Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Off Piste - Lesser Spotted - Well, That's Just the Professors

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Off Piste - Lesser Spotted - Well, That's Just the Professors

Article excerpt

Physicist Athene Donald's pleasure in people-watching may owe something to a childhood spent observing birds of all kinds as they soared over city heaths and icy coastal mudflats.

As a child and teenager, I spent many happy hours in cold, wet and uncomfortable conditions peering through my binoculars at small dots on the horizon, brownjobs hidden in foliage or tantalising glimpses of waterfowl skulking around in reedbeds.

Birds are a challenge to observe, and perhaps that is why watching them provides so much satisfaction for so many people. They are also ubiquitous, so it is a rare part of the world where there is nothing to be seen if a little trouble is taken. I was introduced to ornithology when only about eight years old: I was taken regularly to my local park, which just happened to be that amazing tract of land near central London that is Hampstead Heath. Back then it was a wonderful mixture of woodland, fields, ponds and more formal parkland; it probably still is, although I haven't visited it for many years. Such a mixture means that it has a wealth of spaces to explore and a diversity of habitats available, so that many different species will find something appropriate for their tastes. Its location also means that it provides a welcome respite where migrating flocks can touch down, having perhaps traversed the less-hospitable urban landscape of inner London, or even outer suburbia.

So, despite living in a major city, I had plenty of opportunities to hone my observational skills on a wide range of species, not all of which would be likely to turn up in a suburban garden. My primary school project topic books were invariably filled with pictures of birds that my teachers had probably never even heard of (it has to be said that the quality of my primary school teachers was patchy: I had one who tried to convince me that a bat was a bird). I remember colouring in the bright plumage of bullfinches (at least the males) and wheatears in these books, feeling pleased that I had some speciality I could focus on that differentiated me from the crowd who were uninitiated in the joys of "twitching". My contemporaries in the classroom didn't see the attraction, and didn't realise the excitement that can be raised in a young heart at the idea that there may be something novel just about to fly into one's field of view.

To say that this activity taught me something about the scientific method that has stuck with me throughout my professional life would undoubtedly be stretching the truth. Nevertheless I learned a lot of useful observational skills: the importance of taking good records, both at the scene when an unfamiliar species made an appearance, and back home jotting down when and where the commoner birds were seen. Year on year, a record of my personal observations was built up. Hearing the first cuckoo of spring (as one could back then on the Heath) would undoubtedly have merited an entry in the notebook. So would the passage of all migrant species, including the wheatear I alluded to above, a regular spring and autumn migrant en route to rockier and wilder terrain than Hampstead Heath could afford. Nature study was the only kind of science I was offered at my primary school, but none of it contributed at all to what I learned; it all came from the more serious birdwatchers (my mother included) of my acquaintance. There was - and no doubt still is - quite a coterie of local ornithologists who kept track of the many species that lived on the Heath, or passed through or over it.

As I grew older I joined, along with my mother, the London Natural History Society, one of the many such organisations established by enthusiastic Victorian amateurs, all male, back in the 19th century. This society opened up new horizons, arranging coach trips that took us to the further edges of the South East. Much more experienced ornithologists would casually share their knowledge, and sometimes a peek down their telescopes, at chilly coastal sites such as the mudflats on the Isle of Sheppey or at Bradwell, or the Ouse Washes closer to my current home. …

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