Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Why my bird pics will always be poor record shots

"Record shot my ****" is one of my favourite comedy twitterfeeds. We've all seen them, those excellent images that 20 years ago would have made the photo of the year competitions that, for some reason, the poster feels the need to say is a just a very poor image because not pixel sharp, or similar.

They might well mean that sincerely. The kit does so much of all the hard work the old school pro' togger sweated over a 'togger can now, if they wish, focus on achieving picture nirvana. But their poor images are still ones to make an audience drool.

Besides, they'll never be poor, because I'll always be posting rubbish shots. Here on a something-like 45 sq Km estuary with an extreme lack of bird hides getting up close and personal isn't often possible. And I'm not looking to take those sort of quality pics in the first place. When it comes to bird specks, my shots are a personal 'sketch book' and back-ups for counts, a chance to tot up flock numbers back home in front of the computer screen. I also love a tiny image in an expanse, I think they're context shots, all because I fell in love with them a quarter-century ago, thanks to one book that still holds a place in my personal top ten.


It was back in 1993 that a slim, bright, book, 'Birds at Falsterbo', landed in my life. It was like nothing I had read at the time.

A book full of vividly coloured pictures of a faraway place, full of species I (mostly) knew, where the birds moved in nigh-mythical numbers.

And within the colourful mix, a number of small images, with incredibly small birds, that hooked me. Falsterbo came alive, thanks to the locations. These settings helped me imagine Falsterbo, and dream of similar numbers flying in-off and past me at the Grain foreshore (I was watching the mouths of both the Thames and the Medway back then). This was 'my' Falsterbo.

Strangely, I never wanted to go see the real thing back then; it made me work harder at home. And never finding much of a wanderlust, this was how Falsterbo has always remained; a place I've never been to, never wanted to go, and probably never will.

Blue Tits on bare bushes, Coals Tits on tide lines and Jays on fence posts had never made me so excited before. Woodpigeons over waves, Woodpigeons high above, Woodpigeons at Lighthouse light height, helped seal that species as a firm favourite of mine. Of course the text embellished the images, in some ways it felt simple, being a straight translation, no verbosity, just simple explanations of migratory trends and timings, but it was always those 'context shots' that captivated me. There were loads of other images that stayed with me. Starlings in the sand dunes, a Buzzard over the beach huts, bare trees full of Bramblings.

On it went. A raft of Smew in an icy canal. The 'May evening's star turn', a Thrush Nightingale sat out in full throaty flow. An evening gathering of Swifts at the light. A golfer-less golf course speckled with Yellow Wagtails. Eye-height Sparrowhawk whizzing along the shoreline. On and on and on and on, one small grainy picture after another, all images that would be deleted by today's toggers, but the best (for me) there was.

Karlsson's book was completely revamped after some years, the new (blue) guide still extremely good, and, thankfully still pre-digital age so having many similar shots, but not 'my' inspiration. They say you always remember your first.

I knew I loved the book, but it was only a couple of years back I sussed how much it had subtly influenced me. The new Poyser 'Bird Observatories' had just come out, and (with apologies to both editors, whom I know personally) it just didn't enthuse me like Falsterbo did. It didn't capture the essence. I wondered if it could be because I knew some of the observatories but, no, accounts of strange places such as Spurn did nothing for me (still no wanderlust, never been, never will at this rate).

Birds at Falsterbo was in my blood. And I was, unconsciously, trying to take pictures that matched the book. It helped I didn't have the patience for photography, that I loathed the idea of lugging a long lens around, and had developed that view that of a camera as being just a poor sketchbook and poor notebook combined.

Of course, it wasn't just the bird photos. Silhouettes of ringers at dawn stayed with me. How much that helped convince me to try ringing I'll never know. One small photograph of a 'viz-migger', in his own personal blind that I was sure could be easily copied with a wallpaper pasting table, who not only counted, he sexed and aged.. it spurred me to always stay on an extra fifteen minutes whenever I felt like giving up after seeing nothing in the previous thirty.

And, as I've thumbed through it whilst writing this I can also see where I got my love of arrow-covered maps and dinky little graphs. Never sussed that until today(!)

So, thanks for everything Falsterbo, I ruddy well love you.

Here's to a speck-filled 2018(!)



If I've failed to convince you as to why I'll never probably go, that's okay, I have tried and failed to explain this before. Once, to a birder, a world lister with more than 6,000 notches on the birdtable post, who just looked at me, bemused, and said 'Falsterbo really, really can't be inspiring you that much if you've still never bothered to go see it for yourself'.

I had a flashback, to Texas, November 1994. A solo trip, out of season and on a whim (I was still dealing with the loss of my mum the year before, who never once in her life got to go abroad, but had always wondered what 'abroad' was like.). That birding trip had very, very few migrants (though I did find a first for Texas, another story). But my abiding memory was the bucket list trip to tick off High Island, to just sit in the empty bleachers and see... absolutely nothing. Instead I just sat there and imagined the amazing fallouts I'd read about, and found myself quite content.

"Simple" I replied. "The point of a journey is not to arrive".

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