Bird Watching

How many days a year are you able to take part in your chosen hobby or sport ? What equipment and conditions do you need, snow, mountains, clear blue sea. ?

I am fortunate, I am a birdwatcher, all I need is my eyes and ears and a window to look out of. This enriches business trips down the motorway with views of buzzards & kestrels, walks between business meetings along Euston Road in London with the sound of herring gulls, and stressfull moments in the office can be relieved with the view of a sparrowhawk flying by.

I haven't always been a birdwatcher. It all started very suddenly in my early twenties at Elsmere in Cheshire. I was on a canal holiday and taking my turn at steering when the boat went under a tree and there on the branch just above my head was a kingfisher. Like most non birdwatchers while vaguely believing in the existence of such wondrous sights, it had never occurred to me that they could be seen for real. As they say the scales fell from my eyes and all of a sudden there were weird birds with crests on the bank (lapwings) and herons lifted in complaint as we passed.

This was the start and in spite of my comments above, technology does help so it was off to Dixon's for my very first pair of 8 x 40 binoculars. The next month was probably the most magical I will ever experience, when you do not know any British Birds then seeing the common ones just walking round Stanmore common with your newly acquired field guide is as exciting as being anywhere in the world. Can you believe what a goldfinch looks like, wow !

So where do you go from there, even in those days (and I am not in the first flush of youth so it is a little while ago) help was at hand. I am a great joiner so the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) was an obvious first call and information and friendly help poured in. Weekend conferences organised by the RSPB started to fill out knowledge and add still further to the interest. On a memorable afternoon trip from one of these conferences in York, Trevor Gunton patiently introduced me to what would be my passion within a passion, sea birds. If you can't believe that goldfinches actually exist try seeing a puffin for real !

From this point birdwatchers develop their own characters within the hobby. Some concentrate on the number of birds they can see (twitchers) and will travel huge distances to see birds, particularly rare visitors to Britain that have unluckily turned right instead of left and flown several thousand miles in the wrong direction. I like a beautiful rare bird as much as the next person but consider myself very fortunate that the genuine thrill of seeing all birds including the common ones has never left so a robin on a bird table is still well worthy of attention and gives immense pleasure.

Having said that, the world is full of wonderful birds and places to see them in, so my wife Lynne (luckily also infected by the bug) and I have with the help of the many travel companies in the market set off to see some of them.

This has taken us as far south as the Antarctic and the Falklands, as far west as North & South America, as far east as Hong Kong and as far north as the Shetlands. It's great to go away with a group with similar interests and someone who can help with the identification of what is mind blowingly a completely different set of birds. A rain forest produces more birds in an hour than you can appreciate in a life time (and a very stiff neck trying to look at them).

Through it all though the most pleasure I get is by seeing birds well and spending time with them and above all this has centred on sea birds who are usually quite large, don't hide in trees and frequently have a somewhat bemused interest in human beings.

So can I pick out my most magical moment in almost thirty years ?

A near second would come a close encounter with several Adelie penguins on a sun lit ice strewn beach in the Antarctic.

First, however is surprisingly much closer to home. We were on holiday in Shetland and visiting the RSPB reserve at Herma Ness which are huge cliffs overlooking the Muckle Flugga lighthouse which is the most northerly point of Britain. Even without birds, when the sun shines this is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But there are huge number of sea birds everywhere including the auks (puffins, guillemots & razorbills), gannets, gulls, skuas etc.

So as you do on these occasions you sit on the cliff top and just enjoy it. A puffin landed 30 feet away, wonderful. As puffins do, he gave me an appraising look and then walked rapidly towards me and disappeared down a hole about 15 feet away which I had not previously seen. Obviously a nesting burrow and this was clearly the parents on shift change as within seconds a second bird appeared out of the hole.

He (or she) too gave me a quizzical look and then amazingly rapidly advanced towards me and sat down less than 6 feet away. I know it was close because my camera would not focus down that far.

So there we sat together for nearly 20 minutes, jointly enjoying the sunshine and the view. Both ducking in unison as the blackbacked gulls flew over head.
Does life get any better than that.

Why did he do it, who knows I like to think that he was using me as protection against the skuas & gulls that do predate on them so not only did he give me one of the experiences of my life but I helped him a little as well. At the very least he chose my company which is very rare in a world where wildlife is usually with absolute justification terrified of man.

So why not give it a go. If your passion takes you to the great outdoors, give the birds a second look, they will enrich your day and your life.

John Tidmarsh

To learn more about Birdwatching please visit the RSPB website