Stanisław Łubieński is my kind of birdwatcher. He doesn’t stop when the binoculars are returned to the shelf but digs a little deeper. He wants to know about the history, the science, the folklore, and he always has an amusing story to hand. His account of ringing birds is terrific. It seems that goldcrests take the process in their stride. Other birds may struggle and screech, but the goldcrest snuggles up against your shirt collar. Sometimes, Łubieński explains, the netter forgets his new friend is even there and, undressing in his tent, is surprised when a tiny feathery bundle tumbles onto the sleeping bag. As for migration, Łubieński remains in awe, especially when it comes to bar-tailed godwits. They fly 7,000 miles from Alaska to New Zealand without a break and burn off their digestive tracts for energy. ‘I marvel at godwits,’ Łubieński writes. So should we all.
The book contains some odd digressions and a sense of stories or insights being crammed in, but that doesn’t do too much harm. Turn the page and you’ll encounter a wonderful image: the lapwing’s call is ‘tearful and plaintive, like the sounds when you turned the dials on a Śnieźka radio’. Best of all, Łubieński is more than capable of becoming angry. He writes with real passion about the devastating impact on Warsaw’s birds wrought by the overhaul of the city’s parks and public gardens.
The range of Łubieński’s interests is deeply impressive. Recurrent talk of the bird pictures of Józef Chełmoński sent me straight to Google, and I was saddened to discover how badly nightjars have been treated in art and folklore.
One bone of contention – apparently, all birdwatchers feel a shudder when we hear an owl hooting during the night, because of some ancient, atavistic fear of the forest. Not me: I must have failed to inherit that particular gene.