Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Scott’s wild goose chase

Half a  century ago today, Peter Scott, a naturalist and well-known BBC presenter in his day, was in Romania, starting out on the latest of his ornithological expeditions, this one a wild goose chase. On many of these expeditions, Scott kept colourfully written and illustrated diaries, and these were edited into three volumes and published in the 1980s. The thrill of finding and observing thousands of Red-breasted Geese, for example, spills out of his diary from that trip to Romania in 1969.

Scott was born in London in 1909, the only child of Antarctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and sculptor Kathleen Bruce, but was only two years old when his father died. He studied natural sciences and then history of art at Trinity College, Cambridge. He took up painting, among many other pursuits, and had his first exhibition in 1933; and, in 1936, he represented Britain in sailing at the Berlin Olympic Games. During the war he served in the Royal Navy, commanding the First Squadron of Steam Gun Boats, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for bravery.

In 1942, Scott married the novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, and they had one daughter, before divorcing in 1951. Later, Scott married Philippa Talbot-Ponsonby, and they also had one daughter. After failing to get elected, as a Conservative candidate, in the 1945 general election, he founded the Severn Wildfowl Trust (now the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust), and began a series of international ornithological expeditions which led to several books richly illustrated with his own drawings. He also became a very well known television personality thanks to his natural history series on the BBC - Look - which ran from 1955 to 1981.

Wikipedia has further biographical information about Scott, including: that he was one of the founders of the World Wide Fund for Nature, and designed its panda logo; that his pioneering work in conservation contributed greatly to the shift in policy of the International Whaling Commission and signing of the Antarctic Treaty; and that he is remembered for giving the scientific name of Nessiteras rhombopteryx to the Loch Ness Monster. The Latin name, Wikipedia, adds was based on the Ancient Greek for ‘the wonder of Ness with the diamond shaped fin’, but it was later pointed out to be an anagram of ‘Monster hoax by Sir Peter S’!

Scott’s Travel Diaries of a Naturalist were published in three volumes by Collins during the 1980s, each one edited by Miranda Weston-Smith and lavishly illustrated with Scott’s drawings and photographs. There is surprisingly little information about the volumes online, although a review can be read at the New Scientist website. 

Volume two covers trips from Hawaii to Israel and California to Siberia. But also Romania, where Scott was 40 years ago today, on a wild goose chase. Here are some entries from that diary.

11 December 1969
‘. . . The night in the cottage of an archaeologist was pretty cheerless and very cold. I couldn’t get my feet warm and was wearing all available clothes including my quilted jacket. Rens Visser called us at 6 and after bread and cheese and a cup of sweet tea we drove a dozen miles to a point on the main road where a Red-breasted Goose flight line had been observed crossing it by Kuyken in November and by Visser more recently.

It was blowing an icy gale with poor visibility when we stopped on a high ridge. At 7:15 in grey dawn light the first bunch of geese came over; with binoculars it was possible to count 9 small silhouettes of Redbreasts among 23 Whitefronts. The next lot of 18 had 5 Redbreasts - but all were silhouettes in black against a dark grey sky.

A few whitefronts landed in a large ploughed field below us, and fed across it at high speed. As it grew lighter the visibility became steadily worse and rain and see mist set in. we retraced our steps and turned down towards Sinoie, there to find Whitefronts in a green field of sprouting wheat which stretched away into the fog. We walked out towards the field, recording a probable 500 geese. . .’

12 December 1969
What a day of days! Tom and I were up at 5. . . We motored to Sinoie, meeting a torrential rain storm, so that the turning down from the main road was a raging milky river. The middle of the road was still mostly above water but the ditches on either side were rising . . .

At 7:15 the flight began. The geese came in great masses about 1.5 to 2km to the north of the road and went down in two principal places, one just over the hill and the other just below a communal tractor and farm machinery station on the hill beyond. The geese made a dark patch on the green of the sprouting wheat in the middle of the field of perhaps 500 acres. Could Whitefronts sit so thick? Such sounds as we could hear gave no conclusive indication of the species though we felt that some at least must be Red-breasted Geese, Branta ruficollis. The weather seemed to be improving with the light. By the end of the flight we thought that between 6 and 7 thousand geese had settled in about three places. None was less than half a mile from us. To give the weather time to improve we moved, when the flight was over, down into the village of Sinoie. We bought a water bottle to supply the little squeegee which cleaned our car windows - the most essential feature for goose-watching and goose-finding in these parts.

Then we returned to the geese. . . There was nothing for it but a long muddy walk . . . So, as we walked up the hill, we bore right through the standing maize stalks, into dead ground. Heavy rain was approaching, and we sat on some stooks for a while to let it pass. Then we plodded on through the maize. We came upon the fresh tracks of a wild boar which had run out of the maize ahead of us. Presently we swung left towards the ridge and towards the geese, and came almost at once to the edge of a sand quarry. We jumped into it and walked across. It offered shelter from the now continuous rain under its upwind overhanging cliff. We moved to the edge overlooking the geese, and it was from this point that our most valuable observations were made. Already there were Whitefronts within 100 yards of us in the maize stubble. These were constantly being joined by Redbreasts. . . Then came the business of assessing their numbers . . . the same total was reached 3 times over. It was between 3,800 and 4,000 Red-breasted Geese. . . The total experience of all this was so absorbingly exciting that we scarcely noticed the continuous rain. . . we had been with the Redbreasts since dawn - a magical morning, especially when I recall my pre-war Redbreast hunts to Hungary, Romania, Iraq and Persia in the 1930s. . .

It was in every way a superbly eventful day.’

15 December 1969
‘. . . Except for the rain soaked view from the sand pit this was the closest we had been to Redbreasts on the ground. Their chestnut breasts shone in the sun. It was an exquisite finale for my wild goose chase for the time soon came for the return journey to Constanta to put me on the train for Bucharest. . .

. . . In 4 days with the Redbreasts I shall never forget the unparalleled thrill of discovering that we had thousands of them in front of us on Friday [12 December]; I shall never forget their closeness to us from the sand pit. Nor shall I forget the skeins of them high overhead on Sunday night. The tight bunch of them in the maize on Sunday morning was memorable too, but the Lunca flock were perhaps the most beautiful of all in the sunlight this afternoon. . .’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 11 December 2009.

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