On a wing and a prayer, Christine Johnston

How to Watch a Bird 
Steve Braunias
Awa Press, $24.99,
ISBN 9780958262965

Steve Braunias is preaching to the converted in the case of this reviewer, who lives within cooee of native bush and shallow water. I can admire white-faced herons and royal spoonbills from the kitchen window and entice blackbirds and bellbirds to the bird table. Drawn to very idea of this book, I was not deterred by the publisher’s blurb that described it as “a wondrous personal journey into the amazing world of birds” (my italics).

How to Watch a Bird is number 10 in Awa Press’s Ginger Series, which includes How to Drink a Glass of Wine and How to Read a Book. It might seem that the series is in the business of teaching grandmothers to suck eggs, as we say down south, appealing to those with an interest in a subject who possess the requisite humility to be prepared to take basic advice. But these aren’t in fact “how-to” guides, rather meditations on various themes. (When the question of how to watch a bird is actually posed, bird photographer Geoff Moon’s response is simple: “Just sit down, and quietly watch”.)

Braunias performs a balancing act with the personal and the ornithological – “I was in love with New Zealand and in love with Emily.” With the zeal of the recent convert he relates his road-to-Damascus experience, which took place in inner-city Auckland. After a close encounter with a black-backed gull, he fell head over heels in love with birds: “I loved discovering a simple truth: to watch a bird is to see the world in a completely different way.”

Braunias also fell in love with “the literature of birds”. I found his survey of “a genre of New Zealand writing, a whole new sort of author, a new literature” to be the most satisfying aspect of this publication. He introduces those who have observed our remarkable birdlife – from the 19th century naturalist Sir Walter Buller – “that vilified collector of bird skins” – to nonagenarian Geoff Moon, “very likely the best bird photographer this country has ever produced”, and including the trio of Geoffrey Buddle, whose photographs feature in this book, Rodney Wilson and Edgar Stead. These three 20th century naturalists were sufficiently committed and monied to undertake field work on the mainland and offshore islands to record and photograph birds. We are indebted to these gentlemen birdwatchers and their peers – Pérrine Moncrieff, Herbert Guthrie-Smith, Graham Turbott and others – for the quality and quantity of their work.

After the historical résumé, subsequent chapters of How to Watch a Bird range widely and somewhat randomly. One tells the story of the Kotuku, the boat that went down with six muttonbirders, including two children, and backgrounds the tradition of taking muttonbirds from Southern offshore islands. Another outlines the many responses Braunias has received to his column in Sunday, indicating an enormous interest in birds among the general public of New Zealand.

And then there is twitching: “Twitching is the new hunting,” writes Braunias:

It’s a genuine sport, with only a vague set of rules but a clear, ruthless purpose: to find as many rare or unusual bird species as possible. It’s a genuine challenge – you have to act fast on information, and be prepared to travel a long way to an obscure patch of land … . Numbers are everything. Scores are marked by lists – a year list, a life list, a world list, a national list, et cetera.


Twitching is also an industry, with operators providing transport and local knowledge: “As a destination, New Zealand is increasingly becoming a must-see hot spot, with British, European and United States birder companies raking in good money to bring twitchers our way.” Oh dear. So much for sitting down and quietly observing.

How to Watch a Bird is entertaining and informative, but occasionally Braunias’s language is jarringly imprecise. Apparently New Zealanders are feeling “a growing and overt love affair” towards their own birds. Can skuas that kill (“butcher”) petrels really be described as “homicidal”? Wouldn’t they have to start killing people to qualify for that epithet? Scientists usually caution against anthropomorphism, though it’s actually quite hard to avoid. Our love of birds is inspired by their cycle of mating, breeding and nurturing that is not unlike human behaviour, a notion Braunias seems to endorse with reference to his own nesting behaviour.


Christine Johnston is a Dunedin writer.


Tagged with: , , , ,
Posted in Natural History, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category