Meet Darren Archer who I’ve known for something like 40 years, first in the capacity of me as a Young Ornithologist Club Leader here in Norwich, and he an enthusiastic YOC member. As time moved on we started birding together all over the county with our annual ‘Big Day’ in May always the highlight. Our total of 128 species on 17th May 1991 is still a commendable total for just 2 people. After getting married Darren settled in the north east where he remains to this day as immersed in nature as he ever was. His knowledge of birds and wildlife in general is profound, his thoughts deep. Like me he enjoys writing and his blog is well worthy of a thorough read. Darren tells his tory much better than me…..
What event triggered your interest in the natural world?
Birds were my gateway drug. Uncle Paddy (but more likely Aunty Margaret) bought me an I-Spy Book of Birds for my seventh birthday. I still have it and I can’t believe what I saw in my village – scandalous stringing going on by a young Archer. Though we really did used to get Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers around our garden in the 1970’s/early 1980s.
Darren Enjoying Yellow-rumped Warbler Migration in the USA
Not sure how we ever identified things, as the book of the day was Observers Book of Birds and half the pictures were in black and white. We played out and were always finding new treasures -birds, insects and yes, sometimes plants. I must have been persuasive as my Dad then started to get some books with coloured pictures. I read every page.
Give a sketch of a typical day in your life.
I manage a small team of people delivering projects on mental health care. It is busy and unlike previous jobs doesn’t easily allow for local twitches. However, until they redevelop the site for housing, lunch time walks over our brown -field site have given some great wildlife opportunities. Best has been butterflies in the summer and Jack Snipe in the winter.
The job does give an opportunity to think of how people, literature, wildlife, food security and other elements intersect. At some point in every day I do think of wildlife and where I can go next to find whatever particular species is ‘in’ that day.
I’ve known you for a long time and have always been impressed by your knowledge. You’ve edited the Durham Bird Club magazine and produce many interesting blog articles. What would you say is the most rewarding element of this kind of work?
Prior to Editor I had run the twitter account for about 12 months and tried to set about not just retweeting findings but setting quizzes and some more challenging questions. It included what I thought was uncontroversial at the time support for Hen Harrier Day.
Being Editor gave me a chance to think about what you are trying to achieve with this – how do we get more people involved? It is so easy to hear about a rare bird go and twitch it without even knowing what you are looking at. I once sat in a hide with someone taking a picture of every wader so she could identify the Stilt Sandpiper when she got home. This to me seemed a real shame not to watch a bird that she may never see again. The most rewarding part was the feedback from birders who were reconnecting with their old selves, as the magazine previously had become a bit of a repository for trip reports. It appeared from the content that nothing exciting was ever happening locally; this was not true. Unfortunately, I had to resign when I changed jobs after redundancy and the volume of work in the new job increased. The Club then seemed to refocus again on rare finds and twitches.
By then I was moving into setting myself new challenges. I had already gone through an urban phase. My first Blog documented the challenge of birding in NZ26 – the 10km square covering Newcastle and Gateshead. The blog MorethanKittiwakes is an interesting reminder of what you can find if you really put your mind to it at a local level.
The new Blog Curlewfeathers has different timelines. First a patch-based approach to birding. Then documenting a species – Curlew – over a year and seeking them out. Then waders more generally after a winter of looking at Ringed Plovers and now sporadic observations I want to keep in one place. It will of course document the finding of White-letter Hairstreaks the project of 2020. Setting a project each year keeps it fresh. Just keeping a bird list and trying to beat it each year doesn’t do it for me.
Dark winter nights give me more thinking time and suddenly I am driven to write a piece of fiction based on a small snippet of observation. These ramblings can also be found on CurlewsFeathers.
What do you consider the greatest challenges facing wildlife today?
Climate change. Some species will adapt, but many won’t. There are not enough people understanding ecology – the connectedness of things. It takes a couple of hours to take down a 400-year-old tree, but with it goes all the other lives that lived in or around it. It can’t be replaced by a sapling in a plastic tube that has no connection to its local biosphere.
What do you consider to be your greatest success?
I am really pleased with my garden. We have been here 27 years and in the first week I planted a number of trees and a hedge that have matured. The neighbours’ gardens have stayed as ‘pay-and-display’ bedding and lawns needing summer watering. My special treasure is the log pile. No idea of the names of everything that live in it, but it is always dark and damp. For me its enough to know it’s a special place. It is something I always wanted having read Chis Banes -How to Make a Wildlife Garden, a book that went with the TV show in the 1980s. I still have that book as inspiration.
What would you consider to be your deepest regret?
In 1987 I went as part of an 9-week expedition to The Philippines. The next year I was asked to lead an expedition to Kashmir. By then I realised I need to get paid summer work to do my postgrad. course, so I declined. If I had accepted, I would not be where I am now.
However, whilst I wish I had gone I only have one regret. That is for my A-level Biology project I wanted to study the species of invertebrates living on Holly trees. I had read about the hundreds of species that lived on oak and found a more manageable number, 8, living on Holly and wanted to see if it was true. I think my Dad persuaded my that this would not be interesting. In the end I studied the development of 6 Mallard ducklings from egg to fledging in a pond I dug in our garden. They came with a mother chicken from my Uncle’s duck pond.
I could still, of course, now do the project on invertebrates on Holly. I have only been reminded about this with my recent project of looking for Wych Elms and White-letter Hairstreaks.
What advice you would give to a budding naturalist?
Go and sit by the edge of a pond. Lie down and try to see what is moving under the surface. When you realise how many things are there take some water get a magnifying glass or use the camera on your phone and see how much more is still to see. Or do this by a beach rock pool. Or leaf litter in a deciduous woodland. Importantly just sit and watch. You don’t need to identify anything to be fascinated by what it does. Then check out parasitology – everything is a meal for something.
I would also recommend learning bird song. I consider this my naturalist superpower. I played cassettes of bird song over and over for probably 5 years. I not only remember the calls but also can recall some of Eric Simms text too. Things have moved on and The Sound Approach have produced a excellent series of books to not only help understand bird song but to really get the joy of bird song and wild sounds culminating in their incredible LP.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
When you start cycling around Norfolk in a year’s time make sure you also go out east and take in some of the Broads too. Oh, and there are Silver – studded Blues at Buxton Common, don’t miss out there.
If you could be anywhere in the world at this moment where would it be and why?
This question always depends on the time of year and the time of day. We still have unfinished wildlife to find in southern Italy though and in particular I want to know if my must-see bird -Great Black-headed Gull still winters on Sicily. It’s a big island but if I had to pick one spot the former salt pans south of Siracusa. Its like having a nature reserve all to yourself. Here you can feel migration happening.
What is your favourite or most admired animal and why?
As a species my favorite bird is Pied Flycatcher. Black and white against green spring back ground just does it for me. And generally, you are in amazing scenery -upland oak woods. But even on migration you are usually in a good place. White Admiral Butterfly -possibly for the same reason, black and white and greenery. This is the species I miss most living in the North East.
However, if I had to pick one individual animal, last year a Large Tortoiseshell flew down a high street in Tuscany and opened a wormhole in time back to my childhood. It was an out of body experience for which I will be forever grateful.
What are your hobbies/interests outside of wildlife?
I have been interested in food since I turned 17. We had a field trip to Rhum and after a night out on one of the mountains with someone ringing Manx Shearwaters he invited us to breakfast and cooked us pancakes from a recipe in ‘Laurel’s Kitchen’. It’s more of a guide to being vegetarian than a cookbook, but it must have hit a note with the Hippie inside me as I still have it on our kitchen shelves. My thing though is I bake bread. Not sure why it started -possibly midlife crisis so I could show that I had achieved something each day. It is now great bread most of the time.
What is your favourite musical artist/work?
Rhum was my coming of age in 1984. The sound track of that summer was Supertramp’s ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’ and ‘Crime of the Century’. I return to them when things get tough. More recently Grasscut’s ‘Everyone was a Bird’. When I bought this in 2015, I played it every day for about eight months. Not since being a teenager have I done that with an album.
Top 5 movies of all time and briefly why?
Phone Booth – never answer a random ringing phone thinking that you are doing a good deed. Suspense and twist from beginning to end.
Life of Brian – what did religion ever do for us?
Sand Lot Kids – a coming of age film that now my son has come of age is too sad to watch childhood’s briefness disappear.
Series of Unfortunate Events – I used to read bedtime stories out of Lemony Snickets. They could have made sequels but glad they didn’t.
Microcosmos. it’s a breathtaking reminder that Mother Nature remains the greatest special effects wizard of all.
Top 5 books and why?
Invisible Cities. I discovered Calvino’s writing by accident. This short book where ever and when ever you read it takes you to different places.
Shorebirds – Haymen, Marchant and Prater. This guide has stood the test of time (1987) and still evokes the urge I had to covert and own the book. I still use it when I think of shorebirds. And I think of Shorebirds a lot.
The Edge of the sea – Carson. This book literally changed my life. I bought a copy from a second-hand book shop in St Giles Street, Norwich. From here I wanted to be a marine biologist left home and went to University. I bought a second copy just in case I lost my first purchase.
Life Cycles of British and Irish Butterflies. The life cycle of every breeding species from egg, through every larval instar, chrysalis and imago. One person’s labour of love. If I had had this when I was a child I would have never grown up. My wife asks how would she spot the difference?
Bento’s Sketch Book – Berger. The closest I own to a religious book. I discovered Spinoza in Amsterdam. He re-wrote a secular version of the Bible in 1677 it described how things are and paved the way for pantheism, being able to marvel at the world without recall to any God. The stories in this book are observations about the way things are and open a door to Berger’s other works. ‘Some things just are’ is the best way I can describe this book.
Who or what are your heroes/heroines/greatest Inspirations?
Rachel Carson – for her observation on nature, her determination in the face of the power of the chemical industries that continue to pollute, and her ability to get people demanding to know more and explore.
Tony Currie – for being the best midfield player Leeds United ever had and his ‘not giving a damn attitude’ when the England manager dropped him.
Anita Roddick – for her contribution to ethical business and her phrase ‘be anything but mediocre’.
Watching caterpillars changing to chrysalises – Everyone marvels when a butterfly emerges from a box which is in effect what a chrysalis is. But to see a box emerge from a living, eating, moving creature is something that really deserves more appreciation.
My Nanny (paternal grandmother) – I stayed with my grandparents most summers in the 70’s. Both parents worked so it was easier for them and I had a great time. My Grandad lived in his own world, but she let me continue to explore nature. Nothing was too much effort or out of bounds. I saved pocket money and bought the Observer’s Book of Butterflies aged 9. I still have it and it reminds me of the bookshop in Sheringham where I bought it and my Nanny and Grandads garden. Their neighbour had a huge buddleia bush; I can still smell it when I open the pages to the Nymphalids.
What makes you happy?
Travel. The ability to travel whether it is physically or virtually through books -novels or good wildlife guides such as Crossbill Guides . This could be travel in time too. Some of the older naturalist knew about observation and not just listing.
Importantly, at this time, knowing my family is safe makes me incredibly happy each day.
What makes you sad?
The saddest thing I can think of is my son being really old. All this is gone, and I will not know if he is OK. The closest I can get to this feeling is ‘Alphabet’ by Inger Christensen. This poem merges the hope that springs from ‘Apricot trees exist’ with the annihilation of nuclear radiation.
Name 3 things on your ‘bucket list’
I have never had a career plan, a life plan or any such thing that helps people get on – apparently. As such I would feel weird to claim to have a bucket list of things I must do before I die.
What would you most like to accomplish and/or be remembered for?
If at some point in the future, there was a conversation that included, ‘He’d been a good Dad’ that would be enough.
Thank you Darren, that was inspiring and thought provoking. I’m very much looking forward to your White-letter Hairstreak project, I’m sure you’ll find some. We’ll do a Big Day in your neck of the woods next May and try to beat 128.