It’s the RSPB’s Big Birdwatch this weekend. Carol Tobin explains the joys of the much-maligned hobby.
Carol Tobin waiting for hawks to pass overhead at Hawk Mountain in Philadelphia
It’s difficult to quantify the number of people who participate in birdwatching: you don’t necessarily have to be on a hike with a pair of binoculars and a field guide to be able to appreciate the natural beauty of birds. It can be done from the comfort of your garden or gazing out the kitchen window while making a cup of tea.
The UK Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) reports that every couple of weeks about six million people actively partake in birdwatching. Mass media, in particular documentaries and television shows, have contributed to the interest in this hobby.
I have been watching birds for most of my life. When I was growing up, my mother would throw stale bread into the back yard and I would sit on the windowsill of our living room and gaze at the birds that flocked, making up lives for each one that graced our yard with its presence. Studying these birds also prepared me for the humans I would inevitably meet in life; the sneaky thieving magpies, the intimidating crafty crows and the adorable robins, cute little messengers of death.
Birds were also my introduction to superstition, a fearful state of mind I had to spend many years unlearning. A robin in your home meant someone close to you was going to die. An owl hooting near a new born meant the baby would become a witch and, the most common of all the superstitions, one magpie for sorrow. A sighting of a lone magpie could singlehandedly ruin my day, its cackle mocking me as my nervous disposition invited negative experiences into my life.
As I got older, my fearfulness switched to envying the creatures. At times I desperately wanted to be a bird. The lives I had made up for them as a child seemed much better than my one and I craved their freedom, the ability to be able to take off whenever you want to. Imagine never having to deal with an airport again. No bag anxiety, no Ryanair humiliation, no sweat-inducing security checks where your embarrassment over wearing two different socks makes you look like you have condoms stuffed with drugs strategically placed inside you. The ability to crap all over people without any consequences was also attractive at times.
Picture courtesy of the RSPB
Over the past few years, I found myself exploring more of our wondrous world and I discovered birdwatching was the best way to get a feel for an unfamiliar country. Usually, I would discover a new destination by doing tourist-y things during the day and exploring the nightlife when the sun went down. I found that birdwatching helps you become more grounded in a place and is an excellent way to find your bearings.
A birdwatching trip to New York last October helped me to fall in love with the city after I had had a few terrible dates with it. Sex and the City initially ruined it for me. I felt I wasn’t good enough for its streets. Birdwatching made me realise it’s not all about shopping, cocktails and maxing out stolen credit cards.
I went on a field trip in Central Park with an amazing birdwatching group which meets there on a daily basis. Spring and autumn are the most exciting times to be there because thousands of birds are migrating from South America to the Arctic Circle and back again and Central Park is the only area for miles around that they can stop off for some vital refuelling. At these times, the park harbours a wide variety of rare and unusual birds which you would never normally have the privilege of seeing. It also proved to be a great way to meet locals and to get some inside information on their city.
I soon discovered there are tonnes of advantages to birdwatching. Firstly, it benefits your physical and mental well-being. You’re out breathing the fresh air you’re wandering about in. You always end up walking more than you plan to and that guarantees a mood lift.
It’s the perfect environment to de-stress in and practice being mindful because you have to engage your senses, especially sight and sound. Having to identify a hidden bird through its song gives another dimension to birding. I’ve heard birds which have sounded like emphysema patients on their deathbeds, ones that reminded me of a sex doll being blown up and one time I heard one that sounded like a child screaming. I asked the guide how he could be sure that this bird wasn’t, in fact, a kid screaming. “You can’t really be sure,” he replied. I wondered how many times people called the police after hearing it.
Birdwatching can also act as a free eye test as you realise that the woodpecker you thought you spotted is actually an old man sitting on a park bench. It also makes you more aware of your surroundings. I don’t know how many times I’ve walked down a street only noticing the dirt on my shoes. Birding has helped me to open my eyes to my environment and has in return made me much more respectful of it.
I have also discovered that there is something so refreshing about looking through a pair of binoculars and just enjoying the sight. We are so obsessed with taking pictures of everything nowadays that we don’t actually savour the scene. While cameras are important in birdwatching and have made it so much easier to identify birds, it’s nice every once in a while to just have a good look.
I realised that bird watching is also good for your relationship because you can’t fight when you’re observing our feathered friends, in case your roaring of expletives flushes away the birds. The thrill of the hunt is also seductive. It’s very satisfying to discover a bird you weren’t expecting that may have been blown off course due to stormy conditions or to see a F.O.Y. (first of the year).
Birdwatchers also do their bit for science. The information from our sightings is uploaded onto various different online databases and this is crucial in helping scientists to study climate change.
Sadly, it’s still seen as a geeky pastime – something I didn’t realise until I was in Central Park when a group of skateboarders whizzed past our group throwing insults.
I’m also finding it hard to recruit my friends into birdwatching. One mate recently said: “I’ll go with you if we bring some cans of beer so that if anyone passes us we can just pretend we’re drinking outdoors.” But I wouldn’t recommend boozing on a field trip. You might think you’ve seen double and mess up your count.
Picture courtesy of the RSPB
• More than half a million people are expected to watch and count their garden birds for this year’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.
• The survey, now in its 36th year, provides information about the changes in numbers of birds using our gardens in winter, and helps to alert conservationists to those species in decline, such as house sparrows, greenfinches and starlings.
• The survey is part of the RSPB’s Giving Nature a Home campaign, aimed at tackling the housing crisis facing the UK’s threatened wildlife. The charity is asking people to provide a place for wildlife in their own gardens and outside spaces – by planting pollen-rich plants to attract bees and butterflies, putting up a nestbox for a house sparrow or creating a pond that will support a number of different species.
• In the 2014 Big Garden Birdwatch, the most commonly spotted birds were house sparrows, blue tits and starlings.
• You can register for the RSPB’s Big Birdwatch here www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/register
Tormented writer and comedian Carol Tobin prefers wielding a pen instead of a sword in her battles with her demons. @carolgertrude