Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Very Sound Approach

‘The drunkenness of things being various’ (Louis MacNeice)

‘When you come out of a meeting you’ve forgotten the contents in minutes, but see a good bird and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life’. (Catching The Bug)

I devour books. If a day isn’t spent in the field or in phrases than frankly it feels wasted. I also have cloth ears and bird sound was, still sometimes is, utterly mysterious to me. And then I read The Sound Approach to Birding. I’d never read a bird book like it: technical but not heavy, entertaining yet genuinely informative. Perfection, really. Nowadays it and its three iterations sit on the shelf alongside the Helm white jackets and the New Naturalists as one of the most recognisable series of books. Its brand, if you want to use that term*, exudes cool, as much as that’s possible for a Science-based bird book. It’s the awkward size that’s lap-wide and hand-high, the black background and Killian Mullarney’s illustrations. They work as objects, as well as books. And as books they work particularly well: Petrels Night and Day was a staggering work of ornithology that I will never ever have any practical use for and yet I still enjoyed and learned from it.

And now there is a fourth member of the family: Catching the Bug. Written by Mark Constantine and Nick Hopper, it describes itself as ‘A précis of the concerns, puzzles and conundrums set by the natural world to a group of amateur birders meeting over twenty years in a pub in Poole’. What that means, in much less seductive language, is that it is a (very) social history of Dorset birding, and that’s fascinating. It works by focalising the debates and controversies of ornithology, such as Siberian Chiffchaffs or climate change, through the lens of Poole Harbour. Poole is the constant thread that runs through an intoxicating array of the variety of birds, tying up all the loose ends. This I really like. As I tell anyone daft enough to ask, eclecticism is the best thing about birds. Birds are not the be all and end all; they’re a gateway to so much more, but also the most interesting and attractive gateway there is. This book, whether intentionally, or unintentionally, is a celebration of that.

The writing is solid but not spectacular. It suffers from the previous Sound Approach: Birding from the Hip, by that wizard of the written word, Anthony McGeehan. But as a friend reminds me, it’s not about the lyricism but the ideas. I’m greedy and I want both, but this will suffice for now. I don’t always want to be untangling syntax with a dictionary to hand. However, whereas Birding from the Hip wasn’t as uniquely Sound Approach as the first two titles, Catching the Bug most definitely is. Sonograms are liberally used throughout the book in a supplementary role to the text: it is possible to read it without them but you lose more of the immersive experience of the book if you do. If you haven’t read The Sound Approach to Birding there is a rudimentary explanation of sonograms at the start of Catching the Bug, but I recommend reading the former first if you want to understand the sonograms better.

So, as an idea-lead piece of prose it is certainly very good. But are the ideas actually any good? Mostly. It varies of course. The predictions of globally warmed breeding species struck me as mostly idle speculation. That Dartford Warbler could be an English endemic doesn’t last long, but the most interesting thing here is how they treat the idea: they realise it isn’t but still work on, learning as they go and contributing to ornithology through failed thesis, as much as successful ones. That’s a lesson I think birding needs to repeatedly learn: there’s no shame in mistakes. The ideas that do work are backed up with their own impressive results from intensive patch based work.

Poole is the kind of patch we all wish we had and The Sound Approach are the kind of birders we all wish were local to us. Catching the Bug is another high quality work from them, and one that had me checking the trains to Dorset as if it was the new Norfolk. I wonder where next for The Sound Approach? I’d love to see them tackle the thorny issue of redpolls…

*Apologies if you don’t. I strongly dislike that word.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Stephen

    We have just published Anthony McGeehan's latest book, Birds - Through Irish Eyes, which was written with Julian Wyllie. I'd love to send you a review copy. Could you send me your postal address please? My email is

    Gillian Hennessy