On the nature of patchwork

151115 HGAI recently blogged about my poor old neglected boots. They’d served me well, but I noted in passing that I’d been less than faithful to them. I was seeing other footwear – and I didn’t take as much care of them as I should have done.

The same could certainly be said about my local patch. This – a local patch – is a concept beloved of birders lately, though of course it’s been a conceit that’s been around for years, as anyone who’s enjoyed H.G.Alexander’s “Seventy Years of Birdwatching” could tell you. First published in 1974, this autobiographical gem begins back in the dying years of the 19th century. The joy H.G.A expresses about watching birds in whatever tightly prescribed area he called his home patch at any stage of his life is both a thing of beauty and quite timeless.

151115 Common Scoter Whalsay1 blogsizeNowadays there’s a distinct snobbery at play – bird-watching, in Britain at least, has changed profoundly, and I think one would be hard-pressed to find a pastime more riven with cliques and inhabited by those all-too-quick to judge their peers. I think that’s a terrible shame, but that’s a subject for another day perhaps.

Returning to patchwork – there’s a certain pride many birders hold for ‘working their local patch’ – the daily birding of the same area, recording what’s to be seen, counting movements of birds during migration, breeding success in the summer, winter visitors and, of course, holding out hope for a rarity or two once in a blue moon.

Whalsay’s not a big island – in theory, I suppose I could call the entire thing a local patch. The truth though is that I have precious little time at home, and certainly not enough to go out daily birding on the island. My patch is within easy walking distance of home, a peninsula of the island, and even that I don’t get out into every day. I am a poor patchworker.

Regular, preferably daily, working of a local patch is portrayed in some birding circles as somehow ‘better’ than being a casual, less-than-regular visitor to an area. I’m left thinking that birding these days needs to take a lesson from the gentler times of H.G.Alexander – to simply enjoy wildlife for what it is, to cherish it, and when possible to study it as closely as one can. H.G.A lived – and birded – through two world wars, turbulent years for mankind though the natural world would have carried on blithely unaware of our travails.

He comes across as a kindly, thoughtful and tolerant man, qualities that birding nowadays seems to be losing as it grows more competitive and judgemental. Qualities that, this weekend of all times, seem particularly valuable and precious in the real, non-birding world.

151115 Common Scoter Whalsay2 blogsizeI had a little free time available today, so I went around the island checking the freshwater bodies to see if I could re-find the Little Egret of earlier this week. This was a fine, sunny early winter day, and while I couldn’t find the egret I was pleased to come across a Common Scoter instead – a species that’s somewhat less than annual on the island.

I had nobody to share it with – the island’s other birdwatchers are both away at the moment – but it was great to spend some time watching this bird feeding quietly by itself. I could track its movement underwater by the trail of bubbles breaking on the calm surface – just like watching a hunting Otter.

I’ll be gone soon too… and I’ll leave you with H.G.Alexander’s concluding thoughts in “Seventy Years of Birdwatching”:

“When Man’s inhumanity to man gets the better of us, we can restore our equilibrium by turning again to Nature, the universal Mother, and by exploring her secrets from the inside.” 

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6 Responses to On the nature of patchwork

  1. Steve Gale says:

    Jon, great post, plenty of subject matter there for several posts! More importantly, your choice of book.. it is, without doubt, the book that influenced me the strongest when in my mid-teens. I’d go as far to claim it as my favourite book of all time. Top pick!&

    • Jon Dunn says:

      Thanks Steve – yes, plenty to go at there. I touched the tip of the iceberg. Is it so very wrong to not be a dedicated patchworker?! I’ve been there, done that, and am pretty comfortable these days being a casual.

      Yes, ‘Seventy Years of Birdwatching’ was one of my great inspirations as a young lad too. I’m going to blog over the winter about the books that influenced me…

      Speaking of great influences, it’s so good to see you’ve slipped back into the saddle and started blogging again. All we need now is George Bristow’s Secret Freezer to crack open the build-up of frost and we’re back to the halcyon days of turn of the century birding blogs…

  2. Gavin Haig says:

    What he said! First time I’ve visited your blog Jon, and delighted I am to have found it! What a cracking post to dip in on as well – several thought-provoking points worthy of expansion (which basically means I’ve found some stuff to nick. Thanks!) I must add you to my blog links…

    • Jon Dunn says:

      Thanks Gav! Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, so I shall return the favour in spades…!

      Thanks for the blog link, too – very kind of you indeed. Terrific to see NQS back. Shoulder to shoulder with North Downs & Beyond you and Steve are the best natural history bloggers in the UK. True fact.

      Atb, Jon

  3. I love this book. Wonderful for you to highlight it. Thank you.

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