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The birth of a lifelong passion
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The birth of a lifelong passion
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by Martyn Stewart
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by Martyn Stewart
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My name is Martyn Stewart and I was born on the 3rd April 1955; on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon.
The two questions I’m frequently asked are “How old were you when you made your first recording.?” and “When did your love affair with nature first begin.?”.
The first question is an easy one to answer. I was eleven years old when I took a small battery operated Uher reel-to-reel tape recorder into a nearby wood and went in search of something to record. It turned out that my first recording was that of a Blackbird singing in a hedgerow situated on the outskirts of the wood. In my silence, as I listened to it singing its heart out, I couldn’t help thinking how beautiful it sounded. Words can’t describe how elated I felt as I made my way back home that day; knowing that I had managed to capture its song on tape.
While I can’t honestly say what prompted me to wander off into the fields that day, in order to try my hand at recording the sound of local birds, I’m confident that my older brother Alan greatly influenced my decision. The photo on the left is of myself and my brother Alan when we lived at 24 Bangham Pit Road, Northfield, Birmingham. He already had a passion for wildlife and our house had become a home for many creatures that he had found during his many walks in the countryside.
As far as the second of these questions is concerned, it’s probably impossible for me to give a truly definitive answer. In order to provide some sort of insight into when it might have been, I feel it’s important to perhaps focus on the “why”; in terms of the emotional climate that existed at the time.
It would be something of an understatement if I were to say that things weren’t easy growing up. Creature comforts were scarce, money was exceptionally tight and a feeling of being hungry was generally the rule rather than the exception. Add to this the sibling rivalry that frequently took place between six children living under the same roof, coupled with parents who were always at odds with one another, and you can perhaps understand why escaping into the countryside was my Balm of Gilead. While I didn’t venture too far away from home during the very early years of my life, the distance certainly grew exponentially as I got older.
Although the suburb we lived in was technically a part of Birmingham, and likely to conjure up images of urban sprawl in the minds those unfamiliar with the area, it was in fact located on the very edge of the “Green Belt”; a zone designated to preserve the rural landscape. Immediately over the road from the house was a large cornfield which was edged with hedgerows of wild shrubs and overgrown ditches; an ideal habitat for all manner of birds, small mammals, amphibians and reptiles. Beyond the fields was a small ancient wood known as the “Blue Bell” wood; a fitting name given the spectacular display of sweet-scented violet blue flowers blanketing the woodland floor each spring. I discovered at a very early age that it was the home to many species of birds and other forms of wildlife.
After navigating one of the several trails meandering through a mix of mainly oak and beech trees, rising up from a carpet of lush green ferns, I would arrive at a large expanse of water known as Bartley Reservoir. Although it was strictly private when I was a young boy, surrounded by tall fences and robust stone walls, it is now home to a popular sailing club. I also discovered that the reservoir was where Bill Oddie did much of his early birdwatching and has featured in his books; notably “Bill Oddie’s Gone Birding”. Happily it still continues to be a favourite spot for bird watchers.
Following a short southerly walk along Scotland lane, which skirted the western perimeter of the reservoir, I would take a right turn into Church Hill and make my way towards Frankley Church; a fifteenth century place of worship, built out of sandstone, which can trace its origins back to Saxon times. It was here that I would momentarily spend time in quiet reflection while reading weathered inscriptions carved onto old headstones; recounting the names and ages of long since departed souls. Where the only visitors were inquisitive but infrequent hikers or passing birds in search of a place to rest.
When suitably refreshed, I would attack the final stage of my escape into the countryside with incredible gusto; which involved a steep climb across several fields to a landmark known as Frankley Beeches; a cluster of trees sitting on top of one of the highest points in the Midlands. From there, on a clear day, you could look out across the countryside and see as far as the Berwyn Range some seventy miles away. Each time I made the journey to this incredible spot, my passion for nature grew stronger and stronger. Who would have guessed that my boyhood passion would prove to be the beginning of an incredible journey? A journey that has seen me record sounds in seven continents and more than fifty countries.
Throughout the fifty or more years that have passed, since that younger version of me hit the record button for the very first time, the exhilaration of capturing a new sound has never gone away. In many respects it has been heightened considerably by the lengths that I have sometimes had to go to secure many of the sounds that form part of my extensive library. Like the time I recorded the Colima Warbler. After many hours of research, in order to establish where to locate them and when I was most likely to get the best vocalisation, I spent three days searching for them in the Chisos Mountains in Texas; the only place you will find them in the United States. You can probably imagine the sense of achievement I felt after successfully accomplishing what I had set out to do.
Another example, of which there are many, was the time I went to record the Brown Kiwi; located on the South Island of New Zealand. I was making my way there on board a small boat, travelling in heavy rain and pitch-black conditions, with a captain who thought it was highly amusing to see me coming close to throwing up. Although I’ve never been a fan of travelling on small boats, especially when they are crossing large expanses of water, I’m happy to inform that my desire to succeed managed to overcome whatever concerns I had at the time. When I eventually returned to my hotel room, having once again overcome the challenges that had been placed before me, I just lay on the bed and allowed myself to indulge in a moment of satisfaction; knowing that I had added yet another vocalisation to my growing collection of bird sounds.
I must confess that things don’t always go the way you want or expect them to go.
One such occasion was when I travelled for almost ten days to get to Selkirk Island; a small densely wooded and mountainous island located within the Juan Fernandez Archipelago. The sole purpose of embarking on such an epic journey was to record the vocalisation of indigenous hummingbirds; namely the Juan Fernandez Firecrown. You can perhaps get a better appreciation of the effort involved when you realise that the Island is situated 700 km off the Chilean coast in the south-eastern Pacific Ocean; a hundred nautical miles west of Robinson Crusoe Island.
Although I was fortunate to spend three solid days observing them, as they performed spectacular displays of aerial prowess, I never managed to get a single recording of them vocalising; only the sound of their wings beating at eighty flaps per second. Despite feeling bitterly disappointed with the outcome, I still felt extremely privileged to have spent time with this highly endangered bird
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