As a child I dreamed of watching wild creatures, especially mammals, but with no one to learn from, I was left to my own devices to find ways to do so. Youthful interests tend toward the energetic, so it was by bicycle that I explored my home county of Worcestershire in central England. However, the scarcity of wild, diurnal mammals near my home led me to become a naturalist with a strong leaning toward birds, and my abundant energy led me to be constantly on the move--eager to know what was around the next corner.
Thanks to a chance encounter with a naturalist of a very different generation, and with a different focus, I was able to shortcircuit several decades of experience. Dick Orton, a keen angler with a lifelong passion for birds of prey, taught me much about patience and stamina. Our early encounters were based around my simple inquiry, "Is there anything interesting about?" This soon led to longer bird chats and ultimately to many invitations to join him and his wife on wildlife-watching excursions very different from my own.
With military precision Dick would pore over maps, plan an approach, and choose an OP (observation position). We would set off by car early in the morning, often followed by a long trudge across open country to a hilltop or flank commanding a view across vales and hills, and which ended in us settling in for the best part of the day. Out came folding chairs, waterproofs, thermoses of strong tea, sandwiches, and binoculars. We settled down quietly, and we sat. It was an entirely new experience for me and went against the teenage grain of rushing about in pursuit of new sightings. But it was exciting.
A whispered "sparrow hawk, female, over the far ridge," or "merlin jinking up the valley, passing the hawthorn tree in blossom" might break our meditative silence, and our binoculars were instantly trained in the same direction until the bird was lost to sight, and we sank back into our alert state of reverie. This was sit-andwait natural history, and thanks to Dick I learned of its benefits many years before I might have otherwise. Fishermen and hunters are no strangers to this technique, but the thrill of using it for observing wildlife in close proximity are indescribable. Through the years, in the company of friends and naturalists, I have enjoyed countless "big sits" with rewards as delightful as badgers encircling us in the dark in a Hertfordshire forest and the ghostly sighting of unlikely wapiti deer on a remote island in the Sea of Japan. One of my most prized moments happened in the Falklands when I lay down, pretending to sleep, near a colony of king penguins...and curiosity eventually led quite a crowd over to investigate.
As an expedition leader and naturalist, I have the good fortune to travel frequently, and to some of the world's prime bird and wildlife sighting spots, and I encourage the patient observation technique taught to me long ago by my good friend. You never know what will turn up, and the excitement is its own best reward.