BIRDERS by Mark Cocker

To: "Messages Birding-aus" <>
Subject: BIRDERS by Mark Cocker
From: Dr Richard Nowotny <>
Date: Fri, 05 Oct 2001 00:54:53 +1000
For those Birding-aussers who did not see this review in the SMH and did not access it on the Web:

Field guide to the common scorned twitcher
By Mark Cocker
Jonathan Cape, 228pp, $49.90

Reviewed by Paul Sheehan
"And there, amongst the heather, witnessed only by the smiling heavens above, these two young adult men, sound of mind and body, proceed to punch the air, screaming and whooping in demented exultation."
Welcome to the bird of birdwatching. It may be a quiet activity, but not dull. The inner life of the birdwatcher is captured by Mark Cocker in this eccentric book when he describes "those sensations of liberty and clarity that are so much more difficult to find in ordinary life". But a good pair of binoculars is crucial:
"They convert life into something else, something almost abstract, something purer, clearer, usually more beautiful and almost always something you've never really seen that way before. That's what birders are hooked on - not the physical object ... but their wondrous alchemical power to transform you and your state of being."
Judging by the sales of field guides in Australia, a lot of people feel the power. The Simpson and Day field guide has sold more than 400,000 copies since it arrived in 1984. The Pizzey and Knight has sold 40,000 since it was published in 1997. And there is Slater's guide, selling something like 150,000 copies since 1986, but nobody at the publisher seems to know.
Not that you could carry one of these around in the presence of Cocker - "no self-respecting birder would ever dream of carrying a field guide in the field ... There is no more humiliating admission of inadequacy".
Birders is not so much a book about birds or even birdwatching, but about the obsessives who have shaped the birding culture of Britain. How obsessive are these people? The stars of this book are a sub-species known as "twitchers", who will go anywhere at any time when they hear a report of a rare bird sighting.
In 1998, a British twitcher, Chris Batty, was on a birding trip to the US when a companion's pager announced a mega-alert - a major rarity, a common nighthawk, had been sighted on an island off the English coast. Batty promptly walked three hours from Cape May to Atlantic City, caught the dawn bus to New York, flew to London, caught another flight to the Scilly Isles, travelled to St Agnes and waited, and waited, with growing despair, until the nighthawk appeared just before dusk. Nothing special for a twitcher, except that one of the birds Batty had been watching back on Cape May was the common nighthawk.
Perhaps it's an English thing, but the sub-culture Cocker depicts is hierarchical, even arrogant, populated at the bottom by people referred to as punters and amateurs (like me), and at the top by a gifted, rigorous, fraternal - yet competitive - core of watchers who retain a truly astonishing amount of bird knowledge.
"Non-birders frequently presume that a birder's rank is measured by the length of a list. Not so ... In fact to have seen a large number of species without any parallel credentials as a field observer invites its own kind of scorn."
The scorn comes from those he refers to as "birders", as distinct from mere birdwatchers, hence the title. As for birds, they make many cameo appearances, often beautifully depicted - in the author's journeys to see the great bustards in Spain, for example, or the satyr tragopan of Nepal.
This is a book about men, a certain kind of man who is only fully alive while birding and who will go to absurd lengths to see what is difficult to see.
Paul Sheehan is a Herald journalist and author of Among the Barbarians (Random House).

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