Birdwatching / by Alex Williamson

On a cold, grey Saturday in late April. Walking on the beach with his wife and children. The fine weather of the previous weekend, a unseasonably warm Easter, long since departed. They were supposed to be helping on a post-Easter beach clear up, but among the white grains of sand there was surprisingly little rubbish to collect. The odd end of a smoked cigarette, some slivers of foil, a single glove. He had expected to find more. It was disappointing. He was disappointed. The bleakness of the beach depressed him.

Sand is overrated. Its just tiny little rocks.

As they moved further up the near-deserted beach, he noticed a small group of people up in the dunes some distance away. At first he thought they were a local camera club, but as he walked nearer he saw that it wasn’t cameras that they were holding of to their faces, but binoculars, pointed in the direction of Cromarty firth across the water. One or two had jammed tripod-mounted minoculars into the sand, and were hunched behind them like lensmen at a land camera. All were wrapped up in hats and gloves and heavy winter coats. As he drew closer, he could hear a male voice, belonging to the leader of the group, lending a voice-over narration to the birds’ behaviour.

Those are cormorants over there. And to the left of them a couple of gannets. Its not uncommon for the two to be confused. We’d usually expect to see more at this time of year. On the beach, we have some red-billed oyster catchers.

Good morning, he said to the group. Either you guys are birdwatchers or you really dig oil rigs.

This produced a satisfying ripple of laughter. Where have you come from?

We’re from the States, said a friendly woman in sunglasses and a fisherman’s hat. California. Where it is much warmer. Much much warmer.

He liked this assemblage of people with their binoculars and heavy coats steadfastly surveying nature in the cold and gloom, so he lifted his camera up and took a picture of them.

Are we rare birds? The woman from California asked.

Some people like to watch rare birds. I like to watch rare people. He smiled. Its a similar kind of thing.

He said goodbye and walked away, and was about to take another photograph from a position a little further away when one of the birdwatchers peeled off the group and started running across the sand towards him. Through the camera lens he could see it was an older woman, in her mid to late sixties, dressed almost entirely in grey, with a grey beanie atop her head, and turquoise Corbusier-styled glasses. When she was almost in front of him she held out her hand and yelled, STOP. He lowered his camera uncertainly, hoping she wanted him to take a photograph of the group with her mobile phone. But he already knew what she was about to say. Before he chance to greet her, she began to breathlessly upbraid him in the inimitable tones of a native New Yorker, all the while jabbing a finger at him, and at his camera.

I wanted to say that I found what you did back there incredibly intrusive. I don’t know who you are, I don’t know where you’ve come from, I don’t know what you do, I don’t know what you are going to do with that photograph, I don’t know what you’re going to use it for, but what I do know is I don’t want to see any photograph of me or any photograph with me in it published or printed anywhere. You have no right to take my photograph. You didn’t ask my permission. If you want to take a photograph of me you need my permission. Period. You have no right to take my photograph.

Then she turned on her heel and strode victoriously back to the dunes, and he spent the rest of the day thinking about what he should have said in response. Some erudite monologue which started with Daguerre before moving on to Helen Levitt and Vivian Maier and the thousands of photographs uploaded to social media every single day of which this one would barely register, before taking in cybersecurity and CIA surveillance and FBI wire taps and the Patriot Act and extraordinary rendition and American exceptionalism, Boomer arrogance and declining bird numbers, all capped with a suggestion that she and the rest of her generation go fuck themselves. Instead, he had settled for yelling, You are a very rude woman, as she walked away, to which she shot back, Yeah, well you’re ruder. The sand listened in silent judgement.

Once home he looked at the photograph he had taken of the group. He could just make out the turquoise of the woman’s glasses behind her binoculars. It wasn’t a particularly good photograph. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t delete it. He wanted to remember what she looked like.