Alan Tilmouth: birding origins


I often think about how I ended up as a birder, and the factors that led me down that road. Many birders have a eureka-moment story of an encounter with a bird or birds that triggered their interest. While there is such an event for me – not long after the birth of my eldest son in the summer of 1988 was when I picked up my father's old binoculars in earnest – I think the origins of my interest go back much further.

Before I watched birds I had a field guide. To be precise, my father had a copy of The Observer's Book of Birds. I have a vivid memory of being given the book to entertain me during a bout of chickenpox around the age of four and lying in bed, probably not reading, but turning through the pages of small plates, alternating between colour and black-and-white. I look back now and realise that I must have absorbed those images, as well as some of the names, and imprinted them in my young brain – to the point that I could recognise some species straightaway upon seeing them in the field for the first time, as well as recall their names.

This instant recognition, based on repeated dips into that little book, is a recurring theme in the subsequent years of my childhood. As many families did, we headed out on Sundays, with the early days of mass car ownership affording a freedom to explore the wider countryside. Ingram Valley on the east side of the Cheviot Hills was a favoured destination and my first encounter with a chunky, low-flying bird whirring over the water before landing on a rock near where I was 'plodging'. Immediately I knew it was a Dipper, the real-life version of that coloured plate that'd been absorbed, osmosis-like.

Drawings of different species in The Observer's Book of Birds inadvertently imprinted on Alan's subconscious as a child, creating an early connection with birds (Etsy).

This pattern of just 'knowing' what some birds were, without being conscious of ever having been told about them, repeated time and time again. The morning walk to middle school took me past one of the many former coal railway lines that crisscrossed my home town. High in the sky I'd search for the source of the sound filling the air on spring mornings. It was of course a Eurasian Skylark, something I was able to confirm when it dropped and continued singing from a nearby fencepost.

My first experience of migration came one late October morning. Along with others we were scavenging wood for the bonfire that would be the highlight of early November. We were on rough land and allotments near home, scattered with old elder and hawthorn hedges, and this particular morning it was alive with a fall of thrushes: grey-headed, chestnut-brown Fieldfares chacking as they flew in front of us, along with the striking orange-red flanks of smaller Redwings breaking cover by the hundred.

Living by the coast and exploring the nearby beach in my early teens I remember my first Northern Gannet, deceased and dishevelled it may have been, but again the name was on my lips without knowing how I knew. Around the stone piers of the local harbour, still used by many fishing boats in the late 1970s, I came across the winter roosts of local waders – Ruddy Turnstones and Eurasian Oystercatchers, eye-catching combinations of black, white and orange that I was able to put a name to almost instinctively.

By this point I was a member of the YOC (Young Ornithologists' Club), so there were other reading materials that helped with recognition of many species, but all of my observation was, to use the eBird term, 'incidental'. Maybe that's the secret formula for creating a birder: give kids pictures, get them outside and let them do the rest.


Written by: Alan Tilmouth