Sunday, June 18, 2006

Heroes of the birding revolution

Well, Santa let me down - I didn't get my Red-footed Falcon. Yet. It's only 1.30 so I guess there is still time. I DID get an industrial-size Toblerone, which is almost as good, and lasts longer. Or it least it would if it hadn't been set upon by the family as soon as I opened it. Actually, I've had a rather boring morning's birding around Newtonhill. Basiclaly just like last Sunday's but with fewer Pom Skuas, fewer everything, but more baby birds. I chivvied a family of Great Tits (2 ad and 3 kids) from the willows with hi-grade pishing. Think they must have bred in a bird box or something in the houses to the south of the burn, and another brood of Common Whitethroats from the brambles. A Reed Bunting was singing in the brambles opposite St Anns - I never seem to track breeding Reedies down... they seem to be very irregular, but always about. Found an extra 2 Sedge Warblers carrying food along the burn near the A90, which makes a likely 9 pairs in 1 km of Elsick Burn down to the sea.

Tried a bit of a seawatch, but it only lasted half and hour - just auks, kittiwakes and fulmars. I stayed on a bit cos I could see squally showers moving north offshore, and there was just the possibility of birds in front of them. Then suddenly, there were squally showers onshore as well, and there was me out birding wearing nothing but a string vest and my nylon Y-fronts. This was too much even for me.

Don't know about you, but if there aren't many birds about, my mind starts to wander, sometimes it doesn't come back. Of course there's never going to be anything about if you're not looking, but by 12 noon I was doing more thinking than looking... and I was thinking, in a surprising non-pervy way, about the Duchess of Bedford. She was one of thos early 1900s birding characters that you only know about from books, if at all, as a name at the end of, or even in the middle of, papers and notes in British Birds etc. but she sounds like a dynamo. She pioneered Fair Isle with William Eagle Clarke - I first came across her in an account of her finding a Blyth's Reed Warbler in a turnip patch on Fair Isle, must be about 1910-ish, which is a pretty sharp id call even now, never mind wayyyy back then. She turns up all over the place in birding records of the time, not just in Britain either. Notably she saw two birds 'like Green Sandpipers but wit
h dark rumps' at Rye in July 1908 , a month before George Bristow processed 2 Solitary Sandpipers in his little shop. There was no suggestion that the Duchess ever made things up, but George Bristow's ability to produce apparently fraudulent specimens to order is a continuing mystery of the 'Hastings Rarities Affair'. Hence the title of my blog. If you are interested in Hastings Rarities, read my article in Birdwatch magazine -
Collinson, M. 2004. The great south coast swindle. Birdwatch 145:18-22. Let me know if you want a pirate copy, I'm sure Dominic isn't watching.

Apparently unrelated interlude... I guess at this point I'm going to alienate everyone, but between you and me... are birdwatchers uglier than the average population? Cross section of all life and all that, and even I will not be winning any modelling contracts in the near future, and I know some pretty stunning birders, male and female, but on the whole... well.. wandering round the British Birdwatching Fair last year it felt like wandering round the joint conventions of the Societies of Circus Sideshows and Medieval Plague Victims. I mean that in a nice way :-) I'm sure we're all very nice people, very cerebral, but too much time outdoors in parts of the world wheref flies lay eggs in your eyelids etc. takes its toll.

I was thinking this morning that I had previously kind-of imagined the Duchess of Bedford as a ruggedly tousled matronly figure, a bit like Lady Maud in Blott on the Landscape - sort of character who told people to 'buck up', bullied the servants, wore tweed, hunted enthusiastically, would have been first against the wall if the revolution ever came, dying a virgin in spite of 45 years of apparently blissful marriage. But that's just me sterotyping. For all I know she was a chain-smoking heroin-chic drunken sweary pixie-like birding machine who spent the long evenings on Fair Isle keeping William Eagle Clarke entertained with her repartee while polishing his big gun. So while I was out, i resolved to try and find a photo of her by the magical power of the internet when I got home. An
d look at this! Not sure about the hair - looks like when it got too long she would need it sanded down rather than cut.. but you can see that my mental image was well off track. Thanks to the V+A museum and the wonderful expiry of copyright, I present to you Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford and careless pilot (they never found her body), birder's birder, pioneer of the modern age of birding, and a HERO of the BIRDING REVOLUTION, 1st class


Phantom Birder said...

take out one eye, hang a crucifix from her left ear

OMG it's LGRE!!!

if only he wore that sort of dress to go twitching in. he'd gain so much more respect


Harry said...

Is it just me, or does the photo remind anyone of the 'man's dress' album cover for Bowie's 'The Man Who Sold The World'? Presumably the photographer saw this photo of the Duchess of Bedford beforehand, or maybe the future Thin White Duke was a big fan: wasn't there a story about a cocaine-addled Bowie keeping an Eastern Crowned Warbler specimen in his fridge...either that or his own piss, I can't remember!
Maybe the Duchess would look more feminine in a better quality photo, but there is something manly about her...don't let the dress fool you, Martin, she may have preferred rare Acros to men! So do I, for that matter, but then I'm a straight man, so that's not too odd....