Everyone loves animals – that is a fact. It is the very reason why we keep pets, why there are so many zoos and why we adore Sir David Attenborough (or maybe it’s just because he is naturally awesome). For many, the connection with animals barely advances beyond watching Planet Earth; however there remains a dedicated few who brave the wilderness in search of their own wildlife dramas. A popular pastime for those living in areas with minimal numbers of mammals is birdwatching, the endless pursuit for rare avian visitors. Birds come in all shapes and sizes, can be found in almost every habitat on Earth and aren’t always easy to spot; hence the appeal! If you want to give birdwatching a crack, don’t fear, you definitely do not need to be an instant expert and know every bird found on the planet (very few birders actually do). If you want tell your pigeon from your wigeon, your lesser spotted from your geater spotted – then there are some fundamental steps for any budding birder.
The beauty of birdwatching is that there are no guarantees. You’re not tracking man-made machines like a trainspotter or surveying plant life like a botanist, the subjects tend to be inconsistent. As the very thing that you are searching for can fly away whenever it likes, birdwatching is undoubtedly a gamble. In this case, if you prefer hobbies where the prizes are presented on a silver platter instantaneously to you, birdwatching may quickly become tiresome. Being to sit back and wait, despite no definite reward, is part of the allure.
Before you can physically prepare yourself, you must first ensure that you are in the right frame of mind for birdwatching. It’s hardly boxing, but there are still several essential mind-sets that most birdwatchers hold true to. Firstly, a general appreciation and respect for biodiversity is crucial. For example, when birdwatching, keeping your distance from wild animals, minimising disturbance and not altering the landscape. Secondly, you need to enhance your awareness of nature, whether it be through disconnecting from your thoughts to listen to birdsong or merely scanning the sky and the trees on your commute. You will soon uncover a world living before your very eyes that you may never have been tuned into. Thirdly, have a willingness to learn; there are hundreds of native species in the UK alone and you will not know them all overnight, thus persistence is required.
At first, trekking up a mountain or trudging through marshland might seem overly arduous. If you don’t feel compelled to travel to the birds, encourage the birds to come to you. You don’t need Dr Doolittle levels of animal persuasion, you merely need to attract them into your garden. Birdwatching from your backyard is an ideal way to start learning, firstly, because you can view wildlife whilst washing up or lounging on the sofa, zero effort is required. Secondly, the subjects are up close and thus more easily identifiable, you appreciate their vivid colours and fascinating behaviours better than ever before. Thirdly, birds found in your garden tend to be common species and are more easily recognisable elsewhere.
For further guidance on attracting wildlife to your garden have a read here
Imagine you are out and about, you spot a bird but have no idea what it could be. Awkward. Well if it was a bird, and it was black, logic dictates that it might be blackbird. Then again, it could be a crow or even a starling, how frustrating! Instead of frantically googling it, it is well worth referencing a decent guide book. Whether you enjoy illustrations or appreciate the clarity of photographs, these books are pivotal in the learning process. They support the memorising of identification, explain contextual details and provide information on other similar birds. Scanning through these books is how most young birdwatchers get hooked, on the premise of not only being satisfied with a picture on a page. These books needn’t be bulky encyclopaedias, nowadays there are various apps that can help you identify species on the go, how modern!
The human eye is a phenomenal structure and a marvel of biological engineering. Alas, it is somewhat limited when trying to view ducks on the far end of a lake hundreds of yards away. In this instance, decent optical equipment can make a real difference to your birdwatching experience. Binoculars, binos, bins or nockers (careful…) – however you like to call them are a mainstay piece of kit for all birdwatchers. For anyone hesitant about investing in a sparkling brand new pair, there are plenty of second hand, more affordable options out there. Additionally, some nature reserves will loan out binoculars for visitors, so it is worth asking. For a more advanced view, telescopes are also used frequently by birdwatchers, not just stargazers.
If birdwatching was a video game, your garden would be the tutorial. Once you feel like you know enough and you’re happy with the kit that you have, it is finally time to get out there. Nature reserves are a perfect port of call as these are landscapes designed to both protect and showcase wildlife. They have pristine pathways, homely hides and usually a café, bonus! Here is where you are likely to find the quirky, elusive and rare species unlikely to turn up at your doorstep, so they make for great viewing. Be sure to visit a variety of reserves in different habitats, in order to experience the broadest diversity of birdlife. A crucial side note, exciting animals are not limited to protected areas, so keep an eye out when strolling through fields or passing by rivers, there will always be something special to spot.
Everyone enjoys nature in their own way, however being social among other birdwatchers is good way to engage and develop personally. Nature lovers tend to be an understanding and empathetic bunch, so don’t be put off by asking a silly question. You can attend guided walks with other birdwatchers as this would not only improve your knowledge but it will allow you to share your experiences with other like-minded individuals. The age of social media has allowed birdwatchers to connect like never before, so join a fan group or forum online. Here, people share photographs, advice and recent sightings, so they can be a valuable resource for beginners. There is surely no better feeling that connecting with others that share your passions.
By the time that you have read and followed all of these steps, we hope that you will already be itching to venture into the great outdoors in search of the weird, the wonderful and the wild. The bottom line is, go outdoors and you very quickly learn to appreciate nature. Guide books and sunflower seeds may assist you along the way, but there is no greater feeling than getting kitted up for a day in wilderness.