For the Birdfair

bill oddie

(Photos courtesy of our awesome team photographer, James Shooter)

“It’s like Glastonbury for birders!” some people say. And entering Birdfair for the first time this year, I can see where they’re coming from. Hoards of people descending from across the country to a small patch of mud-caked farmland, plenty of beer chugging, portaloos and a myriad of tents and stages sounds like any other music festival.


But then factor in that the tents are huge marquees showcasing wildlife NGOs, travel companies, publishers and optics; the stages host the big names in natural history rather than music; and rather than revelling youngsters it’s as if every British naturalist, birdwatcher and their dog has descended on Rutland Water. Stepping inside for the first time was an extraordinary, overwhelming experience. Wildlife watching can often seem a sedate and solitary hobby, but Birdfair completely scratches the record on that.

IMG_1809Although it is a three-day event, the Friday was my only full day to explore the showground like a ‘normal’ visitor before my duties working on one of A Focus of Nature’s two projects here this year begun the next (which, incidentally, we’ll also hear more of later) – yet even in all that time, I’d barely seen all the stands I wanted to see, hear all the talks I wanted to hear or had the chance to eat enough to vaguely pass as lunch. By the time I finally did sit down – at an extremely good talk on what it really means as a person to be a birder – I could’ve gone to bed there and then.

But that definitely wasn’t happening, as immediately after the talk I met with one-half of the AFON creative quartet and good friends, Dr Rob Lambert and Lucy McRobert. We were swiftly caught up in the first-day drinks reception, and it was here that Lucy came into her own. Were networking an olympic sport, she would surely take unbroken gold for Team GB, and Lucy introduced me to personalities at ten-a-minute, snatching them off their conversations to shake my hand with the velocity of a starved spotted flycatcher.

There was, however, method in her madness – not only in widening my personal contact list with those working directly in the field of natural history and conservation, but to ‘enrol souls’ for that AFON project I mentioned. The project in question was the new promotional video for Birdfair, based around the theme ‘What does Birdfair mean to me?’ Celebrities, professional conservationists and the general public were to hold up a blackboard in mug-shot style with a word or phrase illustrating the above question, with additional sound-bytes from some of the more familiar personalities.

Playing 'Bird Brain'

Playing ‘Bird Brain’

Lucy had assigned me as team leader for this film, which essentially meant making sure everyone knew what they were doing, gather willing participants to be filmed and report back to ‘HQ’ (ie. Lucy). The film crew consisted of four brilliant, talented young naturalists within AFON’s ‘youth’ demographic (16 to 30). On filming duties were Rebecca Hart and Hamza Yassin, two of the most level-headed and competent wildlife filmmakers you could meet. Meanwhile, stills and additional footage was captured by James Shooter and Alex Berryman, both AFON members and both undoubtedly two of the UK’s top young wildlife photographers. All four of these people have photographed and filmed wildlife to exceedingly exceptional level at home and abroad, so the film was in more than capable hands.

Day two, and time for work to officially begin on the video – but before the team met at 11, I had just enough time for a chat with my AFON mentor, Mark Avery. As both Britain’s premiere nature blogger and former conservation director of the RSPB, he’s one of the big apples of the UK wildlife scene. It was a pleasure to be able to spend an hour or so chatting away about the intense challenges conservation faces today and how you go about solving it, particularly within context to what I plan to achieve in my career.

In conservation, without guidance from those who came before you may as well not bother. The mentor has been a staple of all the great naturalists, and AFON’s own scheme is certainly one of it’s most valuable aspects.

Wishing Mark well till our next meeting (which was only a few hours later), it was time for the crew to assemble. Finally gathered after days of virtual text and facebook discussion, it was as we dotted ‘need-to-film’ points on the site map and check-listed all our potential interviewees in a vast hit-list of the country’s top naturalists, that it dawned even a 3 to 5 minute film was going to keep us more than busy enough over the weekend. (All this casually going on while Charlie Hamilton-James sipped a coffee on the other side of the table, so star-struckness wasn’t likely to be a potential concern.)

So from the word ‘Allons Y’, it was on to scour out the celebrities, conservationists and birdfair crew to provide soundbytes. It was very much a case of catch n’ grab, much like Lucy’s own tactics at the previous day’s drink reception. “Stephen Moss ahead, get Stephen!” “We’ve got Kane from WWT, have we got the people we need from RSPB and BTO yet?” “Filming Mark Avery at the foodcourt at half 2, but we need to grab Derek Moore first…” – you get the picture. Lucy once again proved instrumental in snaring some of the more elusive yet hugely popular personalities, switching twitching from ticking rare birds to rare celebrities instead. I’ll never forget the moment we were finishing up our lunch, when Lucy suddenly dragged a rather bemused Bill Oddie out of the VIP tent, offering him to us for a soundbyte like a birder saleswoman.

I’m happy to say however that all the people we interviewed that day, Bill included, were very happy to oblige, coming up with words on Birdfair that were variably enlivening, inspiring and occasionally downright hilarious – I’ll think I’ll let you wait and see what Bill Oddie and ‘urban birder’ David Lindo wrote on their blackboards till the video’s release.

With a huge quota filled, yet with a few more people to track down the next day – and that’s not even mentioning pick-up filming and including some of the general public – it was time to pack up and get a well earned Birdfair bitter (or was it the osprey ale?) The beer provided the perfect opportunity for all of Birdfair’s AFON representatives to finally meet in person.

Here, amongst the sea of old timers in beards and anoraks that seemed to proliferate the showground, was a group of young people which could just as easily be a gaggle of ‘yoofs’ at a music festival or student bar, but all on the same conservation-navigated boat. Jokes and anecdotes of uni life interspersed with serious discussion on wildlife issues. I suppose a key goal of AFON is to fuel a whole new youth movement for nature – that gathering in the food-court has already sown the first seeds.

The second, action-packed day at Birdfair subsequently ended on Ceri Levy’s ‘birthday bash’ to celebrate 25 years of the event. With extraordinary footage of voice choirs singing like wrens and pheasants (seriously look it up – Marcus Oates’ ‘Dawn Chorus’), the beautifully moving bird-inspired folk songs by Jackie Oates and nostalgic films dating back to that very first gathering of birders on Rutland Water in ’89, it was a charming look at the cosy and very close-knit community of birding, both scientifically and culturally.

The enchanting folk singer, Jackie Oates

The enchanting folk singer, Jackie Oates

As the third and final day dawned on Rutland Water, it was operation do-as-much-as-you-can-without-stopping for the film crew, and we were gathered before the gates even opened. As we had a lot on our plates, we split up – James continued to take stills across the showground, Alex did additional filming of the event, whilst Hamza & Rebecca caught any remaining personalities for soundbytes.

Initially spending the morning with these two, where we managed to get a very poignant word to end the film with on Simon King’s blackboard, footage of bird ringing in action and panoramas of the reserve from the rather splendid observation tower, I reconvened with Alex for the remainder of the afternoon for perhaps the greatest challenge yet – asking the general public what Birdfair meant to them.

While media personalities can work with cameras like they were they’re best friends since childhood, asking elderly couples sitting in the sun whether they would like to be in the birdfair promo film is a different story. I had horrible imaginings of every person we asked recoiling in horror at the idea, but thankfully, after a polite ask for permission and explaining as to what it was for and what they had to do, nearly everyone we asked was as willing and co-operative as Johnny Kingdom. That said, trying to sum up Birdfair in one word or phrase on the blackboard did prove a little tricky for most – trying to say ‘no pressure, take your time’ when there’s a camera eyeing you up, ready to roll does make you feel a little guilty sometimes!

With a variety of the great attendees of Birdfair recorded on film, it was a panorama of the que for the ice cream van that ended me and Alex’s expedition that afternoon, and with Rebecca and Hamza wrapping up very soon after, it was with a sigh of relief that we could say we had a film in the can. And so, as the completed and dazzling kid’s mural was packed up behind us, it was with hugs and bittersweetness that team AFON gathered for the last time at Birdfair 2013.

But what we’d done was far more than just the film. Birdfair is the ultimate way of showing that being a nature obsessive is far from an isolated interest, the sort of place where birders from all corners of the globe enthuse over the little egrets by the optics tent together, where you could talk to Nick Baker about harvest mouse surveys and the strange make of your binoculars as casually as you would with another naturalists on your local patch – everyone’s in the same boat at Rutland Water.

And of course, it really showed how A Focus on Nature, a project started only last year yet already with huge scope, is so important. Here’s to Birdfair 2013, and hope to see you next year – but keep an eye out for us AFON lot. This year you’ll have seen the mural, and soon see our film to prove our cred. I’ve gotta feeling we’ll be even louder in 2014…

STOP PRESS: It’s finished! Watch the final product here.

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