Sunday, 2 March 2014

Andy Mackay - My 'NGB Years'

You will probably be familiar with the work of Andy Mackay even if you did not know it, since it was Andy who generously breathed life into NGB's image with our terrific Little Egret logo which now adorns many a tshirt, hoodie and even a bear mascot! Here he describes his blossom into birding at a young age and gives some tips to other young birders:

Had NGB existed 'when I were a lad' I'm sure I would have been an active and enthusiastic member. But it didn't of course, because for me, the 'NGB years' would have spanned 1978 to 1990, and the Internet had barely been invented then. Even by the time I was 25, very few people had computers.
At the age of 13, although I had been interested in birds for as long as I could remember, I knew no other birders and rarely did any birding outside of my garden, other than on family holidays and outings. I did have a decent pair of binoculars though, and had been a member of the Young Ornithologists' Club since the age of nine. But over the next 12 years my birding was to undergo huge changes...

YOC 'Bird Life' magazines + Kestrel badge
In 1983 the Shell Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland was published, and I bought a copy soon after it came out. See 'The Book That Inspired a Generation' on my blog for more on this. Another book I came across around this time was Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book. If you've never read this, I strongly suggest that you get hold of a copy and do so. Although it's mostly about birding/twitching in the 1970s, a lot of it is still highly relevant. Plus it's very funny. Like the Shell Guide, BOLBBB was a revelation for me. Strange as it seems now, I had never considered the idea that I might somehow find out about rarities and go and see them myself. I assumed that rare birds were only seen purely by luck, and always by other people!

The Shell Guide & Bill Oddie's Little Black Bird Book
The following year saw me taking further steps to becoming a 'proper' birder. In late August 1984 I made my first visit to north Norfolk. This was supposed to be a voluntary wardening fortnight at Snettisham, but thanks to the influence of a more experienced 'vol' who was there at the same time as me, it turned into what was effectively a birding/twitching trip at the RSPB's expense, much to the annoyance of the warden! In those two eye-opening weeks I had 16 lifers, including a Marsh Sandpiper at Cley. Not long after this, back in Leicestershire I met Jeff Higgott whilst birding at Cropston Reservoir, and he introduced me to both the local ornithological society and ringing, which I took up enthusiastically. I also started subscribing to British Birds around this time.

I now had not only a regular birding companion, but also that all important 'grapevine' contact. Prior to this I had never heard about anything interesting turning up in the county, with the exception of the Bridled Tern at Rutland Water, which I read about on the front page of the Leicester Mercury after it had gone! As well as local birding, we went twitching whenever transport was available. The highlight of this period was undoubtedly the Little Whimbrel at Salthouse in August 1985, still my longest standing British 'blocker', and the only one I have left from the 1980s.

Pen & ink drawing of the 1985 Little Whimbrel from my 'big notebook' of  the time
In 1986/87 I spent a year working as an assistant warden at Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory in Kent. This was another quantum leap in my birding, packing what would be several years' worth of experience for most people into just 12 months. And I could hardly believe that I was being paid to watch, count and ring birds every day. It wasn't all fun, of course; I've never been much of a morning person, so I never enjoyed getting up before dawn every day during migration periods, and you might not believe it, but even birding can sometimes become a chore when it's your job! But on the whole it was a great experience, and I would say to any young birder, if you get a chance to stay at an observatory, let alone work at one, make the most of it.

Stilt Sandpiper twitch, Cliffe, 1987. My Dad's Mk II Cavalier, Jeff's Hertel & Reuss scope, and my dodgy 80s hairstyle, glasses and moustache!

In 1990 I visited Scilly for the first time, and my British list, already over 300, shot up by 11 new species in a fortnight, including Black-billed Cuckoo, Upland Sandpiper, Swainson's and Grey-cheeked Thrushes and Isabelline Wheatear. All birds I had barely heard of 12 years earlier in pre Shell Guide days, let alone thought I'd ever see.

Grey-cheeked Thrush twitch, St Mary's, October 1990
And somewhere along the way I had become a full time bird artist and illustrator, mostly by accident it has to be said, having decided that doing a 'proper job' wasn't for me. But that's another story in itself.

Bluethroat cover of BB, April 1990
Throughout all this time technology was moving on, although we were still another ten years away from mass ownership of computers, mobile phones and digital cameras. But I think it's important to remember that, great as all this technology is, birding is essentially no different now to what it was 25, 50 or even 100 years ago. At its most basic, going out to watch birds with a pair of binoculars round your neck and a notebook and pencil in your pocket doesn't change, and that's what it's really all about.

-Andy Mackay
Andy is a freelance artist and writer, and the creator of the NGB Little Egret logo. Interested in birds since early childhood, he no longer twitches, but prefers to find his own birds on his local patch (Eyebrook Reservoir, on the Leicestershire/Rutland boundary) or further afield. If not watching, painting or writing about birds he is most likely either mothing, listening to Test Match Special or doing the Guardian crossword.

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