In 1822, a white stork was discovered in Germany with its neck speared by an arrow. What was especially astonishing to the local birdwatchers was that the arrow was an African one.
The Pfeilstorch (a stork injured by an arrow) finally answered the age-old question of migration and opened whole new avenues to birdwatchers. Nowadays, the most sophisticated projects, such as the GWCT’s Woodcock Watch, involve fitting birds with satellite tags, but birdwatching is still carried out with equal usefulness by people equipped with nothing more than a notebook-avian charities rely on public enthusiasm to produce many of their statistics.
The keenest will stop at nothing to spot the next bird on their list, scaling cliffs, rising at 3am to catch the dawn chorus and sitting for hours in a damp hide, binoculars at the ready. But there is a gentler tone to the pastime, redolent of lyrical descriptions by Gilbert White or BB and the glorious paintings of John James Audubon, Archibald Thorburn and, now, Rodger McPhail.
Birdwatching can be enjoyed with as much or as little dedication as you like-you can do it in the garden or you can sit for hours in a reed bed waiting for a bittern to boom- but a growing familiarity with bird species and their sounds is one of life’s great, simple and free pleasures.
Nothing could be easier-simply glance out of the kitchen window when you’re doing the washing-up and identify the birds on the lawn. All you need is eyes and ears, but if you want to do it seriously, the possibilities are endless. Local wildlife and birding groups are always keen to welcome new members.
Birdwatch (www.birdwatch.co.uk) has an ever-growing directory of clubs and events. The legacy of Sir Peter Scott thrives through the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust’s nine reserves, with such projects as adopt a Bewick’s swan (01453 891900; www.wwt.org.uk).
The RSPB (01767 693690; www.rspb.org.uk), which has more than one million members, runs dozens of birdwatching trips to see everything from avocets on the Exe estuary and black grouse in North Wales. Getting involved with a survey is a good way to focus your efforts, such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch later this month or the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden BirdWatch (01842 750050; www.bto.org).
If you want to improve your identification skills, Verdant Wildlife offers workshops and seasonal tours in East Anglia, the Midlands and Yorkshire (01777 291862; http://verdantwildlife.co.uk); Leeds-based Linda Jenkinson offers indoor and outdoor classes (07778 768719; www.startbirding.co.uk) and, in Dorset and Hampshire, Two Owls Birding runs walks, courses and holidays (01202 620049; www.twoowlsbirding.co.uk).
Birdwatching apps are the current big thing. Try Birds of Britain: A Pocket Guide (£1.99) and iBird UK & Ireland Guide to Birds (£10.49), voted the best birding app in the world, with details of 283 species, both from iTunes.
Give it a try
The Wildlife and Wetland Trust runs guided walks and wildfowl-feeding sessions at its nine reserves (www.wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres). There are daily boat safaris at Arundel in West Sussex (01903 883355) and farmhouse accommodation is available at Caerlaverock in Dumfriesshire (01387 770200). Norfolk is one of the greatest places in the world to watch birds, and North Norfolk Birds runs tailormade walks to Blakeney Point, Stiffkey and Holkham, among others (01263 711396; www.northnorfolkbirds.co.uk).
What to buy
Habicht 7×42 traditional binoculars, £650, Swarovski (00800 3242 5056; http://uk.swarovskioptik.com)
Viking AV50 scope kit, £163.95, RSPB (0845 120 0501; www.rspbshop.co.uk)
Dome hide in various camouflage materials, £245.20, Wildlife Watching Supplies (www.wildlifewatchingsupplies.co.uk; 01884 254191)
Royal Bempton hanging bird table with copper roof, £27.49, RSPB (0845 120 0501; www.rspbshop.co.uk)
Black niger seed, £6.45 for 1kg, Farmer Brown’s Products (http://farmerbrown.co.uk)
Make a weekend of it
The New Forest
This trip to the New Forest offers an opportunity to spot elusive nocturnal birds, including nightjars and woodcock at dusk, plus the rare Dartford warbler, the lesser-spotted woodpecker and raptors such as the hobby, goshawk and honey buzzard, as well as deer, bats and lizards. Accom-
modation is provided in a hotel near Lyndhurst. May 16-18, £295, excluding pub lunches.
(01962 733051; www.naturetrek.co.uk)
Outer Hebrides: Corncrakes and Skuas
More than a weekend, but worth it to experience the avian glories of the Scottish islands, the last stronghold of the corncrake. You can expect to see 115 species, including golden eagles, whimbrels and ringed plovers. Accommodation is in Lochboisdale Hotel on South Uist, and the itinerary spans the Hebrides, from Barra to Benbecula, with transport by boat between the islands. May 10-16, £1,099, including all meals and entry fees to reserves. (01656 711152; www.oriolebirding.com)
Tips from the expert
Simon Barnes, author of How to be a Bad Birdwatcher, Bird-watching with your Eyes Closed and A Bad Birdwatcher’s Companion, offers advice
* Birdwatching is not a hobby. It’s not a passion either. It’s much better than either-it’s getting back in touch with the wild world
* It’s not about experts and expertise, it’s about your own enjoyment to hell with everyone else!
* Don’t worry about equipment. Every pair of binoculars ever made will bring the birds closer
* If you walk towards a bird, it will fly away-that’s what they’re good at. Get good at being still and the birds will come to you
* Listen. I identify more than half my birds by the noises they make
* You’re not going to identify every bird you encounter. Nor am I. You can, at least, enjoy the eternal mystery of biodiversity
Read all about it
Bald Coot and Screaming Loon: A Handbook for the Curious Bird Lover Niall Edworthy (Eden Project Books, £14.99)
RSPB Handbook of British Birds Peter Holden and Tim Cleeves (Christopher Helm Publishers, £9.99)
The Birdwatcher’s Year Richard Williamson (Summersdale Publishers, £9.99)
January 25-26 Big Garden Bird-watch survey (www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch)
February 1-2 Slimbridge Festival of Birds, Slimbridge Wetlands Centre, Gloucestershire (01453 891223; www.wwt.org.uk)
May 10-11 Scottish Birdfair, Hopetoun House, Edinburgh (0131- 317 4100; www.scottishbirdfair.