From the mesmeric samples of chamber music of Everyone Alive Wants Answers, to the West African and Gamelan inspired The Golden Morning Breaks; Colleen has always exhibited a considerable talent for transforming disparate elements and styles into a cohesive sound. This unique approach culminated with last year’s sublime Captain of None, a record which unites baroque instrumentation (from a Viola da Gamba) with Jamaican dub production. Shimmering notes from the treble viola are submerged in layers of reverb, whilst warm ripples of tape delay are buoyed by sedate bass lines and spectral vocals. Hypnotic and serene, Captain of None remains one of the outstanding releases of the decade.
We were honoured to chat with Cécile about a hobby she cares deeply about: birdwatching. As the November sun provides us with a final burst of warmth before winter, it’s as good a time as any to purchase a pair of binoculars and embrace the great outdoors.
It’s said that anyone who enjoys seeing a garden bird from their window can be classified as a ‘birdwatcher’, but when did you begin to view it as a more serious hobby?
It really started in late May 2013, at the time of the release of my fourth album The Weighing of the Heart. Before then, I was already sensitive to nature and the creatures that live in it, and had already noticed that in times of stress or exhaustion, observing animals had both a soothing and invigorating effect on me.
At that particular moment, I was about to play live for the first time in 4 years and to sing in public for the first time ever, so to say I was apprehensive is an understatement. I chose Lisbon for my first show, and the venue where I played, Zé dos Bois, has a beautiful terrace overlooking the roofs of adjacent buildings in the old Bairro Alto area, and I spent a fair amount of time on that terrace in an attempt to calm my nerves. The sky was alive with the shrieks and swoops of swifts sweeping past me at incredibly close distances, and I would define this as the first time I fell in love with a bird species: their indefatigable acrobatics seemed to urge me to be a bit braver, and I will forever associate them with that intense personal moment.
A couple of weeks later, I played in London, where the label that released The Weighing of the Heart, Second Language, is based. At the time one of the people running the label was Martin Holm, who worked for many years for Birdlife International and was working then at the Rainham Marshes reserve, a reclaimed marshland in the suburbs of London. He had also started a short series of compilations in coordination with Birdlife International to raise awareness on the issues faced by birds on their migration routes. When I visited the reserve with him, it was the first time a knowledgeable person was pointing out various birds to me, setting up a telescope or passing me some good binoculars, and as with the swifts, I got the feeling that something clicked into place.
After that tour, I started doing tiny amounts of birdwatching where I live, San Sebastián in the Spanish Basque country. I was convinced the town had no particular bird life besides the ubiquitous seagulls and regular town birds, but little by little, I realised how blind I had been to my environment, and felt almost ashamed and greatly humbled by how many birds could indeed be seen if one *really* looked.
So what’s the birding like in San Sebastián this time of year? By my house, I can see a number of swallows perched on a telephone wire, about to embark on their migration down to South Africa...
The Spanish Basque Country, especially the area close to the French border, is right on the East Atlantic migration route, so a lot of birds use it as a resting and feeding place. The Plaiaundi bird reserve in Irun, on the French border, hosts about 250 species throughout the year, and can be truly spectacular at this time of year. In San Sebastián, although there are no large bird congregations, you can see small numbers of isolated waders at low tide feeding on the mudflats of the river.
But here all seasons are equally great, not just the fall migration, and we have the great advantage of having many habitats side by side: seaside, bays and rivers, hills and mountains, countryside, which makes for really varied species. I love trying to keep track of the birds’ presence as they come and go with the passing of seasons, and trying to see which ones are truly resident.
Last winter was very special as far off at sea, a small group of gannets came to dive for fish every day, so I made a habit of going to the seafront almost every day for the duration of their winter stay and was so happy every time I saw them.
Spring can be magnificent, especially in the aforementioned reserve of Plaiaundi: I’ll always remember going there in spring 2015 and seeing dozens of dozens of chiffchaffs flying over the ponds, accompanied by a chorus of frogs – on that day I felt like I experienced Spring with a capital S for the first time of my life.
And summer is exciting because it brings species that are sometimes quite rare or difficult to see, and you get to see juvenile birds starting their life, which can be very moving.
I saw you recently went birdwatching in Holland and Switzerland after a string of shows. Is it a hobby you can fit in around touring?
I had just reconciled myself to the idea that when on tour you shouldn’t try to fit in too many things that are outside the live show and its preparation, when birdwatching entered my life, and somehow it has shifted my perspective on this. For one thing, birdwatching makes me feel twice as excited about travelling, as it gives me an opportunity to see birds I wouldn’t otherwise get to see (I’m not at a stage of birdwatching addiction where I want to travel specifically to a faraway place to see birds - I might do it in the future, and then again I might not, since I feel I already travel a lot). And as I mentioned earlier, birdwatching has an immediately soothing effect on me, and when you know how stress-inducing travelling for shows can be, it makes complete sense for me to fit in some birdwatching around a show, as I get to breathe, move and think of something other than the show. And if I can’t fit in the birdwatching before the show, I do it afterwards, which gives me a deep sense of reward.
I also have to say that with the passing of time, I don’t take the amount of time I have left on this earth for granted – I may have many more years to live, and then again I may not – so when I know I’m going somewhere special in terms of the distance involved or the beauty of the place, I now try to take a day off specifically for getting to know the place and birdwatching
As a touring musician, you must feel some affinity with the birds’ hectic travel schedule...
One thing’s for sure: when I feel like complaining about how punishing on the body long-distance travelling can be, I think of what birds accomplish and I’m just awed by the power and intelligence (or whatever you want to call it) that preside behind their ability to migrate over such long distances.
I recently read a journal which described birdwatching as a ‘non consumptive’ wildlife activity. Do you think it can serve as an antidote for our current drive to consume?
For me, beyond the pleasure afforded by the incredible beauty of birds, birdwatching has become a kind of natural antidote to everything I find depressing in this world: blind consumerism is one of them, but also war, greed, intolerance and hatred. Sure, my birdwatching does not solve any world problems, nor does it even solve my own, but since there are no simple solutions to the great problems that the world and life confront us with, we all basically have to find ways of living on a day-to-day basis as best as we can, and for me birdwatching has become one of the best things I can do with my time.
Perhaps because we live in an era in which narcissism has been taken to previously unheard of levels, one of the things I love the most about birdwatching is precisely the feeling that it is not at all about me: I feel totally present, but it is to register my environment and respond to it, and marvel at what I see. And not only does it make me forget about myself, it makes me love and want to know more about absolutely everything around me. Biodiversity and habitat are no longer concepts that I’ve read or heard about, they’re an embodied reality at my doorstep: the kingfisher that I see throughout the year in our local river is here because the river is good enough for it to be here.
This “ripple” effect of birdwatching is very real: because you’re watching your surroundings so intently, you start seeing and wanting to see other animals. Birdwatching in the Swiss mountains led me to my first fox, I’m now also into butterflies and bats, and this summer I went on a boat trip to see whales and dolphins off the coast of the Bay of Biscay, and I feel that this is just the *start* of all the other things I want to learn.
With regard to consumption, how does ‘birdwatching’ compare to the list ticking aspects of ‘twitching’?
I have to say that so far I’ve been a pretty solitary birdwatcher and have not seen this type of behaviour up close. I think that a desire to see more bird species is very natural and can be related positively to a thirst for knowledge and experience, but I can also see how indeed you could take this behaviour to a point where birds just become one more “thing” to count and collect.
In his book ‘Birding and Mysticism’, George E. Lowe portrays birdwatching as a harmonious and ethereal hobby, going as far as to liken it to a spiritual awakening. How would you describe the experience of birdwatching?
I am not familiar with this author, and I am a bit wary of the adjective “spiritual”, which often carries some kind of new-agey semi-religious overtone, and seems to imply that there are some “compartments” for what’s inside of us, with so-called spirituality being one of them, so I don’t really feel comfortable applying the word “spiritual” in connection with birdwatching, or at least my own. However, what I can say is that I’m awed by the incredible force, inventiveness and beauty of nature, and that birdwatching can take you, literally and figuratively, to places and states of mind where you can really feel at one with all other living creatures and the elements.
At a literal level, birdwatching is uplifting: you look at the sky, up at the trees or hills, far into the horizon… And because by definition birdwatching cannot happen if you’re in a hurry, the very act of moving slowly and silently and watching while being still is conducive to an almost meditative-like state. When birdwatching in very quiet conditions in isolated places, the sense of just *being* can be extremely powerful, and the feeling stays with you afterwards for a long time.
Finally, birdwatching is a reminder to look closely and pay attention to who and what surrounds us: it’s so easy to take the things and people we have in our lives for granted, and seeing them with fresh eyes every day is definitely something I want to get better at.
Finally, do you have any tips for the birdwatching novice?
Get a great pair of binoculars right from the start and a good guide as soon as you can, and *always* carry these with you, because if you don’t, chances are you’ll see some interesting birds and the frustration of not being able to see them properly will ruin your day! If you must choose between the two, take the binoculars; you can always sketch and take notes or take photographs and compare them afterwards with your guide or a trusted internet source.
Never underestimate the amount of birds that you can see in your area, even if you live in a city: cities that boast large parks can be incredible in that respect, and any area that has plants, crops or trees from which birds can eat will automatically attract bird populations.
If you know someone who already knows about birds, ask them to come with you on your first outings: you will learn a lot about the most common species and won’t spend 2 hours trying to identify that incredible-looking bird which in reality is avery common resident that a birdwatcher can identify in 2 seconds flat. Reading blogs describing and showing the birds found in your area can also be incredibly helpful.
If there is a reserve near you, go there: it will enable you to see new species more easily and that can be a great motivator when you’re a beginner. And if you travel, do a bit of prior research on the internet so you can know what species to look for at that time of the year.
And finally, if you live in an area with water levels affected by tides, make sure to check out the tide times as the level of the tide can greatly affect the visibility of species.
But most of all: keep your eyes and ears open and you’re guaranteed to see many birds!