There: I’ve said it. I’ll give you all a couple of minutes to calm down. You can express your mistaken belief that this is twitching and those who have only left the playground can query whether I mean the feathered kind. When you have all calmed down we can continue.
So what I enjoy doing is watching birds. For those of you who don’t know, a twitcher is someone who receives news of a rare bird via their mobile phone or the internet and then travels great distances in the hope of seeing it before it disappears. Birds can end up in the wrong place during migration – the weather or a wonky internal navigation system.
What I like doing is just watching what is around me. The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is this weekend and is encouraging people to do just that. All you do is sit for an hour – record what lands in your garden and then post the results. It’s a way for the RSPB to do important research and to educate at the same time. Last year a staggering 600,000 people recorded 9 million birds of 70 different species.
On a day like today, with snow everywhere, you can sit in the warmth of your kitchen and watch the avian world pass by. You may think there will be nothing to see or that the entertainment is limited compared to Call Of Duty. Each to their own but you may be surprised.
I sat last weekend for around half an hour just watching the birdtable in the garden. It still surprises me how many people think that the birdfood they put out is “not working” or there are no birds when they simply have the food in the wrong place. Many people put the table where they can see it easiest – right outside their window with no cover in sight. Birds are smart enough to know there are dangers around. Domestic cats are estimated to capture and kill 275m things a years of which 55m are birds according to the Mammal Society. Birds need somewhere to escape and so they will be very nervous. They are also efficient feeders – they need to eat to survive so any wasted trips burn valuable energy. They work their way along hedges and through tree canopies so put the feeder near enough to the proven routes for best results.
In my half an hour I had just 11 species visit my garden – nothing to stir a twitcher’s heartrate but some interest even so:
Blue tits are fantastic birds. When you look at them up close you realise just how beautiful they are. The colour scheme and the delicacy of them is amazing. If you want to test a seasoned birdwatcher, ask them to describe in detail the plumage of a blue tit and see how well they do. When you look at most garden birds you realise just how fragile they are. They weigh about the same as a couple of teaspoons of sugar. Understandably they are very nervous. Blue tits will visit the table and then fly off a short distance to eat what they have taken, clean their bill and then come in again for more. You’ll soon see the pattern of arrival and departure from the birdtable like a mini Heathrow airport.
Every now and again though the robins move in. They are the perfect bird to watch in a snowy setting – they look beautiful against the white backdrop. You will soon realise that they are a bit of a playground bully – when they want to eat they will just wade in and scatter everything else in their path. Around 10% of adult robin mortality is through territory disputes! Research says that although we think we have our own robin they can be migratory. Another thing you may notice about robins is that they can sing at all hours of day or night.
There are distinct behaviours of some species and soon you’ll begin to recognise the bird without using and binoculars. Some will use the feeder, others will forage for the dropped scraps. In my garden the chaffinches are often on the ground with the blackbirds and thrushes while the greenfinches and goldfinches use the feeder.
Once in a while you’ll get something a bit more unusual – and this is where the persistence pays off. Its a bit like the National Lottery – if you don’t buy a ticket you can’t win. At this time of year and in this weather birds tend to travel in groups looking for food and, importantly, water. You can get large flocks of thrushes – redwings and fieldfares moving along hedges and through trees. There are larger numbers of siskin, redpoll and brambling around and the beautiful waxwing (check berry bushes in town centres, industrial estates, housing estates) but if you see any of these in the garden you will be lucky. Over time in my Ashbourne Garden we have had over 30 species “in sight” including waxwings and red-legged partridge.
In our area the proof of what you could see is in the remarkable Derby Cathedral peregrine project. The peregrines breed on the bell tower and their activities are tracked via webcams and close up research. The remnants of their prey have been analysed and uneaten parts of an astonishing 53 bird species have fallen victim. http://derbyperegrines.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/whats-on-menu.html These include the ultra-rare corncrake, seldom seen waxwing and the difficult to find jack snipe.
You don’t need to twitch, just enjoy the visitors to your garden with a bit more attention.