A glimpse on the world of the practice theory reading group.
The short walk from the train station to the reserve takes just a few minutes. While everyone is still deep in conversation, we enter the ‘visitor centre’ and we see birds- on postcards, maps, cups and books. A range of binoculars and telescopes are displayed along the centre’s front window. As we buy our tickets, we learn about the benefits of becoming a member. We make our way through the shop and to the back door, into the reserve.
The nature reserve Leighton Moss is located very close to Lancaster; it just takes a 15 minutes train ride to Silverdale and a short walk to the visitor centre, the entrance of the reserve. Located at the edge of Morecambe Bay, Leighton Moss covers the largest area of reed beds in the Northwest and is therefore home to a variety of bird species.
The Practice Reading Group (now the “Anteater Reading Group”) not only engages in discussion but occasionally also gains insights into the actual performance of specific practices. In the past this has included, for instance, a session on fire lighting. The surprising fact that lighting British fireplaces involves specific tools and competences one may have to learn made us gather for some understanding about this practice. This time, the fact that some participants of the group have insider-knowledge of birdwatching made the rest of us curious to find out more about it.
Our “birdwatching-in-practice” had already started when we prepared to wear warm and waterproof clothes and organised to bring at least a few binoculars. As we found out, the latter are quite significant for the accomplishment of birdwatching. Moreover, the reading of Law and Lynch’s (1988) text on birdwatching served as a very good preparation for our exploration. The text illuminates the relationship between observing and identifying birds and thereby created awareness that seeing birds and recognising species is very much related to guide books that classify and categorise them by pointing out relevant characteristics. In so doing, these books somewhat extend the moment of observation in favour of identifying bird species.
Entering the reserve we decided to go along a short trail since the sun was already getting down. Leighton Moss features three ‘nature trails’ and seven hides, these hides are shelters that simply cover from the rain and cold, they also have benches in front of the windows. The windows may be tilted up, especially necessary when observing birds with binoculars. Our first stop along the trail was Lilian’s hide where everyone was quite excited to look at maps and bird-classifications hanging on the wall. At the second and third hide, we sat down and silently exchanged binoculars while trying to see and identify the birds in front of us. This involves, first of all, adjusting one’s eyes to the environment so as to be able to distinguish between, for instance, grass or reed and the bird. Secondly, especially as an apprentice, one has to follow the gaze some of the insiders in order to see the bird and to identify relevant features. Obviously, this is the moment where maps and books (and possibly postcards, etc.) become of importance again. But at this stage our group was mainly engaged with the seeing-part of birdwatching which appeared in our case almost like a shared meditative observation. In fact, the focus on recording and collecting bird species, a focal element of the practice of birdwatching, was rather let aside.
Nevertheless, some of us fortunately listed the birds we saw and recognised: a grey heron, a little egret, a robin and a starling (both along the trail), a pheasant, a marsh harrier, a blackbird- just to name a few. We also saw a great variety of ducks and wetland birds and, to our great excitement, a big stag appearing at dawn. Back at the train station, while waiting for the train, we heard a tawny owl somewhere close in the dark.
Thanks again to Marton Fabok who organised the trip and provided the necessary details on the variety of bird species for this text.
The text appeared in “The Lancaster Sociologist”, Michaelmas 2013. Thanks to Lizzie Houghton for editing the text.
Law, J. and Lynch, M. (1988) “Lists, Field Guides, and the Descriptive Organization of Seeing: Birdwatching as an Exemplary Observational Activity”. Human Studies 11(2/3): 271-303.