Members of the public, journalists and audiences in general like asking me questions. First they want to know what my favourite bird is (swallow). Then they want to know my favourite colour (purple – a homage to Prince). Then my “Desert Island Disc” (more Prince please!). Finally, they ask if I could have one object on the island what would it be? An iPod?, Tablet?, Cell Phone? No, no, no. It would, of course, be my Leica binoculars.
Throughout most of my life I have had a little checklist that I run through in my head – or even declaim out loud – before I leave home with the intention or possibility of any bird watching. “Binoculars, telescope, notebook, pencil.” I then repeat the mantra, whilst patting each object to make doubly sure. “Bins, ‘scope, book, pen,” is a shorter version.
It is of course in reverse order of importance. Now and then I have forgotten a pen or pencil, or it has gone dry or broken its lead. In these circumstances, I have to rely on my memory, which is severely tested when the information includes names and numbers of birds and descriptions of plumages, not to mention butterflies and other insects.
On a few occasions, I took something to write with, but forgot something to write on. In the absence of my little policeman’s notebook, I resorted to the back of a fag packet, but that was 30 or 40 years ago! Since then, I have been reduced to rummaging in municipal waste bins in search of something clean enough to write on. It isn’t easy. Fast food take away cartons tend to be smeared with the residue of whatever condiments or sauces were on the food. Promising pieces of paper should be avoided at all costs, especially if the have been crumpled up. The same goes for old newspapers. You really don’t know where they have been. Frankly, better stick to memory.
So, pencil and notebook are desirable but not totally indispensable. But what if I forgot my telescope? Definitely annoying, but not always disastrous. I – and most birders – have had days when they tramped around for hours with a scope – and probably a tripod and not used it once. However, I have also had days when I ‘risked’ not taking a scope. And thus deprived myself of the magnification needed to nail the ‘interesting’ small wader on the far side of the mudflats, or the mystery raptor disappearing vertically on a thermal till it is no more than a dot – possibly a very rare one. So, if you are strong enough – or rich enough to hire a porter – take that scope. A Leica scope of course.
And so we come to the first item on the checklist. Indispensable, unforgettable. BINOCULARS. I can honestly say that in over 60 years of birdwatching I have never ever left my Leicas at home. (That’s not a bad slogan: “Never leave your Leicas”). Although I have to admit that once – only once – I did leave my bins, not at home, but at the pub. It was a harrowing experience and I have vowed never to put myself through anything like it again.
It wasn’t my my local pub: it was The Fraggle Rock (pub and restaurant) on the island of Bryher in the Isles of Scilly, a place so synonymous with birdwatching that it would be regarded as sacrilege not to sleep with your binoculars, let alone ever let them out of your sight. That week I was actually staying on the adjacent island of Tresco. However, on Friday evening there was to be a birthday party on Bryher.
At 19:30 I stood on Tresco quay. The chugging of a small outboard signaled the approach of one of my Bryher friends. There was just enough water in the channel to make the crossing and disembark at the Bryher Quay, barely 30 metres from the Fraggle Party Venue. Two hours later, a rollicking time was being had by all, when some instinct made me glance at my watch and my boatman “shouldn’t we be getting back?”
His response of “Oh blimey Bill!” Implied that it might be too late already. He reassured me that we’d be alright as he grabbed his coat and headed for the door, which further implied that we were going to have to run for it. Running for “it” or anything else is not something I do well these days. In fact I don’t do it at all. Nevertheless, I stumbled and staggered along the shore – believe me, soft sand and is no surface for sprinters – and finally fell into the little boat just as the outboard sprang into life.
By then the tide was so low that the water line fell well short of the Tresco jetty, which meant more mud clomping, before I finally reached the slippery quayside steps, and waved thanks to the boatman who was already heading back to Bryher, no doubt intending to re-join the Fraggle Party.
He was well out of ear- and eye-shot when I realised that I was missing something. Something that should’ve been dangling round my neck alongside my silver tern medallion, and a necklace of African beads: my binoculars! I had had them on all day – all week in fact. I didn’t remember taking them off.
Had I left them somewhere? Perhaps on Tresco, when I was waiting, for the party boat? At Fraggle Rock? Most likely, but where? In the bar? At the table? In the loo. I am sure we have all had this panicky experience with “lost” car keys, or a wallet, or a mobile. These are not insignificant items for comparison, but none of these fripperies are as vital to life itself as your binoculars.
I suspect, however, that the sequence of emotions following the ‘loss’ must be similar. First you suffer a sleepless night, retracing yesterday’s movements, first in your head, then in reality. By sunrise I was standing forlornly on the Tresco Quay looking across the now considerable stretch of water that separated me from the place I was hoping – nay, praying – that my Leicas would be pining for me.
I had a disconcerting vision of them just lying forlornly on a bench or on the quayside. Even worse, could they have been stolen? At least I could console myself that Scilly is famously the most crime free place in Britain. The chief policeman even has his own jolly blog, which has been made into a TV series! Wherever my Leicas were, they were safe. Otherwise, maybe it would make an episode of the TV series: “The Case of Oddie’s Bins.”
Accepting that swimming the channel to Bryher was rather fanciful – ‘cos I can barely swim at all – and seeing no boats that could ferry me across, I headed back towards the phone booth at the New Inn. I had a mobile, but as with many island regions the signal varies from sporadic to non-existent. Fortunately, there was an old fashioned phone booth and by it a list of significant numbers round the islands. Police station on St Mary’s? Not yet. Fraggle Rock? Yes.
I dialled nervously. Frankly, I didn’t expect a reply so early in the morning, but someone sounding a little bleary asked, “Can I help you?”
“Hi, it’s Bill Oddie here.”
“Oh, hi Bill.” On Scilly, everybody knows your name.
“Did I leave my binoculars last night?”
“Err, I haven’t seen them.” Said the bleary voice; I hoped that meant he hadn’t looked! “I’ll go and have a look.” I hoped again. It wasn’t a long pause, but it was almost too long for my frazzled nerves. Mercifully, the voice returned: “There is a pair of binoculars on the bar. I hadn’t noticed them amongst all the empty bottles. Would they be yours? What kind are they?”
“The ones with the little red dot. Yes?”
“Pretty good aren’t they?”
“The best. Are they what you use?”
“No, I am not a birdwatcher. But I get to try all the different makes. People keep leaving them in the bar.”
“What?!” I feigned outrage. “I simply do not understand how anyone could forget their binoculars.”
“Especially not Leicas,” the barman added.
“Exactly. It won’t ever happen again.” I promised vehemently – and it hasn’t!