Birds of a Feather, Seasonal Changes on Both Sides of the Atlantic, by Colin Rees and Derek Thomas, published by Matador, copyright 2014, 358 pages
Everyone needs a library of “bathroom books”. These are the books with short concise chapters with a message or thought for the day, that you remember as you make your way through the 24 hours. Its works best when the chapters are each actually dated and the text reflects our seasonal changes. I’ve filled this bill with “A Year With C.S. Lewis, Daily Readings from His Classic Works”, “The Intellectual Devotional” by Kidder & Oppenheim, and others, but my new favorite is “Birds of a Feather”.
The authors are longtime friends, fellow birders, naturalists, and conservation activists living on opposite sides of the Atlantic pond. Colin Rees is past president of the Anne Arundel Bird Club in Maryland and lives in nearby Annapolis on the Chesapeake Bay. His entries have special appeal to me as he sees “my birds” and reports on birding hotspots that I have visited. His observations have heightened my enjoyment of this area. Derek Thomas, on the other hand, brings a whole new perspective and “new birds” to light. He lives and birds on the rocky, Maine-like Gower Peninsula in Wales, and recently retired as Chairman of the Wildlife Trust.
The book is a mixture of short chapters alternating between authors, describing bird walks, wildlife observations, science, changing habitats, environmental issues, and conservation. One of the appeals of this book is the contrasting homes of the authors. The flat, tidal wetlands of the Chesapeake estuary with its 4000 miles of shoreline, marshes, creeks and rivers vs. the rocky, windswept limestone cliffs of seaside Wales. We locals think of Maryland and the Chesapeake as old, colonized by Europeans in the 17th century, but see real antiquity when Thomas describes birding around the 12th century ruins of Wales.
Both locations experience the four seasons, which makes for interesting chapters throughout the calendar year. The Chesapeake has some buffering effects from the nearby Atlantic but still has an extreme annual temperature change with water temperatures going from 86 F in summer to 34 F in winter. I can testify that the Arctic winds whipping down the bay can be bleak in January and February. Likewise the Gower Peninsula is ravaged by an average of 50 Atlantic gales each year. Fog is common due to the tempering effects of the warm Gulf Stream. Thomas suggests that the moodiness created from the rapid changes in the weather has influenced the writing of local poets, including Dylan Thomas.
The Atlantic barrier has isolated the Old World from the New enough to allow the evolution of very different passerines. Except for the rarity that is blown our way by the freak storm, one doesn’t see these birds unless you travel. Just the names are inviting: wheatears, pipits, stonechats, whinchat, chaffinches, and wagtails. We do share many of the migrating shorebirds and waterfowl.
I hesitate to offer criticism of a book I really enjoyed and learned from, but that’s what a reviewer should do. The authors, I think are overly pessimistic for the future of our planet and this gloom comes through in many of the chapters. They cite the growing numbers of endangered birds, loss of habitat, climate change, etc. I recognize these issues but also see a very different world today than when I started birding in the 1960’s and 70’s. At least in this country the air and water are cleaner, we are much more aware of our environment, and we are restoring critical habitats across the continent. The Chesapeake Bay’s submerged grasses, which are a barometer of the bay’s health, are flourishing again. There are setbacks, like the Gulf oil spill which is featured prominently in the book, but they are becoming less frequent. I admit the habitat loses in the Third World, such as the rain forests, are critical. I’m just saying, let’s celebrate some of our successes and not overdo the gloom and doom.
These authors have created a great little book to start each day. As Mr. Thomas said, “One of the most wonderful things about the natural world is that it doesn’t answer back; it’s an escape from the everyday problems of life and a refuge where I can forget the day-to-day trivia, which becomes less important as I get older. Communicating with nature is a one-way process; it speaks to us in pictures, sounds, and emotion…and much of the world seems not to appreciate its wonders…nothing compares with the simple pleasure of looking at a flower or bird.”