Grab your bins. Lev has landed
Today Book Jotter becomes the fourth stop on Lev Parikian’s great Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? Blog Tour. I have been itching to share my thoughts on this engaging memoir since the author first contacted me several weeks ago with the offer of a place on his tour. Here, at last, is my review.
Date of Publication: 17th May 2018
Genres: Memoir; Science & Nature
“People are good, on the whole; bird people especially so. It’s such a simple thing, to share pleasure in a slice of nature, yet so enriching, so life affirming.”
I fancied reading Why Do Birds Suddenly Disappear? from the moment it first popped up on my Twitter feed earlier this year. My curiosity was piqued by the words “lapsed birdwatcher” from the book’s subtitle. It describes me so well.
As the daughter of an enthusiastic YOC (Young Ornithologist’s Club) group leader – which was the children’s wing of the RSPB (sorry, couldn’t resist!) – I grew up with a set of binoculars practically clamped to my face. My mum devoted her every waking moment to identifying, counting and recording birds, and continues to photograph them daily at the age of 84. By my late teens I was regularly doing voluntary stints at bird reserves around the country, and by the early ’90s, I was a seasonal ranger at the Great Orme Country Park and Nature Reserve, where I monitored seabird colonies and took wildlife enthusiasts out on guided walks. By my mid twenties, however, I had set up a completely unrelated business with my partner and, until recently, found little time for anything other than work. So, you see, Lev’s book felt personal.
Before moving on, I should like to clarify one small but not insignificant detail. The word twitcher is often bandied about by people who do not fully understand the etiquette or terminology of the birding community. A twitcher is a person who hares manically about the land in a state of almost constant agitation, with the intention of eyeballing a rarity and ticking its name off a list (at which point, their enthusiasm tends to evaporate). A birdwatcher, on the other hand, is someone whose hobby it is to observe all birds in their natural surroundings (rare or otherwise). When the twitchers have packed up their long range scopes and moved on, the assiduous birders will remain, fondly observing their quarry as it goes about its everyday bird-business. Though these two distinct groups may sometimes meet, say, on a precipitous cliff ledge or in a damp ditch, they are fundamentally a different species. Lev is understandably keen you make this distinction because he is a ‘birder’ or ‘ornithologist’, if you wish to be pedantic. Nevertheless, this doesn’t mean he hasn’t, when under extreme duress, come within a blue tit’s-tuft of twitching – though this has merely been the result of sheer desperation to complete his quest, you understand.
“They say birders are eccentric. I’m going to fit right in.”
London-dwelling Lev is many things: a published writer, successful conductor, devoted dad, self-described “hopeless birdwatcher” and an all round good egg. He enjoyed birdwatching as a boy but lost motivation during the dreaded adolescent years and didn’t fully regain his avian oomph until experiencing some sort of Damascene moment with a flock of Canada geese several decades later. He decided immediately he would set himself a task. His objective? Two hundred birds in 12 months. No twitching. No cheating.
I feel at times I have discovered a kindred spirit, though I suspect many of his readers will experience the same emotion for a variety of reasons. We’re similar in age; he, like me, was raised in a household of books; he loves making lists, uses Moleskine notebooks; is a fan of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts; was, as a youth, apt to be creative in his reported sightings; and has forgotten a good deal of what he once knew about birds. I too have returned in my middle years to observing nature, but I understand completely when he describes someone as being “overly outdoorsy in a way I never will be.” Some pursuits require youth or fanaticism – ideally both.
His self depreciating humour, gentle wit and elegant writing style, interspersed with anecdotes from the hide, carry you along on a wave goodwill and jollity. You cannot help but be lifted by his enthusiasm. Whether seeking cranes in Slimbridge, hearing his first ever nightingale or getting to grips with variation in seasonal plumage, you want so much for him to succeed in his quest. Lev is an immensely likeable human being.
The book itself is an aesthetic delight. On the dust jacket and inside cover are row upon row of identical but gradually diminishing goldcrests, designed by Alan Harris. The same bird appears in black and white at various points in the text, acting as a sort of punctuation to the narrative. My hardback copy also has debossed bird footprints skittering from front to back. I will from now on take immense pleasure in catching sight of it on my ‘bird shelf’.
Does Lev reach his target? After all, Britain isn’t the Amazon rain forest where you can record 200 species in one morning. It’s going to be tight. But whatever the outcome you know he’ll make a few waggish remarks, pick up his binoculars and carry on watching the birds.
“Just as I thought. Definitely some kind of bird.”
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