Why Birdwatch?

At the scrapes. I am chatting with Bill, who visits twice daily, before and after his work. He does it, he says, to make sure there is a record ( his count), so that the Council, which makes the official record, can’t misrepresent the deterioration in the numbers of waders using the site, and cut it’s management funding even further. And then, once the point’s been made, he adds,’ And this place is always changing.’

This is manifestly true – in the Fall. Of leaves, but also of birds, landing lightly on marginal places, via translocations of lesser or greater flights, for shorter or longer stopovers, and with greater or lesser success.

Depending on how you look at it, a bird is either always en route, or always about to land.  Guidebooks define the avifauna  in chauvinistic relation to a mythic heartland (‘our birds’) where they are either resident, summer or winter visitor, passage migrant, vagrant or escapees. The birds simply see a patchwork of habitats and potential territories for feeding, resting and nesting,and the ability to fly over the uninteresting bits in between.


Typical birding – waxwing at twilight, January

They play constant hopscotch – and these  movements can happen within a garden, for a dunnock or a house sparrow, or over an area of  four hundred square miles, for gannets or shearwaters. These movements are repeated each day, and extended over annual and life cycles. So we could say, the great migration through life only pauses for feeding and resting, and localises for nesting, repairing feathers(moults) and muscle tissue. Even flightless birds like kiwis and penguins make these movements, and selection has led to a diversity in how they are done.

Between two trips to the Scrapes late September in the Fall, a week had past, and ruffs, sand martins, lapwings, sandwich terns, curlew sandpipers, whimbrels and ringed plover had vanished from the site, while pink-footed and brent geese, shoveller, grey plover, greenshank and black-tailed godwits had arrived. And that’s only in terms of species. In terms of individual birds flocks will rise and fall daily, as Bill’s counts show,  although in patterns, which like the weather, have seasonal rhythms.

And birds we constantly see, are in fact individually different. Local birds -starlings, blackbirds,wood pigeons, herring gulls are not the same birds in the summer as the winter.

At some point in the not too distant past or future I encounter my last swallow of the year. I may encounter it again on my half-term break in Spain in October. And curiously, if it survives the hunters guns and nets in the Med, the flight across the Sahara, and the vagaries of a winter in the Okavango, I am quite likely to see it again next year. Or another bird looking more or less the same. Gilbert  White is often remembered for his insistence in trying to prove that swallows hibernated in mud during the winter, and without the evidence from ringing, modern optics, and international studies, that seems more reasonable than the truth.


I know this is an awful picture , but it does illustrate the way i started to birdwatch. What are all those different ducks?

I got my bird watching habit as a pre-teen when no-one knew what cool was, and knowledge seemed to equal power. I started doing it again when I realised some of those early companions – stonechats, skylarks, corn buntings, ptarmigans, tree sparrows- were not rotating around any more.

There are two types of response to this type of recognition and I own both. One is to prosyletise, hence this post, and Bill’s regular and obliging concern to show the casual visitor what’s up at the Scrapes . The other is to cherish – invest attention in the meeting with the bird. The effort spent in encountering a rarity is the most apparent way of doing so. Thus the birdwatcher*becomes a migrant like the birds – and becomes a twitcher.

I have enjoyed an occasional twitch, but almost prefer the dips of non-achievement and misidentification. I stared out at the sea off Dunbar for two hours one late November afternoon, in search of a windblown phalarope, but didn’t think it wasted time, even though the bird had flown.

Mostly this type of thing is done by middle aged white blokes with a lot of technology. If they didn’t form part of the Brexiteers it is only because they are concerned it might affect their ability to go on twitching trips to the Azores. Maybe its this kind of association that makes me nervous about collecting names and facts to staple to my encounters. It’s a bigger question, and  as it comes up, the Deep Ecology movement washes over the shallow birdwatcher..

‘Does it really matter what it’s called?’

My own answer might feel like an evasion. The effort of identification, that selective attention to the Thing that makes it stand out of its background, makes us notice, expands the field of our senses, and to consider the presence and absence of those Things more,. I was gratified when I heard the manager of a retreat centre I frequent say more of less the same thing as we discussed the virtues of mosses. A bigger world, is a more wondrous world, a less anthropocentric world, and a world in which our home is provisional, and therefore more special.

But twitching has it’s limitations for me. I don’t want to go on long car journeys in my spare time, carrying increasingly complicated optical and satellite equipment in search of increasingly misplaced and indistinct birds. I have joined another tribe, I think, who are gradually evolving amongst the deluge of bird related material. We are interested in learning more about what we see – behaviour, chronology, local movement .What comes to us. I think you could call it patch birdwatching.

The staples are garden feeding and breeding surveys,  and there are  still novelties on show. This week  (January) I was watching the ducks on the river go through their annual pair bonding displays, and despite having known goosanders since I was ten ( for a brief period my sister pushed a dead one around in a pram. It was the seventies..) I watched their display for the first time.


Some geese – in homage to KL

I like Konrad Lorenz’s description of bird pair bonding as an attempt to diffuse the tension of intimacy. Goosanders do this by synchronised swimming. Ducking their heads in the water with their necks outstretched ,which means the female’s crest sticks vertically up out of the water, they swim along like an overwound clockwork toy, and occasionally emerge to resynchronise their direction with a sideways glance, and do that predictable head tossing thing popular with goldeneye, and other lesser ducks.

One thing that comes up watching stuff like that , and flirtiing with the anthropomorphic fringe , is’ Is it fun? ‘ There is a post I hope to get round to one day about whether an aesthetic sense exists in the natural world , and how it might transpose into our own, and it will probably be based on the work of David Rothenberg. What I will add as an original thought is that it doesnt matter if goosanders do (or dont) , and that that is the basis of another type of thinking which is ultimately about aesthetics, as being beyond purpose, and probably not something ducks have to bother about.

 *There are conventions in birdwatching. One is that some groups prefer to say ‘birding’, perhaps in recognition of their multisensory quest, or  because its quicker to text.


The end of the world (as we know it)

I unwrapped How Will Capitalism End? on Xmas Day. Later on it still hadn’t ,and the continued presence of the book and capitalism,  reminded me that ‘How ‘does not equal ‘When.’.

Author Wolfgang Streeck is a German economist/sociologist, who has moved leftward and to an academic career from within the German establishment. His stuff appears in New Left Review and even less popular (but august) journals, but quoted and reviewed in the Guardian and the FT.

Streeck’s essays have been loosely organised into a book – he says honestly ( more honestly than his publishers) he’s too busy to produce a coherent narrative. And he probably couldn’t write fast enough .However from the mists of 2014 his thoughts appear prophetic – as I was reading random news bulletins seemed to be constantly reinforcing his views, and the personal stories of my therapy clients are affected by the factors Streeck identifies. It’s good to feel you have a sense of what s going on – at least initally, but not feeling you are in chaos, is not ultimately a way to get you out of feeling despair.*

Streeck points out that every major theorist of capitalism expects it to end . This is only illogical from within the bubble in which we have lived most of our lives. The third law of thermodynamics might be assumed to apply to economic systems as well as physical ones.

What it means to believe this is interesting. I was walked through Das Kapital in my twenties, and it probably saved me from a couple of bouts of depression. ‘Yes, the world is crazy and in unfair, your in the wrong place/wrong time, there is a reason for all of this, and it won’t last forever’ ( I will however skate quickly past the future dictatorship fo the proletariat). And that phrase’ All that is solid melts in to air’. What a useful mantra at that time ( the 1980s), and again now.

Of course, over that period, capitalism hasn’t melted, but orthodox Marxism has. In fact triumphalist lackeys ( or  capitalist running dogs , if you prefer) have announced it has brought the End of History.

However then there was the Crash. Which did look a bit like a dramatization of Das Kapital. Except for the ending, which is exactly like the beginning, again.

Streeck is careful to point out that this has happened a lot, that capitalism has normal cycles of boom and bust, and that internal opposition to capital ( ‘democracy’) has probably sustained its hegemony in a dynamic equilibrium for a long time now. But he believes those features are no longer effective.

Briefly globalisation has allowed capital to outmanoevre democracy. Cheap credit, inequality, systematic corruption,  destruction of trade unions and the lack of a political consensus, have all unlocked a boom and led to an effective end to the pattern of capitalism investment. Thus we are all consuming on a credit bubble.



illustrative material for this one is a bit limited so here is some new broom (geddit?)

So how will capitalism end? According to Streeck, with a whimper, not a bang. With no major challenge to the system, the stagnant post capitalist world can be propped up  by us – as consumers ‘coping, hoping, doping and shopping’.  In parts of our social system these methods will cease to work and the dying state will not be able to repair them – I think about social care, or post-industrial pollution, and these areas will fall out of the loop, left to be dealt with (or not) by contingent local solutions. On an individual basis , parts of our lives will meet the same fate .

Last year I read a similar diagnosis in Post-Capitalism by journalist Paul Mason, who however, sees the potential for new social formations around open access technologies and solutions, such as Wikipedia which cant be easily capitalised.

Streeck is not offering such upbeat hopes. I imagine he may have a large locked box under his bed.



And an opportunity to tell the wood from the trees..

I can’t say that I totally understand economics, or that I completely believe in it in its current form. What I do get is a kind of Marxist gut instinct which tells me Streeck’s  analysis is not just based on wishful thinking. It is going down , the centre can’t hold, and the dramas and crises, like the anthropocene storms we’ve created to match, will come thicker and faster.

But I don’t think we’re there quite yet – Streeck argues against the possibiity of capitalising new markets and technological innovation, but not convincingly I feel .There is a lot of third world out there to create new raw materials and markets ( bilateral trade deal, anyone?) , and the speed of technological innovation will inevitably create new opportunities for commodification ( I’ve just read about a big start up grant for development of designer probiotics).

I believe though that it will be the environmental limits which are harder to overcome. I don’t think these are inevitable, but they are without co-operation of the kind [which is one of the things that Streeck describes as the ways in which democracy has extended the life of capitalism by restraining it]. However the climate change deniers have sneaked back into power in the US, and Brexit is about to remove the UK from EU environmental legislation ( which probably wont last much longer anyway). The vogue for bilateral deals will leave this type of international constraint nowhere.

I think the possibility of ecological conditions which push society beyond normal service is the most likely end of post-capitalism . What will happen in these scenarios?– I would suggest we look at the aftermath ( immediate and long term) of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill as precursors (and many others in less familiar places). And feel sorry for our children.


* most  interesting review I’ve found from a non new left source is here. You’ve got to answer a silly question for the FT website to read it. And of course it has a happy ending.