‘Expert’ witness

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Expertise is relative.

I am, as I write, watching a fencing tournament. I know nothing about fencing.

Not strictly true. I know more about fencing than I did three years ago, when my son Oliver took it up. Back then I knew there were different swords, I knew Rosamund Pike did it in that Bond film, and I knew I had absolutely no idea what was going on.

Now, were I forced to explain the sport to a hypothetical visitor from Kepler-186f, I’d be able to tell them a very little bit about foil, épée and sabre, about masks and lamés and plastrons, about priority and parries and ripostes.

I still have no real clue what’s going on. Not really. But it feels very slightly less like an alien landscape, because I have spent a bit of time watching it and asking a few questions and picking things up by osmosis.

And so to birdsong.

Around the same time Oliver took up fencing, I started listening to birdsong. I was writing a book about my return to birdwatching, and found myself completely at sea as I walked about the place, befuddled by the onslaught of a language that felt vaguely familiar but deeply confusing.

So I bought some CDs and listened. And listened. And listened. And then I went out again and was still confused. Possibly even more so, because the birds didn’t sound like the CDs. For a classical musician, this was a perturbing thought. I wanted it easy. But I also wanted to learn it all at once in a great big gulp, in the same way that when I was revising for my ‘O’ levels (I say ‘revising’, but that’s not quite right, because in the word ‘revising’ is an implication that I’d done the work in the first place) I wanted to learn all the German words beginning with ‘M’. In a night.

But then I had a breakthrough. One day in March 2016, after a month or so of listening to all the birdsong I thought I was likely to hear, I recognised a dunnock from its song. It was a moment of triumph and joy – so much so that I gave a little yelp of elation and scared the dunnock away.

Another lesson learned.

And now, as spring approaches, I positively look forward to it, eagerly anticipating the return of what now feel like my old friends, my partners in tsee-wop-a-diddly, birds I no longer need to catch sight of to identify, but can cock an ear and murmur ‘Ah hello there Mr Willow Warbler, old pal of mine – how wonderful to hear from you again after all these months.’

It was while communing with a voluble song thrush in this way about three weeks ago that I had a brainwave.

‘What people need,’ I thought ‘is a daily dose of birdsong on Twitter with some explanatory notes to help them identify which bird is singing.’

Turns out I was right.

There’s something terrifically heartening and encouraging about the amount of interest this has generated. People have been kind enough to tell me that they’re now listening out for birdsong whenever they go outside, which means they’re taking more of an interest in the natural world, which means they’re more likely to want to take care of it, which is excellent and lovely and more of that kind of thing please, especially in these days of universal wotsit and thingy.

The interesting thing about it all, from my point of view, is this: I’m not an expert.

I don’t mean this in a falsely modest kind of way. I really am not. Compared to a beginner, then yes, I have the kind of knowledge that can seem like magic, but I’ve only been listening to birdsong for three years, which is a blink of an eye. My friends David and Andrew, to name but two, have been doing it all their lives – if a blue tit so much as clears its throat half a mile away they’re onto it.

It’s like that time Billy Connolly learned to play the banjo.

But three years from now I’ll know more, and three years from then I’ll know more than that, and while I’m learning I’m having an excellent time, like for example the other morning, when I went up to our local woods before dawn and just stood there for an hour and a quarter listening to the birdsong.

What an excellent way to start your day. I thoroughly recommend it (click on the image to listen).

And all the time, while I’m thinking about what bird to feature tomorrow morning, and doing my homework so I can stay a couple of pages ahead in the ‘How To Identify Birdsong’ book, I remember the old adage that anyone who was ever any good at anything started out being very bad at it and decided that being bad at it wasn’t for them.

I suspect, though, that I’ll never really understand fencing.

If you’d like to join in with the birdsong thing, you can follow me on Twitter for the daily updates (I post them at about 8 in the morning), or go to any of the pages on this site featuring the birdsong covered so far. It’s designed so you can take it all at your own pace, with the most common and widespread birds tackled first.

Week 1 – robin to chaffinch

Week 2 – wood pigeon to chiffchaff

Week 3 – long-tailed tit to willow warbler


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My latest book, The Long and the Short of It, is crowdfunding with Unbound. 

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