“How on earth did you know that?”
On a Zoom call with a colleague a few weeks ago, I heard a familiar sound, and asked her if she knew she had swifts nesting under the eaves of her roof.
She had noticed birds flitting around outside her upstairs windows, but was unsure what they were. So how come I knew?
Well — the short answer is the shrill “scree-scree” call of the swift, which I instantly recognised. Look up in the sky of a summer’s evening and you may hear the same distant shrieks from crescent-shaped birds circling high above you.
The longer answer relates to my life-long love of bird watching. My parents and grandparents had bird feeders in their gardens for as long as I can remember. As a very young child, long before Peppa Pig was even a twinkle in her father’s eye, I learnt that patience and stillness were rewarded with bird sightings. And naturally, I wanted to know all about the different visitors.
In the early 1980s, my best friend Elizabeth Harvey and I both became members of the Young Ornithologists Club (the junior wing of the RSPB). We grew up in the urban sprawl of a new town, but my parents’ house was on the periphery so farmers’ fields and country lanes were a short cycle away (I had a Budgie bike; Liz had her brother’s handed-down Raleigh Griffin).
Our bible was the Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe, a prized gem from a second-hand bookshop. The birds on the front cover were impossibly exotic and colourful. To this day, I have only ever seen a bee-eater in India. But with patience, sharp eyes and the whole of the summer holidays stretching out in front of you, it’s amazing how many birds you can identify — even in an urban setting.
We soon learnt the difference between a blackbird and a starling; a song thrush and a mistle thrush; a blue tit and a great tit (see info box below). Away from the garden, a thrilling spot would be the gravity-defying hover of a kestrel, or the electric-blue flash of a jay’s wing.
Under lockdown, many more of us are learning to appreciate the seeming renaissance of urban birdlife. We’re much more aware of birdsong now that traffic and aircraft noise is subdued. Locked down in our local neighbourhoods, curiosity can easily be sparked by noticing birdlife on an outdoor walk around a park or cemetery or (for the lucky ones) sitting in the garden.
There may be greater awareness and interest in birdlife under lockdown, but the BBC's recent Springwatch series showed mounting evidence that wildlife of all kinds is thriving. Certainly, the spots I've made in local parks and wild places this spring and summer have been the best in years. Is this because I have more time to look, or are the birds bolder and more plentiful? And how can we learn more about them?
The RSPB website has a great bird ID feature; you could download a bird ID app on your smartphone (the Merlin Bird ID is one of the better ones) or like me, you may prefer the old-fashioned charms of a guide book. The Urban Birder book by Londoner David Lindo will give you plenty of inspiration.
Often, you hear a bird before you see it. Cup your hands behind your ears (yes you will look like an idiot, but who cares) to get a better sense of where to point your binoculars. You will soon get to know the sounds — be it the machinegun trill of the wren or the chattering of warring magpies.
And how to identify these? Well, some of the best free sources of information are the Facebook groups All Things Birdwatching UK and UK Bird Identification, which each boast about 20,000 members (numbers have climbed rapidly during lockdown). Much can be learnt from the comments underneath the daily stream of videos and photos posted by members; some are professional photographers, others just snap birds using their phones. The collective knowledge of both groups is awesome — it is the nearest thing to being in a bird hide and asking more experienced birders for help making an ID.
Having become more aware of the beauty and fragility of bird populations under lockdown, hopefully more of us will want to learn about protecting and preserving them for future generations. Your birding knowledge will travel with you throughout your life. The environment around you may change, but birdlife is always there. Even when we return to office life in the City of London, you might be lucky enough to spot a peregrine falcon swooping among the skyscrapers. All you have to do is look up.
Five birds to look out for in urban areas of the UK
1. Ring-necked parakeet
Now ubiquitous in London parks, the bright-green flash of the parakeet is an increasingly common sight in cities as far north as Manchester and Glasgow. An invasive species, there are plenty of urban myths about their arrival (from Jimi Hendrix releasing a pair to a flock escaping from the film set of The African Queen). Accepted wisdom is that over the years, plenty of people kept them as pets, only for them to escape or be released. When you hear the ferocity of their squawk, the latter sadly seems most likely.
Ring-necked parakeets love London plane trees, and will nest in old woodpecker holes. The jury is out on what native bird species their arrival may have displaced. If you are brave enough, many YouTube videos show how they can be tempted down from the trees with a fresh apple (remove the seeds, and wear a gardening glove).
As a child, I used to dream of spotting a goldfinch — one of the most colourful specimens you’ll find in any bird book. Nowadays, they are increasingly common garden birds. If a flock comes to your garden, you’ll be rewarded with a blaze of colour and sound — their arrival preceded by pleasant wittering and a gently undulating flight pattern. The collective noun is “a charm of goldfinches” and it’s easy to see why.
Unless you are lucky enough to have a swift nesting in your eaves, you’re unlikely to see one close up. These incredible birds only land to nest — they eat and sleep on the wing, and their crescent-shaped profile can often be seen circling high in the summer sky. Migrants from Africa, they will come back to the same nest site year after year and have a distinctive “scree-scree” call. Populations have declined due to the lack of suitable nest sites — help restore the balance by putting up a specially designed swift nesting box.
4. Great spotted woodpecker
A shy bird, there have been plenty of sightings in London parks this summer. I found my first woodpecker’s nest recently while out on a run, and investigated after I heard a loud “peep” coming from a tree. Careful listening revealed a perfectly round hole 20ft up a tree that looked like it had been made with a circular drill bit. Watching the adult birds fly back and forth to feed the chick — which poked its head out of the hole and cheeped even louder if they took too long — was unforgettable. Once you can recognise the sound of woodpeckers drilling, you may realise that they are more common in parks and urban areas than you might think. If they visit garden bird feeders, they tend to come very early, or very late.
You might think my last choice is a rather boring one, as blackbirds are such a common sight. Yet under lockdown, I have been listening to blackbirds singing in the morning and late evening with something approaching rapture. Only the males sing (females are actually dark brown birds) usually from a high perch such as a tree top or TV aerial. To encourage blackbirds to your garden, I have never encountered anything more effective than supermarket value sultanas. One plucky blackbird will come and peck on my parents’ kitchen window if they have neglected to scatter some for him.
How to tell some bird species apart
Blackbirds and starlings
Blackbirds are black with a bright yellow beak and eye (females are dark brown). By contrast, the smaller starling, when viewed close up, is covered with speckles and has an oily, iridescent sheen.
Song and mistle thrushes
If you don’t recognise the song thrush by its plaintive, wavering song, its golden-brown hue and arrow-shaped speckles differentiate it from the larger mistle thrush (more of a grey-brown, with splodgy spots).
Blue and great tits
Blue tits are easy to spot, with a blue cap and black stripe running through the eye and yellow breast. The larger great tit has a darker head, and a thick black marker stripe running the length of its bright yellow breast.
Which birds have you spotted recently? Tell us in the comments
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