How to be a birdwatcher, by M. G. Leonard

Published on: 15 June 2021 Author: M. G. Leonard

Twitch author M. G. Leonard loves studying the birds she sees out and about - and from countryside gardens to urban gardens and cities, there are so many beautiful species to spot! She shares some tips on how to start this peaceful and fascinating hobby.

Twitch and author M. G. LeonardTwitch and author M. G. Leonard

The importance of insects

Most people know that I am a bug lover. It was my beetle books that led me to my brand new hobby, watching birds. When I was travelling the country, talking about the wonders of coleoptera, I met lots of impressive young readers who were knowledgeable and passionate birders. This makes sense, because people who love birds understand the importance of insects. Insects are part of the food chain and all birds eat them. If there are no insects, there are no birds.

On my bug hunts, I often saw birds, but never paid much attention to them. I was too interested in finding beetles. But the link between bugs and birds was ultimately irresistible, because there are so many things about birdwatching that appeal to me. For one thing, I love being outdoors, and birders are cool: they’re part spy, part detective, part collector. They have the same gear, camouflaged clothes, a camera, a pair of binoculars, a notebook and pencil, that I imagine detectives having. They are collectors, who love nature and learning about it. They even get to hang out in dens or ‘hides’ as they call them.

Catching the birder bug

The moment I truly caught the birder bug was in 2019. I took my family on a research trip to the Calder Valley. I’d had the idea to write a story about a birdwatcher called Twitch, and wanted to find a real nature reserve to use as inspiration for the location for the story. I’d found a place called Cromwell Bottom that was home to an interesting mix of birds and so I hired a canal boat and we sailed it there. I challenged my children to spot and identify as many birds as possible on the trip. The deal was that if they could identify a bird correctly, I would put it in the book. We spotted over thirty birds on that trip and a few of them, like the grey heron and peregrine falcon, were super impressive.

But the moment I fell in love with birdwatching was when I saw my first kingfisher.

I’d been looking for kingfishers, because Cromwell Bottom is known for them, but we hadn’t spotted any. One morning I got up early, to go for a run. I was keeping my eyes peeled for birds but only saw blackbirds and pigeons. Then I encountered a man walking his dog and he asked me if I’d seen the kingfishers. I explained that I was hoping to but had had no luck. He told me to go and stand in the middle of the bridge across the river and be patient. I did as he suggested. At first all I saw was an electric-blue flash zip across the water. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. Then I saw another one. It was so fast, I couldn’t be sure what it was. Then the bird landed and for the briefest second I could see it was a kingfisher, before it vanished in a streak of blue. I was stunned by the beauty and the magic of the moment. My soul soared and I felt special. The world grew bigger and more interesting, and that was it, I was a birdwatcher.

Collecting your own birds

You don’t need much to become a birdwatcher. In 2019 I didn’t even have a pair of binoculars. If you think you might like birdwatching the only things you need is a notebook – to become your nature journal – and a field guide. The RSPB do great little field guides to help you identify birds that will fit in your pocket so you can take them everywhere. When you see a bird, write an entry in your journal. Put the date, time, and place you saw the bird, and the species you think it is. It’s helpful to note down what the bird is doing. You can take a photo, if you’re quick, or draw the bird. Study it, notice the size of the bird, the shape of it’s beak, any distinguishing marks or colours, and try and listen to it’s song. Doing all of this helps you learn about the bird. You can look it up in the field guide and note down any interesting facts about it.

You have now collected the first bird for your list. Every birdwatcher has a list. The list is of every bird you’ve spotted.

There are nearly 10,000 species of birds on the planet and there are some serious twitchers who spend their life travelling around trying to see them all.

You don’t need to travel far to start your list. There’s a good chance you’ll see blue tits, robins, pigeons, crows, house sparrows and other common birds like magpies and blackbirds, in a garden or local park. Every new bird you learn about helps you become a better birdwatcher, because you start seeing the differences between birds. Listening to their song is a helpful way to identify a bird. I’ve found videos on YouTube that play them over. I heard a strange bird a few weeks ago, when I got up to listen to the dawn chorus. It’s song sounded like the descending whistle of a bomb being dropped followed by the way a child mimics the scattershot of machinegun fire. I recorded the sound on my phone, then at home, I went to YouTube to find out what it was. It was a nightingale. I now have a page in my journal for a nightingale, detailing the date, time and place that I heard it, but I have not seen one yet. That page is not complete.

Anywhere outdoors can be an adventure

I do have a pair of good binoculars now, which I invested in over lockdown, because it can bring birds that are far away, close enough to identify, but you don’t need them. Since the nightingale incident I’ve downloaded an app to my phone that can identify birdsong, because if I’d known I was listening to a nightingale I would have got my binoculars out and looked for it.

Anyone can enjoy birdwatching. It’s great fun creating your list and adding to it with every new sighting. It makes the world a more interesting place and seeing a bird can lift your spirits. It’s a great way of making being outdoors into an adventure.

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