Articles

THE WORLD’S MOST ARDENT BIRDWATCHER

MARJORIE EARL December 1 1952
Articles

THE WORLD’S MOST ARDENT BIRDWATCHER

MARJORIE EARL December 1 1952

THE WORLD’S MOST ARDENT BIRDWATCHER

MARJORIE EARL

The gifted son of Scott of the Antarctic will fly anywhere to gaze lovingly at rare wildfowl. And when he coveted some trumpeters for his own collection the Queen herself wheedled five from Canada

WHEN THE Queen visited Canada in 1951 she was presented, at her own request, with five trumpeter swans, the largest,

rarest and most beautiful members of the

swan family. The thousand birds left in Canada today—the world's total population except for a smaller colony in the U. S.—are carefully protected and only a queen could persuade their guardians to part with any of them.

Actually the Queen didn’t want the swans at all. She was merely executing a commission for her friend and subject Peter Mark-ham Scott, son of Scott of the Antarctic and director of England’s Severn Wildfowl Trust which, thanks to her help, now has in its unique collection of wildfowl examples of eveiy known species of swan.

Scott is an amiable easy-going man of forty-two who holds claim to the title of the world’s most ardent lover of wild ducks, geese and swans. He is also an explorer, author, artist, broadcaster, aviator, Olympic yachtsman, champion figure skater and a naval hero with an MBE and two DSCs.

He has timed all these activities to the wingbeat of wildfowl. In his relentless pursuit of what he describes as "the loveliest of all wild creatures" he inherits the determination and singleness of purpose which drove his father to heroic death in his attempt to be the first man to reach the South Pole.

Peter Scott is of medium height and inclined to

be tubby. His guileless manner is emphasized by a boyish face adorned by a small turned-up nose. Beneath thinning sandy hair his forehead is creased by deep horizontal wrinkles caused by gazing up at skeins of geese. His favorite costume is corduroys, a sweater and crepe-soled shoes.

His whole life is dedicated to his birds. His comfortable income comes from talking about them, writing about them and -painting them, and it goes to>buy more of them and for new devices to make them comfortable. His pleasure is looking after them, worrying about them, showing them off and traveling to remote comers of the world to study them and collect new sp>ecimens.

He has written seven books, all but one of them about wildfowl. He has written hundreds of magazine articles, most of them dealing with birds. He is one of the most popular broadcasters in Britain and his subject is mainly birds. He lectures all over the country about his experiences collecting them. He is an artist of considerable merit, prolific output and wide popular appeal. His paintings of wildfowl fetch anything from four hundred to two thousand dollars each. He is a three-time winner of the Prince of Wales Cup for international fourteen-foot dinghy racing. He was once junior figure-skating champion of Britain and sports promoters singled him out for greater things. But he was too devoted to ducks to practice.

Scott is the inspiration for Paul Gallico's famous story, The Snow Goose. The hero of the story is a

hunchback who lives in a lonely lighthouse with a pet snow goose. A friend of Scott’s once suggested that it might be actionable. “Since Paul is a friend of mine the only action I propose to take is to illustrate the book,” Scott replied. “Besides, he had to make me a hunchback to keep me out of the war.”

Scott was actually living in an old lighthouse on The Wash, in the east coast fens, when the war began in 1939. He sent his private collection of four hundred birds to friends and enlisted in the Navy. He immediately used his knowledge of wildfowling to advise the government on camouflage for the fifty old destroyers Britain received from the United States. The theory was that, to be nearly invisible against the sky, all surfaces should be pale and some should be dazzling white. This was based on the scheme Scott used to conceal his duck punt. It proved so successful in war that it was subsequently adopted in a modified form by all Allied shipping in the Atlantic and by some ships in other oceans.

Scott came to Canada in the summer of 1949 to visit the Perry River region, seventy-five miles inside the Arctic circle between Hudson Bay and the Mackenzie delta. This was one of a series of similar excursions which have taken him twice each to Lapland and Iceland and once to the

Caspian Sea to collect specimens and observe wildfowl in their breeding grounds. For his two companions on the Canadian trip—Paul Queneau, a geologist with the International Nickel Company, and Harold Hanson, of the Illinois Natural History Survey—the project was coldly scientific. Scott went along to study the Ross’s goose, whose nesting colonies were reported for the first time in 1938 by Angus Gavin, a Hudson’s Bay Company factor stationed near Perry River. The total population of this goose is now estimated at about five thousand and, by adding to the general knowledge of the bird and its habits, Scott hoped to help preserve it.

The trio set up camp on a windswept knoll fourteen miles from the mouth of Perry River. They then set in to do battle with the Arctic weather. It rained heavily, the wind howled at thirty miles an hour, the rain turned to snow and the army tent in which they slept started to leak like a sieve. Yet Scott wrote most of a two-hundredand-forty-page book, and also did hundreds of paintings and drawings, while huddled in a sleeping bag with gloves on.

“I wakened at six,” he wrote at one point, “when the guy ropes of the tent gave way and the soggy canvas enveloped my head.” To try to stop the tent from leaking Continued on page 39

Continued on page 39

The World's Most Ardent Birdwatcher

CONTINUED FROM PAGE 25

Scott contributed a bottle of linseed oil he had brought to mix his paints. Even thinned with turpentine it wouldn’t cover the whole surface so they extended it with gun oil, boot polish, medicinal oil and melted candles. This mixture was painted hopefully on the tent but it didn’t help much.

One night as he tried to write, crouched in a sleeping bag, Scott thought about his father. “These tuppenny ha’penny adventures of ours cannot help but cast a new light for me on the story with which I grew up,” he forced his cold fingers to record. “If I am enjoying the minor discomforts and difficulties—as indeed I am—then it serves to remind me particularly of one phrase in my father’s diary, which says: ‘How much better this has been than lounging in too great comfort at

The party flew in from Yellowknife with bush pilot Doug Ireland. After they left Beechey Lake they ran into low cloud along the Western River, which they were following to Bathurst Inlet. The river runs into a gorge and they discovered that the cloud which they thought to be above the gorge was well down in it. At this moment it began to snow. For a frightening half hour they flew between two walls of rock with a visibility of less than one hundred and fifty yards.

Even at such moments Scott can be diverted by geese. As Ireland manoeuvred the aircraft in a tight circle to avoid the rock wall Scott was suddenly engrossed in counting two small flocks of geese in the swirling snow. “One flock was all dark — possibly Lesser Canadas,” he reported. “The other flock had about half a dozen snow geese in it, and perhaps some Lessers, perhaps Ross’s.”

“He has the most phenomenal eyesight of any man I’ve ever known,” says one of his colleagues at the Severn Wildfowl Trust. One night Scott went with friends to see a film called Escape. In the opening sequences the hero, played by Rex Harrison, stares gloomily through the barred window of a cell in Broadmoor gaol at a wedge of geese flying high in the sky. “Why they’re snow geese,” Scott suddenly called out, “and their wingbeats are too fast. They’ve spoiled the whole picture by running too many frames to the minute.”

Paul Queneau, the geologist on the Perry River trip, says: “Again and again Scott would call the geese and they would fly right over us. He had the Eskimos absolutely popeyed.”

Scott captivated the Eskimos from the beginning. His particular friends were Topelekon, otherwise known as Patsy, who became his guide, and Patsy's sixteen-year-old son, Tanoo. He dedicated his book, Wild Geese and Eskimos, to them.

If Scott hadn’t been artistic, communication with the Eskimos might have been impossible. When they arrived at Bathurst Inlet, where they were to pick up an interpreter, they found he had left on a hunting trip. Because the weather was uncertain they had to take off for Flagstaff Island before he returned. There Scott made pictures of dogs and sledges and drew maps to convey to the Eskimos that they wanted a dog team to take their equipment across the ice to the mainland. From then on most of the talking was graphic.

The expedition’s main objective, at least as far as Scott was concerned, was

to find the Ross’s goose breeding grounds, reported by Angus Gavin. Although Gavin had seen isolated nesting Ross’s, he had only heard from the Eskimos of an enormous breeding ground nearby. Scott had to be able to ask the Eskimos to lead him to it.

This difficulty was solved by D'Arcy Munroe, the HBC factor at Cambridge Bay, wfith whom they attempted to converse each night through an unstable radio. Munroe dug up a friend of the Eskimo guide, Patsy, in Cambridge Bay who could speak English. One night they all got on the air at

once and Scott was able to convey to Patsy that he wanted to be taken to the Ross’s breeding grounds. Patsy did his job well.

About three and a. half weeks later Scott and his companions saw what no white man had ever seen before— hundreds of Ross’s geese nesting on the tarns around a couple of small lakes, the biggest of which Scott named Discovery, after his father’s ship.

They had to trek miles over the rugged country, sometimes darting between ice floes in an aluminum canoe and sometimes portaging, with their

cameras and all the paraphernalia of science on their backs. On such occasions the Eskimos always smiled brightly and indicated that it wasn’t far. But their idea of distance differed from Scott’s. Although he was on his feet for about eighteen hours a day during the time he was at Perry River, Scott is no lover of physical exertion.

He claims there is nothing he likes better than lounging in comfort, at home or anywhere else. “My idea of the right way to live is in luxury hotels,” he says. “I hate camping, it’s so damned uncomfortable. I think it’s

a great bore when the mosquitoes fall into the food and you have to do the washing up and everything’s a mess. You only do it that way if you have

In one of the last letters Captain Robert Falcon Scott wrote to his wife S before he died in the Antarctic he urged her to make their son interested in natural history: “Keep him in the open air, guard him against indolence and make him a strenuous man.”

I Scott’s friends say that, except in pursuit of wildfowl, he is anything but strenuous. Some accuse him of being downright lazy. Yet in 1936, when a fierce longing to obtain some Russian red-breasted geese lured him to the wildest sections of the Caspian Sea, he deliberately risked his life for a crack at what he believed to be the prize.

After a long search he discovered some geese on the other side of ^ dangerous bog. He felt sure they were red-breasts and decided to risk going after them. He got stuck in the middle I of the bog and started to sink. He managed to throw himself clear, and rolled to the other side and there, covered in slime, he discovered that the birds he was pursuing weren’t redbreasted geese after all.

They Hound The Birdman

Scott lives on the Severn Wildfowl Trust property at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire, in two old farm cottages that ; have been knocked together and to ! which a big-windowed studio has been added. This room is cluttered with chintz-covered chairs, books, easels, canvases, picture frames, paints, cameras, field glasses and charts. His second wife, Philippa, and his two daughters,

! his secretary and a couple of trust officials share the house with him.

Hundreds of people walk across their I front lawn every day on the way to the ' enclosures to view the world’s most notable collection of tame geese, ducks ; and swans, all carefully protected by1 fox-proof wire netting. Part of each day is consumed by distinguished visitors who rate the director's special atten-

Scott has a wide reputation for remaining rock-calm and unhurried in the midst of chaos. He’s usually a mountain of correspondence, a book or two, a dozen pictures and an annual report behind schedule. He is usually being hounded by his publishers, his agents and the authors whose books he is illustrating, not to mention art galleries in London and New York which regularly strive to exhibit new collections of his paintings.

He gets up early, especially in winter, to watch flights of wild geese. During the day, when he can spare time from ! the VIPs and the birds, he paints and writes. Literary critics sometimes com! plain about the lack of professional editing in Scott's books, but they sell ! well. He writes in longhand with a pen.

He never sticks to one thing for long. He flits from easel to desk, then when he gets stuck fur a word he jumps up and goes back to painting till the word j he wants draws him to his desk again. If there’s nobody around and the radio isn't on Scott will be reciting The Hunting of the Snark, his favorite ! poem, or singing one of a collection of American railroad songs he learned when he was a student at Cambridge.

For a man who is almost idolized in many places. Scott is singularly unpopular with the natives around Slimbridge. Recently he was awakened suddenly from a deep sleep by the sound of a disturbance from the enclosures. He rushed out and caught a poacher on the bridge leading from the Trust’s property.

“The hunting around here used to be

good till he came,” the locals grumble.

Scott is a good shot and was once an enthusiastic hunter. Now he sides with the birds. During his expedition to Perry River he was always complaining. because naturalist Harold Hanson needed so many specimens and he nearly broke his heart because they ran out of food and had to eat two Ross's geese.

Scott has managed, by energetic lobbying, to persuade the British government to amend plans to establish a bombing range near Slimbridge, to prohibit civil and service aircraft flying over the Severn River mouth and to get full protection for two species of geese whose numbers were being dangerously depleted by hunters. One night about a year ago six of his precious snow geese got lost in a fog. He chartered an airplane and took off in search of them after broadcasting an appeal over the BBC describing them and begging people not to shoot them. He flew all over central England and when that produced no results he covered the ground in a car. He kept it up for three days and although five hundred responses came from the public only one pair of geese were found. Although full-winged, they have never flown since.

Scott’s mother, who remarried ten years after his father’s death and became Lady Kennet when her second husband entered the peerage, may not have been able to make their son strenuous in all things but she certainlysucceeded in making him interested in natural history. When he was a youngster, she has said, the cigarette boxes in her house were always discharging caterpillars and toads, and guests were almost sure to find in the bathtubs every species of amphibious

life which inhabited the neighboring ponds. As a schoolboy Peter used to put a fishing rod in his trouser leg and pretend to be lame so he could get out of the cricket match and go fishing.

At Cambridge he once got into trouble with the police. He parked his car on a bridge while he and a friend went galloping over the fens to hunt for ducks. He was fined for a violation of traffic regulations.

Lady Kennet was a sculptor of great merit and she encouraged her son to be an artist. Examples of her work stand in Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons and in the duckponds of the Severn Wildfowl Trust. George V and George VI sat for her. George Bernard Shaw was one of her best friends and J. M. Barrie was her son’s godfather. The only portrait ever painted of Barrie is the work of Peter Scott. The royal favor enjoyed by his mother was extended to Scott about five years ago when he was invited to Sandringham to shoot with the late King and to draw portraits of the two Princesses.

Lady Kennet, who died in 1947, persuaded her son to study art at the Royal Academy and later to continue his studies in Munich. When these ended he returned to England, rented a lighthouse, decorated the walls with friezes of wild geese and peopled the marshes with tame ones. He then began to work hard at painting and writing so he could support them and study them. Scott’s income from painting alone has been estimated at between ten thousand and fifteen thousand dollars a year. Most of this gets spent on the birds.

If the rare Hawaiian Ne-ne goose (there are only twenty-four of them left in the world) survives it will be almost entirely due to Scott’s paint-

brush. Two years ago a government agency in Hawaii wrote asking for his help to save the handful remaining. Scott wanted to send the Severn Trust curator, John Yealland, now curator of birds in the London Zoo, to Hawaii to study this bird and try to evolve some measures to prevent its extinction. But there were no dollars available.

So a woman in Santa Barbara. Calif., and several others scattered about the United States who admired Scott’s paintings were asked to help. In payment Scott painted them each a picture.

The expedition to Perry River was made possible largely through the popularity of his paintings. Sponsored by the Arctic Institute of North Ameri a and Ducks Unlimited, it was financi d principally by Arthur Sullivan, of Winnipeg, a friend and admirer of Scott. Sullivan put up the money in exchange for some of Scott’s pictures.

Scott’s enterprises in the United States are now so complex that he has set up an agency. Falcon Arts Inc., to deal with them. This organization makes it possible for him to legally circumvent currency regulations and to travel whenever necessary. More important, it enables him to buy ducks and geese. In each annual report of the Severn Wildfowl Trust, under the heading. New Specimens, are a list of gifts from Falcon Arts Inc., of New York.

At every meeting the members of the council of the Severn Trust sit solemnly around a table, dumbfounded by the expenditure. They pass resolutions to pare it down but by the next meeting it has doubled again. If the council gets tough and refuses to pay the bills Scott pays them himself. And since he founded the trust, draws no salary, earns one quarter of the income and is as great an attraction for the fifty-cent customers as toe ducks and geese, they usually capitulate.

Scott founded the trust on an old estate at Slimbridge where wild geese had wintered for centuries. He hit his rich friends for donations and shamelessly begged money from birdlovers all over the country. G. B. S.. then ninetytwo, covenanted for a sizeable donation for each of seven years, enclosing a note with his pledge which said: “Well, Peter, I suppose I am now become a ! wildfowl."

By the end of the first year the trust j had seven hundred members. Now' it has more than three thousand. Its biggest outlay is the dollars required to j pay for thirty-five thousand tons of s grain consumed each year by the birds A couple of years ago Scott tried to promote a gift from the Canadian government through Vincent Massey, who was then Canada's high commissioner in London. This didn t come off, but Scott hasn't abandoned hope, j He never does. ★