The Accidental Birdwatcher – Book Review

in Bios/Books by

Born in England and educated at Rugby and Oxford, Michael Spencer’s interest in bird watching arose as an excuse to avoid playing cricket, “So, for the wrong reason, the avoidance of cricket, I went on a bird walk around a reservoir in the middle of England.” Little did Michael know at the time, but on June 8, 1935 at the Stanford Reservoir, Michael and his den-mate Sharon Watson would become inadvertent contributors to the science of ornithology; an inland record of a Northern Gannet.

Along with bird watching, Michael knew early on that even though he was studying Law at Oxford, he would eventually find himself a career in the film industry, “I had been the owner of a 9.5-millimetre movie camera and been much influenced by documentary films, which could be seen in London Cinemas in those days.” But it was on a trip to visit relatives in Vancouver in the fall of 1939, Michael would discover that, “My world was to take a distinctly different turn.”

“With the outbreak of war, my path took me not back to Oxford but into the conflict, which I joined as a cameraman and director for the Canadian Army Film and Photo Unit.”

Photo: credit Ken Bell ‘The Way We Were’ – University of Toronto Press 1988 – ISBN 0-8020-3990-1

Unable to return to England, Michael would join Lieut. J.E.R. (Jack) McDougall, Lieut. George Noble, and Cpl. Al Grayston to become the first four members of the CFPU.

Photo credit © Ken Bell (from his book, The Way We Were University of Toronto Press).

After the war, Michael would return to the National Film Board of Canada where he would eventually become head of Studio “D” in 1950 and Director of Planning by 1960.

This is what makes the Accidental Birdwatcher so intriguing; it chronicles the life of one of Canada’s most influential figures in the development of the Canadian film industry while at the same time he, Michael Spencer, continues to document his experiences as a bird watcher.

“I was the producer of all films for the Department of National Defence when a film was commissioned in 1951 by the Army Survey Unit about the role of map making in the army, an essential element in military strategy. Since I had made a couple of documentaries when I was in the Canadian Army, I decided to direct this one myself. Was a factor in my decision that the shooting locations for part of the film would be in the Yukon?
I didn’t have my binoculars or a handbook, but fortunately I didn’t need either at the airport at Watson Lake to identify a colony of Cliff Swallows in the hangar there. There were about 15 nests, the young still in them though they looked quite ready to fly.”

Over the years Michael would continue to list and number the species he encountered to eventually opt to describe his observations in a diary format;

1956, May 16 and 17. A Mockingbird Mimuspolyglottos was observed in the Westwood subdivision of the western Ottawa suburbs. So far is known, this is the first Ottawa record for this bird.

The book is divided into twelve chapters and includes photographs of some of the birds that Michael writes about, and is a wonderful ‘biograhical-travelogue’ across Canada, with stops in Ontario, Quebec, Vancouver, and Churchill, Manitoba before the reader is taken overseas with entries in India, Trinidad, France, Tunisia, Australia, Kenya, and Bremerhaven, Germany to name a few.

Photo credit: © Lazlo

“On my last day in Korea, I was stuck for an hour or two at the airport in Pusan. Down at the seaward end of the runway, there seemed to be a few skylark’s, so I walked over. There can be few experiences in birdwatching to compare with listening to the song of the incomparable skylark. It’s not a melodious song, though it does have moments of melody. I think it’s the impression you get that the bird is pouring its heart out in song. I don’t think any other birdsong is delivered with such conviction. Combined with the song, there is of course the bird ascendant. I watched this bird at the airport until my eyes ached with the effort and I had to cup my hands round them as a sort of sunshade. It would be hard to estimate how high he flew, but the song reached me even when the bird was but a speck in the sky. The whole performance lasted about three minutes from the time the bird took off until his last swift silent swoop to earth. he last time I heard a skylark must have been in England before the war. I had forgotten the fervour of this trilling.
“Hail to thee, Blithe Spirit.”

Michael currently resides in Montreal with his wife Maqbool.

Dale Gervais, December 2015

Dale Gervais has been actively researching and documenting the history of the Canadian Army Film & Photo Unit since 2006. Dale retired in September, 2018, after almost 36 years as a Film Conservator at Library & Archives Canada.