Monday, 24 November 2008

A Turn Up From The Books

The only birding I've managed today was my usual walk to Jubilee Gardens with the dog, where I'm pleased to say I had great views of two Firecrests. They were far too active for photos as usual, I'll get one one day though!!

Not really worth a post that, is it? So to pad it out a bit I'll nick something instead. I've been busy, trying in vain to sort out my embarrassment of books again, the pile is now only half as big but I've resigned myself to the fact that I desperately need a couple more bookcases, hopefully they'll have some at the local auction next month. Let's hope I don't need to answer the front door before then!! Anyway whilst moving some of them today I found another bird related title I didn't realise I had. It's called The Secrets of the Eagle: And of Other Rare Birds by H.A Gilbert and Arthur Brook, published in 1925. It's obviously mainly an account of their encounters with Golden Eagles and their attempts to get close photos of them at the nest. It is really very good and shows just how tricky nature photography was eons ago!! I'm going to share a snippet with you as I've got nothing of my own to report. It's an extract of their account of a day photographing Black-throated Divers on a Scottish loch:

Gilbert and Brook with state of the art camera in front of one of their hides.

We decided to build the hide that afternoon, and leave it over the nest until the following morning, by which time the birds would have become accustomed to it. We sat down to have lunch while waiting for the keepers arrival, and as we wer sitting quietly in the heather we heard the cry of a merlin quite close to us. Presently we saw the little hawk itself, and knew by it’s behaviour that there was a nest close at hand.

Very soon the keeper arrived. At our request he had cut a lot of rushes, with which we meant to build the hide. We put the rushes and everything else needed for the hide into the boat, and the keeper rowed us over to the island. On approaching it a diver came close to the boat, repeatedly making a deep grunting noise. After landing we found to our great surprise that the young had just hatched, at a very early date for a diver. The old birds were very demonstrative, splashing the water close to us, uttering deep grunts. Young divers take to the water at once, within a few hours of hatching, and so the photograph had to taken then and there, or not at all. The young ones were put into my cap to keep them warm, while Brook and the keeper began to build the hide as fast as they could, and I for my part rowed back to get the camera, which had been left at the keepers house, three miles away over the heather. Those three miles can never have been covered quicker by anybody! I arrived back hot and breathless. The hide was ready, the young were replaced in the nest, and in a very few minutes I and the keeper were rowing away again, leaving Brook in wait.

He had not long to wait, the old birds returned almost at once, and the hen came forward. She did not like the look of the hide and hesitated momentarily, but the cock gave her an encouraging call and in response to his urging she came up to the nest without fear. Brook had a great piece of luck with his last plate. The hen had gone away, and as she returned he tried to get a photograph at the moment when she came on to the grass off the water. The bulb did not work and the shutter was not released. He examined the camera carefully, but found that everything was in order. When he looked through the peep-hole again he found to his astonishment that not one only , but that both the old birds had come to the nest. The cock gave some very small fish to the hen, and she in turn fed the young ones with them. Brook pressed the bulb again, and this time the shutter went off. He got a great prize, but had nearly missed it. If the shutter had gone off the first time this incident would never have been recorded. It was a piece of marvellous good fortune, and this is one of the finest nature pictures I have ever seen, so clear that one can practically see the pride and love the birds are lavishing on their young. A very small fish can be seen in the tip of the cock’s beak as he offers it to his mate. Both birds were absolutely unconscious of the fact that any human being is enjoying this picture of domesticity not four yards away from them. Brook finished quickly and we rowed the boat back to fetch him away.

Black-throated divers (Arthur Brook c. 1925)

Those were the days eh? I can't see many people today running three miles over moorland ( after rowing across a loch) to fetch their camera! They'd probably take the photo from three miles away instead!

After this lovely account of getting a great photo the mood is shattered somewhat by the following events after they left the divers:

Going on to where the merlin had been seen, the keeper soon found the nest in the heather, with four eggs. It was the most open merlin’s nest we had ever seen, and in consequence the bird did not sit as closely as usual. Poor bird! She was condemned to death and slaughtered off the nest as soon as we had gone. If an egg collector had taken those eggs he would have been called “ruthless and relentless” by many people. What epithets have they for those who perform such a cruel and useless butchery as this?

For us the fact that a keeper should consider it his duty to destroy these little hawks almost spoilt an otherwise perfect day. We left the merlin’s nest and climbing the hill lay on the heather in the sunshine. The air was very clear and we could see a great part of Northern Scotland from where we were perched. Far, far away over the sea were the great cliffs of Hoy in Orkney. They were clearly visible, the most stupendous precipices in our country. Here once nested the sea eagle, now extinct, utterly destroyed by men like our friend the keeper. Will the nation never learn its lesson from the disasters of the past?

Some things never change!

( Extract taken from The Secrets of the Eagle. H.A. Gilbert and A. Brook. London: Arrowsmith 1925)

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