Off Piste - Lesser Spotted - Well, that's just the professors

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

February 23, 2012

Credit: Alamy

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. Thick mud, icy blasts and grey days, with their consequent bad light, are firmly engraved in my memory as fixtures on such trips. But so too are the excitements of such rarities as a diver strayed south for the winter; the beauty of flocks of thousands of waders wheeling and weaving in synchrony, shimmering low over the waters of an estuary; and the majesty of short-eared owls or marsh harriers hawking over the wetlands abutting the shores. Trudging along the coastal path in long crocodiles of booted and anoraked enthusiasts, the potential for the unexpected was always lurking, but not always fulfilled. There were days when the sight of the coach at the end of a long day (with the welcome thought of a Thermos of hot soup and a chance to get feeling back into one's toes) was the most thrilling event of the outing, but those days were rare.

Although it is primarily those winter trips I recall, perhaps as much because of their icy character as the sheer beauty of wildfowl and waders in their thousands, there were also the warmer summer trips: to Minsmere on the Suffolk coast for a sight of those iconic black and white birds, the avocets, with their unlikely beaks; to hear (for the only time in my life) the trilling notes of a nightingale - in broad daylight - at Walberswick; or an opportunity to observe the splendour of migrant ospreys at Stodmarsh in Kent. So many visual delights, so many unexpected pleasures.

Finally, having reached the grand age of not quite 13, I went away on a junior birdwatching weekend to the North Norfolk coast. I suppose this was the first time I even got a hint of why I wasn't quite your normal sort of birdwatcher, or indeed your normal sort of girl. I don't know what efforts my mother had to make to ensure the leader was willing to take me on board, but it certainly included persuading my older sister (whose enthusiasm for ornithology was considerably less than mine) to come along too. Because of course all the other youngsters on the trip (perhaps eight of them) were male, mostly several years older than me. The age difference became most apparent as they all headed off to the pub in the evening, legally or not I don't know, but certainly sufficiently mature to pass muster.

In retrospect I am very glad I had a friendly female with me, but I'm also really glad they let me come along at all as it was great fun and there were birds aplenty to fill the days. A quick glance at my childish diary of that weekend shows me how many species I saw then for the first time in my life, but little else is recorded. Nothing about the exhaustion of trying to keep up with the older, stronger males on long hikes on shingle, or even the sheer strangeness and terror of trying to find my way around the female dorm in a youth hostel after lights out (the minivan had broken down en route and we were very late arriving the first night). I'd never slept in either a bunk or a sheet sleeping bag up to that point, and both seemed very mysterious. Before that weekend it simply hadn't struck me that birdwatchers collectively were very heavily male; my mother must also have stood out as being in a small minority of adult women on the coach trips, but I have no recollection of that. No doubt this all stood me in good stead for my subsequent career as a female physicist in a very male world; maybe it toughened me up, but I didn't see that coming at 12.

So, ornithology taught me to fit in, or at least to be tolerated, in a male environment, but there's something else I feel it contributed to my later career in academia. As I observed earlier, I don't really feel it offered me the sort of scientific training I needed to succeed as a physicist in terms of weighing up the evidence or taking good notes, although it did make me appreciate some pale version of those things. (It should be noted that at least two of these young males who accompanied me on those weekends went on to read zoology at university, one of whom to my certain knowledge went on to have an extremely successful career as a marine zoologist in Antarctica, so some people built more directly on their bird-watching experiences.) But I feel it conferred on me a very different set of skills.

If a bird flies overhead against the Sun, you may not be able to detect any colours to aid in identification but you can still glean much beyond its mere size. Does it fly in a straight line or undulate in its flight? Does its silhouette have any pronounced characteristics? A forked tail perhaps, feathered wing tips or a long beak or neck? A mere glimpse of its outline may be enough to give a pretty sure identification for many species, and one learns to pick up such cues at speed, aided by knowledge of the surrounding terrain and perhaps the sound of its call as it passes. This is equally true of birds overhead, in the trees or in the reedbeds.

But as Desmond Morris discussed in his classic book Peoplewatching (2002), it is not just birds that are worthy of study in a detailed way. We can't escape from people; our interactions with them are crucial to the pursuit of our daily lives and, not infrequently, our success in large ways or small is affected by how well we "read" the signals they give out. Most of us do not consciously sit down and consider what a raised eyebrow or a tapping finger are implicitly conveying, but undoubtedly we all receive these subliminal messages and some people are better than others at picking up these visual hints. I would like to think my early exposure to the study of birds, learning how to distinguish similar species by spotting small differences at high speed, has contributed to how I glean information from the body language of my colleagues. I have gone from being a birdwatcher to a people-watcher.

As a child my ability to write a decent essay was limited by my clearly deficient imagination. If I was asked to do a descriptive piece I was fine, and if I had to write an essay on the growth of trade unions (my excellent history teacher came from a family steeped in unionism: her name was Mrs Miliband, which probably says it all) I had no trouble with factual prose. But asked to be more inventive and my inspiration dried up. As a physicist, I have not worried too much since my school days about my inability to fabricate a good story. It isn't a facility worth much to me. However, of late I have found a new way to express myself through a blog, and now I can give rein to descriptions of personality traits as I finally bring to the fore my species recognition - refined through my years as a birdwatcher - in describing my fellow academics. I don't mean to strike terror into their hearts by fictionalising some of their more idiosyncratic failings, but it is nevertheless a pleasure to be able to remember how to write descriptive prose and liberate this long-suppressed part of myself. I can understand why, when the secretary to a research council committee I was chairing drew attention to my blog, with its caricatures of committee member types, people started looking worried and fussing around with Google on their laptops surreptitiously, but I try not to be too obviously personal in my descriptions. I don't intend the sketches to be identifiably any particular individual so much as generic types.

So, whereas if I were to describe that magisterial short-eared owl prowling over the Norfolk marshes I would want to be precise and comprehensive in my description, that does not apply to my people-watching sketches; they are merely sketches, vague outlines, no more. I hope.

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