Tuesday, 5 January 2010

The eye of the beholder

Jeremy Mynott, in his excellent book ‘Birdscapes’, explores what it is about particular birds that draws them into our affections. He does this by exploring what it is that we see (or hear) in a bird which then stimulates some response; ultimately, perhaps, marking the bird as one of our favourite species. Is it the ‘beauty’ of the bird or its song and, if so, exactly what qualities are we using to define such ‘beauty’? For some birds it may be their colouration, the brilliant colours of a kingfisher perhaps, or the intricacy of their song. For others, it might be some association with a particular place or habitat – the confiding robin that accompanies your gardening or the rich beauty of the nightingale’s song heard on a still summer evening.

I’ve been pondering Jeremy’s words a fair bit over recent weeks, playing around with my own list of favourite birds and then asking myself why particular species are on the list and why others remain absent. I realised that it is a very personal thing, that certain species may be on my list but would not feature on the lists of most others. Then again I’m sure that some species will feature on many lists. The barn owl springs to mind but perhaps for different reasons; I worked on barn owls for a number of years and had many memorable encounters with these birds.

One bird that is on my list but probably not on yours is the smew; a diving duck that belongs to a small group of ducks known as the sawbills. The smew is not a colourful bird; it is predominantly white, with delicate black and grey markings but it is exquisitely and artistically beautiful. I cannot look at a male smew without imagining that a highly skilled draughtsman has pencilled the black markings in. For me, the smew has other qualities. First there is its scarcity. As a young birdwatcher, the smew remained a tantalising prize, a rare winter visitor to a few large waterbodies beyond the reach of my bicycle. Even now the smew is not a bird that I see every year, which means that when I do see one I relish the encounter even more. The few birds that arrive here each winter are mainly scattered across southeast England and East Anglia, with the southern margin of the Cambridgeshire Fens more likely to be favoured than either Norfolk or Suffolk. Then there is the name ‘smew’, which has something of Dr Zeuss about it; light, comical and perfectly suited to this bird, with its black eye mask and sixties quiff. There are some about this winter and I might just go to see one.

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