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Watching wildlife is a mixture of jizz and the specific. One might turn up for the general sense of wonder/wander and leave with a specific list of sights seen.
Down at the harbour on a wet blustery day A and I watch the pied wagtails, speculating on why we always see them both here and marching around outside the Co-op on Ashley Down Road. A thinks it's something to do with the feeling of space and the "moderate" amount of footfall. I try suggesting that water might play a part but am quickly reminded of the lack of water features around the Co-op. “Maybe it’s the preponderance of concrete in both places?” But A’s moved on. So we're none the wiser, simply left with a fairly good sense of where and when we might see the jolly little windups.
The overall sense of a bird is known as its jizz. When you can't instantly identify a bird, you can use a jigsaw of visual, aural and environmental clues that might give you an accurate identification. This is the birds’ jizz. Size, shape, flight, voice, colouring, time of year, location, habitat. Lockdown actually makes jizz-learning quite easy. For example, being stuck in the same place, ploughing the same furrows day-in-day-out allowed me to get a solid jizzy sense of redwings this winter.
Watching wildlife is a mixture of jizz and the specific. One might turn up for the general sense of wonder/wander and leave with a specific list of sights seen. The micro/macro dichotomy is everywhere of course and we move between the two all the time. Typographer Jonathan Hoefler says that when trying to describe to his colleagues why a typeface just isn’t working he might refer to sense rather than specifics: "It's too Steven Seagal, not Steve McQueen enough." This is very sense-y, but his finished typefaces are also incredibly precise and specific.
We describe the sense of something by defining its relation to something else. Pied wagtails remind me of windup toys, and I've seen other people use the same analogy. Our sense of something is based on our experience of other things, which is fascinating when looking at nature because we impose an awful lot of human attitudes and viewpoints on her. See – I just made nature a lady. Jizz mastery is achieved through wide, not narrow observation. You have to be able to tell something apart from another thing based on blurry characteristics, therefore you must have knowledge of other things. The more the better.
There are a couple of things I specifically love about identifying a bird by its jizz. The first is the play between the large number of vectors you have to take into account pretty rapidly and the contextual information that you can apply at a slower pace once the bird has flown, literally. The second is that each time you attempt a jizzy identification, you reach back into your own history of wonder and wander, the accumulation of times you have brought binoculars up to your eyes to make close observation, been surprised by a new species and jotted it down, seen a bird somewhere unexpected, or leafed through the Collins Bird Guide in the warm yellow hum of a winter lamp and armchair just for the joy of it. Jizz is recognition by accumulation, so it suggests love. It’s not something you can cram for, so it also suggests dedication. You earn jizz by repetition and consistency. It is the sedimental buildup of knowledge. It can be topped up, but never reduced. It’s the type of learning I love best.
PS. Jizz can also be spelt giss, but where's the fun in that?