Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Childhood Natural History in the 1950's

The comments I made about twitchers in my last post, which often see me classified as odd by that particular type of some-time birdwatchers, have evolved I suppose, as a result of several meetings with some of them over many years. Perhaps I have just been unfortunate in coming across the odd bad apples each time but on the whole I have always found them an arrogant and cliquey bunch of people who often abandon established codes of practice in their determination to see what somebody else has found for them.
I suppose it also comes from a degree of contempt for the fact that it is easy these days to be an expert naturalist simply from the comfort of an armchair - want to always know where the latest uncommon/rare birds are, don't find them yourself, buy a Pager - want to know what that bird looks like, study it in depth on the internet - buy telescopes, binoculars and long-range cameras - buy good bird books - watch how best to go about your hobby on TV. The one thing missing from that long list of easy and convenient steps to being a modern day successful birdwatcher are the countless years of learning fieldcraft in all weathers and every season. When I look at the twitcher, rushing along the seawall, who has just zipped out from the comfort of home to answer the call of a pager, I do wonder at just what time and experience that they actually put into finding any kind of bird life for themselves, or am I simply bleating away like many old codgers, with the "you've never had it so good or easy" mantra.

As a child born in 1947, who spent his formative years growing up through the 1950's in very basic living conditions, with no electricity and just one cold water tap in the whole house, our only form of communication with the outside world was by radio. That radio was powered by an accumalator, of the type seen below, which was bigger and heavier than it looks. It was a square glass container full of acid, that often, us kids would have to lug round to the local radio shop, or back-yard supplier each week to swap for a re-charged one. Not something a child would be allowed to do today but like everything else in those times, you learned by experiencing it rather than reading about it.

I don't recall learning much at all about wildlife or nature from the radio and with ownership of bird books, etc. almost unheard of, or they were in my circle of friends, the only place to find out anything was by borrowing books from the public library. Imagine a modern day birdwatcher having nothing else but the Observers books of Birds or Birds Eggs to learn from and not even a pair of binoculars, would their interest still be there, would their blogs have any content?
What many of us old'ns now know, was learnt from many, many hours as a child wandering fields, hedgerows and marshes armed with nothing but a simple determination to learn everything one could about the countryside around you. Whatever you learned, it was done the hard way - trees were climbed, bushes and ditches were fell in, eggs collected and specimens brought home. I lost count of the number of times that I brought home caterpillars or butterflies in a jar and then had to traipse down to the library and borrow a book, often with only black and white illustrations, before I could try to identify them. Many a library book got returned with muddy pages inside where I had taken it out into the field with me.
For far too many years, until well into my 20's when I bought my first pair of cheap RSPB binoculars, I could only identify birds by eyesight alone. But those years weren't wasted years, they gave you experience in being able to identify birds by their calls and their wing and flight movements, rather than simply sticking a telescope on them. You still got joy from discovering, by actually looking on your own, the simple things, such as Song Thrushes line their nests with mud but that Blackbirds go on to cover the mud in their nests with hay, etc. You still got great enjoyment from spending a whole day among common wildlife and learning its habits, rather than the need to find that rarer specimen. How many times do bloggers these days reel off a long list of ordinary birds seen each day and then complain that there's not much about or long for something "decent" to come by. Why does it only have to be something rare these days to create enjoyment or excitement.
Above all, I recall, it was a time when nature still adhered to four clearly defined seasons, when wildlife still worked to those seasons by clockwork and by getting out and experiencing those seasons you learned more than you ever could from the internet.  


  1. I suppose I may be one of these types Derek but I would say to my credit that I patch watch regularly and put news out for others to know about. The problem with a good site or bird is that your peaceful patch is often invaded by others who you would never normally see. Sometimes I wish I could keep my moth shut. The Penduline Tit recently I found being a good example. No room in the hide for me as a local while everybody filled my seat. As you say I'm sure others do sit indoors and wait but there are others like myself who put the hours in.

  2. I found the Twitching/Harrier Roost heading on your previous post intriging as the two didn't seem to go together - and so it proved when I read on ! Courtesy costs nothing !!
    Today's post made me realise even more how lucky we both were to grow up on Sheppey. Times were relatively hard but we had the space and freedom to wander at will and obviously appreciate the natural history around us.

  3. Marc,
    Like I implied, I seem to have encountered the bad-apple types of twitcher, the indoor types - from your blogs I certainly wouldn't put you in that league, you appear to work hard at understanding and experiencing your patch. Which makes it hard to understand why you are so immediately keen to give yourself the grief that you got from advertising the Penduline Tit.
    However, we all have our different views on life, I was just trying to explain mine.


    What a great time it was on Sheppey in the 50's, unspoilt, undeveloped and un-twitched.