About 12 or 13 years ago I had the honour and pleasure of making friends with an RSPB warden, Mark Nowers, in Colchester. Mark was newly appointed to a post at Wolves Wood near Hadleigh in Suffolk and we ended up living in the same house. My passion at the time was Ultimate Frisbee and Mark, to his credit, got involved in playing that. Mark’s great passion was wildlife and without much prompting that was something I could get more into too. Mark was quite the most amazing person to play a game of Ultimate Frisbee with. In training or in a competitive game, Mark’s eyes and ears were never switched off to what was going on around him and mid-action he might suddenly call out a sound and name the bird or name a black dot that was flying overhead.
Mark’s passion for wildlife was infectious and his easy-going nature and kind way of sharing information so that you never felt ignorant, just that you were learning, and you were becoming more knowledgeable. One of the gift’s that Mark gave me was something that is common knowledge in wildlife circles, which is to use the word guide of General Impression, Size and Shape to help guide your thinking about what you’re seeing around you. It works brilliantly for birds and very well for other wildlife. It helps me to think about the context of what I’ve seen – such as any stand out colours or markings and to think about the size of what I’ve seen compared to other birds that I know. This makes it easier to remember things when I come to look them up at home in our Collins Bird Guide – the most complete field guide to the birds of Britain and Europe.
This morning I went out before breakfast for the run that I didn’t do yesterday. It began with 5 minutes walking, followed by 45 minutes running and finishing with 10 minutes of walking. I set off on the road out of Eaux-Vives up to Frontenex, then on to the outskirts of Cologny and on to Vandoeuvres, before cutting back to the centre of Cologny and down to the lake beyond Geneve Plage, where I head back into town. Out on the road, I got to use my General Impression Size and Shape guide as a small posse of birds flew overhead – Long Tailed Tits identified by their small bodies and long tails. They were black against the light sky, so I saw no colour but I knew as best as I could, what they were likely to be.
Later on by Lake Geneva (as it is known in English, in French it is Lac Leman and I’ll probably use the terms interchangeably from time to time) I saw some fabulous looking ducks. There were a group of about 20 of them, some male, some female. They were grouped together in the lake, along by the marina at Geneve Plage. The (presumed) males had orange heads, with orange/red beaks. Their bodies were black at the front, white at the side and brown on top. The (presumed) females had brown head tops, white on the sides and brown bodies. Running further along the lake I saw lots of the regulars such as Cormorants, Mute Swans and Black-headed Gulls. At Baby Plage I turned right to follow the wall out and saw the flash of a bird I didn’t know for sure from above. But using General Impression, Size and Shape, as well as location, I figured that it was probably a Yellow Wagtail. A few moments later I saw it again but saw the yellow on the breast and confirmed my initial idea. A moment later I saw a Pied Wagtail and then my first Wren of the year by the marina, which was a bit of a surprise as I don’t remember ever seeing a Wren by the lake before!
And then as my watch buzzed to tell me that my 45 minutes running were up and I should start walking, I came across a group of 12 or so birdwatchers. Pausing my timing, I spent a few minutes with them, learning that they were a group of friends who were part of a subscription-based school of learning. I imagined, looking at the group, that it was probably the Swiss equivalent of University of the Third Age, though I could easily be wrong – maybe that’s General Impression, Size and Shape coming into play again. One of the women lent me her binoculars and showed me in her book that they were looking at a Ferruginous Duck, so I saw a couple of those too! She then pointed out the group leader and having told him of my interest in learning more about birds and meeting up with more knowledgeable people he pointed me in the direction of the local birdwatching group – the Groupe Ornithologique du Bassin Genevois. He also asked if I was interested in learning for me or for Mtoto and I said me, but it’s true that one of my aims from being a stay-at-home Dad is to give Mtoto as broad an introduction as possible to nature. One of Laurel’s friends is a primary school teacher in east London who also runs gardening clubs and that sort of thing. She once said that one of the things she’s been able to do is to introduce to children that there’s more than one kind of tree. Yes, really, many children simply aren’t taught about the different kinds of trees that there are. For me, whether or not he does anything with the knowledge, under my watch I would like Mtoto to learn about the different kinds of birds and learn how they look and what they sing. I’d like him to know about different kinds of trees, animals, flowers and plants. A lot of this I need to learn too, by the way, so it is a lot of lessons for both of us. But we’ve made a good start and Mtoto already knows his Coot, his Swan, his Robin, his Kingfisher and his Sparrow, to name just a few.
So all in all, a fairly successful stint of marathon training.
Janathon stats: 6.03 miles in 1:00:00 at an average pace of 9:57 per mile.
42. Ferruginous Duck
43. Red-crested Pochard