‘Have you got decent bins?’ I’m asked by a man wearing a cagoule.
Well, isn’t that an intrusive question! And I’m about to muster indignant excuses for forgetting to take the recycling out when the man waggles a pair of binoculars and adds: ‘They really help you get up close.’
I’m on a boat in the middle of Poole Harbour, in the squalling rain and the huffing wind of a gale blowing in. The boat has a full cargo of people in cagoules with decent bins, here for an RSPB bird tour of Brownsea Island.
I think it’s fair to say that I’m not a birder. And yet here I am – and next week I’ll be cycling around the RSPB nature reserve at Rainham Marshes. Maybe you don’t choose birding; maybe birding chooses you.
‘Great Northern Diver at eleven o’clock – no he’s dived. Shag at one o’clock. Spoonbill on the beach. Merganser pair just taking off – three o’clock.’
A running commentary sends us birders lurching from one side of the wind-lashed deck to the other, hunting through our misty bins for flecks of white on the storm-grey sea.
For the hobbying birder, this trip is all about spotting new species. When the commentator announces a Slovenian Grebe at four o’clock, there is quite the commotion, let me tell you.
I stare blindly over the hunched shoulders of twitching bin-bearers. I’m as astonished as anyone: Slovenia is all but land-locked – I wouldn’t have thought it’d be known for its sea birds.
Slavonian Grebe. Slavonian. They can swallow fish whole and eat their own feathers. And they’re so rare that they’re on something ominously called the Red List.
Despite frantic Wikipedia research and my rapid identification of a Swan at eleven o’clock, I think it’s fair to say that I’m still not a birder.
My favourites are the bobbers: those birds who bob on the tide, waiting patiently until I catch them in the rings of my borrowed bins before beating their wings against the spray or pulling a dive into the choppy waves.
Other than that, I still rank my birds by the romanticism of their names. Avocet. Little Stint. Black-tailed Godwit.
And, of course, the Wigeon. ‘Isn’t that just a wet pigeon?’ I ask a friend, also not a birder. ‘I thought Wigeon was a Pokémon character,’ she says.
After two hours of chasing feathers, we dock at the John Lewis castle and make our way onto the island.
Brownsea Island has been a National Trust nature reserve since the sixties, after the people of Poole somehow raised £100,000 to save their island from Billy Butlin, he of holiday camp notoriety.
But the only reason there was ever any question of Brownsea becoming a nature reserve was thanks to the whim of a monied misanthropist.
Mary Bonham-Christie bought the island in 1927 and immediately ordered the mass eviction of the 200 people who lived there, then banned the Boy Scouts from their historic campsite and finally hired goons to eject any meddling intruders.
By the time she shuffled off this mortal coil (the ultimate act of any self-respecting misanthrope), only she and her boatman lived on the island. It’s fair to say that Bonham-Christie was not a people person.
But her loathing for the human race did open up a hitherto overcrowded corner of the ecosystem for other wildlife. Red squirrels most famously, but also other cute animals including voles and sika deer (the pretty ones with spots).
This imposed haven from humanity made the island an appealing acquisition for the National Trust who completed the purchase in 1962 with help from the Dorset Wildlife Trust, the Scout and Guide Movements and John Lewis (whose staff holiday in the castle). Now goon-free, Brownsea Island has been open to the public for nearly sixty years.
Birders in particular are drawn to Brownsea thanks to the work of another, shall we say ‘energetic’, aristocrat, Colonel William Petrie Waugh.
When he bought the island in 1852, Waugh saw an opportunity in the shallow water to expand his territory. With a bulk order of over a million bricks, he and his lackeys built a wall in the middle of the sea, enclosing a vast paddling pool from which wind-powered pumps extracted the water. Hey presto – pasture for grazing cattle.
But you can’t keep the sea out forever, not without constant investment (see also: the Netherlands), and gradually the sea wall started leaking. As the salt water joined forces with freshwater leaking from inland, an enormous lagoon was created.
Cue cheers of delight from a multitude of invertebrates – and the sea birds who prey on them: the Shoveler and Teal and Turnstone and Dunlin that us birders had all come to inspect through our rain-splattered bins.
One morning wasn’t nearly enough, but it was a glimpse, a respite in a day battered by storms. We can, if we allow ourselves, be bewitched by nature. I returned to the fraying town doused and refreshed, content.