On 2nd April, 1978, I made a very important but very simple decision: I was going to keep a proper birdwatching notebook. April of that year was a big month for a young, 16 year-old Eric Dempsey. I had just left school (dropped out is a more accurate description) the month before and had been invited to commence a job in the Dept of Posts & Telegraphs…a good civil service job.
Knowing that I had a job on the way, I made plans on how I would spend my wages. Besides giving half of it up to my parents for my upkeep (good training in life), the first priority I had planned was getting a good pair of binoculars at last. I chose a pair of 7x50 Russian Helios. They were heavy duty and are as good optically today as they were 40 years ago. My next aim was the purchase of a telescope and I chose the ultra-cool angled Kowa scope.
Knowing that I was now about to dive into the world of birds on a serious level, I felt it was time to start documenting my sightings more seriously…hence, I started a proper notebook on 2nd April.
The following week, on a cold, sleety morning, I started my new life as a Junior Postman in the GPO, in Dublin. My first few weeks were spent cycling around the city delivering telegrams. If you have read my memoir, Don’t Die in Autumn, you will know that this was meant to have been a summer job. I fully intended on going back to school to continue my education the following September. However, armed with optics, bird books and birding ambitions, the autumn migration scuppered such noble thoughts. I didn’t have time to further my academic education…birding became my life’s education.
40 Years Later
So, here I am 40 years later. I am 56 years old and I’m a professional birder. As I write this blog, I can glance to my right where 78 notebooks are placed on my book shelves. In them are 40 years of birding adventures. 40 years of birding in Ireland. 40 years of world travel. 40 years of moments that will last as long as my memory does. 40 years of friendships.
Picking off an old notebook, I can remember seeing my first Kingfisher as if it was just this morning. I can relive the day, the weather, the moment with such clarity that it surprises me. My old notebooks are filled with sketches and notes on my observations. They are filled with diary-like entries on foreign trips that allow me to remember flights missed, places seen, people met and birds experienced. I am so glad that spreadsheets didn’t exist when I started birding. I think the actual act of physically writing, of putting pen to paper, helps me to cement those memories into my mind. I believe those who simply process their sightings into spreadsheets may not relive their experiences in the same way.
Then again, I might be wrong. Notebooks work for me and I am as diligent in keeping my notebook today as I was in April 1978.
Another 40 Years?
I am thankful for those notebooks because those 40 years have passed in what seems like a blink of an eye and the reality is that I certainly don’t expect to have another 40 years of birding ahead of me. If I am lucky, I might have another 20 autumns of active birding…but that really is if I am lucky. That scares me a little if I am truthful. I know how quickly 20 years can pass.
Birding has been a wonderful journey so far for me. I have met some wonderful people, seen wonderful places, had opportunities to write books, work on TV and radio, been given platforms to speak passionately about conservation and ultimately, I hope that I might have (and had) some positive influence on some people I have met along the way. Most of all, those notebooks represent a life of great fun and adventure.
Last year, I had a conversation with a lady I met while visiting a school. She had just read Don’t Die in Autumn and was quite moved by my recollections from my childhood and the path I had followed in life. Hers was not a happy childhood. She told me she has a picture of her younger self hanging on a wall in her home. In it, she sees her young, anxious self, staring back. She told me that if she had just one wish in life, it would be to travel back in time so she could whisper into the ear of her young self ‘that things will turn out good in the end.’
It got me reflecting on what I might tell that young guy setting out on life back in 1978. What might I whisper into his ear?
Perhaps I would inform young Eric of the exact location, time and date of every first Irish record from 1978 to 2017 to allow him get a head start on everyone else in the years ahead….but that would be cheating, wouldn’t it?
The truth is I would simply encourage him to follow the path he chose to follow. Perhaps I’d tell him to ‘not sweat about the small stuff’ too much. I’d tell him not to eat that meal in the Sahara Desert in 1983. I’d urge him to trust his gut and not to be afraid of taking brave steps in changing directions in life. Most of all, I’d tell him to enjoy every day of his life and every birding moment.
However, if I could whisper one more thing into 16 year old Eric’s ear, it would be a word of thanks from me, his 56 year-old future self, for starting that first notebook and keeping those notebooks going over the last 40 years. They are a gift from my young self to my older self that I treasure.
And if I could whisper something into the ears of young birders starting off on their birding journey today? Keep a notebook…your 56 year-old self will thank you in 2058!