Hundreds of common gulls blot out the August sky over Rutland Water. They are the only avian species visible at a three-day event dedicated entirely to birds.
When he needed to connect with something that wasn't destructive, he'd step away from the murder scene, look around, and see birds
What can be seen in abundant variety are flocks of creatures adorned with khaki sun hats and gilets, optics slung around their necks and grins stretched across their faces. These are the birdwatchers, and this weekend is their annual celebration of all things bird-related.
According to recent records, 25,000 birdwatchers pass through the British Birdwatching Fair, which has been running annually at Rutland’s nature reserve since 1989.
Every birdwatcher can be categorised. According to national surveys by organisations including the Fish and Wildlife Service, US birdwatchers are generally highly educated, on a high annual income, and middle-aged or older. There are slightly more women than men, an on average they spend 13-15 days per year birding away from home.
In UK surveys, birdwatchers are divided into three categories: twitchers, enthusiasts and casuals. While that might sound like different levels of engagement, from most to least, they are in fact indicative of separate approaches. One can often find snobbery coming from each faction, particularly the first two.
Twitchers are, in one word, hardcore. Predominantly male, they are competitive, impatient with groups of less skilled-birders, and even less patient with social events such as the Birdfair. Often keeping a yardpole’s distance from anything resembling a romantic relationship, they get immense satisfaction from building up their life list of bird species, and are consequently seldom at home.
Enthusiasts take a more holistic approach and, while interested in birds, generally love nature from every side. They are social creatures and generally prefer a more comfortable lifestyle while building up their lists. This category, which represents about 50% of birdwatchers, has slightly more women than men.
Casuals are essentially ecotourists. They travel in large groups and are satisfied by superficial interactions with nature. For developing countries with colourful bird populations, this category represents a profitable sector for the economy.
But while categorisation explains the basic differences between birdwatchers, actually encountering one racks the brain a little deeper.
For the photographer Elliot Kennedy and I, approaching attendees of the Bird Fair was an easy task. Most were willing to speak to us and have their portraits taken. One of the first conversations was with a pair of bikers from Yorkshire. Holding vanilla ice cream cones in their hand, they told me they were army veterans. I asked where they had been stationed but the question was ignored as they drifted back towards the festival’s attractions. Perhaps a conversation about warfare was inappropriate, even if almost everyone at the fair was wearing some sort of military-inspired garment.
There is an innate natural connection between humans and the rest of the living world
After a few portraits, a Dutch professor came up and asked us what we were up to. His name was Barend van Gemerden, the co-ordinator of the global conservation programme for BirdLife International in the Netherlands and a senior international conservation officer for the organisation Vogelbescherming Nederland. Gemerden had an extremely pleasant manner, and was kind enough to explain a bit about birds to us two outsiders.
Next were the American writers John E. Riutta and Laura Kammermeier. Riutta is an avid naturalist from Oregon who writes about natural history books. He used to market and develop optics for the brand Leupold, and now does so for Celestron. Kammermeier is a travel and birdwatching blogger who worked at the prestigious Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Both of them offered an insight into the importance of connecting with nature.
After a few brief chit chats, including one with a famous writer whose specialty was parrots, I realised I needed to speak to a birder from the UK.
Someone told me to get in touch with a guy named David Lindo. So after the festival, I gave him a ring. Lindo was raised by Jamaican parents in Wembley, London. He operates as the Urban Birder and gets people interested in birdwatching in urban areas. Lindo has written two books, runs urban birding tours around London, and has appeared on TV shows on BBC One, Channel 4 and CBS News.
John E. Riutta, wellreadnaturalist.com
“I knew a journalist called Charles Bowden who was covering murders down in the border regions of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. He was a birdwatcher and discovered that when he needed to connect with something in the world that wasn't destructive, he'd step away from the murder scene, look around, and see birds. That would basically bring him back to his own humanity, a sense that the whole world wasn't evil. Then he could return to the job that he had to do.
If you pull one thing out of nature, you quickly find it’s connected to everything else
“Years ago, Edward Wilson, a noted biologist, came up with the term biophilia. He posited that there is an innate natural connection between humans and the rest of the living world. The observation of them is not only a source of joy but a reattachment to the world at large. We spend so much time in our jobs, chasing things that are a part of human society, that we often lose touch with the natural world. I think that my interest in birds, my interest in natural history in general which I’ve had since I was a child, is what helps me be able to live a normal life as a husband, father, and man in society. It helps me to remain connected to what's truly important, what’s larger than any of us individually.”
Laura Kammermeier, naturetravelnetwork.com
“Once, when I was working at a consultant job at a tree company. I was driving with another biologist in California. He saw a small mammal cross the road, a marmot I think, and sped up the car to try and run it over so he could identify it. This was one of those many moments in my life that made me want to be a sentinel.
“I’ve learnt that if you pull one thing out of nature, you quickly find it’s connected to everything else. In the US in the 1960s, a pesticide called DDT was being used. We saw a dramatic drop in the raptor population. It didn't take too long to figure out it was tied to DDT. We were poisoning our environment. It would have eventually caught up with humans but because we saw the bird populations collapsing, we lobbied to have environmental rules changed in the US. This type of thing still goes on. Most recently in Asia there is the use of a chemical called diclofenac. That caused a massive collapse of three species of vulture over a very short period. They eventually found out about this and the population is in a state of stabilisation now.
I don't think many people wake up and say, let's destroy some nature
“Like the canary in a coal mine, birds are the first warning to humans that something might me missing in our environment.”
“In general, I think conservation and birdwatching goes hand in hand. Actually, in most parts of society, it goes hand in hand. I don't think many people wake up and say, let's destroy some nature. It's because they have other interests or they don't know about it.
“One time, I was walking in the Netherlands, in one of our islands in the north. I was with a friend who brought her daughter. There were these hares in the field and I was trying to show her through my telescope; they were fighting and it was quite fun to watch. Finally, the girl locked onto the hare and at that exact moment she did, it was shot down by a hunter. That girl was traumatised for a while. But for me, it's not the individual destruction that worries me the most. For instance, in the countryside just outside the village where I grew up, it has become boring because of the amount of farming. There is just one species of grass, everything is level. I would have to spend hours trying to find a black-tailed godwit. When I was younger, you would just walk outside the house and see one.
“Now I have the knowledge of how we are destroying our landscape, that makes me sad and frustrated. As a conservationist, I must work harder to counter it. In general, I am a happy guy. But if I'm working on projects in Cameroon and Indonesia, I see forests destroyed and it makes me sad.”
I remember a bunch of black kids telling me, why you acting like an English person. I said, what about you? At least I'm doing something different
David Lindo, theurbanbirder.com
“I grew up in a black and Irish neighbourhood where none of the people I knew, including my family, had the remotest interest in nature. But for some reason I was just drawn to it – initially insects, but then I started noticing the birds that fed on the insects and it went from there. I was ribbed a lot for doing it. As a kid, it was a bit hard to take. But I persevered. When I was 13 or 14, I started getting into girls, drink and music – ska, soul, reggae, then punk and disco. And I'm glad because if I hadn't have done that, I would have become an anorak growing a pot belly and a beard in his bedroom.
“The fact that I maintained my interest in birdwatching though was highly unusual. I didn't realise how strong I was in terms of what I believed in. I remember a bunch of black kids telling me, "why you acting like an English person." I said, "what about you? At least I'm doing something different. What are you doing?" I looked at them, all dressed the same and doing the same thing. I was doing something that I wanted to do. No one was going to tell me not to do it.
“Nine years ago, the BBC approached me and asked me if I wanted to be on Springwatch to talk about my local patch Wormwood Scrubs. I said of course. The night before filming, I was pacing up and down the kitchen wondering what I could say that would make me stand out. Despite the fact that I'd love to be another David Attenborough, that wasn’t going to happen. But I watch birds in urban areas. City Birder? What about the Urban Birder? I announced myself as that the following day and it stuck.
“I think my message has a global meaning and can be heard on a global level. Even though I don't call myself a conservationist, I engage with people in urban areas. I go to talk to people that may not have even considered the idea of watching birds and say to them, ‘you know what, you can do it too. You don't need to be an expert, just get out of your house and look up’.”