Monthly Archives: September 2021

Old Notebooks

Birdwatching in the Lake District, 1972

Opening a desk drawer this morning I found this green notebook, with its textured green cover.

I bought it in 1976, when I was 13 years old. Sold by the RSPB, it is a small ring-binder, essentially a proto-Filofax, containing pre-printed lists of British birds to be used for recording sightings. It was a step-up (to my young eyes, at least) from the grey paper notebooks – ‘The Bird Watcher’s Field Note Book’ – also produced by the RSPB, and of which I have had several over the years.

There is one of these grey notebooks, covering a period from October 1972 to February 1975, tucked inside the front pocket of the binder.

A ‘typical’ RSPB notebook (left) and the ‘Filofax’ type

Each list comprises two facing pages with a tick-list of birds seen, and two blank facing pages for notes and sketches. The blank pages are not so thoroughly filled-in, but there are a few on which I have made notes and even a couple of extremely poor field sketches. Bird books I read as a 10 year old were always full of advice about making sketches and drawings as a way of recording birds which might be notable, or require reference to books and field guides when one got back after a birding trip.

Actually, that word ‘birding’ was not part of the lexicon when I started out: it was simply ‘bird watching’ to me. Neither was the word ‘twitcher’ one I was aware of back then, there were keener birdwatchers who travelled to see rarer birds, but it had not yet become the organised and frenzied activity that it has since become (though one to which I have never subscribed myself). I believe the use of ‘birder’ and ‘birding’ really became more prevalent as a way of distinguishing a casual, perhaps more leisurely, and certainly less fanatical way of seeing and watching birds than ‘twitching’ as that activity became more prevalent.

Habitat and Weather – Fell, Woodland and Farm. Fine.

The first trip recorded, in October 1972, was to the Duddon Valley in what was then still Westmorland. A half-term holiday with my parents and sister, staying with Mrs Hibbert at High Kiln Bank Farm near Ulpha. Tanned and wiry, probably no older than her mid-forties, she was an amazing lady, who not only let us stay with her in the farmhouse, but also managed the farm (with the help of an ancient shepherd whose name I cannot remember) and would take ‘afternoons off’ to climb the fells, managing far more in a few hours’ walking than my family would in a whole day on the hills – before cooking the most wonderful hearty suppers for us all. In fact, my favourite food at High Kiln Bank was the porridge served at breakfast – made with rich, creamy milk and accompanied by a further jug of cream on the table. This stuff was ambrosia to me as a child: I can smell and taste it now.

I recorded 25 birds in the week that we were there that October. Two – a Whinchat and a Common Gull – can, I am confident, be discounted as the misidentifications of an over-excited young birdwatcher. A Whooper Swan is the most notable, and I can see it now, not too far out on Devoke Water to the west of Duddon. It sat, not too far out, on the water of that little-visited and desolate tarn, and I studied it closely through my 8×30 Boots binoculars. Definitely a Whooper.

The list from my visit to the Duddon Valley in October 1972

The rest were common or garden birds, with Ravens and Stonechats (I reckon my optimistic Whinchat was really a juvenile Stonechat) being the only birds that I might not have seen back home in Lancashire. No Buzzards, which seems strange, as these were birds I always associate with the Lake District. Stranger still to think that Buzzards and Ravens are now birds I see frequently over my own garden in the middle of Salisbury fifty years later.

Michaelmas Day

Today is Michaelmas Day. A day I keep marked in my diary, coinciding – as it does – more or less – with the Autumn Equinox. Here, the dark gained ascendance over the light a couple of days ago. It seems worthy of marking, for it represents the true beginning of autumn and winter, the season of fading light, the time of year that sends us deep into the dark for a few weeks. But it is only a few weeks. Less than three months from today the light will begin to creep back in. Although it never seems like it, the weather and the human calendar being somewhat disconnected from the earth’s calendar. And even this morning, the sun is shining brightly and clearly albeit a shorter time. Perhaps it is a question of quality over quantity. Perhaps, too, we value the light so much more because there is less of it.

There have been some gloomy, wet days in the past week, days when it scarcely seemed light at all. They will become commoner, so a morning like today’s seems all the more surprising and all the more precious.

And yet I am maybe getting ahead of myself. It is still autumn, after all. The garden has not given up the ghost. Not by a long way. From my window I can see the Hawthorn berries and a rosehip or two waiting for the birds to strip them later in the year. The Rowan berries have already been taken from the front garden, but the Pyracantha – yellow and red – is still laden. Most of the trees and bushes remain full of leaves, even as they start to turn: but the prevailing colour is still green. The Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’ (Autumn Joy) is flowering and there are new Dahlias to pick most days.

Long-tailed Tits have returned to the garden after being absent for quite a while. They arrive in gangs, marauding through the trees for a while before heading off to other gardens. They ‘do the rounds’ and will visit the garden several times in a day, calling their high-pitched calls to announce their arrival. They love the fat ball feeders as well as the insects they can hoover up in the Birch tree, aphids and late caterpillars, as well as the myriad spiders which are now so visible in the garden. The same spiders whose nests the Tits will use to construct their ball-nests when Spring comes round again.

The low sun catches the leaves, which seem thinner now as the year turns. Translucent Katsura and Blueberry leaves glow in the light. Apples too, fewer now after a windy couple of days, shine on the tree even as Blackbirds feast on the windfalls. There will be apple cake for tea.

So, no prayers to St Michael from me, but still a marking of time passing and the turning of the world.