Tuesday 28 February 2017

Bird Report

I like birds and birding. I do not like work and working. Simple. So what happens when birding becomes working? I’ll tell you. Delay is what happens. Excuses are what happens. Extreme procrastination and putting things off become the order of the day. I am of course talking about the London Bird Report, for which I am a contributor, and I am very very behind.

It’s a professional-looking A5 sized softback book published by the London Natural History Society. LNHS members get for free, or it can instead be purchased for a very reasonable sum. It is an entirely voluntary effort from a large number of people and collectively it takes hours, hundreds of hours. In addition to the immense amount of time put it by Pete the editor, there is an entire editorial board tasked with elements of the production. I am on it, I view it as a way of giving back to the birding scene which has given me so much enjoyment over the years. We meet several times a year as we plan the publication, and each member has quite a lot to do in advance of those meetings, reaching a veritable crescendo as we approach the end date. Earlier on in the process many other people are involved. There are the local county recorders who chase down and compile the output of the capital’s birders, and a whole rarities committee to assess the trickier ones. There is an army of people who write sections of the systematic list, translating a huge database of daily sightings into meaningful summaries of individual species. I did “Tits, Crests and Nuthatches” for a couple of years and it was a very big piece of work indeed. Then there are people who contribute papers, for example accounts of London sites, or detailed studies of species. Further people do the gazette, make lists of sites, and a whole host of things I probably don't even realise. 

My job is to source, edit, check and caption photographs of birds to accompany the systematic list and to some extent the accompanying papers. This is not as simple as send out an email and wait for people to send me lovely photos. It's actually quite a struggle to get enough that are sufficiently decent for print. Once I have them I have to whittle them down to a shortlist. Then I have get bigger copies of some of them., and then edit almost all of them - noise reduction, straighten horizons, dust spots, sharpen them up and get them the right size. I have to find something suitable for the front and rear cover, with enough blank space for titles, ISBNs and barcodes and so on. I also have to check that they were taken in London, and that the dates match up with the records on the database. I have to make sure that I am not reusing a species from a previous year too much, Wheatears excepted, and then I have to write a sensible caption to accompany each image. When all that is done, I have to get the shortlist and the captions over to the designer and work with him to ensure that the chosen photos actually work with the blocks of text, trying to avoid instances of a species account on one page and the photo on a different page. Finally I have to assess the proofs for accurate colour reproduction. It is an enormous job.

And here’s the rub, that last little three letter word. It is and feels like a job. Like work. And thus it feels like a chore, a drag, rather than something I genuinely want to spend my time doing. And so I inevitably leave it to almost the last minute. Although this has been on my plate for quite some time, and I started gathering the images many months ago, as of last night I have only written about a third of the comments. The deadline is today. This evening is when I promised the rest of the editorial board that I would have everything ready to go, and I am woefully short of where I wanted to be. I had earmarked several blocks of time to get this done, including on the flights to Hong Kong and back. All of these slots came and went without me doing so much as opening the file. So tonight, when I have finished writing this blog post, I am devoting my entire evening to getting it done.

To be fair, this is the final piece of the puzzle. I’ve already done all the selection and editing. I’ve already sent the editorial board the cover choices for them to vote on (I don’t vote). I’ve already prepared the file with all the species names and checked the birds and their dates against the dates captured in the image files. But Nigel the designer can’t start work until I’ve sent him the final images and the final captions. So whilst I’ve put in hours and hours already, hours that by my own admission I don’t really have, none of this means anything for anyone else until I’ve 100% finished. Anyway, next time you pick up the London Bird Report, or indeed any bird report produced by any county or recording area, spare a thought for the hard-working volunteers who have selflessly devoted hours of their personal time to make sure you have that report in your hands, year after year.

You will be surprised to hear that none of this is what I had planned to write about. Or maybe not? No, the spur for this now tangential post was that I was up at 7am today desperately trying to write a few more of the captions before I had to leave for work. One of the ones I wrote was for Sedge Warbler, to accompany Russ’s fine image from Rainham on 10th April that I am planning on using. It struck me that for all my talk of February being pathetically dull and unworthwhile, in a few short weeks local birding would be an entirely different proposition. And by then I'll have finished the LBR and can get out and enjoy it.