by Stuart Winter
Tales of a Tabloid Twitcher. Who could resist a title like that? The subtitle was even better. It read “Revealed: The Truth about Birdwatchers.” I found the book while surfing the nature section on Amazon and bought it immediately.
When it arrived in the mail, I quickly skimmed the table of contents. Being a serious birder, I passed over the “Legends and Heroes” chapter and went straight to the one on “Sex, Sins, and Scandals”. Soon, I was engrossed in the story of how at one undisclosed location, Saturday mornings had become not only a time for gathering birders to view passing waterfowl, but also for a young couple’s assignations in a parked car. As author Stuart Winter put it, the lovers were “totally oblivious to the rank of telescopes 100 meters away peeking out the perfectly camouflaged bird hide.” Wow, that is what I would definitely call a hot spot.
Eventually, I did get around to reading the rest of the chapters. Winter is one of those people who have had the good fortune to turn their hobby into their livelihood. Starting out as a reporter with the Hitchin Comet in Hertfordshire, England, he spent a lot of his early literary skills crafting obituaries. This, however, often meant visits to the local mortuaries and on the way he would do a little birding.
His move to the Luton News spelled less time for the birds. Luton was a larger town with more going on to report. Crime became his specialty. Birding had to wait for his spare time. After a stint freelancing for a regional news agency, he decided it was time to make the move to one of the Fleet Street papers. The Daily Star had an opening at their Manchester branch. He called to set up an interview. Unfortunately, he also tried to stop on the way to see a rare bird that had dropped in unexpectedly.
The bird was a Marmora’s Warbler. He got some strange looks from the other birders when he arrived at the site in his interview suit. The warbler was not located near the road and he had to walk a good distance. “Then,” as Winter put it, “disaster. A misplaced step left me tumbling into one of the boggiest bits of the inauspiciously named Mickleden Clough. The knees of my charcoal-grey pinstriped suit were coated with mud the color of mulligatawny soup.” He saw the bird, but, when he finally turned up for his interview, lost the job.
Eventually, however, he did land something with the Daily Star. As word of his birding adventures passed around the office, he was asked to write a column for birders. It was to be called “Strictly for the Birds” and was showcased as Britain’s first newspaper column for twitchers. It took off (no pun intended).
While the book includes quotes from some of Stuart Winter’s columns, it is much more than a repetition of past works. Chapters cover a poll done by the Star to come up with the top 30 rare birds seen in Britain each year from 1959 to 2008, the author’s embarrassment at never having seen a puffin in a country where even a lot of non-birders have, and his love of and then disillusionment with birding on the Isle of Scilly.
These are just a few of Winter’s many short descriptions of birding in the UK. Each makes a perfect before bedtime read. The author covers the birding beat with that great sense of humor for which the British are well know. Don’t be put off by some of the words he uses. Write them down and look them up later. Remember, he is speaking English after all.
Tales of a Tabloid Twitcher by Stuart Winter, New Holland Publishers, 2010, 192 pages. Available in both paperback and Kindle edition.