One of the exciting things to develop from the publishing of my birdwatching logbooks is the chance to work with other birdy venues to create a logbook of their area. I am currently working with Dr Barry Yates at Rye Harbour Nature Reserve to make sure I have the correct information for the Birds of Rye Harbour Birdwatching Logbook. Given the rich diversity of birds on that small but significant part of the East Sussex coast it’s important to get the correct ensemble together, and I am very grateful for his input. Many places can have a more arbitrary choice of birds as they are perhaps less targeted by birdwatchers so it’s more of a casual observation, and this got me thinking about my process in putting the content of the books together.
As I have said before, the two-edged sword of self-publishing means I can decide which birds I want to include, but I do then have responsibility for choosing the right ones. This has to be subjective because the books have only 22 spaces for birds, or 27 if you include the “other birds” page. There are a few other factors too which I will outline here.
The principle reason for me compiling the books was to give my numerous illustrations a purpose, so many decisions are based on what I have already painted! My style of painting is also a consideration: some birds are far more suited to my method and medium – you’ll notice a lack of buntings, pipits, chats and waders as their mottled, stripy or spotty plumage is difficult to recreate cleanly, and I much prefer birds with solid blocks of colour, especially if I can play with the white space:
The originals are painted on 30cm square paper and thus shrink down to a tiny size in the books, so the birds have to be sufficiently distinct at that small scale. Some I realise will look too disparate if they are on a white so I put them in to Photoshop and give them a blue background. I have had to shift my mindset away from artistic and on to more informative. I have always looked for diagnostic features and ways of making the bird really “look” like the bird in all ways, not just appearance, so ensuring they are in a typical pose or stance.
This might be a bit if a fudge, but I do want to include birds which are attractive. These logbooks are not a comprehensive guide, but they are an introduction and many of our common birds are really pretty which can be enhanced in an illustration in a way that photos can’t justify. Lots of birds end up looking various shades of brown and grey due to lighting and viewpoint, or they have a bright colour when the sun is on them but in shadow behind, so seeing them in their finery in the logbook allows some appreciation of just how green a greenfinch is, or the Farrow & Ball-esque pinks and greys of a wood pigeon. Even seasoned birders can be reminded of this, and people who perhaps know a few garden birds might be inspired to look out for more exotic-looking species.
It also means I have mostly painted male birds as the majority of females are a more muted or plain version of the males. No offence ladies!
Some birds in the books are desperately rare, or highly localised, and I debated on whether it was fair to include a capercaillie in the Forest & Farmland book as the percentage of the population even in a position to see one is a fraction of 1% – ditto the cirl bunting – but I want to draw attention to some of our really specialised birds, or those that are in danger of going extinct. There is no law regarding the filling in of the tables or double page spread: if you see a bird on Springwatch, or your uncle sees one and sends you a photo, or even on Instagram, that’s good enough! It’s about noticing. Observing. Remembering. Engaging. Discovering.
Summer or Winter
Some birds change their plumage dramatically from summer to winter, particularly waders. These birds often flock in mixed groups to feed in winter, and it makes sense for them to adopt the same sort of cryptic mottled plumage to ensure none are singled out. I have had to pick a team depending on the most helpful illustration so this may mean sometimes I have painted winter birds, other times I’ve gone for breeding (summer) plumage. I would like to do a book of waders as personally I am hopeless at deciphering who’s who in a winter group!
Migratory or resident
Many birds are itinerant, and will stop in a place to breed but other than that, they are on the move. Not necessarily migrating, but cruising round as the food supply dictates. Other species are sedentary and so the bird you see in your garden is likely to be the same individual each time. Others still will move up and down the country with the seasons, so although we are seeing the ‘same’ bird, the exact bird you usually see may have gone further north (or south), and this one you are seeing now is an incomer who has also travelled further north (or south). There are other species that do indeed migrate over from other parts of Europe to augment our resident population so perhaps where there might have been one mistle thrush, there are now ten. Chiffchaffs for example stay all year round on the Isle of Wight where my parents live, but migrate out of the colder parts further north. [Interestingly, I learned that there are no tawny owls or nuthatches on the Isle of Wight as they are super-sedentary and haven’t made it over the Solent.] So, do I mark a bird as migratory or resident? Again, I have gone with a majority vote based on the most likely outcome. The beauty of constructing a local book is that I can be much more specific.
I hope that gives a bit of an insight in to how the logbooks are put together, and explains some of the possible inconsistencies with other books or information.