This is a book about what it’s like being a birder in an age of natural decline. It is part autobiographical – tales of spell-binding birding encounters that left indelible memories – and it is part reflective. The travellers’ tales of birding adventures are about places and events that were variously entertaining, amusing, captivating, inspiring, exciting and awesome, literally. They also feature the amazing, eccentric, dedicated, inspiring people in the birding community. Travels to Madagascar, Cambodia, India and many other places are recalled. There is birding in the Himalayas, in the Australian outback, on the Southern Oceans and in hotel gardens and city parks and there are tales of the ‘big listers’, ‘big-lensers’, professional guides, and local conservation workers who try to keep their habitats safe for us. There are lots of images to accompany these stories.
Martin’s experiences in becoming a birder late in life revealed some strange behaviour which he soon learnt to take for granted as a member of the birding community. Why tear off chasing the next tick when we were having such a good time in the forest we were already exploring? Why was seeing a rare parrot in a cage less significant than seeing a ‘wild’ one that was being hand-fed in a nature reserve? Why was he visiting all those rubbish tips and sewerage farms in search of birds when birding excursions to a forest or a natural wetland were so much more pleasing?
There are chapters about all of these puzzles and oddities, and more – their origins and, in some cases, how they shape our behaviour in somewhat perverse ways – on ‘authentic’ birding, the origins and importance of the life list, on rarities and trophy birds, and why the idea of a ‘species’ is elusive yet so important. All these tales and reflections are shaped by birding during an extinction crisis and the growing biodiversity crisis. As he observed trashed habitats and vanishing bird populations during his travels, Martin’s growing dismay and alarm about these issues coloured everything. So he came to ponder what birders are doing in response, whether it is for good or harm.
There is the paradox of ‘extinction birding’ – it is not difficult today to see some vanishingly rare birds, because they are hanging on in reserved, fenced spaces, kept alive by artifices such as captive breeding. Because our visits to these places provide funds, we are also among these species’ last hopes for survival. Is this the best we can do? More self-reflection among all birders is necessary. Faced with the growing crisis, we can all do better.