Birding with Simon Barnes

When winter sends a day of unexpected brightness, of unseasonable warmth, then a great tit finds his juices stirring, and instead of giving his usual contact calls and alarm calls, he will burst into a song. It is not a great song as these things go, but it is bright, strident and optimistic, and it comes wonderfully early in the year. It is winter’s death knell: and though winter takes a long time in dying, its fate is sealed from the moment the great tit sings. – Simon Barnes, How to be a (Bad) Birdwatcher.

If you read the Times of London, chances are that you have come across the name of Simon Barnes. He was once referred to as England’s “most colorful” sportswriter. When the Times solicited a thoroughly idiotic tennis article from a writer I do not want to name, Peter Bodo of Tennis Magazine castigated them for looking elsewhere when they had the services of “Simon friggin’ Barnes”. Barnes is a great sportswriter: one who writes with a genuine passion for sport, and one who values, like few others in the machofied universe of sports writing, the aethetic appeal of a sportsman on song. I have enjoyed reading his work without having the slightest idea that he is a writer of books on nature. So, it was with surprise and delight that I purchased How to be a (Bad) Birdwatcher at the bookstore inside the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. I could not have found a better memento of my short visit to the little sister’s city.

Partly autobiographical and partly instructional, it is an ode to birds and birdwatching that put me immediately at ease. Barnes quickly and summarily dispenses with paraphernalia such as field guides (“the more local the better”) and binoculars (“Ah, shut up – any old pair, cheapest you can find..”). No harping about whether a 7 x 35 is better than a 8 x 20. What he is really interested in, is the great pleasure of birdwatching. And by birdwatching, he does not mean the obsessive compulsive habit of keeping lists, shushing your fellow birdwatchers in the field, and such. Birdwatching, according to Barnes, is simply the act of opening oneself to the ordinary, day-to-day lives of birds. He writes enthusiastically of a couple of his great and eccentric birdwatching mentors, has witty descriptions of the best places to watch birds (landfills and garbage dumps get an honorable mention) and talks about the relevance of understanding the rhythms of birds, of trying to see how their lives are bound by time and place.

Rubbish tips and landfill sites are also honeypots: you see gulls in fantastic numbers; one thing that always stirs the heart is lots and lots of birds. The sight fills you with the feeling that humans haven’t, after all, buggered up the entire planet quite yet. And if you can feel that sort of emotion at a rubbish tip, what might you feel at a seabird nesting colony?

Needless to say, I loved the little book and read it everywhere – in the airplane, in bed, in the Subway line. It was funny, it was calming, and I felt lighter and happier for it. It was extremely gratifying to find out that I, less than a novice among birdwatchers, have had some experiences that Barnes considers valuable and attractive enough to include in this book. I have seen avocets in their dozens on the California shoreline and was surprised to read that their European cousins once faced extinction. In March 2005, shortly after seeing a change in the color of house finches that frequented my dorm balcony, I went to the southern tip of San Francisco Bay and discovered that the avocets changed color too! – abandoning their ashy grey to a more ostentatious orange-brown for the mating season. That visit, probably because of its timing, changed everything. Since then, I have seen pelicans, willets, sandpipers, skimmers, great egrets and snowy egrets one of which stood still long enough to give a decent photograph (below).

I have seen Forster’s terns hover over shallow water around mealtime and then suddenly, dive vertically into the water and emerge with a little fish in their beaks; Barnes reckons that watching this is one of the great experiences of bad birdwatching. Its not all that rare either. If you live in the Bay Area, you can head over to Shoreline Lake in Mountain View an hour before sunset and be treated to dozens of spectacular dives in less than five minutes.

As an immediate consequence of the book, I took Mr. Barnes’s advice and called up the local Audubon Society chapter. Astonishingly enough, the person I talked to not only told me which birds I should expect to see, she also offered to fax a comprehensive list of species that frequent the area. It so happens that there is a field trip at Charleston Slough on Sunday and I might get to meet the avocets again.

2 thoughts on “Birding with Simon Barnes”

  1. Hi–

    Weblog posts sometimes have a supposed topicality about them. Yet so often I find a post from years ago that is relevant to something I’m thinking about this week. I was googling up Simon Barnes when I read this post. It connected for me becuase I just finished “how to be a (bad) birdwatcher”, a book which excited me but also confirmed for me that I was already a (bad) birdwatcher all along.

    My good fortune was to be in the Costa Rican rainforest
    when I finished the book. Thus, my “honeypots” were not
    landfills but remote jungle trails. I saw my first toucan in the wild this week, as well as tropical birds with elegant names like Blue-crested mutmut and one who also lives in my home state of Texas (albeit far to the south), the wonderful great kisdadee. I also saw a plethora of hummingbirds, including the volcano-adjacent fiery-throated hummingbird.

    I enjoyed this post, and your sightings, and, encouraged by your experience, I hope to call up the local Audobon society and see what I can learn.

    best, robert, also known as gurdonark

  2. Robert: Thanks for sharing your experience. It must have been an awesome experience to be in the rain-forests of Costa Rica; everything that I have read about them suggests that they teem with wildlife.

    I shall now go to the Cornell Ornithology website to check out the birds you have mentioned. Other than the toucan, I hadn’t heard of these names before.

    I’m sure you’ll find a vibrant Audubon community near your hometown. Happy Birding!

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