing is and how and when to use it, birders can greatly increase their field birding success. Be careful, however, because this technique is not always welcome or appropriate.’