Missing the Birdfair, missing the birds

Last weekend should have been one of the highlights of our year, three whole days at the British Birdwatching Fair. Affectionately known as Birdfair, it’s an annual celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond. I blogged about it last year; you can read my post here. Birdfair is an important milestone in our calendar, marking the passing of another summer, and Mrs P and I were devastated – but not surprised – that Covid-19 played havoc with it in 2020.

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Instead, Birdfair went virtual, with a range of lectures, workshops and other stuff presented online. “Entry” was free, but we were pleased to make a significant donation to support this year’s BirdLife International conservation project, which is to protect Borneo’s spectacular Helmeted Hornbill from the ravages of the illegal wildlife trade.

The virtual Birdfair was a good try, but inevitably lacked some of the magic that happens when thousands of people passionate about wildlife and conservation are physically gathered together. And that vague sense of disappointment just about sums up our 2020 birding year, which – courtesy of Covid-19 – has been a bit short on excitement.

Middleton Hall

Inevitably, therefore, our thoughts have turned to happier, pre-Covid days. The RSPB’s Middleton Lakes reserve lies on the Staffordshire / Warwickshire border, just up the road from historic Middleton Hall, an impressive Grade II listed building dating – in part – from the medieval period.

The reserve is managed as a refuge for wintering wildfowl, breeding wetland birds and passage migrants. Formerly a flourishing hub of the gravel extraction industry, the site covers 160 hectares (395 acres). It was acquired by the RSPB in 2007, and the conservation charity has been working hard ever since to return the ravaged landscape to nature.

When we visited in May 2019 it was the common woodland birds that were most evident, attracted by strategically distributed piles of seeds, nuts and other goodies. Some of the adults were wearing their breeding finery, but others looked bedraggled, worn down by the rigours of parenthood.

Meanwhile scruffy juveniles were doing their best to blend into the background, and yet simultaneously demanding to be fed again and again. Typical fledgling behaviour, of course, and rather endearing unless you happen to be the poor, harassed parent of said fledgling!

At one point a sneaky Grey Squirrel, unobserved by the birds, slipped in and stole food that was intended just for them. He looked in peak condition, and not at all ashamed of his blatant thievery.

As well as the “usual suspects” we encountered a few surprises as we wandered the reserve. In particular we were delighted to hear a cuckoo – so rare these days – and to glimpse a Small Copper butterfly, which is a colourful species we rarely come across. They, and all the more familiar birds and animals we spotted, made the day memorable.

Small Copper

Reserves like Middleton Lakes raise the spirits, demonstrating that if it’s given a chance nature will fight back and reclaim land that has been wrecked by man. When the Covid-19 madness is finally done with we’ll certainly return to see what else it has to offer.

Birdfair: the curse of Glastonbury

My last post was an account our August trip to the Birdfair, an annual three-day celebration of the natural world held on the shores of Rutland Water.  It’s a huge affair, a joyous jamboree with at least a dozen massive marquees and thousands of visitors who park up in the surrounding fields and pastureland before making their way to the site.  At Birdfair a carnival atmosphere reigns … unless, that is, it rains.

Although the rain had stopped, by Saturday morning the ground was saturated and was soon churned to mud

This year we’d noticed for the first time that Birdfair is being styled as the “birders’ Glastonbury.”  Now you can call me an old worry-guts, but I was inclined to think that this is tempting fate given Glastonbury music festival’s uneasy relationship with the rain gods.  And so it proved to be: in the making of this reckless comparison the curse of Glastonbury was duly invoked.

Quagmires soon developed where footfall was greatest

We’ve been to more than 20 Birdfairs, and on the whole have been blessed with good weather.  But all good things come to an end, so it came as no surprise that the forecast for Friday afternoon and evening was dire. 

In these circumstances you hope the weathermen have got it wrong – no surprises to be had there, of course – but this time, regrettably, they were spot on.  The rain set in shortly after midday and got steadily heavier. Soon we were enduring a downpour of biblical proportions. 

When the mud dried on our shoes it turned as hard as concrete

We made a run for it at about 4pm on Friday, back to the comfort of our hotel where, it transpired, television reception was non-existent due to the intensity of the storm. 

I was pleased to get out of the field in which we’d parked without much trouble, but we learned later that folk leaving after us were less fortunate. Many of them had to be pulled out by a tractor, until the tractor got stuck and had to be rescued by another, stronger tractor.  You couldn’t make it up.

The bog-lands of Birdfair

The next day the site was in a wretched state.  Despite the organisers’ best efforts the main pathways were rivers of disgusting mud and slime, interrupted by occasional pools of standing water.  Visitors slipped, slid and paddled between marquees, and the stall selling wellington boots did record business.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Older visitors could be heard belting out the Flanders and Swann classic ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud,’ while one of the less ancient birders treated us to a rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip sliding away.’

Birdfair 2019: a picture paints a thousand words

By Sunday afternoon the mud was turning more glutinous than liquid, and a degree of normality had returned to proceedings.  The foul conditions underfoot didn’t spoil the Birdfair – we Brits are made of sterner stuff – but I fear for next year’s event, lest we once again fall foul of the curse of Glastonbury.

Birdfair: hanging out with friends I’ve never met

Like most couples, I suppose, Mrs P and I have a few anchor dates in our diaries, days of fun, feasts and finery that are also milestones marking the passing of the year.  Chief amongst them are Christmas, our birthdays – both in March, just a couple of days apart – and of course our wedding anniversary in May. But no less important than any of these is the annual British Birdwatching Fair – or Birdfair as it’s known to its thousands of admirers – held every August on the shores of Rutland Water, by surface area the largest reservoir in England.

Offers abound in one of the Birdfair marquees

Birdfair began in 1989, and Mrs P and I have missed only one since we first decided to give it a try in the mid-1990s.  At first, we just went along on a Saturday to see what all the fuss was about. We were so captivated that pretty soon we were making a weekend of it, but eventually we realised even that wasn’t enough.  For about the last 15 years we’ve stayed at local hotels and been on site for all three days of Birdfair.

Specialist travel companies and interest groups are thick on the ground

So, just what is Birdfair?  In short, it’s a three-day celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond.  It was the first-ever event of its kind anywhere, and has been the inspiration for countless similar festivals across the world.

At Birdfair you can go to fascinating talks on conservation issues, hear about wildlife travel destinations and maybe buy the holiday of a lifetime.  You can browse stalls selling a staggering variety of high-quality wildlife art and top-end optical equipment, and watch a range of media personalities and birding experts making complete fools of themselves in spoofs of TV quizzes.

You can even pop along to the British Trust for Ornithology stand to watch a bird-ringing demonstration, or walk out to the Rutland Water nature reserve for a spot of birdwatching. Finally, you can go home feeling good about yourself, as the money raised from entry tickets goes towards vital conservation projects around the world.

TV personality Mike Dilger hosts a birding quiz

This year’s Birdfair was as good as ever.  We were inspired by Isabella Tree’s talk about a farm rewilding project in West Sussex, and excited by Mark Elliott’s account of bringing beavers back to Devon. 

We were given food for thought by Ian Carter’s talk on the red kite’s recovery in the UK, and got wildlife photography tips from the master himself, David Tipling.

A chance for some last minute research before our autumn trip to New Zealand

Mark Warren’s presentation on birding breaks in Scotland gave us a chance to reminisce, while Ruary Mackenzie Dodds’ talk on a bizarre New Zealand dragonfly suggested something else we should look out for during our trip Down Under.

Iolo Williams, possibly the funniest wildlife raconteur I’ve ever heard, made us laugh until we cried, and Simon King tried hard to convince us that Shetland has more to offer than rain.

Conservationist and TV presenter Simon King tries to convince us it doesn’t always rain in Shetland

We even found time to buy a new camera, and at a 26% discount on the price I was quoted a few days earlier in our local store.  Result!

During the Birdfair we were able to catch up with some friends and family who’d also made the trip.  And, just as important, we could spend three days in the company of people who share our interests and values, briefly hanging out with friends we’ve never met.  It may sound trite, but Birdfair feels like a family, everyone connected by the shared DNA of a passion for the natural world. 

Queueing for a talk on rewilding … with 100s of friends I’ve never met

In an article in the Birdfair programme Lucy McRobert and Rob Lambert touched on this theme when they wrote: “This is the natural history clan coming together, the British wildlife constituency gathering in thousands on the shores of an inland sea.”

Exactly!  Long may it continue.