A beginner’s guide to birdwatching

Essential tips for catching sight of Britain’s stunning array of birds

Last Sunday I was pottering about at home, doing the laundry, listening to the wireless, when the afternoon calm was shattered by an ornithological bombshell.

There was a nuthatch at the peanut feeder.

A handsome devil if ever there was one, the nuthatch is sparrow-like in size, and looks a bit like a woodpecker. It’s pale blue on top, creamy-yellow underneath, and has a black go-faster stripe above the eye. Imagine a blue tit that’s made a bit more effort. I’d never seen one outside dense woodland before – not even in a park – and yet there was one right in front of me, flitting about on my patio in south London. Well, I nearly put the iron over my hand.

Such are the joys of birdwatching. As a hobby it can throw up a wonderful surprise, any time, anywhere. Arm yourself with a bit of birdy knowledge and an awareness of your surroundings, and the most perfunctory amble can become your own personal wildlife show.

It’s probably good for you, too – it bears repeating that anything that helps us disconnect from our hectic lives and reconnect with the natural world is probably a good thing.

So what if you wanted to add yourself to Britain’s legion of amateur birdwatchers, which number around half a million? How do you get started with all this? Here are a few essential tips…

Start local

Good news – you don’t have to go far to feel the thrill of the watch, in fact, you can start at home. Invest in some feeders and food (peanuts and sunflower hearts/seeds for starters), then sit back and let the birds come to you. It helps to know what you’re looking at, so have a guide book handy by your window. You’ll soon have some regulars and get to know their personalities: the fighty robins, the skittish tits, and my garden favourite: the chatty goldfinches, which are becoming more common in the UK and knock about in loose gangs sounding like they’re popping bubbles in flight.

All the gear

Buy some decent binoculars

You may be able to get away without binoculars if you’re at home staking out the feeders, but on any sort of bird walk they’re invaluable. The technicalities get very complicated very quickly, so to cut to the chase, any pair with 8x magnification are ideal for general use. The RSPB does a solid selection.

Spread your wings

Locate your nearest nature reserves with the Wildlife Trusts or the RSPB and plan a half-day out. If you’re a city dweller, look up, look up, look up! It’s not unusual now to see a speeding peregrine falcon or some raucous ring-necked parakeets, and this winter British cities are getting an ‘irruption’ of the rarely seen hawfinches, which are tough-looking birds with remarkably strong bills. Likewise, starling ‘murmurations’  (a swirling mass of birds) in autumn are a spectacular sight, and relatively predictable in where they occur – your nearest roosting site may not be far away. If you really get into it, you’ll start accruing birdwatching memories that you’ll take to your grave. Personally speaking, I’ll never forget the five minutes I got, just me and a hen harrier and not so much as another car in sight, on Mull in 2014.

Ignore the stereotype

What’s your response to a line of anorak-clad men with suspiciously long telescopes, all keen to display their superior knowledge? Whether it’s deep horror or hot lust, it doesn’t matter – this is not your common-or-garden birdwatching scene. What this describes is a ‘twitch’, where hardened ‘twitchers’ travel long distances to see a rare visitor to these shores, preferably before their twitching nemesis gets there. This is a far cry from the regular guided walks that are organised by nature organisations, which are friendly, uncompetitive affairs. As for the anoraks, you’re well advised to get one too.

Train your ears

Learning the calls of our most common birds can be surprisingly easy once you know what you’re listening out for, and the RSPB website is an easy-to-use resource for this. Start with birds that have a regular, repeated call: the great tit (squeaky see-saw), the wren (children’s toy gun) and chaffinch (bird falling down stairs and swearing at the end), and you’ll be on your way. Note that the first bird to pipe up in the morning, and the last to shut up before bedtime, tends to be a robin, melancholically staking its territory when all the other birds have called it a night. And the famous nightingale? There really is nothing else like it.

An owlet in sight 

Go on a trip with a bird-y friend

Any time I’ve been on a bird trip with someone with better field craft and ID skills than me, I’ve been amazed at what I would have missed without them. The sudden stop, the raised finger suggesting something at large, the blazing eyes of pursuit … and there’s you, floundering around wondering what the fuss is about. Like any other skill, birdwatching is something you get better at with practice and guidance. Plus, you don’t have go to drink alone in the pub afterwards.

Manage your expectations

Birdwatching is basic risk and reward, so sometimes you see a lot, sometimes you don’t. The noble failure is as much a part of it as the bumper crop. To put it bluntly, if you want certainty, go to a zoo.

A different kind of tweet

Birdy social media accounts abound and they are fantastic for keeping the spark alive while you’re tied to your computer. A few suggestions: @britishbirds, @_BTO, @BTO_GBW and @Natures_Voice are a good start, but try accounts that are local to you, too.

Follow Paul Fleckney on Twitter @fleckaz


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