Sunday 8 November 2015

Birding Diaries and the strangeness of memory

I don't know about you but I keep a birding diary. It's not a boring list of birds (though they have their place and the occasional list does feature), rather it's a journal of where I've been birding, what it was like, how I got there, who I was with, what was good, what wasn't, stupid stuff that happened. Scintillating stuff. It's mostly restricted to travels as I do sometimes go abroad, however trips to Shetland make it in, as do long-distance twitches that are equally about the experience as the bird - for instance the North Uist Harlequin Duck. Every night whilst away, despite the fact I'm usually totally knackered from a long day, I make the time to write it up in my own inimitable style, and it serves as a reminder of the fun times and the great places I've been do. When I die it will be published to critical acclaim. Er...

About halfway through 2014 the diary ran out. I reached the end of it with a trip to Norway or somewhere, and then completely failed to buy a new one. Meanwhile my life continued apace, and whilst in this limbo I wrote down lists of birds, itineraries and so on, on boarding cards, odd bits of paper like airline menus and hotel notepaper, and in one instance on a bus ticket. I dutifully kept all these scraps in a drawer and whilst adding to them recently decided the time had come to get a new notebook. However the manic obsessive in me could not let the intervening 15 months go unrecorded, and as I can't guess how much I might write, I can't simply flick to the fiftieth page and start with Hong Kong. Did I mention I went to Hong Kong? Anyway, I've started writing up 2014 and I have to say that for an old codger my memory is bloody superb. And I mean ridiculously good. I might not be able to remember any password for any website, nor where I put the extended guarantee for our recently deceased washing machine, but boy do I have an eye for detail when on the road. The human brain is a marvel. Mine has very clearly deprioritised boring nonsense like remembering to renew our home insurance policy, but it can tell me which bench I slept on in the middle of Vikki bay in Finland and how I found it, as well as the first name of the mosquito that ensured I got almost no rest. Helmi.

So far I've written up Helsinki, Berneray, Tenerife and Morocco from 2014, I've done the Little Bustard twitch, and I'm now onto the UAE in January of this year. I'm not saying I have a photographic memory, and indeed my various exam results would back that up, but it is extremely visual. Ten months later I can picture the immigration line at Dubai airport, trace my steps to the rental car area, and clearly recreate the chaotic scenes of people waiting for cars, and how the cars came in and out. I can remember our first roadside stop for water and victuals, and the first birding stop at a place called Qarn Nazwa. Here I can picture almost the exact route I took on foot, I remember the huge and shiny camper van, the local on the quad bike. The Purple Sunbird in the tree near the broken concrete, the first Red-tailed Wheatear, the flock of Bulbuls round the back, near the dumped crate and food rubbish. I remember then the tall fence on hillside and the Bee-eater on it, and how hot and arid it was. I remember Mick stalking a Shrike, and Richard wandering around not photographing a Shrike. I remember the road kind of ending at a turning circle, and a fence we walked around. I remember that when we left we turned right. East. 

All of this is in my head. I have not referred once to the trip report I wrote on my blog. Some of it is the same, some of I didn't mention. Perhaps the act of writing it down has caused it to stick, as various teachers and parents once opined. I have no idea if other peoples' brains are wired the same way, mine is the only one I have access to, and that not even all of the time! But what I find interesting is that the visual aspect of, say, travelling down a road, is as strong if not stronger than a bird I saw. After we got lost and went through a small piece of Oman, I remember how the road ended at a roundabout in a valley, that right was somewhere we didn't want to go, but that we went left instead to retrace our route. Maybe the birds are as strong, as shortly after that turning we stopped the car due to our first black and white Wheatear on our right hand side, perched on a small abandoned building. It was very wary, nearly impossible to get close enough to negate the haze. As a test, and just by way of an example of what I mean, I opened Google maps to find this spot, and I am not exaggerating when I say that it took me under five seconds, starting from London, to scroll to this exact location in the UAE and zoom in on the building the bird was perched on. I remember it as it was at an angle to the road. That's how my memory works. I just did it with the bench, about seven seconds. The timing isn't really important, though it illustrates how clear it must be in my mind. I find it odd I can do it at all.

Finding the time to pick up these memories is the difficult bit. I'm way ahead of my pen here, thinking about Madeira whilst writing Abu Dhabi. Recalling the pine cone I picked up halfway up towards the Laurel forests and finding a Canary, simultaneously whilst picturing the flyby White-tailed Lapwing (right to left btw) just off the camel racing track at Al Wabtha, that in turn invoked memories of that ridiculous morning at Rainham. I couldn't even tell you what year that was, but I can see the scene on the viewing platform as the crowd soaked it in, as the final people dashed around the loop in near darkness, as an artist sat and patiently sketched or painted his own memory. I don't do painting, but it's all in there, stored as electrical impulses that for now remain relatively easy to retrieve.

Better write it down before that all changes!

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