The Hoopoe Hullabaloo

I remember it well. The frantic dash home after a long day at work, hoping to make it home for the end of bath time. Or at the very latest, being in time to read the bedtime story. This was always my favourite time of the day: snuggled up in bed, or on beanbags in ‘story corner’ next to the kids’ bookshelf on the landing to read one or two picture books. Julia Donaldson and Oliver Jeffers were favourites, and I cherished those moments reading The Incredible Book Eating Boy, The Gruffalo and Jon Klassen’s I Want My Hat Back. I also used to make up “Daddy stories”-an extra story if requested, once they were in bed, just before lights out when I would freestyle some daft yarn off the top of my head, involving the kids and an array of characters of variable repute (Snufflepants the magical cake-baking dragon featured heavily).

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The Tale of Two Naturalists

I paid a rare visit to what most of us in the North East still call the Hancock Museum in Newcastle recently. Now rather cumbersomely titled Great North Museum: Hancock, this was a regular haunt of mine in childhood, as an enthusiastic member of Watch, the youth arm of the local wildlife trust. Encouraged by my parents, my sister and I would regularly attend talks there (and art classes-more on that later) and, in the years since, I have enjoyed taking my own kids who marvelled at the dinosaurs, the Egyptian mummy and the gift shop tat.

But for me as a boy, the museum was all about the birds; the mounted raptors, the skins of long extinct birds (the museum has two Great Auks, including the only known juvenile in the world) and Percy the Pelican.

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Getting It Right

Everyone has their own.
“How did he get from Mile End to Chelsea in five minutes?”
“When’s this set again? 1952? That model didn’t come in until 1963.”
“Lemon drizzle cake in 1938? I don’t think so!”

The telly’s got it wrong again.

Mine – and yours too, I wouldn’t be surprised – is bird song.
So petty. So very, very petty.

But compulsive, too. I like to think of it as a sign that I’m paying attention, that I’m fully involved in the viewing experience, not checking my phone every two minutes. It starts with noticing.
“We think you ought to have a look at this, Sir.” 

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Birding and Blagging

Back in May 2017 I somehow blagged my way into Birdwatching magazine as the guest on their Back Chat page. I still don’t know how I got away with it, even if they did edit down some of my gull comments! Here is my original submission, pre-editing.

What first sparked your interest in birdwatching?

Being dragged on family walks as a kid. I had to make them interesting somehow, so I started looking at birds. I kept a list and ticked them in my book. “Golden Eagle on a gate! Tick! Wallcreeper behind the school bins at playtime! Tick!” My list may have needed some revisions over the years.

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The Birds of Tintin: Part 2

Welcome to part two of The Birds of Tintin, my unnecessary project to name and number every bird drawn by Hergé in his 24 Adventures of Tintin books!

At the midway-point after Part 1 , we are off to South America for the 13th book, The Seven Crystal Balls. On page 2, as Tintin walks from the train station to visit Haddock at Marlinspike Hall, three birds are clearly seen over a ploughed field. These are clearly gulls as, not only are they consistent with Hergé’s previous illustrations of the genus, but they also lack any obvious jizz of other possibilities such as crows, Lapwings or Woodpigeons.

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The Birds of Tintin: Part 1

Like many kids growing up, I loved comics.  Between Christmas Beano and Dandy annuals, Marvel comics gifted weekly by a kind uncle and my trips to the library for Asterix and Tintin books I was, and still am, a big fan of the sequential art form. But it was Hergé’s Tintin books that I enjoyed the most, with those clear line style illustrations and adventures in foreign lands.

Hergé was a perfectionist, and when it came to accuracy in his depiction of locations and vehicles, his dedication was faultless. But I always felt that he did not seem to apply the same robust research to his wildlife illustrations, particularly his birds.

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Fulica Peregrinus

One of the features of recent Golden Grenades podcasts has been the Zero Punches Pulled segment. A daft question that I ask the guest that I suspect they have never been asked before, and are unlikely to be ever again. The kind of question you might ask your mates to kill time in the car on an 8 hour drive to look for a Catbird. The sort of question I spend an awful lot of time thinking about myself.

You know the sort of question I mean; those life or death questions that keep you awake at night. If you had to dress like any species of bird for the rest of your life, which would it be?

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Gateshead’s High-rise Kittiwake “Des Res”

The Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead Quays underwent a large-scale series of developments in the 1990s, the sheds and warehouses Michael Caine charged around in the 1970’s gangster film Get Carter are long gone, making way for new law courts, hotels and residential developments. On the Gateshead side of the Tyne, key projects included the development of the Sage concert venue and the conversion of the gigantic Baltic Flour Mill into the Baltic Arts Centre…. but what has all of this this to do with cliff dwelling Kittiwakes?

The Black-Legged Kittiwake, Rissa trydactyla traditionally nest on high, steep sided cliffs but, in Newcastle upon Tyne and Gateshead, they have colonised the buildings along the banks of the River Tyne since 1949 (Coulson 1963).

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black and white bird standing on green grass field during daytime

Birding FC

You might not automatically think that a packed football stadium would be the ideal place to watch birds, but those of us with a passion for both the beautiful game and our avian overlords might beg to differ. During my own 21 year stretch as a season ticket holder at St James’ Park, the home of Newcastle United, I’ve had a few unlikely sightings, including a grey wagtail sine-waving around the lower stands and a bamboozled woodcock that ditched onto the turf during an evening Premier League match against Reading in 2006. The crowd reacted to the grounded bird and booed to stop play, and the exhausted mud-poker was gently rescued by our striker, the back-flipping cult hero Obafemi Martins, who scored his first league goal for the club that night shortly afterwards.

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Living with Bone-Breakers

The Bearded Vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) epitomises so much about our relationship with nature. It was hunted to extinction in the Alps by the early 20th Century, partly due to the absurd legend that it snatched small children, an early example of the continuing ‘bad press’ vultures still seem destined to endure. A small Pyrenees population was sustained and, through many conservation efforts on both sides of the border, their numbers have grown substantially since the ‘90s with about 100 breeding pairs throughout the Pyrenees chain. With a near 3m wingspan, it is a timid, cautious bird that presents no threat to anything.

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