West Country Magazine
Stephen Smith sings the praises of a group of birders from Poole after reading their latest book about their ground-breaking work based on sound recordings
In 2000, Mark Constantine, founder of Lush Cosmetics, founded The Sound Approach with Arnoud van den Berg and Magnus Robb and set out to record every species of bird in the Western Palearctic, a region composed of Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. The Sound Approach has been recording ever since, amassing over 55,000 recordings. In 2006, Mark founded an independent publishing company that produces books committed to his vision of popularising birdsong, of turning bird watchers into bird listeners. His latest books are a précis of the concerns, puzzles and conundrums set by the natural world to a group of amateur birders meeting over 20 years in a pub in Poole, his home patch.
As the name suggests, the group has taken a wholly new approach to bird study based on sound recording aided by modern technology, with the aim of seeing what can be discovered by using sound rather than visual observation as the primary method. The group has now published four books, all of which include CDs of bird recordings and a wealth of sonograms, many of which are annotated with multi-coloured captions. The first book, simply entitled The Sound Approach to Birding established the unusual format and the light-hearted, anecdotal style which has become the hallmark of the series. The latest publication Catching the Bug, written jointly by Mark Constantine and fellow Dorset birder, Nick Hopper, deals with the birds of Poole Harbour.
The wetland birds of the harbour are listened to rather than looked at, and the scope of the bookextends to land-based birds typical of the heaths such as the Dartford warbler. The book is beautifully illustrated with photographs, many of them by Nick, and with colour plates by Killian Mullarney.
A large amount of the content is devoted to the findings of The Sound Approach. There is a lot of local history and prehistory going back as far as the Ice Ages. The book contains some original ideas on the specific status of the Dartford warbler and the races of cormorant, and considers their implications for conservation. Finally, and I suspect most interestingly for many of us, it contains some of the tales of the tribe– the birders of Poole. There is much about the different approaches taken by different people to the craft, whether their focus is listing, international travel, surveys, conservation, ringing, patch watching, photography, writing, sound recording, visual identification or taxonomy. There are brief written sketches of the personalities, and much of it deals with the group which has met at various pubs in Poole since 1988.
The ‘pub group’ is a very disparate group of extraordinary people, all with expertise in their own fields. There have been real achievements, such as the different systematic surveys of the huge and complex area of the harbour, and the editing of the Dorset Bird Report by different people. Members have made real contributions to ornithology and conservation elsewhere in Britain and in distant parts of the world, and of course there has been the setting-up of The Sound Approach. The pub meetings have given us something special: opportunities to learn from one another in ways that completely disprove the widely-held assumption that birders are socially inept people obsessed with a children’s hobby. We owe a huge amount to Mark for starting the pub meetings so long ago, and for sharing his wide-ranging network of contacts, so that some of the most highly-regarded observers in the world have become our mentors and friends.
Mark modestly says that much of what he has included about the tales of the tribe is subjective, but in fact I couldn’t find anything that didn’t ring true. This book is something that we needed; something that brings together all that we have been blessed with over a long period. In many ways it provides the mythology, the much needed affirmation of our shared culture and tradition. In the end, tradition becomes a celebration of life.