by Colin Rees & Derek Thomas
This is what we call a premise book: if you buy into the premise, you’ll love the book. In this case, the premise is quite straightforward: two birder friends, one American and one English, chronicle in some detail an entire year of backyard birding—in complementary, more or less bi-weekly “diary” entries—in their respective patches of the planet. That’s the Gower peninsula of South Wales for Derek Thomas and the Burley Creek region of St. Margaret’s peninsula, north of Annapolis, for the American Colin Rees. While these two occasionally venture further afield, this is a book deeply rooted in its two localities, which is a large part of its appeal.
Gower peninsula is 15 miles long and 5 miles wide, with an impressive variety of landscapes, “ranging from magnificent limestone cliffs overlooking beaches of golden sand, estuaries, fresh and saltwater marshes, great stretches of sand dunes” and Worm’s Head, a “magnificent island at each high tide.” Rees’s patch includes much of Chesapeake Bay, with its more than 436 species, “of which nearly 200 breed [there, so that] there is scarcely a time when something is not moving in or out of Bay and its watershed, or preparing to do so. It is truly a birder’s paradise.” And also, of course, very familiar to readers of The Whooosletter, which gives this book special appeal to Maryland birders.
Birds of a Feather is probably best described as charming or maybe pleasant. If that sounds like damning with faint praise, it’s not meant to. True enough, the book is not a page-turner. There are no high-speed chases, a la The Big Year, no competitions, no obsession with listing (although all species are duly noted), no adrenalin rushes. It’s a gentle, quiet book, with alternating entries on opposite pages, as these two men go about their business of recording the comings and goings of avian life on opposites sides of the Atlantic. Rees and Thomas are also avid conservationists, and part of their brief is to record the effects of climate change on their respective micro-environments.
Here’s an illustrative passage from each writer:
Thomas: “It feels like winter is fading and spring may not be too far away. Dunnocks sing on the new yellow gorse flowers, and magpies carry sticks to a nest in a wind-bent hawthorn on the cliff face below the path, and green shoots of nettles have appeared in sheltered spots. My mission is to look for Dartford warblers in the hopes that the severe weather has not affected them too much.”
Rees: “On the far side of the pool [Shearness Pool in Bombay Hook Delaware], two flocks of American avocets forge in a swirl of activity. The flocks slowly combine to form a beautiful ensemble of about 200 birds. Shoulder to shoulder they half run in the water, searching for food with a scythe-like sweeping of their upturned bills. They’re led by Hudsonian godwits, quickly twisting and turning as if in a conga dance.”
Sounds a mite dull, you say? I was a little worried myself upon reading the back cover, but not to worry; the two birders are such keen observers of the natural world and such gifted prose stylists—and storytellers—they pull you into their respective localities in a matter of just a few paragraphs. To be sure, you don’t keep reading to see what happens next—you already know the plot—but your two guides are such good company, you want to spend more time with them.
Moreover, while you may know in a general way what happens next—a new week, some different birds— there are regular surprises in these pages: a number of remarkable characters, many splendid stories, uplifting moments, bits of birding history, some telling data, and delightful digressions. You can be on a beach in Wales one moment and with Robert Scott on his way to the South Pole the next. On Jug Bay on one page and in the Gulf of Mexico a few paragraphs later. It’s harder to set this book aside than you might think.
That said, it’s probably not a book to read through in just a few sittings (where it might be a tad repetitive). You should, rather, read it intermittently—picking it up 2-3 times every month, pegged to the actual dates of the entries in the text. Birds of a Feather would also be a good book to give to young birders, who might wonder what fun it can be to look for birds if you’re not likely to venture very far from your local patch.
FINALLY: Did you know (this is from Rees) that “feeding and watching birds is the second largest hobby in the US and is said to involve over 52 million people spending some 2 billion US dollars in bird seed, feeders, and housing per year. According to a US Fish and Wildlife Service study, birdwatchers contributed 36 billion dollars to the US economy (2006) and a fifth of all Americans are identified as birdwatchers.”
No? Now you do.