1973. I dumped my bike on the lawn, sprinted up the driveway, burst through the kitchen door and exploded into the lounge panting so furiously I could barely speak.
Grudgingly conscious that I was about to make a profound announcement, my father lowered his newspaper by three inches, our eyes met and between breaths I revealed that I had just seen an adult male Baltimore oriole.
A long pause followed, during which he was probably regretting buying me The Birds of Britain and Europe. ‘Where?’ he asked. ‘Habitat? Size?’ And then his killer question: ‘Was it wagging its tail?’ He handed me the book open at page 212 and coolly pronounced: ‘I think you’ll find it was a grey wagtail. Motacilla cinerea,’ and returned to his broadsheet.
I cycled back to the mill stream to prove him wrong but instead saw the black throat, grey back and pale eyestripe that characterise this familiar bird ‘of fast-flowing streams and lowland weirs’.
It hurt. If only I’d actually read the text or glanced at the distribution map. I’d looked at the bird but I hadn’t seen it.
And that is the simple key to identification. Don’t look. See.
In my nights of nefarious under-the-covers study I’d memorised all the species in the guide: their orders, families, scientific names and their distribution. But this didn’t mean I knew them. Knowing comes from hard searching and then applying the templates learnt in the library to reality and all its mischief.
To overcome these trials you have to want to know. You have to be fuelled by curiosity and driven by determination. You also need to see those things that can’t be drawn, described, photographed or documented. You have to grasp the ‘feel’ of a creature.
Sometimes when we are driving I’ll identify a bird I’ve spotted from the corner of my eye and my partner will ask: ‘How on Earth do you know what that disappearing dot is?’ It’s almost impossible to answer. I know because for 40-plus years I’ve really wanted to know. Knowing makes me feel good. It means I’m connected to the nature I love so much.
What worries me is that, while my skills are far from unique, they are all but extinct in today’s youth. There are no kids cycling about with field guides, getting it wrong until they start getting it right.
A senior lecturer at a university I visited recently told me they have mandatory identification skills classes every Saturday for the first year because, while their students are excellent biologists, they’re terrible naturalists. They can’t tell a starling from a song thrush.
Whole generations have lost the art of identification, the simple joy of knowing animals and plants on first-name terms. Knowing nature gives you the ability to turn a glimpse into something glamorous, a speck into something special, a humble grey wagtail into a formative event.
This series of Telegraph articles, brought to you by Three Barrels, is all about lost arts and forgotten crafts.
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