Guest Blog – Not the BTO winter thrush survey by Hugh Brazier

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHugh Brazier was at school with Mark Avery a long time ago. He then spent many years in Ireland, where (among other things) he frequented seabird colonies off the west coast, ringed lots of puffins and storm petrels, and edited the journal Irish Birds. He is now based in York, where he works as a freelance editor.

The other day I came across five fieldfares in a cardboard box in my attic. I mentioned this to Mark, and he immediately asked me to write a guest blog. I should have known better.

Before I go any further, I should explain that these fieldfares will not generate a record for the BTO’s Winter Thrushes Survey. They are five issues of a magazine produced by Bristol Grammar School Field Club in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I was a member of the club at the time, and I told Mark of my discovery because a certain M. I. Avery was another keen member, and a prominent contributor to Fieldfare.

Those little duplicated magazines contain what is probably Mark’s earliest published work. No internet, and no blogs, in those days. At the age of 12 he was writing about the birds around his home in Pensford, Somerset; a couple of years later he described a holiday on Islay; and in 1975 he not only edited the magazine but also wrote three articles – on the fieldfaresfeeding ecology of finches (what an interesting bird the linnet is!), the physics of bird flight, and ‘a popular guide to the birdwatchers of Britain’, which includes detailed field descriptions of species such as Ornithologus scientificus and Twitchus vulgaris. Mark himself showed all the characteristics of the latter in those days, although today the ID is a little less certain.

The range of articles in these magazines (not all written by M. I. Avery) is quite impressive – accounts of birdwatching holidays, reports on the bird life of a local patch, rarity records, book reviews, items on topics such as training to be a ringer, aberrant plumage and preserving birds’ skulls … There are reminders of how much has changed since those days, too. The issue for 1971 contains two articles on relative newcomers – the collared dove (unknown in the Bristol area just ten years earlier) and the North American ruddy duck. The latter ends with a comment that ruddy duck numbers on the Somerset lakes ‘may be expected to increase. Whether this is for the better or worse remains to be seen.’ Let’s see, shall we …

Each issue also contains a mind-boggling list of meetings, outings and other events. In 1972, for example, we had a total of 10 indoor meetings, including several talks by distinguished visitors (there’s quite a roll-call of famous names here including Robert Gillmor, Eric Ennion, Jeffery Boswall, WB Yapp and Colin Bibby) and 19 field meetings, mostly all-day Sunday outings to places within 40 miles of Bristol, but also two weekends away, one in mid Wales and one based on the Exe estuary. All that activity must have taken some serious organisational effort by the two teachers who ran it all, Derek Lucas and Tony Warren. We owe them a lot.

One of the regular events was the annual competition for schools organised by the Wildfowl Trust (now the WWT), which was held in March each year. Several schools sent teams, and the great rivalry was between Bristol Grammar School and Leighton Park School, Reading. We worked in pairs, but there were also individual and team prizes, presented at the end of the day by Peter Scott. We walked around the grounds of the Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge being tested on our wildfowl knowledge. It was mainly about identification skills, but over the years it expanded somewhat into matters of ecology and conservation. In 1970 M. I. Avery came 32nd in the under-14 age group. Two years later he must have done his homework, because he was placed second, and in 1973 he won the over-14 division. My own performances were more modest (though I never plumbed the depths of 32nd place), but I did learn a lot about wildfowl, some of which has stayed with me. For example, the easiest way to identify a female duck – look at the nearest drake.

594px-Turdus_pilaris_IIIt’s fascinating to come across this sort of stuff from your past. I hadn’t seen these magazines for decades, and yet I still clearly remember many of the outings and meetings, and I remember writing that article, and doing that drawing … Above all, though, finding these old Fieldfares has got me thinking about what the Field Club did for me, and for Mark, and for many others, and what a pity it is that there isn’t more of that sort of thing in schools these days.

Last November a guest blog here by Mary Colwell lamented the fact that fewer and fewer young people are actively engaged with the natural world, and discussed the possibility of a Natural History GCSE as a partial solution. And then a few weeks later Findlay Wilde chipped in with his take on the same topic. Findlay is even younger than Mark was when I first met him, but he seems to be every bit as keen and knowledgeable. He made a plea for school lessons on wildlife and conservation, and a regular ‘nature day’ in school once a month. Are you listening, Mr Gove?

The value of a school field club or natural history society is referred to in the first chapter of Mark’s book Fighting for Birds. (Has Mark mentioned that he had a book published last year? I know he’s very shy about such things, so I’d better mention it for him.) Some of my friends from those days went on to illustrious careers in zoology and/or conservation, while for others of us it remained an amateur pursuit – but the influence of the field club was nonetheless great. I’m not saying that BGS Field Club was solely responsible for Mark’s career, or for my own lifelong interest in birds and other wildlife, but it certainly helped to give us a firm push in the right direction.


20 Replies to “Guest Blog – Not the BTO winter thrush survey by Hugh Brazier”

  1. Speaking as a product of London comprehensives, I agree more needs to be done to enthuse kids about wildlife. Apart from a trip to somewhere that had stick insects at primary school, and a form tutor at secondary school who was known to be a twitcher (he never talked about his passion for birds in my hearing; I only know about it because it was a subject for schoolboy derision), I don’t remember wildlife ever being mentioned at school. I distinctly remember being vaguely interested in exotic animals as a kid, possibly thanks to David Attenborough, but by my late 20s I still thought moorhens and coots were types of duck. “Springwatch” and a trip to the London Wetland Centre were what (finally) got me learning about this stuff in a more systematic way.

  2. Reading this & having bought Mark’s book (and read it cover to cover!), I can only add my hopes that Natural History is added (returned) to the national curriculum. I’ve been fortunate that I had a junior school teacher who, on Friday afternoons, would, as it seemed to me, take us all out on the spur of the moment in to the countryside on a nature ramble. I must have been 6 or 7 but Mr E. Overall ‘pushed me’ in the right direction too. I’ve had a life long interest in natural history, and now earn my living from it too, despite my parents warning me that it would be very unlikely that I’d earn money from a hobby though I’ve branched out and specialise particularly in spiders as well as birds. I owe an awful lot to Mr E. Overall of Bushmead Junior School, Luton. And of course to my parents who helped me immensely on the way.

    And now I’m a parent too, to 3 yr old Niamh and 3 month old Caítlin. One of my proudest moments as a parent so far was when Niamh identified a robin correctly and she now knows blackbird and blue tit too. I hope they both have a “Mr Overall” too at some point but I know that we’ll at least make them aware and try and give them that interest that can inspire and last a lifetime.

    1. Richard – one of my best moments yet as a parent of a now 11mth old daughter was walking with her in the sling last summer and feeling her head tilt up as she looked skyward. The next instant I heard the faintest ‘woosh’ of wings and a small flock of starlings flew over. I hope to help nurture this keen interest and sharp pair of eyes somehow!

      1. Just keep exposing her (and therefore yourself) to the outside world and they’ll pick things up. Now my daughter follows me around looking under logs, has a fascination for snails and of course is quite happy with spiders!

        Its simple things too. Last night, before bed time, we put a little pot of water out and we went and inspected it this morning…she was fascinated to see that you couldn’t pour the water out anymore.


  3. As a new writer of children’s books based on birds I have tried to get my first book out to the wider public. I emailed Jim Wardill working for the RSPB on encouraging youth after he wrote a comment on here. Not even a reply from him. I wrote to Bempton Cliffs and South Stack RSPB reserves to see if they could add it to their shops as it was about a Kittiwake. Not even a reply. The Seabird Centre at North Berwick said it would take them but have yet to order. The only ray of hope was from Kate Macrae [mentioned on winterwatch last night] – who is going to add it to her brilliant website. So if you want to get kids to get involved with wildlife make sure they son’t get sucked into the politics of this awful game.

  4. We had little or no direct contact with the outside world during my secondary education years (I’m 35 now), though my rural primary school teachers would regularly take us out for outdoor lessons – even if it was just because it was a sunny day. I was obsessed enough with birds to make my own way and maintain my own interest after primary school, and then to widen my interest into being more if an all-round naturalist.

    I’m not involved with education in any formal way, but do help run an annual ringing demonstration at our local National Nature Reserve, which is attended by four of the local primary schools; not the same four each year, though. This is an incredibly rewarding activity: the ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when the nth Blue Tit is drawn out of the bird bag are a gentle reminder of how interested children are (can be) in what is around them – and how attractive most of our birds actually are. Perhaps just my way of passing on the baton. Very rewarding, and judging from the feedback, very stimulating too. It would be very nice to have the time and resource to do this more regularly… but it’s something useful.

  5. I think back to my school days and can’t remember a teacher who was keen on wildlife/nature, I do remember that we had to stop putting tadpoles in the science lab to “observe” the various growth stage of tadpoles and even had to get rid of the egg incubator where we watched over time chicks being born. I know as I was leaving school it was getting harder and harder for teachers to take groups of kids out for a “field day” so I can only imagine nowadays it must be near impossible due to all the various forms etc that have to be filled in etc.

  6. A comment on my Facebook page prompts me to point out that the BTO survey is actually called the Winter Thrushes Survey, not the Winter Thrush Survey – and the heading at the top of my piece had the plural form before someone (Mark …) went and changed it. Mark, you need an editor!

  7. Think those of us either keen on nature and birds or even those mad about nature or birds unfortunately live in a very small world of our own thinking that others share our interests but if anyone gets talking to a cross section of the general public they will realise that almost everyone could not care about it.In fact they almost consider us strange.

    1. Not sure about that Dennis as nearly all my friends and family who are not keen naturalists are always happy to discuss the natural world, indeed they will often start a conversation by saying “how is the birdwatching (sometimes they err and say twitching which provokes a slight rebuke!) going” or “I saw this odd bird in my garden – what do you think it could be”? or maybe “how are the butterflies doing this year”?. Wildlife is not towards the front of their awareness but many do care, witness the recent popular “revolt” when the Greenest Government Ever tried to start bumping off our buzzards in pursuit of some spurious research project.

      The problem seems to be how to get the key issues clearly into the public’s awareness.

      1. Dennis have you seen the viewing figures for AFRICA yet? Also how many people watch programmes such as Springwatch etc. It’s just various levels of interest, also when I’m out photographing birds I’ve had numerous people come up and ask what it is/was I’m photographing and yes sometimes depending on species you get a “blank” look back but when I see that look I just quickly show them an image (if the bird has gone) and there’s a different reaction. And finally I was photographing some Waxwings recently and had some very old lady ask what I was doing, I explained and she said “I’m not sure they’re the same bird but there’s more of them in the park around the corner”, sure enough more Waxwings present.

  8. Sorry for the late comment as didn’t read the blog post until after school. This is really of interest especially to me ( see my previous blog for Mark Avery ) as I am really trying to help other kids get interested in nature by having a nature day once a month where we might go out on a field trip or have an after school nature club. I am currently organising a proposal for my headteacher to convince her how valuable this would be and already have a line of guest speakers who will come and help with talks and demonstrations.
    If anybody else wants to help please let me know!
    One final point, why is Africa and Winterwatch on so late in the evening? I know you can get it on iplayer but I want to watch it altogether with my brother and mum and dad.

    1. Findlay, not sure about winterwatch/springwatch but on other wildlife documentaries such as Africa someone will sit down and go through scene by scene and may flag up certain issues, such as a Lion eating a Zebra and depending on when the show is broadcasted it may not make it to the final cut depending on the time the episode is shown for example last year a BBC documentary was shown at 6pm on Sunday and received complaints because it showed the said Lion chowing down on a Zebra, I think it received 300 odd complaints, however the fact Africa is being shown in unedited format on Sunday I don’t think that’s the reason. The real reason probably has more to do with the day it’s first showing is on, certain types of programmes like Corination Street have a “dedicated” following, so to get the most amount of people watching a series like Africa it’s best to avoid “schedule clashes” with other popular programmes, get on Twitter or E-mail the BBC and tell them what you think and ask them why a late time?

  9. I grew up in the fifties and sixties and met other boys ( never girls!) interested in wildlife at scholl although not many. But we pond dipped ( mainly for newts), caught minnows and bullheads iN the local rivers(Crimple and Nidd) bird nested, picked flowers taking arm fulls home ( where now there is grass and grass and grass but few flowers) and slowly learnt almost by osmosis the love of what was around us. There werea few teachers who encouraged us and I have vague memories of Nature walks at primary school. So my love of wildlife goes back and is built on a wealth of experience. I have some notes going back to 1965, but can remember what the winter of 63 did to the birds, no Green woodpeckers locally for years after nor Kingfishers with the Grey Partridges much reduced ( one of the first nests I found!). Today I’m lucky I have three teenage ringing trainees all different but all sharing that joy in nature, as do my partners older children now making their own way in the world. So yes we need to encourage the young and yes it would be great to have some sort of natural history on school curricula, but most of all we need engaged parents and safe places for kids to go on their own, that’s where it starts. However the fact that there are young people out there enjoying nature means we are being”Followed” and all is not lost.

  10. I especially enjoyed Hugh’s reflections on his early bird-watching days in Bristol, putting M. I. Avery’s colourful recollections into perspective.
    My own school-days were in the 40s and 50s.
    I have a faint memory of Nature Study at our village primary school, but our main outdoor activity was tending the school ie headmaster’s garden.
    At grammar school, biology ought to have been the natural gateway to field excursions, but we never got outside the lab.
    But we did have a slightly mad geography master who also taught a bit of geology and who organised an annual coach trip to Flamborough Head where he encouraged us to to knock chunks off the cliffs with heavy hammers.
    I always took along my father’s seven-pound sledge-hammer which was instantly and gleefully seized upon and monopolized by said master.
    We were allowed to range at will, regardless of the several hundred-foot drop in those bygone “health-and-safety”-free days.
    Otherwise, we were left to our own devices such as undertaking 40-mile return cycle trips to Spurn Point. The pal who came with me later became an expert on the biology of sewage and joined the “brain-drain” to become a scientist in New Zealand, inevitably earning himself the nickname of “drain-brain”!
    Bird-nesting, botany and butterflies were our main pursuits. There was actually a bird-nesting season, always eagerly awaited, as much as the football and cricket seasons.
    So all credit to young Findlay for pushing his school into organizing monthly field outings, something which would have been greatly appreciated in my day.
    I hope too that the suggestions by other contributors for Nature Study to be added to the school curriculum and exam syllabus come to fruition, as they are much needed in our present indoor and sedentary age.

  11. I write as the bell is about to sound for lunch in this secondary school. Last year I asked if I could complete the Big Schools Birdwatch with a group of 11 and 12 year olds. I was told no, they could not be taken out of lessons. But if I wanted to do it before or after school (in the dark) that would be ok. Out of school I am a local Phoenix Leader, we have a handful of excellent members, but find recruiting new members tough. I fear there aren’t many Mr E Overalls left and young naturalists are getting harder to find.

Comments are closed.