Book review: Low-carbon Birding by Javier Caletrio


This is a welcome book, dealing, as it does, with an important issue for those of us who are birders.

The structure of the book is that the editor produces two introductory chapters on the issue of climate change and the contribution of travel as it applies to birdwatching in its widest sense, and those are followed by 29 accounts by a variety of birders on how they watch birds in a low-carbon way and how it doesn’t cramp their style and enjoyment very much.

The two introductory chapters are required reading for all those who travel massively to watch birds around the world and those in the bird-tourism business. Javier Caletrio deals with many of the common excuses which are used to justify travel mainly to see birds, many of which are of course merely subsets of those excuses used by the vast majority of people who do not travel for birding but travel for other leisure activities. He does this very well in the chapter ‘Questions of travel, climate and responsibility‘ in such sections as ‘Why do we need to fly less?‘ and ‘Can we cancel out or balance our emissions from flying through forest preservation offsets?‘. These are well-researched, well-referenced and well-explained sections of the book which could be lifted wholesale into many other books about leisure travel, but the section ‘Will some biodiversity-rich places disappear without wildlife tourism?‘ is aimed straight at one of the more beguiling trains of thought that can be used by birders to justify jumping on a plane.  Throughout the introductory chapters the tone is clear but not hectoring.

The individual accounts that follow (I’ve read many of them but not all) are varied in style and approach (which is what one wants in an anthology of essays) and they make a good case for how enjoyable patch-birding or other low-travel options can be. However, we find that many of them are written by those who happen to live, or have chosen to live, in bird-rich localities. They won’t be quite so persuasive to those whose work, family or bank balance tether them to less attractive birding locations. As someone who did some birding in Norfolk last weekend (although the motivation for the trip was mostly to meet family) I can imagine other birders thinking ‘If I lived in north Norfolk I wouldn’t travel so much either. You don’t see coach trips from Cley to Pitsford (or Summer Leys or Stanwick Lakes) but since I live in Northants I’m going to nip up to the Norfolk coast sometimes, thank you.‘.  Taken together, the individual accounts are persuasive that the authors enjoy low-carbon birding and they will make other readers think about these matters more.

I’m surprised that the Bird Fair didn’t get more of a mention here. The large part that birding travel, much of it to very distant places, plays in the lives of some, and the aspirations of more, birders was shown in high relief by the Bird Fair. One of the reasons that I didn’t go to the ‘new’ Global Bird Fair this year was that it seemed not to have taken a step away from that aspect of birding.

The focus of the book is travel, whereas travel for all purposes tends to be about a third of our carbon footprint.  Low-carbon birders might well be signing up to renewable energy deals, avoiding eating meat (particularly red meat), turning down their thermostats and not having children – or maybe they aren’t.  Those aspects don’t feature much in this book which is understandable but when a person looks seriously to manage their carbon footprint they probably should look across all those areas and more, and then start with decisions that make the most difference to their carbon emissions and the least difference to their happiness.  If you have no children, are vegan, buy renewable energy at a higher price, travel very little for other purposes then maybe you will regard your birding travel as sacrosanct – but it will still be there, doing harm to the climate (that’s inescapable). The world is full of difficult ethical decisions, and let’s not duck the fact that for birders, birding travel is an ethical area.

Much of the reduction in carbon emissions will have to be achieved by policy change rather than individual change but the great thing about making sustainable decisions yourself is that you don’t have to wait for everyone else. If you decide to drive half as much, then you can do it starting today. That decision will be made easier if there is good public transport and it is affordable.  Travelling to many birding spots, try Spurn Point for example, from a distance is massively time-consuming and expensive and one can see why busy people don’t even consider it.

I suspect that covid gave a boost to low-carbon birding. One effect of covid was that many of us broke long-established habits (one of mine was buying cups of coffee all over the place) and the lower-covid era hasn’t led to them being re-established, at least not at the same level. A part of me hopes that the current hike in energy costs has a similar impact on us and that we emerge from it eventually with better ingrained habits. We’ll see.

I’ve had a rapid internet search and I can’t see lots of books about low-carbon train-spotting or being a low-carbon football fan or low-carbon gamebird shooter.  I’d like to think that birders, despite their manifold faults, are perhaps leading the way, too slowly, to a more sustainable hobby and that what we do now will be something of a model to others. Things are certainly changing and I am confident that they will change ever more quickly, and this book is an important contribution to that change. The progress in recent years encourages me, and encourages me to believe that the little-read words at the front of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds East of The Rockies which state that ‘the observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness‘ are true.  Let us  hope so!

The cover? The cover, by Gary Redford, is attractive and appropriate even though 24 out of the 30 contributors to the book are male and I keep wondering whether some of the shadows are in the wrong places.  I’d give it 9/10.

Low-carbon Birding by Javier Caletrio is published by Pelagic Publishing.




3 Replies to “Book review: Low-carbon Birding by Javier Caletrio”

  1. Actually there’s only one game in town – Insulate Britain. 50% of our emissions are from buildings, just 12%, not 1/3rd from transport – including shipping. It should be possible to half emissions from buildings even without new technology or alternative heat sources like heat pumps. Yet this Government dithers between a tiny support budget and no budget at all – whilst pouring money into supply side. What could be achieved, for example, if the money going into carbon capture went into building technology instead ? But the supply side is big business – and businesses that have no intention of losing money just because of global warming. The right wing press managed to twist the Insulate Britain protests into a civil order issue to the extent that some environmentalists fell in behind them. Joe Blogs 1/2 an hour late for work vs the planet – no contest. So, yes that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can but pause for a moment and wonder whether the middle class angst over air travel doesn’t verge on a diversion. And apply the test: where’s the carbon, where’s the money ? and just how little Government and business are really doing in the UK becomes all too obvious.

  2. An interesting looking book on an important subject, I look forward to reading it.

    I wrote a blog for Mark on this site some years ago now, entitled the climate change elephant, it didn’t talk about birding but it did talk about the fact that the human population is growing at a scary rate. It prompted lots of comment, which is always healthy.
    It made me think a lot and then a few months later Covid came along and made me think more.
    I have been leading bird tours in Extremadura for ten years, small tailor made tours that proved extremely popular, this spring I led those that were postponed due to the pandemic, but they were my last ones. There are several reasons for me stopping leading tours in central Spain, but one of the main ones was the fact that my clients were invariably flying out from Britain to go on the tours. I was creating a demand for short haul flights by running the tours.
    I could try and come up with excuses for carrying on, much like the ones Mark alludes to above, and maybe that would ‘fool’ others, but it wasn’t fooling me. I realised I couldn’t justify my business model environmentally and, bearing in mind my views on the environment, that made it hard for me to just carry on regardless.
    I loved leading the tours, loved meeting the clients and showing them amazing birds, but sometimes hard decisions need to be made. There are many others that could make similar decisions.

    I look forward to reading this book and I hope that many others do as well, we birders need to think hard about our choices, especially if we feel strongly about environmental issues. I agree with Mark’s comments about bird fair as well, flying around the planet to tick birds isn’t easy to justify – planting trees doesn’t give you carte blanche. I think it is safe to say that I have planted more trees than most in my life time, that doesn’t mean I don’t need to think about what I do though.
    For info and clarity, I still live part of the year in Extremadura, but since Covid I no longer fly, ferries and driving have an impact too I know, it’s not perfect but I hope my choices are reducing my impact.

  3. Mark, I am holidaying with friends in a favourite place near Beverley. Two of them are artists. Breakfast discussion this morning was on your point of shadowing.
    The highlights on birds, the girls right hand and her headband clearly has the sun at the top right of the picture. This also makes the shadow of the bike correct.
    However, the shadow on the bank, of her body, particularly the highlights on her trousers and the birds in flight must mean the sun is on the left of the picture.
    It did however bring back memories of the fine artwork in the old railway posters.
    (Well, it is raining!)

    Why Beverley? Well apart from being a nice town, from here we can easily visit North Cave Wetlands NR, Bempton and your mentioned Spurn head. Whilst going to a central point to do some birding (though this time it’s not for birding) should mean we cut down on petrol, is it really greener?

    Pre covid, we used to drive through France, Spain and Portugal for the coldest winter eight weeks for a bit of walking and birding. This trip used open hotels and self catering putting monies into local economies when they needed it most. Hopefully our driving was more efficient than several flights and we were of course saving two months heating bills at home during the heaviest months.
    All of which is, of course, just trying to justify having a good time.
    Haven’t flown for many years, so greener than some but still worse than 90% of the planet’s population I guess.
    Not a great record and must do better.

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