Review: Where to Watch Birds in Wales by David Saunders and Jon Green
Over the last two years, starting during the first lockdown, many people who had hardly noticed birds before became intrigued and enchanted by them: the silent traffic-free roads brought birds both physically and audibly closer to us, and our lives slowed down enough to pay attention.
For those who got serious about birds, and those curious to see what’s living or passing through their immediate locale, and beyond, Where to Watch Birds in Wales, just published in an updated fifth edition, is a very useful guide.
‘The aim of this book,’ the introduction explains, ‘is to help and encourage birdwatchers, especially beginners, to set forth, to learn more about this most delightful of hobbies, and at the same time to contribute to our knowledge.’
Way of life
I baulk at the word ‘hobby’ even if for some people that is what birdwatching constitutes. For many it’s a passing interest; for others it’s a religious way of life.
But wherever your interest in birds lies on this spectrum, the latter aspect – ‘to contribute to our knowledge’ – highlights the research importance of amateurs.
Encouraged and facilitated by the British Trust for Ornithology, the RSPB and other organisations, such citizen scientists, recording and reporting bird sightings, have provided a mass of evidence that reveals terrible news: that our bird populations are in precipitous decline.
The guide is usefully clear and comprehensive, and it rewards both systematic reading and incidental browsing in ways that reach far beyond birds. The text is organised alphabetically by county, and within each county, key sites are introduced with detailed descriptions.
Here the bulk of the text is divided under the headings ‘habitat’ and ‘species’, and each includes a wealth of information based on evidently deep on-the-ground familiarity.
The descriptions of natural habitat, including geology, plant, mammal and insect life, are concise and evocative, and often provide details of the built environment and industrial remains, with intriguing snippets of recent and ancient human history.
And while the ‘species’ sections constitute densely detailed listings of the birds that are regularly and occasionally seen at each site, including anecdotes about rare sightings, this is often flavoured with quotations from historical accounts, which gives a sense of the cultural roots of birdwatching and of natural history.
There is also a useful index by bird name should you wish to know where to see a particular species; a trilingual list of all birds mentioned, giving English, Welsh and scientific names; and a glossary of Welsh topographic and natural history terms that are to be found in place-names.
The guide thus contains very much more than what is suggested in its title. In fact, one drawback of the sheer volume of detail in the book is that it requires very small type to accommodate it.
Nevertheless, some details are missing, and as a result, although this is a new updated edition, it does read in places as oddly dated, particularly when it comes to assumptions about what constitutes ‘access’.
Every entry includes a section under the heading ‘Access’, which constitutes driving directions and parking availability, along with any restrictions, such as seasonal shooting closures. But there is no mention of public transport, or of bike storage, or wheelchair accessibility.
Occasionally, buried in the text, there is an incidental mention of a wheelchair-accessible toilet, or the quality of a path, but the chief acknowledgement of variation in mobility is an occasional note about uphill paths or areas that might be restricted to the ‘more energetic’ (along with an appropriately emphatic note, for Snowdonia, about taking responsible precautions in the mountains).
This understanding of ‘access’ is troubling on two counts.
Firstly, in conservation organisations and in writing about the natural world, inequality of access to ‘nature’ is belatedly being acknowledged, and the barriers some people face because of race, sex, gender, health, disability, and class are now being discussed.
This is not to say that all wild places should be equally accessible – they cannot be.
But for the most part this isn’t a guide about difficult-to-access wild places. A great deal of birdwatching can and does take place on the edges of human habitation and road infrastructure.
For a considerable section of the public, the location of toilets is also a critical piece of information, whether because of a medical condition, menstruation, perimenopause or disability, but toilets are rarely indicated on the maps or in the text except for those sites where there is also a visitor centre, such as RSPB reserves.
The second problem with its understanding of ‘access’ is the guide’s unacknowledged emphasis – and birdwatching’s dependence – on the car.
It points to a contradiction in the serious birdwatching world between a concern for the environment on the one hand, and behaviour that contributes to damage of the environment on the other.
In both these respects the guide enables rather than challenges the stereotype of birdwatching as a sedentary hobby for middle-aged men in cars.
Of course some experiences of the natural world are not easily accessible, either because of timing or location.
But what this guide does helpfully indicate is that wherever you are in Wales, your milltir sgwar will likely include places rich in both birdlife and history – places that are accessible to everyone even if, with this edition, you’ll have to do some of the background research on accessibility yourself.
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