On being a Bad Naturalist

It’s true.
No question about it.
I am a bad naturalist, just as I am a bad birdwatcher.
But the thing is, I revel and rejoice in it.
My ‘badness’ knows no bounds.
Why you may I ask would I be pleased at such a description?
What is a bad naturalist?

The term bad naturalist is an extension of the term bad birdwatcher, coined by that finest of sports journalists and nature writers, Simon Barnes.

In a series of books that commences with ‘How to be a Bad Birdwatcher‘, the author describes a process of learning in small steps, driven by wonder that we can all make if we open our eyes to the birds around us. His own journey from birding novice provides the structure and anecdotes to a book that starts by establishing that we all have some bird knowledge (robin, blackbird, gull), then extends this further, through thoughts on birdwatching without binoculars (very tricky) to the most difficult area of all for many, birdsong, having detoured via Africa, Hong Kong and the Suffolk cathedral of birdwatching, Minsmere. What we are consistently reminded of though, is that our ability to identify a bird, either on sight or by ear, is far less important than the act of looking out for it it in the first place. That acknowledgement is the bridge that connects and grounds us with the natural world, borne out of our curiosity and as well as the exquisite and individual beauty of the bird in question, that when experienced, lifts our hearts for a moment that stays with us through the day.

A few examples of my own.

My journey to work follows lanes and country A roads for 10 miles before I reach Stevenage and my company’s offices. On that journey, whatever the season, there are always reasons to remain observant.
In deep winter a slight bowl in a south facing field provides slight protection from the wind and most days a mixed flock of gulls can be found in the depression, sheltering to retain heat through the long cold nights before heading out to see what opportunitiy the new day brings them. A little further along the same road, the morning sun bathes the edge of the woods, drawing small herds of fallow deer out from cover to warm themselves before moving off to forage.
Further on, above Watton at Stone, I often thrill at the sight of a Red Kite, lifting and falling on the gentle breeze with its great bent wings and forked tail making its identification unmistakable, a species marching East from it’s stronghold at Stokenchurch, reaching out onto the Oxfordshire plain.Or I might be on my way to the dentist in Much Hadham and catch a glimpse of a Yellowhammer atop a hedge singing out ‘little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheeeeese’ and thrill at the cheerful brightness of it’s colouring . Incidentally, whilst researching this piece, I have just learned that the hammer in Yellowhammer has no connection to the heavy tool but a corruption of the German ‘ammer’, meaning bunting, hinting at the early origins of this bird name in our culture.

Another recent moment confirmed for me again my status as a bad naturalist and prompted this article.
A few evenings back I had taken a walk along the lane north towards Standon. I had watched Pheasants and Red-legged Partridge from Pooh Bridge (the perfect spot for Pooh sticks) that straddles the River Rib at Latchford, I had sheltered from a blustery wind with several Wrens in a thick hedge and identified a Garden Warbler (one of many SBJs or Small Brown Jobs that are the bane of the Bad Birdwatcher), giving me another tick for my year list, as I ambled home again. Walking between fields of winter wheat, where on quieter days Skylarks rise and the House Martin and Swallow swoop I heard a faint noise in the overflowing verge, full of long grass, field poppy, campion and mallow. I lowered my head out of the wind and buried it further into the bank. There was the noise again, only this time from a different place. Had I found the abode of a ground nesting bird, an adult now trying to draw me away from the vulnerable chicks? Could it be a Skylark perhaps, though surely not so close to the lane? A few minutes more and I had my answer – two bank voles, in convoy, passed before my nose, tiny, brown and furry. Not birds at all -instead the thrill of seeing something new, up close and personal.
So that is why I revel in being a Bad Naturalist. Always learning, always thrilled, always surprised. A bad naturalist, in his element!


  1. Oh, I love this post! I'll have to take a look at the book, as I suspect I may be a very bad naturalist, indeed. Thanks, Mark.

  2. I reckon it's the best sort to be!

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