A really hip book on birdwatching

THIS week, I will diverge from reports of local events in nature, the marvellous humpback whale displays in Wexford, and the shoals of sprats in the seas off west Cork, to tell readers about a book I’ve greatly enjoyed called Birding from the Hip: A Sound Approach Anthology.

It’s a bizarre title for a bird book, but, then, it’s a medley of text and sound and as much about the attitude and activities of birder-author, Anthony McGeehan, and his obsessive birder friends, as it is about the birds themselves. His gang of bird-questers and sound recordists don’t do “birding as a hobby”; this is hard-nosed, dedicated “birding from the hip” like ‘shooting from the hip’, not only on the shores of Belfast Lough during the Troubles, where they were regularly challenged at gunpoint by the British army, but also in freezing fog on Spanish lakes, recording the dawn chorus of cranes.

The book is a joy; it is beautifully produced and includes two CDs on the inside cover, with McGeehan and wife reading extracts from the text. The man is a self-effacing, funny, knowledgeable and very honest writer, and, if anything, his wife, who gets a couple of chapters, is even funnier. She regards the behaviour of her husband as he might observe the behaviour of some weird feathered species; he is a ‘quare hawk’, for sure. In one of her pieces, entitled Gulls ‘n’ Roses, she recall how, in the west of Ireland, to where they had travelled from Belfast to view “the chief object of his desire,” a rare Iceland Gull, he submerged himself under the bedclothes in their hotel room to better view photos he had taken on his digital camera, leaving her in a resounding silence which she didn’t dare interrupt. She thought “maybe I’ll go out for a drive in the car. At least the woman’s voice on the Sat Nav will talk to me.”

The photos, most taken by the author, are superbly reproduced. The printing and colour separation, and the quality paper, show them in the best possible light. The layout, in landscape format, 11 x 8 inches, is impeccable and the book is impressively well made, sturdy and beautifully designed. I wouldn’t dream of perusing at the breakfast table: I want to keep it as pristine as when it arrived.

The CDs intelligently complement the text; we hear the voices of the birds McGeehan and his wife, Mairead, talk about. This is not a bird-call guide in the hushed tones of “and now, we have the blackbird, twitter-twitter, flute-flute..” etcetera. This delivers robust and entertaining bird-noise, embedded in the stories.

Next time I travel, I’ll take the CDs in my luggage to play them in the rented car during the long drives on the autopistas. If the bossy woman on the Sat Nav dares interrupt, I’ll switch her off – I’ll not have her interfere with the nostalgic sound of the corncrake singing, or the dawn-chorus of 12,000 cranes babbling like a mob of berserk fishwives, or the haunting, other-worldly night calls of the Great Northern Diver, which, when we were kids on the lake shores in Mayo, we used to call the Choral Loon.

McGeehan’s prose is superb, much of it excerpts taken from Birdwatch, Dutch Birding, and other magazines to which he’s contributed. An early story tells of his boyhood sighting of a corncrake in a Presbyterian churchyard, where it was using the venerable walls to amplify its calls. The corncrake was a mystery bird, heard everywhere, but never seen. When he and his pals formed a posse of beaters pacing the jungle behind the church oratory, the bird rose suddenly from under one of them “bright ginger wings exploded at his feet. I could see it perfectly. It was wondrous. The pink bill shone like mother of pearl in a face of lapis lazuli blue. It was the embodiment of everything a mythical bird should be.” McGeehan’s is the embodiment of everything a bird book should be. Available at www.soundapproach.co.uk, €33.


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