Thursday, 4 January 2007

Bad birdwatching

Time for a change of subject. For the first time, I’m keeping a birding year list (well, two – one for my local patch, and one for the UK generally). I should explain…
I’ve always been a bit of a birdwatcher. I remember getting interested after doing a project at primary school, but I let it slip a bit until 10 years or so ago, when I started hill-walking a lot. Now, while walking can be a pleasant enough experience in itself, it’s even better if you’ve got something to keep an eye out for. In Britain at least, birds are the obvious option. After all, we’ve got relatively little in the way of mammals and reptiles, and for much of the year it’s too cold for the larger, more colourful insects. In addition, these islands get far more than their fair share of interesting birds, because the relatively mild weather makes it an attractive prospect for all manner of migrants at different times of year.
I’m not, though, what is popularly called a twitcher. They’re the type of birdwatchers who will drop everything to drive or fly off to a remote Scottish island, or an exotic location, to see a rarity, tick it off their list, and move on to the next. Don’t get me wrong – if I happen to see a rarity on my travels, I’m delighted, but to my mind it’s just as much fun seeing a perfectly common species going about its daily business. And when a rare bird does turn up, even a moderately unusual one for that matter, it drives home one of the big appeals of birdwatching, namely that it reminds you that whatever the field guides say, pretty much anything CAN happen. This winter, for example, has already seen three British firsts – a Long-billed Murrelet in Devon, a Glaucous-winged Gull in Gloucester, and a Black-eared Kite around the Wash and North Norfolk. All are literally half a world away from home.
Connected with this is the fact that (as Simon Barnes points out in his excellent How To Be A Bad Birdwatcher) birds can fly. It might sound obvious, but mastery of flight is so alien to us as (individual) humans that it gives even a Starling a certain glamour.
As it happens, I now combine business with pleasure, working for Bird Watching magazine, so, inspired by assistant editor Mike Weedon (whose blog here contains loads of great digiscoped images), I thought I’d start the year lists. The patch list should be the most interesting, giving some idea of just how rich an array of birdlife it’s possible to see within roughly a dozen miles of an unremarkable Leicestershire village.
Fine in theory, but it’s been a slow start. A king-sized New Year hangover restricted my watching on January 1 to a quick trip to the garage and back. As I left the house, my first birds of 2007 were eight Jackdaws, bickering away on their usual perches on my chimney-pots (in the past, they’ve thoughtfully dropped goodies such as half a kebab down into the fireplace), and a large, hungry looking Sparrowhawk was a good spot just down the road. There was a Cormorant, too, flying towards the leisure centre fishing lake, plus Blackbird, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Robin, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Wood Pigeon, Black-headed Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull and Starling.
Since then, very little. On my patch, that’s not surprising, because I’m away during daylight hours, but while I only get about 20 minutes of light on the trip to work in the morning, and none going home, it’s usually enough to see Kestrels, Pheasants, some wildfowl and winter thrushes. And the feeders at work, plus the car-park and nearby woods, sometimes have some interesting species. So far, though, nothing much for the UK list. I’ve managed to add Chaffinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Common Gull, plus Red Kite, and that’s it.
Still, that last bird is always a delight. When I was a kid, they were one of the UK’s rarest breeding species, with probably less than 20 in Mid-Wales. Now, thanks to conservation and reintroductions to England and Scotland, there are thousands, with at least 300 thriving in Rockingham Forest, between Leicester and Peterborough. They’re so elegant, so much the masters of their element, that they never fail to make me catch my breath a little bit as they glide over the trees or, as was the case with this one, skim low over the road on their way to the landfill tip.
So, not exactly off to a flyer, but I’ll get out and about at the weekend.

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