Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Birds and autodidacts

click photo to enlarge
When I was eleven years old I took up bird watching and pursued the hobby fairly seriously for many years. Though it is now a casual pastime, playing third fiddle to photography and architectural history, I notice the bird life wherever I go, and the knowledge I have still gives me enormous pleasure. One of the things that struck me when I started with the hobby was how, after identifying a particular species for the first time, I would then start to notice it everywhere! It was as though, up to that point, I had been wearing blinkers that filtered out that type of bird. I observed this phenomenon for the first time with the yellow wagtail, a bird that was a fairly common summer visitor to my part of the Yorkshire Dales, though alas, it is much rarer these days.

It took me many years to build up an understanding of the bird life around me, using principally my own observations and books such as "The Observer's Book of Birds", the"Collins New Naturalist" series, and Victorian volumes like Howard Saunders' "Manual of British Birds". I had a friend with whom I shared the hobby for a while, but for much of my teenage years the hobby was a solitary one. Only as I got into my later teens did I occasionally meet other bird watchers, and rarely did I go watching as part of a group. I have sometimes reflected on how I learned about birds, and have decided it was actually very beneficial, because what I got out of the hobby was, almost entirely, the result of my own efforts. Each new observation, each deepening of understanding about habits, migration, distribution, etc. was arrived through my own enquiries. Only later in life did I learn the word "autodidact", meaning "self-taught", but when I did, I came to value what it embodies, largely as a result of my own experience with bird watching. It's my view that the autodidact is undervalued by our society and its obsession with paper qualifications, and that is society's loss.

Moorhens, like the one shown above, nest early in the season, and in wild areas build their nests on or near water in natural cover. This one must have got used to the presence of people nearby because the only protection it has is the water separating it from the surrounding land. It was no great difficulty to get this shot with a 300mm lens. The striking red and yellow of the beak give a colourful highpoint to the picture.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen