Monday, 18 August 2014

All's Fair in Birds and War(blers)

There's a woman with Wallcreeper earrings, a 6ft Hen Harrier made of insulation board and the tannoy is announcing a Death's-head Hawkmoth at the RSPB stand. It can only be BirdFair!

From Thursday night, Armely Lodge Farm became a hub of NGB tents as members arrived from over 15 counties. Two particularly exciting arrivals were 'Bardsey Ben' Porter (who turned 18 on the Sunday of BirdFair!) who spends most of his time taking amazing photographs of the wildlife of Bardsey Island, as well as jamming a few juicy self-finds (most recently Citrine Wagtail) and James O'Neill, a Northern Ireland resident who brought along the now-famous Death's-head, which posed and squeaked perfectly. Both these NGB members were 'ticks' for all of us and it was great to be part of a real camaraderie on camp as stories were swapped, information was shared and bins passed around quickly whenever the Osprey decided to do a flyover. 

Promoting our favourite Hobby with the RSPB

We were at BirdFair in such numbers thanks mainly to both British Birds magazine and the RSPB, both of whom generously offered to form a partnership with us for the weekend. The RSPB had a NGB section of their stand, where existing NGB members met (often for the first time) and young birders from across the country -and beyond- came to sign up. Our membership increased from 376 on Thursday to 392 on Monday morning. Over at the British Birds stand, purple-clad NGB members sold 36 subscriptions of Britain's premier birding journal over the weekend, as well as chatting to a huge number of the birding public. 

Just a few of the NGBs who made it along to the Richard Crossley-led bird walk

The sheer number and variety of stands and marquees boggled my tiny birding brain. It was a cocktail of emotions in those tents, which was accentuated by the high humidity and whiff of grass. I felt assured after speaking to the WWT who are shining a light at the end of the Spoon-billed Sandpiper's tunnel; I felt hopelessness at the Birdlife Malta stall as I was told that shooting a Honey Buzzard is "a right of passage"; and I felt a little starstruck meeting some of my favourite bird artists: Greg Poole, Carry Akroyd and Darren Woodhead. Books were poured over, magazine subscriptions pondered, shiny new scopes peered through while Migrant Hawkers buzzed overhead. I wandered around the crowds, through the "Gone pishing" tshirts and Scopacs, catching bits of conversation on Lincolnshire's Glossy Ibis, IOW's Bee-eaters, England's Hen Harriers (or lack of) and even Norfolk's spiders.

The Saturday of BirdFair will go down in the annuls of NGB history as a simply brilliant day from start to finish. James O'Neill and his Death's-head were the talk of the tents and small queues built up where he lingered. 

Mural for the 26th BirdFair. The theme: Save our seas

At 2pm, a 30-strong gaggle of young birders were accumulating around the ringing tent. The reason? An organised bird walk 'n talk with Richard Crossley, the brain behind the Crossley ID Guides. We piled into the Dunlin Hide, lead by Toby Carter, overlooking the Osprey nesting platform (which bizarrely contained an Egyptian Goose). Chat ranged from the variability of bird plumage and Sand Martins to female Green-winged Teals and "what's that wader on the far bank?". London-based Oscar Dewhurst picked out a Common Sandpiper amongst the Dunlin and Ringed Plover. It was so encouraging to be out with a load of young birders serious about their hobby, with age ranges from 12 to mid 20s.

The always-cool Richard Crossley
I hugely enjoyed the traditional BirdFair Bird Brain of Britain which was well attended and with a recurring theme of Passenger Pigeons (I wonder why) plus a lot of very interesting answers (did you know that Stone Curlew last bred in The Netherlands in 1957? Or that the Madagascar Serpent Eagle actually mainly eats Leaf-tailed Geckos?).

Announcing the winner: Nick Acheson from OSME

Come 6pm the stalls may have shut but the day was far from over as the RSPB and 
The Sound Approach had combined forces for a superlecture! NGB piled in and took up 3 rows of seating. An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman sounds like the start of a joke, but it was a reality on stage as Lush Cosmetic's managing director Mark Constantine, Irish bird artist (and Liam Neeson impersonator) Killian Mullarney and bird sound recorder Magnus Robb took us through their 'Listening for Life' talk. Our ears were treated to recordings of birds as unusual as the Andalusian Hemipode, Zino's Petrel and the recently discovered Omani Owl, which the audience were privy to stunning field sketches and photographs of. 
But for me, it was the warmth that the three exuded to their fellow birders that made me feel like I was in the best club on earth. 
Something that left us beaming was RSPB Chief Executive Mike Clarke who gave NGB a bit of a surprise shout-out as he winded down the evening with a speech. We owe the RSPB a lot! 

(From left) Killian Mullarney, Mark Constantine and Magnus Robb AKA The Sound Approach

For someone who'd been living off ice-creams and snickers bars over the weekend, the free food and drinks reception at the end of the lecture was very welcome. We were also very pleased to get to have a chat to Norwegian NGB Jørgen whose bird ID training and field study trips website can be found here. That evening in the events marquee, all traces of teenage embarrassment disappeared as the barn dance got underway and NGB and AFON members alike were Do-si-do-ing and high-kicking while others looked on and laughed. After that and a few car shuttles later, the over 18 members of both orgs were enjoying a night at Oakham's Wetherspoons where visiting birders appeared to outnumber the drinking locals.  

Meeting Hookpod was very exciting. These guys are the solution to seabird bycatch. 

That's the glorious thing about the BirdFair, the Knot-on-The-Wash like density of birders and stalls means that you can't help but rub shoulders with ornithological big-shots and birding fame alike. First thing you know you're taking part in a harmless barn dance and before long you're in a troupe with 1 Indian bird guide, 2 American world-listers, a wildlife artist and Tim Appleton! Or take Sunday afternoon for example; a few NGBs working on the RSPB stand were approached by Jonathan Scott who asked about hand puppets! For a kid whose mid-week evenings in the early 2000s revolved around making pancakes and watching Big Cat Diary, this was really special.
Any presumptions that come with being a young birder go out the window here as everyone is in the same boat (probably looking for petrels). Simple pleasures came with seeing teenage guys and girls walking about in Bird Obs tshirts, bins bouncing off their BTO sticker-covered chests, no fear of any prejudice they may receive from non-birding peers. 

NGB team working on the British Birds stand hear how many subscriptions they sold. Liam C was top salesman.

So a huge thanks goes out to the RSPB and British Birds, without whom our BirdFair experience would have been all the less interesting. Thank you to everyone who stopped by and told us to keep going, your words of encouragement are really valuable. Thank you to any young birders who have joined NGB since seeing us and thank you to all existing NGB members who helped out, came for a chat or who have motivated us to make the group what it is today.

Best thing about being a birder? You don't have to sit about waiting until next year's BirdFair - we're infatuated with a hobby that changes from year-to-year, season-to-season and day-to-day. See you at Rutland Water in 2015; a year where Glossy Ibis will breed in Britain, the Spoon-billed Sandpiper will be much higher in population and The Sound Approach will probably have found some more owl species in weird locations...

-Jonnie Fisk
Jonnie is an 18 year-old Yorkshire-based birder, invertebrate enthusiast and frustrated artist. When not being oblivious to every local rarity, he enjoys autumn vis-mig, the music of Hall & Oates and being distracted by bugs. 

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