It’s not about numbers. Or totals. And it’s not a competition. But I do love the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch. Each year, it invites anybody who’s interested in birds – and if you’re not interested in birds, you’re not interested in life – to spend an hour over a single weekend looking out of the window or standing in a park or outdoor space and tallying up how many bird species you see. If I had a young family, I know I’d involve them all in the fun. But it’s just as rewarding, and just as good for the soul, to do it on your own.
I must admit, I sometimes forget – and it’s shameful to say so – how peaceful, positive and soul-replenishing observing birds is. You don’t have to be a birdwatcher to watch birds, or a member of the RSPB to join in the Birdwatch. (Should you wish to support them, by joining or donating, it’s all explained here.) What’s fantastic about appreciating birds is that they’re all around us. You just have to notice them. Although I get a lot of pleasure from recognising common birds – and looking them up in reference books if I can’t recognise them, which is often – it’s not about showing off. The pleasure is essentially private. If you are lucky enough to have a partner or friend who shares your bird love, it’s even better. But the satisfaction comes from the nexus between you and the bird: it exists, and goes about its tweety business; you are lucky enough to observe it doing that.
I always want to pick the optimum hour for the Birdwatch, but every year, I feel like I’ve picked badly. I cased the view on Saturday so that I could plan my hour on the Sunday, and the sun was shining too brightly to comfortably see anything in the middle part of the day, so I put it off. Then it rained, which doesn’t necessarily mean the birds stay away, but again, it’s harder to see. I committed myself to 2pm-3pm, and decided to watch from an open bedroom window. (It’s always socially hazardous to sit with binoculars at a window, but it’s a risk those who watch birds have to take.)
The pickings were rather slim. I was delighted that a robin, a blackbird, a greenfinch and a pair of blue tits made appearances during my allotted hour. I had six feral pigeons, predictably, and some starlings, too. And one plump wood pigeon, the pigeon it’s OK to like. A finch came down, too fast for me to see, and took a sunflower seed from one of the bird feeders, but I could only see its tail through my binoculars, and wasn’t able to confidently identify it. It looked like a chaffinch, which is the least common of the finch family in the garden, but I didn’t want to wrongfoot the survey, so I had to let it go. The real star of the show was a long-tailed tit [above], a curiously exotic little bird which looks a bit like a lollipop, and usually descends in a group of four or five. Just one this time, but a real catch. It brightened up my otherwise fairly standard tally.
What was particularly lovely was hearing the birds before they alighted. I could hear sparrows, but not see them. (They seem to prefer the bushes in the front yards of the houses in the street, and the eaves, which they noisily colonise.) I certainly heard the long-tailed tit before clapping eyes on it. And the robin sat on a high branch of a neighbouring tree and sang its heart out for quite a considerable amount of time. Just watching a bird singing through the binoculars is a gift – seeing its beak open as it produces its high-pitched symphony.
I don’t get out into the field as much as I’d like. This is a picture of me birding in Norfolk in 2008 (Cley Marshes, I believe), taken by my most excellent ornithological pal and bird guru Dave. He really knows his stuff. I do not think of myself as a birdwatcher, or twitcher, as that would be self-aggrandising. I am happy with bird lover, or bird enthusiast. If you saw my Secret Dancing one-man show in 2010, you’ll know the section about my Three Birding Ambitions. Those still stand.
Having rediscovered my own 2007 post about the pied wagtail – which is here if you didn’t click to it from Twitter the other day – and how universal its sentiments were then and are now, it’s good to reconnect with the natural world via the magical accessibility of British garden birds. I once accidentally lived in Surrey, and had a bigger garden, and the pickings were abundant, but you can see a pied wagtail on the asphalt of a car park, you don’t need to live in the woods.