Sunday, 14 June 2015

13 Years Wilde - Mark Avery

The next in the 13 Years Wilde series comes from Dr Mark Avery. You can find out all about him here.  I first got in touch with Mark when I was 10 to see if I could write a guest blog for him and he very kindly said yes.  Since then we have met up at Conferences, Birdfair and Hen Harrier Day. He likes to remind me that I actually had to run out of the marquee in the middle of his talk at last year's Birdfair to be sick!  We have spent time looking for Hen Harriers together and talked birds over a pizza at my house.  Most of the time I have spent with Mark has been in the pouring rain and not surprisingly it is absolutely chucking it down as I write this introduction. I have learnt an awful lot by reading Mark's blog everyday and the comments that go with it, as this helps me understand all sides of the issues it raises. I hope to have many more get togethers with Mark, and maybe even some when the sun is shining.

Well, Findlay, it was quite a long time ago! I’m 57 now so that’s going back quite a long way, but I can certainly remember birds I saw at around that age, for I was, even then, a keen birder.
I lived just south of Bristol in a place called Pensford, and went to school in Bristol (travelling on the bus each day).

I lived in the countryside and I could just walk into fields and start birdwatching straight away. I remember a Cuckoo sitting on our garden fence and waking us up one morning, and Tree Sparrows being occasional garden visitors too.  A pair of Great Tits nested in the nest box I had (badly!) made in woodwork lessons at school, and a pair of Goldfinches nested one year outside the kitchen window.

I would often walk down to the River Chew and stroll along beside it. On those walks, at about the age you are now, I saw my first Lesser Spotted Woodpecker (much rarer now), my first Spotted Flycatcher (much rarer now) and lots of Water Voles (also much rarer now – and, yes, I know they aren’t birds!).  I remember the Spotted Flycatcher very clearly – I passed by that way a few weeks ago and the bush is still there but no Spotted flycatcher. It was a very obvious Spotted Flycatcher – a greyish bird, perched upright, which flew out to try to catch insects and returned to the same perch. But I had never seen one before and had to go home and look it up in the Observer’s Book of Birds or the AA/Readers Digest Book of Birds. We didn’t the internet then, of course, or phone apps (or mobile phones!) and the number of bird books was much lower too.

School was very important for me as there were two teachers who encouraged lots of us boys (girls hadn’t been invented then, it’s so long ago) to go out birdwatching. They would take us out in a minibus on Sundays to local birdwatching haunts like Slimbridge, Chew Valley Lake and the Somerset Levels. We learned an awful lot about birdwatching and made friends for life. We actually had a reunion a few weeks ago and I wrote about it on my own blog here.

I think I got into nature at about the age of eight, and birds were always important to me – they are really great and they are quite easy too! And I have never lost that interest. I’m interested in all nature, but I know most about birds, and they are my favourite group, although I like to learn about the others too.

My Mum and Dad were very good to me (as I notice yours are to you) and took me places and were generally encouraging about all my interests. And the school environment was very important too – there were other boys and enough teachers to make birdwatching a thing one could do through school – and that was a big advantage in having companions with whom to learn, older boys and teachers to learn from, and transport to get out and about sometimes.

The birds were much the same, but their abundance was different. Some species are now much commoner eg Sparrowhawk (quite rare even in the 1970s), Lesser Black-backed Gull (they all disappeared to Portugal in winter), Little Egrets (they were real rarities – I didn’t see my first in the UK until my 30s I think) and Ravens (there was one pair near Bristol which nested at the end of Brean Down) but then a lot of other species were far commoner – the farmland birds like Skylarks, Linnets (yuk!), Tree Sparrows and Lapwings, and Willow Tit and Marsh Tit as forest birds, were much more easily seen. But the thrill of being out in the countryside, often with friends, having a laugh and seeing nature for yourself was just the same then as now, and is just the same for me at my advanced age.

You asked for a photo of me at aged 13 and I have dug one out – holding a trophy from some school competition at Slimbridge for the under 14 age class. The great Sir Peter Scott handed me that trophy – top day!  And I did some work at Slimbridge a couple of years ago and got photographed (with my shirt hanging out) holding the same trophy – I haven’t changed a bit!


  1. It's interesting to note birders of particular age and how schools/teachers actively encouraged activities involving nature.

    1. Many do now. I guess the birders are the people who had teachers who encouraged them in the pursuit. I do think though that there is far too much focus on tests and exams and very strict and narrowed learning and not enough on letting children go out and simply explore the world. It's something my mother always encouraged me to do and, as well as now having an interest in wildlife and nature, I think it's made me a generally more open minded person.

      I had to laugh at a comment someone made on a news article about children being taken out of school to watch the solar eclipse a few months ago: "They should have been in the classroom learning something instead of outside looking at that!"

  2. findlay, no doubt, you've met some true nature lovers and knowledgeable folks in the last few years!

    i appreciate the offer to write a guest post for this series. i don't consider myself much of a writer these days, though. thanks for thinking of me! :)

  3. Hi Mark. Thank you so much for writing this guest blog. It is so interesting to read how much engagement you got with wildlife through your school. I would have really liked that. It is also so interesting how quickly different bird numbers have gone up and down in less that 50 years. Everything we do is having such an impact on wildlife very quickly. Thank you again. From Fin

  4. Nice one Mark. Things have certainly changed a lot over the years.