Bird Watching interview with Bill Bailey
Comedian, musician and author Bill Bailey explains his passion for all things birdwatching – whether on the Norfolk coast or in the middle of Indonesia
Interview by: Ed Hutchings
The phone rings. “Is that Ed? Bill Bailey here. Sorry, I’m late. It’s a bit of a kerfuffle round here just now, as we’ve got various animal-related things happening.” I offer my condolences. It’s often the same in our house. “Children and animals”, I remark. “Yes, never work with them”, he shoots back drily.
Bill Bailey is a comedian, musician, actor, TV and radio presenter and author. He is well known for his role in Black Books and for his appearances on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, Have I Got News for You and QI, as well as his extensive stand-up work. He was listed by The Observer as one of the 50 funniest acts in British comedy in 2003. In 2007, and again in 2010, he was voted the seventh greatest stand-up comic on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups. He’s also known to be a birder.
I start by asking Bill about his earliest birding memory. “It would probably be a family outing to Chew Valley Lake near our house in Keynsham,” he said. “My grandfather was a keen birder, so we would go looking for water birds and I’d try to identify them all. If we saw a Great Crested Grebe, then that was a prize.
“Once we had seen that, we could then have lunch. One of my earliest memories is standing on the edge of this lake, looking out on thousands of water birds, especially for the grebes. It was a Pavlovian reaction. I’d start to drool if I saw one. Start dribbling.
‘Oh, it’s time for lunch.’”
We all feel that way about grebes sometimes, I say.
“Of course, though not in the Victorian sense. Oh, there’s a fur coat there”, he replies.
“Yes, let’s put it on our head.”
“Yes, I’ll kill it and pin it to my jacket as a brooch.”
When talking to Bill, the risk that the conversation may descend into silliness is never far away.
I continue by asking him where his favourite birding places are, both home and abroad. “At home, I’ve been to Norfolk a bit. There’s something very alluring about the landscape. The light and the 360° vistas are magical.
“I’ve ended up going back a lot over the years and every time there’s some spectacle. Sometimes, it’s just the odd bird or huge swirling clouds of Knot or the sight of waders being ushered in by the incoming tide. Abroad, we’ve been birding lots in Indonesia over the years and there’s all manner of exotic delights.
“Last year I was lucky enough to go on a trip, ostensibly to see the solar eclipse, but I persuaded everyone that what we really ought to see was the Red Bird-of-paradise. Because the eclipse is only four minutes long and then it’s a case of ‘now what?’. The Red Bird-of-paradise has a spectacular display. I managed to get everyone out of bed at 4am. We trekked into the jungle and hung around in the dark, in the wet and in the insects, and were lucky enough to see this display.”
bill bailey's rare birding find
I asked Bill what his most memorable bird had been so far and the one he’d most like to see.
“We shot the [Alfred Russel] Wallace documentary in Halmahera in eastern Indonesia. We only had one day to film Wallace’s Standardwing; an integral part of the piece, because he considered it his greatest discovery. They’re desperately hard to find, as they’re rare and confined to certain areas.
“Ironically, we happened upon them off a logging trail. When I heard them, they were unmistakable. It was a huge thrill and I was completely overcome when we saw them. We were lucky because their lekking tree was on a slope, so we could scramble up and film them on their level from the ground. It was a bit of luck as they were extraordinary birds. Before I left for the trek, I spoke to Sir David Attenborough, who asked “Which birds are you looking for?”
I mentioned the Standardwing and, being a mischievous character, he said, with a twinkle in his eye, “Are you sure it’s not just a Friarbird?” And when you eventually see it, you think “Oh yes, maybe he’s right.” That was memorable. They are beautiful but not the most spectacular birds. It’s the circumstances of it.”
Bill has previously said that he has a “real affinity” with Wallace. I ask him if the birds-of-paradise had a similar impact on him as they did on his jungle hero. “Yes. There’s something about the rarity and unattainability. They’re so remote and inaccessible that it gives them this air of mystique. You must work hard to see them and there’s a degree of expectation which builds when you do. They’re performing these amazing displays in the middle of the forest. I’m so privileged to have been able to see this, as very few people do.
“It’s a real treat. But equally, the couple of trips I’ve made to St Kilda to see the gannetries on the stacks, there, have been spectacular. But it’s a different experience.”
I suggest Indonesia must be depressing due to the scale of the illegal cage bird trade there now. “It is and that’s the other side of it there. South-east Asia is the hotspot for trafficking in all wild animals,” Bill says. “You see all kinds of things – trapped cuscus, civet cats, monkeys and primates. We once found a trader with 10 Salmon-crested Cockatoos that had been caught in the wild. They were all in a basket. It’s heart-breaking.
“The project we got involved in there was with a friend of ours who persuaded these trappers to become guides. That’s the only way forward in those situations.
“The trappers need to be told ‘If you show people where the birds are in the wild they can go and look at them. The birds will still be there, and you’ll earn the same money, maybe more.’ But the Indonesian Government has plenty on its plate apart from conservation and these matters tend to get pushed down the agenda. Trying to change the culture is a difficult thing to turn around.”
Birding appears to have grown in popularity in the seven years since Bill’s game show Birdwatching Bonanza on Sky One. I ask if there are any plans to resurrect it. “Yes, I was knocked out by the reaction. So many people around the world saw it. They were keen and wanted to see more. It was a time when people wanted to make programmes like that. Whether broadcasters will again I don’t know.
“We tried to make it more a celebration of birds, but the broadcasters were more interested in making it into a competition. It was a tussle in the end to try and make it more about birds than it was about celebrities. But if I introduced more people into birding then that’s great. I had a lot of correspondence from people, including a wonderful letter from a woman who said that her son had seen the programme. He had got bored with his Xbox and wanted to go looking for birds!”
Bill Bailey: In tune with birdsong
As becomes a talented musician, Bill has perfect pitch. I ask whether it’s helpful when it comes to learning birdsong.
“If you’re trained musically, you naturally have an ear for a tune and a change in pitch. You can identify the different tunes and intervals. That’s probably something that’s helpful. I’m used to learning tunes, so if I hear a song I can absorb it well.
“It’s a help, certainly. Learning birdsong is like anything in life. You must practise. You must get out there, maybe focus on song one day and try to identify as many as you can. It’s hard.
“Never mind however many apps and sounds and recordings you have, when you’re outdoors and there’s wind blowing through the trees and other sounds, trying to identify them can be tricky. It’s a lifelong activity. Sometimes I record them with a little microphone that I plug into my phone. I listen back to my own recordings and use them as a guide.”
Which birdsong does he appreciate most, especially as a musician?
“I love hearing Goldfinch (pictured) in my garden. That’s a silvery cascade of notes. I’ve learnt to appreciate that more and more, because even if you’re not going on a specific trip, we still have birdsong all around us for half the year.
“It becomes a familiar and comforting part of your soundscape. I recently walked the Ridgeway and we were accompanied by lots of birds along the way. There was one section where a little cloud of Goldfinch followed us along the path, providing a constant soundtrack the whole way. Quite brilliant. And then, suddenly, there’s a cloud of Long-tailed Tits excitedly joining them.
“Since I’ve got into it more over the years, I’ve realised that it’s a way of connecting to the landscape and the past. People have been listening to birdsong for hundreds of years and you read accounts of them doing so.”
I ask about his current show Larks in Transit and the bird reference.
“I thought it fitting to put that in as I’ve done programmes about birds and I’ve written a book. Birds seem to crop up in my shows all the time without even thinking about it. Somehow, the references creep in. ‘Larks’ in the context of the show means a bit of fun, a bit of frivolity, a light-hearted jape. Which is really what the show is about. It’s about the things that have happened over the years, the places that comedy has taken me around the world, the experiences I’ve had and the shenanigans that have accompanied that. It’s also a reference to Dickens - ‘What larks, Pip!’. There’s a literary reference, a travel reference and a passing bird reference. It seemed to be one of those titles that presented itself as the right one.”
Predictably, my last question is whether he knows any good bird jokes. He laughs. “Other than ones that involve chickens crossing the road? No, not off the top of my head. Perhaps this is a whole new genre to be explored?”
I admit that I’ve never heard anyone tell a joke in a hide. I suggest birding is taken too seriously.
“Yes, that’s it. I want to make it more about fun. Every time I’ve gone out birding with others we have a tremendous laugh. Worldwide, it’s amazing how many people are into birds. I’m always delighted and surprised when I get somewhere and there’s a bunch of hairy tattooed crew and I say ‘Well, I’m going out birding’ and they ask, ‘Can we come?’
“They’ve all got their own bins and are good birders. When I’m on tour, I insist that we go outside. Otherwise, you get a bit stir crazy if you stay in hotels. One of the great things to do is a communal activity, so we all go out and have a laugh.
“Similarly, in Indonesia, we have fun scuffling around in the dark and then delight in seeing the birds. That’s more about what I get out of it, rather than the dry list ticking - “We got another species, I’ll add it to my list, etc” – and demeaning the more common birds by trying to focus on rarities.
“That’s not for me. I like delighting in birds every day and what they bring to your life.”
I agree. I’ve always thought birding a great leveller and this whole business of rarity chasing to be elitist.
“It puts people off. It feeds into this narrative of what people imagine birding is. Socially awkward people sitting in a hide in silence. Someone pipes up, ‘Oh, it’s a Corn Crake. Brilliant. We can go home now.’ It’s never been about that.”
Bill Bailey is touring Larks in Transit until 9 June 2018. Info and tickets at: billbailey.co.uk