What was birding like when I was young, back in the 1970s? In a word, boring. And lonely. And occasionally exciting. Yes, I know that’s several words, but I’m sure you’ll make allowances for age. Not that I feel any older than when I started birdwatching (as it was called in those far-off days). In fact I enjoy birding – and watching a whole range of other wildlife – far more than I did then.
The biggest difference is that in those days I didn't know any other birders – well, just one, of which more in a moment. I met a few lost souls, trudging along the windswept causeway at Staines Reservoirs, which for a few years – hard to believe I know – was the most popular birding spot in Britain, perhaps the world.
We used to exchange a few muttered words – “Anything about?” “No, nothing much. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and Scarlet Tanager on Scilly, though.” That was about as sociable as birding got in those days.
Then I met Daniel. First day at grammar school, September 1971, and by some quirk of fate (and our surnames beginning with an M and an O and there being no Ns in the class) we were placed next to one another. Somehow the conversation got around to hobbies, and we discovered, to our amazement, that we both liked birdwatching.
Now remember this wasn't something you freely admitted to, unless you wanted to be shunned by your peers. But a few weeks later we met up one Sunday to go birding (probably at Staines Reservoirs, where true to form we didn't see anything), and later in Bushy Park near Daniel’s home in Teddington (where I do remember seeing Tree Sparrows, now long gone).
In those days kids were allowed – indeed encouraged – to cycle all over the place. So it was that at the tender age of 14 we spent a week camping on our own in the New Forest. From there we cycled the fifty-mile round trip to Stanpit Marsh to see a Ross’s Gull that was spending its summer holidays there. (I nearly wrote ‘twitch’ – but in those days the word was not yet widely used…)
We had heard about this incredibly rare bird (the 11th for Britain, as I recall) purely by a chance encounter with a birder at Keyhaven: “Anything about?” “Not really; just the gull.” “What gull?” “The Ross’s at Stanpit…” and so on. This, of course, was long before the days or mobile phones, the Internet, pagers or even Birdline, when the news of most rare birds was communicated by postcard. Yes, really.
We saw some other good birds too: Icterine Warblers, Rough-legged Buzzards and Great Grey Shrikes at Dungeness; and Richard’s Pipit, Lapland Bunting and Grey Phalarope on our first trip to Cley. Later I managed to visit Scilly at the height of the autumn migration (missing two weeks of school! Thanks mum!), where I saw three Buff-breasteds, three Pectorals and a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper – which I still haven’t seen again in Britain almost 40 years later.
The highlight of our teenage birding years was in late May 1975, when we stumbled across a male Little Bittern at Stodmarsh – a truly stunning bird. But the bulk of our birding was done at – yes, you've guessed it – Staines Reservoirs and the local gravel pits. Apart from regular Black Terns and Little Gulls in spring, Black-necked Grebes in autumn and Smew in winter we saw very little – mainly because in those days we didn't even have scopes!
Rather like going to war, birding back then was a combination of 99% boredom and 1% sheer terror and excitement. Just like today, perhaps – except that now even when there are no birds to see I can enjoy the butterflies and dragonflies on my local patch, something I had no interest in at all when I was a youngster. I have discovered the joys of watching common birds and wildlife as well as chasing rarities; but above all the thing I enjoy most nowadays is the people I have got to know through birding.
After more than two decades knowing hardly any other birders, I now know hundreds. They range from my childhood heroes such as Ian Wallace, James Ferguson-Lees and of course Bill Oddie, through my contemporaries, to the new cohort from groups such as Next Generation Birders and A Focus on Nature.
Watching the crowds of you enjoying Birdfair makes me both happy and slightly envious. I’m happy that after what seemed to be a period when hardly any young people were taking up birding or wildlife watching, there are now loads of you – and doing such great things that we could only dream about, such as blogging and filmmaking.
Envious, because in many ways I wish I was starting over again: able to take advantage of the social media, Birdfair and the fantastic facilities available to anyone taking up birding today.
But most of all, I feel a mixture of pride, relief and delight. Pride when you come up to me and tell me that you got into birding when you watched Birding with Bill Oddie or read one of my books. Relief that a whole new generation is now sharing my lifelong passion, which I hope will give you as much joy and satisfaction as it has brought to me. And delight that in the coming decades you’ll be around to make the case for why birds and nature should be at the very centre of our lives, now and in the future.
And by the way, I still go birding with my old friend Daniel. A couple of years ago we twitched the Paddyfield Warbler at Pagham Harbour (by car, not bike), about three months after it first arrived. Some things never change.
-Stephen Moss (Aged 54¼)
A lifelong birder, Stephen Moss had the good fortune to turn his hobby into his job, making wildlife TV programmes with the likes of Bill Oddie and Chris Packham, and writing books and newspaper and magazine articles about the natural world. He has travelled to all the world’s seven continents to watch birds, but now mainly enjoys birding around his home on the Somerset Levels.
For more memories of birding in the distant past, check out Stephen Moss’s This Birding Life. Then you’ll realise how lucky you are! For a more detailed history of birding, try A Bird in the Bush: a social history of birdwatching.