Before this blog was even an impulse in my prefrontal cortex, in the autumn of 2005, having nothing better to do, I agreed, with some small misgiving, to accompany a colleague on a long weekend trip from Istanbul to Van in south-eastern Turkey. For the purpose – wait for it – to ‘bird’. Many of the details of that short trip are etched as if with nitric acid on the metallic fabric of my soul, since non-birders, used here as a term of abuse, find the obsessive preoccupation of its adherents about as riveting as gazing at a ceiling.
Called ‘twitchers’ in the UK, there exists a small but utterly dedicated community of people of both genders whose idea of entertainment is to rise before dawn, dress in appallingly tasteless clothes and trek often through deeply inhospitable places, ignoring sleet, gale and blizzard to record and photographically document small and often really quite unimpressive avians.
Should any of my birder friends read this, sharp intakes of breath will follow. These people are relentless and ferret-fast if new species are spotted. They can assemble tripods, telescopes and lenses faster than a Navy Seal can strip down an M16. Probably best to draw a discreet veil over most of the weekend’s events – I can remember white cats whose eyes were differently coloured, visiting the ‘beer shop’ – it was during my drinking days – closed off from the world, where infidel guzzlers like myself threw down raki and Coke until horizontal, would you believe, in between peering through lenses to find bustards, shrikes, and flat-footed geese, or whatever they were. My companion’s undisguised delight at spotting a small, sparrow-like creature not far from the Iranian border was worth making the trip for. ‘There’s nowt as queer as fowk’, as they say in the North.
I was reminded of this little jaunt, entertaining as it undeniably was, by a movie which I have attempted to see twice. Called “The Big Year” it recounts the adventures of three birders, Owen Wilson, Jack Black and Steve Martin, all making their ‘big year’ where caution, credit card bills and responsibilities are hurled to the four winds and they spend a year attempting to break the world record for the number of documented species observed. The good, the bad and the ugly motif reimagined, in other words, it’s comedic, gentle and entertaining simply because we’d never, ever imagine watching a film about it. Like train spotting but with more varied scenery, the darker subplots revolve around, in order of importance, cheating on the count and spouse abandonment, but I never did get to find out who made the Big Year record, because I nodded off before the end. Twice (TV movies repeat here). I’m sure it finishes delightfully however, and do hope you’ll love the ending as much as I know I would have done.