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Birding from the Hip
Birding from the Hip, a collection of stories spanning seventeen years that details with humour a life, spent in the field.
Birding From the Hip is a collection of forthright, entertaining and gloriously funny stories describing an obsessive Irish birder’s view of life. Anthony McGeehan has been writing incorrigible tales about birdwatching for more than twenty years and this is his first book.
Vintage articles sit alongside many new pieces, compiled as The Sound Approach travels with Anthony on fresh adventures to record his favourite bird sounds. Rasping Corncrakes reverberating from churchyard walls, Lapwings celebrating Saint Patrick’s Day and a triumphant chorus of thousands of Cranes returning to roost on a starry Spanish night – hear them all and more amid a selection of stories narrated in two free CDs.
For such a rewarding and sometimes life-consuming hobby, it has always been a surprise to me that so few authors choose to write about birding from a ‘lifestyle’ perspective. For many, birding is a way of life, and yet relatively few books deal with the impact this can have. A few great titles do exist, but I’ve always felt my bookshelves were a little bereft of good-quality birding commentary. Thankfully, this anthology of writings by Anthony McGeehan goes a long way towards filling that gap.
Many Birdwatch readers will be familiar with McGeehan’s work – much of the material is taken from his monthly column in this magazine, which ran from 1992 until 1999. The book also includes a dozen new pieces, all slightly longer and meatier than the typical magazine column, as well as work from his more recent column in Dutch Birding.
Accepting the fact that a fair chunk of the material has been published previously, this anthology has a real charm that makes it well worth the purchase price. Punchy and thought-provoking, McGeehan’s work has always been a joy to read, but it’s not until you see it all together that you appreciate the real depth and intelligence of the writing. This book paints a vivid picture of a life lived through birds, capturing the highs and lows of all aspects of the hobby, from twitching antics, patch-watching and international travel through to conservation work.
In particular, it excels at exploring what it really means to be a birder, deftly picking through the inner workings of the birding mind to uncover the most fascinating intricacies of the hobby. Many of the tales are laugh-out-loud funny, and all are beautifully written and packed with insight.
This is a beautiful book, liberally illustrated with outstanding photographs, all reproduced with superb clarity. Also included are two audio CDs of stories narrated by the author.
This is a fantastic production, full of entertainment, pathos and an inspirational thirst for all things avian. A must-buy for beginners and seasoned birders, and a must-read for long-suffering non-birding spouses!
This is an entertaining read about the birding shenanigans of a very interesting man.
I love stories. I love birding. But best of all I like birding stories. Well, to be totally truthful, I like reading about the adventures that people have in the pursuit of finding wildlife. When I was asked to review Anthony McGeehan’s book, I had to say yes. Having had the pleasure of meeting them man recently in Belfast, it was as clear as day that I was in the presence of a man who had lived a full birding life. I was curious to discover how The Sound Approach guys would handle what is apparently a complete departure from their previously published popular bird sounds formula.
Birding From The Hip is a collection of stories spanning the life and birding times of Anthony McGeehan. There are some hilarious moments and great photos too. I loved the story that involved Anthony and his buddies gaining access to a RSPB reserve having used a forged membership card. Class!
The story about his first ever Corn Crake was also a rib-tickler. Underscoring some of the earlier stories was a clear view as to how life was in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It was this side of the story that was the most eye-opening for me, and it was told with an intelligent, dry wit. It seemed like the best birding spots were also in the most security-sensitive areas – something that would have scared the life out of me.
Of course, it wasn’t all about being in Ireland. There are several stories about his birding abroad, like his trip to Newfoundland to look for ‘guaranteed’ Gyr Falcons and the Cranes in Spain. For me, Anthony painted a picture of birding that was fun, accessible and inspiring.
I generally found his recollections vivid and entertaining. Most of his mates sounded like great guys and his long-suffering wife was also quite funny, although I don’t think that was her original intention, as there was an obviously discernable tongue-in-cheek element.
I adore Ireland and love birding there so his stories revolving around finding some lost waif in the locations often known only by locals especially interested me. And being a recent Cape Clear convert, I was keen to learn of his travels there.
Having said that, I didn’t really understand the audio CDs, which were recordings of Anthony (and occasionally his wife) reading a few chapters of the book, replete with a bit of music and the occasional bird call. I think they worked well as audio guides in the previous books, but I found them a gratuitous inclusion for this one. Why? I felt that Anthony’s voice was not as entertaining as in real life. It felt like he was reading off the page with great reluctance. I also disliked the music and some of the bird recordings felt as though they were put in for the sake of it.
But that was a minor negative in what really is a superb first book for Anthony. This is an entertaining read about the birding shenanigans of a very interesting man.
A really hip book on birdwatching
By Damien Enright
Monday, February 01, 2010
THIS week, I will diverge from reports of local events in nature, the marvellous humpback whale displays in Wexford, and the shoals of sprats in the seas off west Cork, to tell readers about a book I’ve greatly enjoyed called Birding from the Hip: A Sound Approach Anthology.
It’s a bizarre title for a bird book, but, then, it’s a medley of text and sound and as much about the attitude and activities of birder-author, Anthony McGeehan, and his obsessive birder friends, as it is about the birds themselves. His gang of bird-questers and sound recordists don’t do “birding as a hobby”; this is hard-nosed, dedicated “birding from the hip” like ‘shooting from the hip’, not only on the shores of Belfast Lough during the Troubles, where they were regularly challenged at gunpoint by the British army, but also in freezing fog on Spanish lakes, recording the dawn chorus of cranes.
The book is a joy; it is beautifully produced and includes two CDs on the inside cover, with McGeehan and wife reading extracts from the text. The man is a self-effacing, funny, knowledgeable and very honest writer, and, if anything, his wife, who gets a couple of chapters, is even funnier. She regards the behaviour of her husband as he might observe the behaviour of some weird feathered species; he is a ‘quare hawk’, for sure. In one of her pieces, entitled Gulls ‘n’ Roses, she recall how, in the west of Ireland, to where they had travelled from Belfast to view “the chief object of his desire,” a rare Iceland Gull, he submerged himself under the bedclothes in their hotel room to better view photos he had taken on his digital camera, leaving her in a resounding silence which she didn’t dare interrupt. She thought “maybe I’ll go out for a drive in the car. At least the woman’s voice on the Sat Nav will talk to me.”
The photos, most taken by the author, are superbly reproduced. The printing and colour separation, and the quality paper, show them in the best possible light. The layout, in landscape format, 11 x 8 inches, is impeccable and the book is impressively well made, sturdy and beautifully designed. I wouldn’t dream of perusing at the breakfast table: I want to keep it as pristine as when it arrived.
The CDs intelligently complement the text; we hear the voices of the birds McGeehan and his wife, Mairead, talk about. This is not a bird-call guide in the hushed tones of “and now, we have the blackbird, twitter-twitter, flute-flute..” etcetera. This delivers robust and entertaining bird-noise, embedded in the stories.
Next time I travel, I’ll take the CDs in my luggage to play them in the rented car during the long drives on the autopistas. If the bossy woman on the Sat Nav dares interrupt, I’ll switch her off – I’ll not have her interfere with the nostalgic sound of the corncrake singing, or the dawn-chorus of 12,000 cranes babbling like a mob of berserk fishwives, or the haunting, other-worldly night calls of the Great Northern Diver, which, when we were kids on the lake shores in Mayo, we used to call the Choral Loon.
McGeehan’s prose is superb, much of it excerpts taken from Birdwatch, Dutch Birding, and other magazines to which he’s contributed. An early story tells of his boyhood sighting of a corncrake in a Presbyterian churchyard, where it was using the venerable walls to amplify its calls. The corncrake was a mystery bird, heard everywhere, but never seen. When he and his pals formed a posse of beaters pacing the jungle behind the church oratory, the bird rose suddenly from under one of them “bright ginger wings exploded at his feet. I could see it perfectly. It was wondrous. The pink bill shone like mother of pearl in a face of lapis lazuli blue. It was the embodiment of everything a mythical bird should be.” McGeehan’s is the embodiment of everything a bird book should be. Available at www.soundapproach.co.uk, €33.
Birding from the Hip
by Anthony McGeehan
I imagine that Anthony McGeehan needs no introduction for European birders, having written columns for Birdwatch and Dutch Birding for years. But I must admit that I hadn’t had the pleasure of reading anything of his until receiving this anthology from the Sound Approach. For those unfortunate souls like me, you can think of McGeehan as the European Pete Dunne. Or Dunne as the American McGeehan, depending on your point of view.
Birding from the Hip is an anthology of 50 essays, mostly reprinted from his regular magazine columns. Based on my earlier comparison, anyone who knows how I feel about Pete Dunne may assume that I enjoyed this book. And they’d be right. McGeehan’s columns are insightful, interesting, and extremely amusing.
Most recount birding trips and adventures around Ireland and further afield. But a few others stand out. “The buck starts here”, an essay about learning from your identification mistakes, is one of my favorites, and should be required reading for anyone becoming serious about birding. A scathing indictment of the collection of vagrants (shooting for scientific purposes) was well timed, being re-published right around the time of the announcement that a Crowned Slaty-flycatcher, a first for North America, had been collected in Louisiana (scathing indictment on that incident).
Besides the similar subject matter, the writing style is very much like Dunne’s. In one of the essays, the author describes hearing a Hermit Thrush singing in a thunderstorm. He was hoping to get a handle on the song so that he could recognize it in the future, but instead got something so much more meaningful:
The Hermit Thrush thought it was singing to attract a mate, but it made a permanent work of art in my head: the decaying damp of mossy logs, the dignity of living trees, an expectation of lightning about to strike. I refuse to succumb to euphemisms to describe what we heard. It was such a song that, when the bird stopped singing, you felt like whispering Amen.
Surprisingly, not all of the essays were written by Anthony; several of them were contributed by his wife. These are just as entertaining, and provide a point of view rarely seen in birding literature – that of the non-birding spouse. Her descriptions of her husband’s behavior are at once hilarious and sobering. I’m sure most birders have also been guilty of Anthony’s foibles at one time or another, so many of Mrs. McGeehan’s comments, though firmly tongue in cheek, may hit close to home. Update: Apparently, the entries attributed to his wife were actually still written by Anthony. Definitely fooled me on my first read-through.
This anthology is liberally illustrated with some wonderful photographs, most taken by the author himself. Some of the birds shown in the photos, however, aren’t identified in a caption. Sometimes it’s to make a point, which I can understand, but most of the time not. This could prove to be frustrating to readers who aren’t familiar with European birds. But on the whole, the photographs add considerably to the book.
The two previous books published by The Sound Approach both had a unique horizontal orientation and accompanying CDs, and Birding from the Hip continues this trend. The landscape orientation, where the book is wider than it is tall, works well for the subject matter of the other two books. But for this one it is just unwieldy and unneeded. However, I must admit that some of the photos here take full advantage of the layout. I almost reconsidered my judgment when I saw the picture of the Northern Hawk Owl on page 88 for the first time (see below; the imperfections in the picture here are all a result of my photographing the page, the picture in the book is amazing and reproduced immaculately).
Mr. and Mrs. McGeehan narrate a selection of their essays on the two included CDs. These 16 tracks are extremely well produced, with accompanying music and sounds. During the one about listening to the Hermit Thrush, you hear it all on the CD just as you would imagine it sounded like during the actual encounter: the rain, thunder, and that heavenly song. I had some difficulty understanding the speaker at times, due to my inexperience with real Irish accents (as opposed to those you hear on TV). So if this may be an issue for you, I would recommend reading the essays before listening to them. For me, the CDs were a nice inclusion, but not necessary.
This is not the sort of book that I would have expected to come from The Sound Approach, having relatively little to do with bird vocalizations, but I’m glad that it has. It was a true pleasure to read, even for someone who didn’t recognize the import of seeing a Ortolan Bunting in Ireland or understand any of the football (soccer) references. Birding from the Hip is easily recommended to anyone who enjoys well-written and humorous stories about birding.
I don’t seem to have nearly enough time these days to read books (and I apologise profusely to those publishers who’ve sent me books recently – I will read and review them all I promise) and ‘Birding from the Hip’ has been sat on a shelf in its wrapper for almost a month. Sometimes it’s just difficult to lay everything else aside and read a book knowing that you’re doing so primarily because you’ve agreed to review it. But then again, sometimes, you find yourself opening a book that reminds you exactly why you need to find the time to read more.
I’ve never met Anthony McGeehan but like many British birders of a ‘certain generation’ I feel as if I know him anyway. He’s been writing genial, entertaining columns about birds and birdwatchers for a number of birding magazines since the mid-1990s, and he is – seemingly like so many of his fellow Irishmen – a born storyteller. (As apparently is his long-suffering wife, Mairead, as she occasionally – with a wink – pens scathing columns about her oft-absent husband, some of which are included here too). This new book is a compilation of his (and her) best texts, updated with comment in some cases, and I should have known that once opened I’d end up reading it virtually from cover to cover as outside my hotel window life rolls on by without me…
Life can roll on all it wants though: I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything as I’ve sat and read this wonderful book. And ‘Birding from the Hip’ is wonderful. Mostly funny, warm, and gentle, full of birding advice delivered in lyrical tones, and sometimes – as in for example ‘Enlightment, not epitaphs‘ – razor-sharp and just as cutting, each of the almost fifty essays are beautifully-written gems. I would imagine many bloggers (myself included) are aiming for this kind of precision of thought and quality of vocabulary, but many of us (myself included) will usually fall short. They remind me of many years ago reading a music critic writing about New Order (the Manchester group formed from the remains of Joy Division), who said that many other groups would ‘scratch their own eyes out’ to write songs as good. I know what he meant…
Open almost any page and – if you’re anything like me anyway – there is a sentence, paragraph, or analogy that you just wish you’d thought of yourself. How about this description of a Collared Pratincole, “In the strange blue light, their red bill bases sparkled like lipstick and breast plumage had the tawny glow of a single malt whisky”. Has the highs and lows of twitching in October ever been better summed up than in these eighteen words, “Autumn is a pressure cooker that, when it recedes into winter, leaves you relieved to look at gulls”? And how about this couplet to the soul-lifting effect of birdsong, the closing lines on listening to a Hermit Thrush: “I refuse to succumb to euphemisms to describe what we’d heard. It was such a song that, when then the bird stopped singing, you felt like whispering Amen”.
And – dammit – the writer is also a superb photographer! His photographs leap out page after page, sharp, in focus and – thanks to the diagnostic “Sound Approach” format of pages the size of a flatscreen TV – almost life-size. Few images of a Black-tailed Godwit are as good as the one on page 153. When he doesn’t have the right image he apparently knows people that do: Bruce Mactavish supplies a rather gorgeous Ivory Gull, Ran Schols a usually unphotographable Dupont’s Lark, and Michel Geven a sublime Long-tailed Skua. You could buy this book even if you didn’t speak English and not be disappointed.
If this wasn’t enough, this being a product of the ‘Sound Approach’ team who first got into the publishing game with 2006′s superb and highly-recommended “Sound Approach to Birding” there are also two CDs included. These, it turns out, are a selection of the stories in the book read by Anthony and Mairead McGeehan themselves, with a few relevant bird calls and local music layered (mainly) into the background. A review of this book copied (rather bravely) in full on the Sound Approach website includes some unfavourable comments made by the reviewer about the CDs and Anthony’s reading voice, but I have to say I totally disagree. I really like the CDs, and as far as I’m concerned they’re a lovely addition. Okay, perhaps neither of the McGeehans will be remembered as great voice talents along the lines of Garrison Keiler or Richard Burton (which is hardy surprising really), but the stories are their’s and they ‘own’ them well enough to make listening to the CDs an enjoyable and involving experience. (I may be wrong of course, but I’m betting that many purchasers of ‘Birding from the Hip’ will download the sixteen tracks (or a selection of them anyway) onto an mp3 player and use them as great way to relax and fall asleep to – and that’s not a comment in any way at all on the tonal qualities of the narrators, just a guess that its only at bedtime that most people will allow themselves the time to listen to stories like these. Its what I’m going to do anyway…)
So, Anthony McGeehan – who in a self-deprecating introduction worries that we may not enjoy his tales, “which is why they are in a book whose dimensions double as a draught-excluder fitting most back doors” – is a talented writer, photographer, and narrator. He’s also a darn good birder who’s well-respected by his peers, and has managed to remain married through years of dropping everything to go chasing rarities. And now I’m suggesting you go buy his book as well.
It would be possible for me to get a little resentful at so much good fortune being bestowed on one man at this point, but – you know – I just can’t. Like I say I’ve never met Anthony McGeehan but I reckon if I did I’d really like him. That may not be enough of a reason for you to buy his book of course, but I’ll bet if you do you’ll end up feeling the same way too.
Hardback, 196 pages, 2 CDs, and numerous superb photographs. The ‘Sound Approach‘ team should – if there’s any justice in the world – have another superbly-produced, birder-friendly hit on their hands with ‘Birding from the Hip’ and I can’t imagine a birder anywhere (not if they’re being really honest) begrudging one iota of their success. I can’t wait for the next in what will hopefully be a long, long series…(oh, and if the publishers would like to send me a copy of ‘Petrels’ to review I promise I’ll get down to reading it as soon as it arrives)
Collections of columns are lazy, disjointed, pot-boiling releases that always underwhelm. Taken out of context, short stories are nearly always out of date, lacking in any impact they had first time around. Or so I thought. Birding from the Hip dates back in parts to 1992, old enough to be Birding from the Hip Replacement in ornithological terms, yet somehow this collection of stories seems timeless. Defiantly unfashionable, this, the third book in the Sound Approach canon, casts aside the ground-breaking clarifications of The Sound Approach and the pioneering identification advances of its follow up, the unashamedly esoteric yet fantastic Petrels night & day, for a collection of columns by Anthony McGeehan.
Kicking off with a tale from his youth about trespassing to see his first Corncrake, McGeehan sets the ball rolling for a high-octane retrospective of his career as columnist for Birdwatch and Dutch Birding. The topics are varied and wide ranging, from pelagics to autumn rarity-hunting, via sound recording Cranes in a sub-zero Spanish dawn. Belfast Lough makes frequent appearances, from being the site of trespassing in the hope of finding a Pectoral Sandpiper to his return twenty years later as reserve warden.
These aren’t so much stories as they are warts-and-all vignettes of birding; sometimes he gets his bird, sometimes he doesn’t. But they are always shot through with a great sense of humour and irony. What sets apart McGeehan’s style from other, as lyrical, writers, is his love for small, seemingly unimportant details and tangential directions. This lends his prose a warmth and sense of time and place, so often sorely lacking in the work of others, which really grabs you as you read it. He combines this with an obvious talent for storytelling and a knack with small, quotable phrases you wish you thought of. Who else would describe the moment of calling out Ireland’s first Fea’s Petrel as “putting us on a crash course with nirvana”? Not the obvious description and all the better for being so original. We all know autumn can be stressful, but as a “counter-intuitive… pressure cooker, that when recedes into winter, leaves you relieved to look at gulls”?
When you realise that not only does he have such ability with words, but he also took the majority of the pictures that appear in the book, all of which are rather fantastic (e.g. the Gyr Falcon on page 164), then many will experience just the slightest twinge of envy.
Putting the envy aside, there are a few faults I can find with the stories. ‘Fowl Play’ fails to hit the heady heights of the rest of the book and ‘Enlightenment, not epitaphs’ is an emotive rant (“a manifesto born out of outrage”) about the collection of vagrants and despite being a very eloquent rant it lacks the entertainment value of a more vitriolic rant. Also being a collection of rather short columns they suffer from a restricted word count and lack of space to fully evolve smoothly, and frequent chronological and geographical jumps. This can lead to a jerky read if you sit down and read it from cover to cover, which would be a big problem if it wasn’t for the fact that it is the perfect book to have a quick five-minute dip in and out of.
Mairead McGeehan makes a surprise appearance with a few satirical looks at living with a birding addict. Her writing is a reaction away from Anthony’s lyrical style and is heavily sarcastic, at first a breath of fresh air, by her second story a little repetitive and at the end of her sixth contribution, jaded and grating. Except for one story, a slightly surreal yet amusing tale of Anthony suppressing a bird found by a psychic with a crystal, told from Mairead’s bemused viewpoint, which is genuinely up to Anthony’s standard.
The production and design of the book is striking; from the black cover sharply off-setting Killian Mullarney’s Lapwing painting, to its well-spaced and airy layout inside, it exudes quality. It’s surprising how much decent production quality can enhance books and this carries on the fantastic production from the first two volumes. In fact I can only find two faults with the tangible product. Firstly although that black cover is good looking it does show up minor scratches and wear. Secondly the CDs still feel vulnerable mounted on the front cover, despite the mount having been improved since the first two volumes.
Unlike the first two volumes, where the CDs were an essential part of the ‘Sound Approach experience’, here they feel very much like an afterthought, containing only a few narrated versions of the stories, interspersed with (relevant) birdsong and some music composed by Simon Emmerson, which can only be described as ‘filler’; it adds nothing to the CDs and although it’s not awful, it’s certainly not necessary, only serving to break up the narration. More bird song would’ve been better. The narration is well done, but at times the seams where it was edited together are a little obvious which ever so slightly spoils the flow. The CDs are referred to as free as well, which grates after a while having paid £30 for the book! £30 might seem expensive for a non-essential collection of columns, but this is offset by the quality of production. It costs the same as the similarly the first Sound Approach volume which is the same length.
Birding from the Hip is a buoyant read, filled with the sheer joy of birding that can all too often be forgotten. This makes the book required reading, not just for the weather-beaten experienced birder, but for the beginner needing just a spark to light a life-long passion. Unlike the previous two Sound Approach volumes, this lacks any sonograms, science or sub-specific splitting so works well as a standalone book, rather then just part of a Sound Approach collection.
Birding From The Hip Flask
Birding From The Hip Flask
I must confess before we get going that I just love the Northern Irish accent, granted in some people it can be a weapon of mass destruction but 99.9% of the population posses a magical soothing lilt that is just perfect for the spoken word.
Birding From The Hip has been around for a very long time, the first Birdwatch Magazine I bought, January 1993 seeing as you ask, had Anthony’s column as an establish part of the content. I read and re-read Anthony’s exploits and they often touched a nerve, sometimes they made me squirm with familiarity but they always made me laugh out loud.
What of the book? It is a collection of some of Anthony’s great columns including a few early ones I’d never read as well as some writing for Dutch Birding and some new chapters that never made the magazine. All these are illustrated with some stunning photographs and some shots from the original series.
On their own these would have made me want the book but as befits the Sound Approach you also get 2 Compact Discs. These 2CDs contain Anthony reading his columns in that distinctive lilting Ulster brogue add to that some haunting and evocative sound recordings of birds, the Great Northern Diver is wonderful and the bugling Cranes are magical but the award surely goes to the Lapwings recorded on Tory Island – breathtaking.
One of the things I did like most about the column though was when Anthony didn’t write them and his long-suffering wife, Mairead, took up the challenge. Mairead’s insights into the scheming, immature brain of a birder are bang on. Here her anger, vitriol and love come shining through as she narrates four of the stories. I should warn buyers though, you don’t want your partner even reading or hearing them. Your secret will be out.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough, like all the Sound Approach books and CDs you can easily lose a few hours. Birding From The Hip would be perfect for your Christmas stocking. The CDs are already on my iPod and iPhone and I must have listened to it five times in three days, I listened to it as I walked to the pub and it’s always on in the car. Be warned though – listening to it in public might well get you some funny looks as it is laugh out loud at times.