Two of the highlights of my television-watching year are Springwatch and Autumnwatch on the BBC. These annually-broadcast, live series follow the fortunes of many different species of British wildlife (the majority of which are also native to this area of Europe) through the turbulent changes of spring and autumn. Up until this year, they’ve always been hosted by Kate Humble and the inimitable Bill Oddie: a charming curmudgeon and a keen amateur naturalist. So I was surprised this May to tune in to the first episode to hear that, due to health issues, Bill Oddie would not be presenting this year. He had been replaced by Chris Packham. Packham did a fine job; he’s just as keen and knowledgable when it comes to nature, and he has his own brand of charming eccentricity, but I still missed Bill.
I was saddened but not surprised to read that his absence was a result of clinical depression, which he’s apparently been dealing with most of his life. This debilitating disorder has affected the lives of many of the highly intelligent and sensitive people in my ken, and Mr. Oddie is clearly both intelligent and sensitive.
Bill Oddie is not a bad birdwatcher. He is, in fact, an excellent birdwatcher. But like a bad birdwatcher, he appreciates the beauty of the everyday. Here’s my favorite Bill Oddie moment, and one of my favorite videos ever. It’s truly magical, and worth a viewing even if you’re not that interested in birds. And Mr. Oddie, wherever you are, I wish you all the best. I hope you’re on the road to recovery soon.
One of the great things about bad birdwatching is that you can be completely lazy and still do it. Birds, unlike say, badgers or snakes, are everywhere, out in the open, easy to spot. All you have to do is pay attention, and they’ll reward you with their everyday presence. And sometimes you can end up having remarkable encounters without even trying.
I already mentioned seeing my first pair of Black terns when I went birdwatching with a friend the other day. Thing is, we weren’t trying very hard. We had expected to see only familiar species and were yakkin’ away about something completely different when they appeared, like magic, right in front of our noses, flying over the irrigation ditches in the polder, diving on occasion to catch a tasty morsel. Stunning birds, they were. And because we were ostensible bird watching, we had our binoculars with us and could watch them as they flew towards the horizon. But at times they were so close that the bins were completely unnecessary.
Today, walking home with my sister and nephew through one of the most exclusive shopping streets in town (a convenient shortcut… not someplace I was shopping myself), a fluttering movement just above the streetlights caught my eye. My first thought was “bat” but it was still full daylight. I turned to get a better look and was amazed to see a Swift swoop over the street and up under the roof of a building. I’ve seen lots of Swifts from a distance, and their eerie cries on the wind are a true sign of summer in this part of the world. But I’ve never been blessed to see one so close, squatting in some of Amsterdam’s most pricey real estate. Truly amazing.
But the most remarkable close encounter I’ve had lately was with a bird I see from close range on a daily basis: the Jackdaw. There are hordes of these birds – the smallest member of the crow family – in my neighborhood, and they’re quite confiding. They hang out in large groups on all of the grassy patches in the area, and at dusk, perch and noisily rearrange themselves around the trees on the far side of the square from where I live, making their high-pitched “Kaw Kaw” sounds. They’re not afraid of humans and watch you with their seemingly knowing gaze as you walk by just a foot or two away from them. But even so, this encounter took me completely by surprise.
I was eating dinner on the couch and watching Springwatch on the BBC. There was a persistent “Kaw Kaw” from outside, but as it’s a sound I hear constantly, I didn’t take much notice. Suddenly it struck me that one of the “Kaw Kaw”s sounded much closer by than the rest. I turned around and this is the sight that greeted me:
The little guy had fledged right onto my window sill. Although his parents were in the tree outside calling to him, he appeared to be more interested in what that strange, large, pink mammal on the other side of the glass was doing. He was there for quite a while, well past dark, and I called an animal rescue line for advice. They assured me he would be perfectly all right even if he spent the night out there, and that as soon as it was light, mom and dad would be back to feed him until he was strong enough to fly off himself. I checked on him occasionally before going to bed, and he’d settled down nicely onto his chosen perch. And indeed, the next morning he was gone. Although he did leave me with a small parting gift.
In the days and weeks since, I’ve seen a young jackdaw in the neighborhood following its parents and learning how to survive. I don’t know if it’s the same little guy, but I like to imagine it is. Wherever he is, I wish him well. Good luck out there, little jackdaw! Take care of yourself!