My first experience of deliberate birdwatching took place in Richmond Great Park. The time; 1966, the occasion; one of the first dates with my (now) husband. There I was, all dressed up and ready to knock him out with my drop dead gorgeousness (memory plays strange tricks as you get older!) and there he was, luring me into the undergrowth of the park, hissing to me to keep my head down. No, it wasn’t this bird’s feathers he was after observing, but a green woodpecker that he had spotted. It must have been love on my part because, although I don’t remember seeing the flash of emerald, I do remember getting my trendy high boots covered in mud.
And that was the first of many times that I have shared the joys of avian observation with my spouse. He had been a committed twitcher from an early age. As a boy, a family friend had dragged him along to many birdwatching expeditions, from sighting a large wader (a ruff) on a one time sewage farm, soon to become the fifth terminal at Heathrow, to happy weekends spent observing the many migrants arriving on the Norfolk coast from Europe.
Birdwatching is one nature pursuit that just about anybody can get something out of, and most of us have ‘twitched’ at some time in our lives. What child hasn’t fed the ducks, or pigeons? That’s the good thing about birds. They are so accessible. You can see them almost everywhere at any time of the day. And you can hear them; blackbirds and nightingales have been immortalised in song and verse. The ubiquitous gull can be heard far inland; pigeons coo vociferously in our city centres; rooks squawk as they arrive at their evening roosts and starlings chatter as they gather in flocks on our roofs, telegraph wires and urban trees. No other wild animal group is so easy to see and admire. The skill of flying, and therefore the ability to get out of the way if needs must, has been a boon for the latent birdwatcher in all of us.
That birdwatching foray with my husband to be was the first of many enjoyable observations of our feathered friends. Some I will never forget. Standing on top of the Preseli hills in Wales and listening to the liquid bubbling coming from the throats of hundreds of curlews in the gathering dusk of the evening; sadly not a common occurrence nowadays. Or that magic afternoon, cycling along a country road with my young son and counting 32 larks as they rose skywards from the fields either side of us. Another sight, rarer now than it used to be, was the spectacle of thousands of starlings darkening the sky and turning as one with a whoosh of wings, above the field next to our first home; We’ve watched puffins and guillemots on Skomer island off the coast of West Wales and along the seashore we have seen countless flocks of all sorts of waders. And how to describe the thrill of seeing two peregrine falcons screeching over a deceased pigeon that they were devouring at the base of a sea cliff; or watching red kites circling lazily in the thermals above the hills of mid Wales.
And there are always more. I’m so glad I’ve seen at least one dipper, incongruously running along a stream bed, underwater feeding. Another stream frequenter, the heron, can also be sighted, perched in prehistoric stance, in the middle of a field. What is it doing? I am assured by that fount of all bird knowledge (my husband) that it’s on the lookout for a tasty mole; and sometimes, if we went out on a Summer night, we would be lucky enough to catch sight of a little owl, staring down at us from his high perch on a telegraph pole.
We called one of our houses Hafod Y Wennol, Welsh for summer house of the swallows, because, in it’s previous life as a cow parlour, the swallows had swooped in and made their little mud nests on it’s walls. We felt so guilty at evicting them from their home, especially after such a long and perilous journey from their Winter habitat somewhere in Africa. But swallow poo is prolific and not to be tolerated indoors; and they did have a garage and another barn to breed in. For many years they were a significant part of our summer; the sighting of the first arrival was always noted. Their twittering and swooping round the farmyard a never ending source of enjoyment; their gathering on the telephone wire and subsequent departure a gloomy time, heralding as it did the approaching winter.
And at our next home, a tall Edwardian town house, we had the amazing luck to be the Summer residence to a flock of swifts, whose ariel acrobatics, as they screamed past our windows, would have put the Red Devils to shame. We never tired of watching as they swooped and dived after insects, banking at the last second when it seemed they must collide with the house wall. It was better than television!
We have been lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of the country where birdlife is prolific and constant. But town dwellers have opportunities too. In any urban garden a wide variety of town birds can be seen; especially with a little bit of encouragement. Introduce a nut feeder and a bird table and, abracadabra, in an amazingly short space of time there will be blue tits, robins, blackbirds, sparrows and various finches; if you’re lucky there might be the odd nuthatch. The tiny wren might hop about underneath, picking up any titbits and, if, they all suddenly scatter for no apparent reason, look up to the skies and search for the shape of a sparrowhawk, on the lookout for an unwary prey.
Yes, bird watching is something that you can do all through your life; from a window or outdoors. Introduce your children to this fascinating world and they will have a pleasure that will last and last; it’s free entertainment and an excellent grounding in learning how to appreciate some of the wonderful world around us.