Join the Madding Crowd, with Simon Davey - Book Review by Sophie May Lewis

Wednesday 15th October 2014

Scilly Birding: Join the Madding CrowdScilly Birding: Join the Madding Crowd

Sophie May is a writer and environmental conservationist with a passion for engaging people with the natural world. Bird watching is where Sophie May’s interest in natural history began, and something that has been part of her life since childhood. The Isles of Scilly worked their magic on Sophie May as they have on many birder’s and tourists over the centuries. Her first visit was in October 2014 when she visited for 4 weeks, working as a volunteer with the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust through the autumn birding season. It was during this time that Simon Davey’s book “Scilly Birding: Joining the Madding Crowd” fell into her hands.


“Scilly Birding: Joining the Madding Crowd” is a true, autobiographical account of the author’s first visit to the Isles of Scilly, and his experiences of the October birding season.

To the uninitiated, the world of birding and particularly the more intense and competitive world of twitching can seem bizarre and obscure. In many ways, and I am sure even the most obsessive twitcher would agree, the idea of racing around to ‘collect’ a list of the most and best bird species sightings when you could be sitting with your feet up, a cup of tea, a slice of cake and the Sunday papers, probably actually is bizarre, but most birders would point out that this is balanced by the scientific value of observing birds and recording numbers and locations. It’s not all about lists. Really. That is until you come to Scilly in October.

It is amazing, and probably a behavioural-analyst’s dream, how the gathering together of birders onto small islands, has the effect of concentrating the list-ticking urge and suddenly seeing each and every bird species that pops up in the bushes or over the waves, becomes the most important thing of all, and not seeing it, especially when every one else does, feels like failing an important exam or a personal insult.

Simon Davey’s narrative takes us back to the heyday of Scilly Birding, the 1980’s, when several hundred more birders would descend on the islands than do today, and yet for anyone who has visited the Isles of Scilly in October, the image that Simon’s words paint is remarkably familiar. With each turn of the page the reader can follow a day-by-day account of Simon’s journey from preparations and trepidations, up every thrill and down every disappointment, until the satisfied slightly smug feeling of the journey home and that last twist, that hints of that fact that the trip might be over, but the birding doesn’t simply stop. As a birder myself, I found I could relate to the heartfelt roller-coaster of emotions that Simon experienced; the tension, the frustration, the downhearted disappointment, the walking-on-air joy and the smug after-glow of success.

The book is not perhaps what I would call a classic of English literature, with the occasional repetitive use of phrases, but it does have a conversational quality and captures the essence of the subject matter, drawing you in the way a story over a pint in the pub of an evening might do. For a non-birder the attraction of the book may not be immediately obvious, but enjoying the story of Scilly Birding doesn't require reading it wearing a green anorak, a woolly hat and balancing the book on a pair of binoculars. Simon Davey himself, although a keen birder and naturalist, and a professional biologist, was visiting the Isles of Scilly Birding season for the first time, and so, the novice or non-birder reader, can find solace in the fact that the author too has to seek explanations of the unique language and etiquette of the twitching world, and as far as planning for birding success goes, doesn’t always get it right.

Scilly Birding was an enjoyable short read; I’m sure that I chuckled or nodded knowingly in recognition more than once.


If you would like to purchase a copy of the book yourself, head over to the publishers website here