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Let’s kick off with a confession: I’m a closet twitcher.
There, I’ve said it in print.
It’s a legacy, I think, of a rural childhood, though it’s also fed by that (very male) desire to catalogue, collect and identify, added to which birds are just, well, amazing. And beautiful. And so varied. And of course they can fly, which is cool, and eat worms, which isn’t cool but is still sort of impressive.
Many of the books I’ve owned the longest are about birds, which means they date back to at least the mid-1970s. My favourites are Bird Spotting, written by John Holland and illustrated by Rein Stuurman (my hardback 1973 edition cost a mighty £1.25, so it must have been a birthday present), and The Observer’s Book Of Birds’ Eggs (75p the cost of the 1974 thirteenth reprint). Since then I’ve acquired others such as the Collins Bird Guide and the indispensable Collins Garden Birds.
I must have spent hours and hours poring over those books as a child, to the extent that 40 years on I still have a sort of neural muscle memory relating to their contents. Standing at the kitchen window peering through my binoculars at a garden visitor, a name will just pop into my head. “It’s a Brambling,” I’ll say and then, when my brain catches up, I’ll wonder how I knew. And then I’ll wonder how I could ever possibly forget. And then I’ll be reminded again about how cool birds are (have I mentioned that already?).
Don’t get me started on the proper Latin names for things, though. That stuff’s for grown-ups.
Birds went out of focus for me in the couple of decades I spent living in the city centre. Pigeons and seagulls impinged on my consciousness from time to time – they’re fun to watch when you’re at the football and it’s boring, which is most of the time – but it was when I moved to a suburban house with a suburban garden that my interest in birds took flight again (sorry).
Today I live near both the Water of Leith and the River Almond in Edinburgh and the herons that frequent those stretches will occasionally take time out to land on my garage roof and peer covetously into my neighbours’ pond. My neighbours have (or had!) koi carp. Ever seen a heron close up? They are enormous. In my own garden I have a pair of elderly apple trees and every two or three years a flock of Bohemian waxwings will over-winter there, roosting in the silver birch then swooping down to pick the apple trees clean of fruit. They’re beautiful, if slightly thuggish looking: crested, black throats, pinkish plumage, yellow-tipped tails and red, white and yellow wings. Holland and Stuurman tell me they’re irregular winter visitors to many parts of the UK but that occasionally large numbers come over from continental Europe. They were a no-show this year but I had redwings and fieldfares instead, and they did just as good a job of hoovering up the apples. If I trudge up nearby Corstorphine Hill there are woodpeckers – heard rather than seen, normally – and, far overhead, kestrels, sparrowhawks and the odd buzzard.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) estimates that around three million Britons regularly go bird-watching, and I suppose I’d have to count myself among them. But those numbers are rising because an unlikely and unforeseen upside to the ongoing pandemic has been an increase in interest in all things avian. Just check the numbers: RSPB web traffic in 2020 was nearly double what it was in 2019, while sales of bird tables trebled and sales of bird seed rose 86%. Meanwhile the UK’s Wildlife Trusts, which look after 2300 wildlife areas, found their live webcams proving particularly popular (one of these is trained on the ospreys which nest at Loch of the Lowes near Dunkeld). In April and May 2019 the Trusts registered 20,000 visit collectively. For the same period in 2020 the number had soared to 430,000.
Next weekend sees an event which, more than any other, will underscore this uptick in interest. It’s the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, an annual event since 1979 and scheduled for the weekend of January 29 to 31. All that’s needed is an hour of your time to watch the birds in your garden and count what you see.
“I hope that because of lockdown, taking part will be something that people feel they have time to do,” says Martin Fowlie, RSPB spokesman. “People have really reconnected with wildlife and what’s in their gardens and their green spaces in the past year, and as lockdown progresses it will become more important.”
Last year half a million people did take part and collectively they counted eight million birds, knocking out a top ten which found the house sparrow roosting in the number one spot followed (in descending order) by starlings, blue tits, woodpigeons, blackbirds, goldfinches, great tits, robins, long-tailed tits and magpies.
As the snow falls and locked down Scots peer anxiously through the windows at an uncertain future, the chances are there will be many more eyes on gardens and green spaces this year, and more people finding solace in the avian life that frequents them. If you intend your eyes to be among those watching – binoculars are optional but mighty useful – then here’s a selection of some of the birds you might be lucky enough to see.
Pic: Ben Andrews
“A close relative of the chaffinch, bramblings can turn up anywhere at this time of year on feeders in gardens,” says Martin Fowlie. “They are very distinctive, with a flush of peachy-orange winter plumage across their chest and shoulders, and black and white markings on the wing and back.”
Bramblings are winter visitors and rarely nest in the UK, tending to leave in March to return to Scandinavia. In mild winters they may not leave their Scandinavian breeding areas at all. When they do visit they often cluster around beech trees because it provides them with beech nuts – or beech mast, as it’s known – their favourite winter snack. The brambling also has a bevy of folk names, ranging from Cock O’ The North to Furze Chucker and Tartan Back.
Pic: Ian Francis
Pic: Ian Francis
A type of thrush from the same family as blackbirds and song thrushes fieldfares arrive in their thousands from Scandinavia during the autumn months. They’re stocky and scrappy (they take on crows with a chattering ‘shack-shack’ sound and in flight will bombard them with poo) and are recognisable by their white underwings, spotted breasts and (in the male) ochre throats.
“You tend to find them more in the countryside in groups, feeding on berries in hawthorn hedges,” says Fowlie. “But when the weather’s really cold or food has been depleted, you sometimes see them moving into large gardens for leftover fallen apples or other dropped fruit. They go around in groups of 10 to 20.”
That said, the fieldfare is currently on the RSPB’s Red List, meaning it is in historic decline globally and has seen at least a 50% decline in its UK breeding population over the last 25 years.
“These small finches have been appearing in reasonable numbers this year,” says Fowlie. “They have tiny bills, have a pale front with brown streaking and a little red forehead. Some have a pink-red marking on their chin. They again come from northern Europe for the winter … If you have a tree like a silver birch with catkins still on, or other trees with seeds, you quite often see them feeding on those in groups.”
Redpolls also feed on insects and can often be found near running water, though the species is declining in numbers for a variety of reasons among them changes in farming methods. The Lesser (as opposed to the Common) redpoll is on the RSPB Red List.
This is a magnificent looking bird – it has a startling black mask, a peachy-orange head and black and white wings with flashes of purple at the tips – but it’s also shy, relatively hard to spot given its liking for lofty perches in deciduous woodland trees, and rarely travels much further north than the Borders. Also on the RSPB Red List.
“This is the one every birdwatcher wants to see in their garden,” says Fowlie. “It’s our biggest finch, almost the size of a starling, with a huge, powerful bill.” The pressure of that bill amounts to several tons per square inch and it’s powerful enough to crack cherry stones and beech mast. “They are shy but they can appear in urban areas where there is food,” adds Fowlie. “They are seed feeders, so sunflower seeds and peanuts on a table may attract them.”
The hawfinch song is a sharp ‘zik’ or ‘pix’ sound which is described in my Collins Bird Guide as having “an almost electric quality, or like the sound made by jabbing a spike into solid granite”.
Pic: Nigel Blake
Another easily-distinguishable British favourite – it featured on the Royal Mail’s Birds Of Britain stamp series in 2010 – the blue tit is also plentiful. Europe-wide there are up to 40 million breeding pairs and an estimated 15 million birds will winter here. That makes the chances of spotting one (or two or three) pretty high. They have a blue fore-crown, white and black head, a bright yellow breast and distinctive blue and white wings and they can often be found hanging upside down from feeders.
Pic: Andy Hay
“These are beautiful and are more likely to turn up in urban and suburban areas than rural areas, partly because they like winter berries and particularly cotoneaster [flowering plants such as hawthorn and rowan],” says Fowlie (I can add that they love apples). “When they are feeding you can get really close to them, just five or six metres away. They have this crest, little mask and tips to their wings. They look amazing.”
You’d be doing well to spot a Cedar waxwing in your garden as they’re native to North America. Instead it’s the Bohemian waxwing, native to sub-Arctic Scandinavia and Russia, which visits the UK and even then only the eastern edge of the country. The tufted crest on the head makes them easy to spot, as does the fact that they tend to group together in flocks of several dozen.
Pic: Paul Chesterfield
“These shy birds have increased in numbers over the years and you may well find them in urban gardens,” says Fowlie. “They are a type of warbler. The males are gold-brown-grey with a dapper little black top to their head, while females have a red cap.”
Blackcaps are normally summer migrants which depart for Spain and North Africa in the winter, but in the last few decades an increasing number over-winter in the UK. Generally only spotted singly they will eat fruit or, for those with a bird table or feeder, fat balls and dried mealworms. It has a cute folk name: the March Nightingale.
Pic: Andy Hay
The robin is everyone’s favourite garden bird and the one most people are able to recognise. It’s native to the UK but immigrants from Europe arrive during the winter, which boosts numbers.
“Robins are more happy to feed on the ground, so put dried mealworms and a few seeds on the ground around any edges of bushes that you might have,” says Fowlie. Robins will also eat snails and earthworms and the bird’s distinctive call is either a ‘tick’ or a protracted ‘tick-ick-ick’ which sounds “like a watch being wound up” (my Collins Bird Guide again). It’s known as the European robin to distinguish it from its many relatives and it has a long and venerable history in folklore both pagan and Christian. These days it’s most closely associated with Christmas – unless you’re a fan of Bristol City FC, who are known as The Robins and have an image of one as their club crest.
Pic: John Bridges
“This is another warbler, like the blackcap, which usually goes to southern Spain and sub-Saharan Africa during our winter but with our warmer, wetter winters, some of them are staying over and are nesting here,” says Fowlie. “They have a very distinctive, onomatopoeic call, which is how they get their name.”
Chiffchaffs are common and nest on the ground, often in parks and at the edges of woodland. They mainly eat insects though they’re perfectly happy to snack on fat balls, old fruit and dried mealworms. Grey-brown colour above and off-white below, they’re small and have distinctive dark legs and a light yellow tinge to the throat and breast. Most distinctive of all is the voice: the ‘chiff-chaff’ sound which gives the birds their name and an upslurred ‘hoo-eet’ with the emphasis on the ‘-eet’ (do try this at home).
Pic: John Bridges
Another beautiful-looking bird and possibly even more striking than its relative, the hawfinch. Goldfinches range all across eastern and southern Europe and into coastal regions of North Africa, and though they used to be seen rarely in Scotland they’re becoming more frequent visitors.
“Nyjer seed is loved by goldfinches and when it’s really cold, birds will want to put on fat each afternoon so they can get through the night,” says Fowlie. “Having fat balls, a high energy food that birds can snack on and build up their reserves each night, are really good for a wide variety of species”.
The collective noun for goldfinches is a charm and from the Middle Ages onwards the birds were hunted to be sold as cage birds. One of the RSPB’s first campaigns after its formation in 1889 was aimed at stopping the practice.