Birds from the Hide / by Justine Lee Hirten

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I’d like to shift gears and pull up one of my photography books — Birds from the Hide, published in 1933 and written and photographed by Ian M. Thomson. I can’t provide much background on the author/photographer; I struggled to find information about Thomson when preparing this entry. From what I gather he was not a well-known photographer and this is the only book he authored. In the preface he declares himself as less than a “first-class ornithologist” and first and foremost a wildlife photographer, thus his writing is casual and in layman’s terms. It reminds me of all the times I have exchanged bird observations with other non-scientists, just sharing the interesting and exciting things we’ve seen (with varying degrees of accuracy). The text is mostly narration of the observations he made while in his self-constructed ‘hides,' which are small collapsable tents that can be camouflaged to give a photographer an up close and intimate view of bird nests (essentially the 1930’s version of a nestcam setup).

Bittern nest.

Bittern nest.

Thomson’s adjusted composition showing the various food cache items at the Short-eared Owl’s nest.

Thomson’s adjusted composition showing the various food cache items at the Short-eared Owl’s nest.

The book is a breezy read, when I first sat down with it to do some skimming I found myself flying through the first few chapters without pause. It’s informal and conversational, he simply describes what he has seen with curiosity and admiration. I appreciated how clear and thoughtful his writing is, but the book is not perfect. Some frustrating moments are when he oversteps boundaries by handling nestlings when parents are away and in at least one instance he rearranges nest elements for the sake of a composition. There is also a bit where he keeps comparing a nestling bittern to a “golliwog” which is a ragdoll toy based on racist caricatures. It still always rattles me a bit when I find racism lurking in my own book collection but it has been eye-opening in some ways. The bulk of the book, however, is full of intriguing observations and pulled me right into the moment among Britain's marshlands which are the setting for much of the book. 

Thomson’s hides give him a front row seat to the nesting activities of several British birds ranging from rails to raptors, gulls to titmice. There’s a lot of clarity and nuance — he will go as far to describe the details of the “slimy fluids” of regurgitated fish and the varying degrees of digestion the content has reached as a mother Bittern feeds her young. He is certainly up close and personal with the birds. Some of his observations were a surprise to me; for example, in the Water Rail chapter he describes the hen carrying her just-hatched chicks to a safer nesting site by taking them in her bill “as an old cat carries her kittens” which is something I had to immediately google for confirmation (it’s true!). On the other hand, there are several passages that are off the mark — he miscounts the number of talons on raptors and wrongly identifies the target-like markings on the insides of the mouths of nestling Bearded Tits as “rudimentary teeth,” which he attempts to use as evidence for the origin of birds from dinosaurs.

Water Rail with eggs.

Water Rail with eggs.

Zoom in on the nestlings to see their unique mouth markings.

The regal Great Crested Grebe.

The regal Great Crested Grebe.

I’d like to keep putting a spotlight on the theme of conservation perspectives in my collection by taking more quotes from my books. Here is a section in the Great Crested Grebe chapter lamenting the damage caused by the feather trade:

"…we watched them with their beautiful plumage glistening in the setting sun, a plumage which was much sought after by the ladies of Victorian times for beautifying themselves. I have heard that once more this wonderfully soft feathering is to be used in this disgraceful way, but I hope that all fair-minded womenfolk will be repelled by such a suggestion and refuse to be partners to such cruelty and slaughter."

At this point in time the Migratory Bird Treaty Act would be reaching 15 years old in the United States, a powerful piece of legislation that was described as promoting the conservation of native birds as being in our “national interest” (rightfully so). I am not knowledgeable about regulations in other countries and fumbling with the research at this moment, but to give an idea of the impact the feather trade had in the UK I have pulled this quote from the Smithsonian Magazine:

“The main drivers of the plume trade were millinery centers in New York and London. Hornaday, who described London as “the Mecca of the feather killers of the world,” calculated that in a single nine-month period the London market had consumed feathers from nearly 130,000 egrets.”
Source

Some rough math places that at around 480 birds per day. These protections are so crucial!

Dramatic view of a Hooded Crow’s nest site.

Dramatic view of a Hooded Crow’s nest site.

First-hand exposure to the private worlds of birds has the power to create allies for these animals, and Thomson’s intimate views in his photography may have helped readers see a new side of these species. Beyond their quality as messages for conservation they are beautiful images in their own right with lovely compositions. The photogravure process is not something I know much about but the process does seem to have a special tonal quality and excellent level of detail that is effective for illustrating the weaving of reeds and twigs around the nests. I think birds on the nest have a special look in their eye that is captured well here — they are alert and vigilant but also have a softness to them. It shows a secret part of their lives we seldom see in person. We are so fortunate today that we can glue ourselves to streaming nestcams from all over the world and access these images any time we please, and luckily we can obtain these images in a less intrusive way than they could in the past.

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