Caught by the River

The Bird Effect Diaries

Ceri Levy | 14th December 2010

The diary of the making of a film and an on going fascination with birds and their accompanying cast of human characters. By Ceri Levy.

Monday 13th September
I keep an eye on what’s going on in London’s bird sightings by looking at The London Bird Club’s website.
And tonight there was a brilliant sighting recorded by Michael Mac. It reads as follows, “ Sainsbury’s Nine Elms: Feral Pigeon trapped in the supermarket flying above the checkouts at 1pm.” I tell you these guys don’t miss a trick.

Wednesday 15th September

Blue-Headed Pitta. Photo Courtesy of Chris Gooddie/

I have had plenty of time to immerse myself in books recently and one of my favourite reads has been The Jewel Hunter by Chris Gooddie. In it he describes his attempt to see all of the world’s 32 Pitta Birds in one year. These birds are extraordinarily hard to see, not least because many of them are endangered, and deeply rewarding when finally seen as they are amazingly beautiful creatures. This book is an account of his version of a big year.

So what is a big year, I hear you ask. Well, a big year is 365 days of competitive bird watching, which starts on January 1st and lasts through until December 31st. Birders try to see and tick off on their bird lists as many birds as they can in one calendar year. It is the marathon of birdwatching and is a challenge, which necessitates great commitment, and demands that the bird hunter gives up everything to do with his previously normal life and dedicate the whole year to the single purpose of travelling and finding as many birds as possible.

Over the years, there has been a lineage of big year bird books, which document the challenges of these undertakings and the best of these bird seekers continually search for a unique slant to create a variation on a theme. Possibly the most famous of these books and certainly the one that set the trend of carrying out a big year and then documenting it, is Wild America, written by two legends of the bird world, the American ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson and the UK’s very own naturalist James Fisher. It was an account of their 1953 journey as they birded around the coastline of America, which they did for research and for pleasure. They also ended up smashing the record for the number of different birds seen in one year in America. In the book, you can even pinpoint the moment that the bird world changed, when under an asterisked footnote, Peterson wrote, “Incidental information. My year’s list at the end of 1953 was 572 species.” This aside created a new movement, which wanted to get out there and see birds for themselves, keeping lists, documenting their finds and travelling in search of birds. This unknowingly became the call to arms for the modern listing birder. This led to people a) attempting to break their record and b) to keep accounts of their big years.

There have since been many takes on this story including Kenn Kaufmann’s coming of age book ‘Kingbird Highway’, Stephen Riley’s life changing journey, ‘Arrivals and Rivals’, and Sean Dooley’s entertaining, ‘The Big Twitch.’ All are thoroughly recommended and worth taking the time to hunt down. But Mark Obmascik’s ‘The Big Year’ – which travels with three participants in 1998, as they vie for the number one slot for birds seen that year – could prove to become the most fruitful book of them all, as the rights have been bought by Ben Stiller and is in production with Steve Martin playing a part alongside Jack Black and Owen Wilson. Will birding become a Hollywood phenomenon? Or will it be yet another Steve Martin horror-show? How can a man who made such films as The Jerk or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels have become such a disastrously unfunny man? I digress.

The Jewel Hunter is firstly a welcome addition to the big year family, and secondly is an engaging, passionate and warmly told account of how Chris fared on his big year. I really love the opening pages of the book, which start with Chris wanting to escape his everyday work routine and to embark on his own personal pitta bird odyssey. It is a moment that many people would term a mid life crisis. He burns his bridges by walking out of his job and decides to attempt his mission impossible and search for the all of the world’s pittas in his allotted twelve months. Personally, I have never understood why an act like this should be termed as a crisis. For me, his action is a mid life epiphany to be applauded. What he did was a brave and wonderful act. Life is too short to miss the chance to escape the mundane and routine and we should all seek adventure wherever possible. I hope Chris’ actions and this book will inspire some readers to do something similar.

His journey takes us to far flung places, from Vietnam to the Solomon Islands, and Assam to Borneo. The excitement and the fear which pervades his writing as he waits to uncover each jewel is palpable and, much like a thriller, we root for him to find his next, little piece of treasure. The book crackles with life and is as much travelogue as bird book. We journey deep into jungles, sweating in unbearable humidity, crawl through undergrowth and try and avoid some of the nastier elements of the tropical world. He brings to life the tension of the hunt as he tracks each bird and one imagines being behind his shoulder the whole way and wanting to reach for his near customary, celebratory, rum and coke, or local equivalent, on each new discovery. This is an adventure yarn and should be happily read by people other than birders, as it is a great story of following your heart and making a vision become a realitydare. The message is clear; we should all dare to dream.

click here to read previous diary entries.