A bit about birds

Detail from  Only You Can Be You!  by Nathan and Sally Clarkson (Tommy Nelson 2019) Illustration © 2019 by Tim Warnes

Detail from Only You Can Be You! by Nathan and Sally Clarkson (Tommy Nelson 2019) Illustration © 2019 by Tim Warnes

Sometimes I think that the point of birdwatching is not the actual seeing of the birds, but the cultivation of patience. Of course, each time we set out, there’s a certain amount of expectation we’ll see something, maybe even a species we’ve never seen before, and that it will fill us with light. But even if we don’t see anything remarkable - and sometimes that happens - we come home filled with light anyway.
— From 'Birding with Yeats: A Memoir' copyright © 2014 Lynn Thompson. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. www.houseofanansi.com

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).

Book of British Birds:  illustration © 1972 by Raymond Harris Ching

Book of British Birds: illustration © 1972 by Raymond Harris Ching

Spotter’s Guide to Birds  © 1981 Usborne Publishing Ltd. Illustrations by Trevor Boyer.

Spotter’s Guide to Birds © 1981 Usborne Publishing Ltd. Illustrations by Trevor Boyer.


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.

Field sketch: Cormorant  © by Tim Warnes

Field sketch: Cormorant © by Tim Warnes


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!

Field sketch: Lesser black-backed gulls, Sizewell Nuclear Power Station, Suffolk . Illustration © 1991 by Tim Warnes

Field sketch: Lesser black-backed gulls, Sizewell Nuclear Power Station, Suffolk. Illustration © 1991 by Tim Warnes


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.’

 
 

Sources

ONLY YOU CAN BE YOU! WHAT MAKES YOU DIFFERENT MAKES YOU GREAT! BY NATHAN AND SALLY CLARKSON, ILL. BY TIM WARNES (TOMMY NELSON 2019)

Birding with Yeats: A Mother's Memoir by Lynn Thomson (House of Anansi Press 2014)

Book of British Birds, ill. by Raymond Harris Ching (Reader's Digest Association Limited 1972)

Spotter’s Guide to Birds by Peter Holden, ill. by Trevor Boyer (Usborne 1981)

The New Face of Springwatch by Chris Packham (BBC Wildlife Magazine, June 2009)

Pishing by Melinda Mayntz (thespruce.com)