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12 January 2022

Humans think they own the world but, outnumbered by birds, I am dumbfounded

A lot of birdwatching seems to be quite disappointing, but as I stare through my binoculars at the sky I am transfixed.

By Tracey Thorn

It’s lunchtime on New Year’s Eve and Ben is trying to teach me about birdwatching. “Look, that one with the orange legs, that’s a redshank. That one with the lovely curved bill, that’s a curlew. Have a go with these binoculars.”

We’re up at the top of the Estuary Tower Hide at the WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre, having come on an end-of-year day out with friends. I peer through the binoculars, and there really are an awful lot of birds out there. More than I’ve ever seen before. We’re looking over marshy ground towards the Severn Estuary, and the shallow water reflects the wintry light in shades of silver and green. It’s a peaceful scene, if something can be both peaceful and noisy, the various ducks, geese and waders all squawking and quacking as they feed. Or whatever it is they’re doing.

All at once a huge number of birds take to the sky. The air fills with thousands and thousands of whirling black specks, which look like cinders from a bonfire. Unlike a murmuration, there is nothing neat about the arrangement; it seems random, chaotic even. I am taken aback by the sheer scale of the scene in front of me.

Our friend Cameron, who knows as much about ornithology as I do, turns to me and says, “Cor, look at that huge swarm of birds.”

We laugh, and then pause.

“I’m not sure swarm is the word?”

For a moment we can’t remember.

“Flock!” I shout. “It’s a flock of birds.”

We really are very out of our depth here.

In truth, even Ben is overwhelmed. He’s been a keen birder since childhood, and so I have often been out on walks with him that are punctuated by long periods of him standing very still and staring at apparently nothing. A lot of the time birdwatching seems to be quite disappointing. You can’t quite see what bird it is or you can hear a bird but not see it. There’s a lot of that.

But today is different. I’ve never been on a safari, but I’ve seen them on TV, and I’m reminded today of how affecting it is to see living creatures in such numbers – a herd of elephants, or a wildebeest migration, or a lake covered in flamingoes. Maybe it’s to do with being human and being outnumbered, maybe that’s what makes us feel so dumbfounded. We think we own this place but seeing creatures in their element like this reminds us that we don’t.

I stare through my binoculars at the sky, which is all bird, and I am transfixed by their wheeling and turning and the way the light bounces off their wings. Ten minutes pass and I realise that Ben is looking at me.

“You are watching birds,” he says. “Through your binoculars.”

This isn’t the outcome he had expected today, being more prepared for my usual blend of tolerance and boredom. This actual enthusiasm has him taken aback. Within an hour I am confidently identifying lapwings and greylag geese, and although I tire quite quickly, I take home with me a vivid memory of the excitement of seeing so many birds at once.

A couple of days later we are on another walk, through meadows beside a river, and it is all as bucolic as can be, until we have to pass underneath a dual carriageway. Great columns hold up an immensity of concrete above our heads, where the cars roar by. A country walk becomes momentarily urban, and we are forced to notice the intersection of the natural and the man-made. I like these moments, and I stand under the road for longer than I need to.

I’m thinking again about scale, and grandeur, and the sense of wonder they invoke. Thinking that the space here is almost church-like. Thinking that this feat of engineering is as awe-inspiring as barrel vaults and flying buttresses. Thinking how amazing and brilliant humans are.

Although, when I remember the graffiti on the bridge, which reads in huge letters “SHAMDEMIC”, I revise this thought. Humans are amazing and brilliant and also stupid. I step out from under the road, and back into the field, and keep on walking.

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage