North Northumberland Bird Club, February meeting

NAME THAT BIRD: Another full house was guaranteed at the North Northumberland Bird Club this month due to the speaker being Graham Bell, the founder and chairman of this hugely successful club.

Graham opens most of the meetings in his own inimitable style creating a welcoming atmosphere which encourages all comers, expert or not, member or visitor, young or old, to partake and ask questions or share sightings.

He often follows this with an identification of a mystery bird, usually an unfortunate victim of a collision with window or car, which a member has bagged up and brought along for him to show the audience.

Although poignant, these encounters provide a fascinating opportunity to view up close and in detail the salient points of identification for a particular species, its gender and often its age.

Perhaps it was fortunate that there were no such specimens on this particular night for our chairman had many balls to juggle as he moved to the next part of his M.C. duties – introducing the speaker.

Always willing to take the opportunity for a little clowning, Graham very neatly turned backwards and forwards to introduce himself!

As the laughter died down, he explained that his slide presentation and talk entitled What’s In A (Bird’s) Name? was derived from his combined passions for the study of birds and of etymology and linguistics.

We were to discover that some knowledge of Old French, Old English, Norse and Anglo Saxon would all be useful in unravelling the derivation of birds’ names.

In addition to these historic languages, the use of Latin in the naming of a bird’s genus and species allows scientists of any nation a common language in which to talk about birds without confusion although, as we were to learn later, this doesn’t rule out the existence of some inappropriate scientific names which were based on earlier common names. Some Manx shearwaters did indeed nest on the Isle of Man but in many other places too. Their scientific name is Puffinus puffinus, a perpetuation of the incorrect earlier conclusion that the Manx shearwater was a type of puffin.

The scientific name of a bird also tells us when birds are related, such as the willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus) and the chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), something you wouldn’t know from their common names alone.

It was the derivations of common names that were the main topic of Graham’s fascinating talk and, by the way, common doesn’t mean plentiful or commonly found but ordinary or unexceptional as in the terms common man or common noun.

As he delved into the complex world of the naming of birds, his years as a scholar of French at Durham University were very helpful in unpicking the subject.

For example, the green plover was historically associated with rain and the old French for rain is plovier or plouvier so plover is a corruption from the old French word for rain.

The origin of the name kestrel is not known but Graham speculates that it derives from crecerelle, the French name in use in 1066.

Similarly the origin of the name grouse is unknown but Graham suggests this could come from the old French griesche, meaning speckled.

Graham’s remarkable depth of knowledge was richly illustrated as he led us through dozens of examples and showed us that birds’ names can derive from their physical appearance, their calls, aspects of their behaviour and mythology.

At first sight a name can often be puzzling. It is only when you know the etymology that it makes sense. For example, where does falcon come from? The Latin word for sickle is falx and refers to the shape of a falcon’s beak.

In the second half of Graham Bell’s talk we heard about many misnomers – the oystercatcher that doesn’t catch or eat oysters, the spotted flycatcher that would be more appropriately named the streaked flycatcher and the marsh tit that goes nowhere near marshes were just a few of the examples.

We also heard some of the vocabulary of the twitcher, generally shorthand terms, presumably to save time when racing to see that precious rarity! And then there were the rather more poetic popular names such as heather bleater for the snipe, sea parrot for the puffin and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ wind hover for the kestrel.

And finally some unwittingly delightful children’s entries from the log at a local hide such as gouldfish (goldfinch), robynbird, wrenbird, bloow tit, cold titt (coal tit) and grey titt (great tit) – candidates perhaps for popular names of the future?

This enlightening talk was concluded to some degree in the manner in which Graham began when turning around to introduce himself. The ‘other’ Graham stepped forward and ended the presentation with a passage from a poem by Alastair Reid entitled Growing, Flying, Happening:

The point is the seeing – the grace / beyond recognition, the ways / of the bird rising, unnamed, unknown,/ beyond the range of language, beyond its noun.

It is fair to say that the combined Grahams are what make such a good speaker and chairman and such a popular bird club.

The next talk is on Friday, March 9, in Bamburgh Pavilion at 7.30pm. It will be Brian Clasper: The Pantanal Paradise – a look at Brazil’s Incredible Birds. Visitors welcome (£2).