As usual I spent an hour of January’s final weekend with pad and pencil at the ready, binoculars poised and sustaining cup of coffee at my elbow – staring out of the window. I was one of thousands of birdwatchers up and down the country taking part in this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. You watch for an hour, note down the numbers of species and maximum number of individuals seen at one time, send your findings to the RSPB and these are collated and compared with previous years’ surveys. From this data, population changes can be identified – particularly important at this time of climate change.
It’s all very worthwhile and fascinating – but, to the individual recorder, often a deeply frustrating experience. As someone who feeds birds regularly throughout the year, I notch up a fair number of species – between fifteen and twenty-five for any one quarter. Before beginning my watch, I carefully fill up the feeders, top up the birdbath and strew some seed and brown breadcrumbs on the lawn, then I wait – and wait. In previous years my total has been a measly six to nine species. Where were the bullfinches, the redpolls, the siskins, even the usually plentiful greenfinches? Definitely in someone else’s garden, that’s where – or else skulking in the woods till it’s all over. The urge to put a whining postscript on the end of the list is almost irresistible.
However, this year, triumph! I recorded eighteen species including the bullfinches, the over-wintering blackcap, and the female reed bunting that seems to have adopted my seed feeder as her especial property. Naturally I’m not going to boast about this. Particularly as a friend and close neighbour had a visit from a goldcrest just minutes after her hour was up. This is Britain’s tiniest bird and a rare garden visitor, no doubt tempted to the feeders by prolonged icy weather.
When the results are published in March, the value of these annual snapshots of our garden bird population is apparent. This year’s figures will reveal what the impact of the harsh winter has been on small birds like coal tits and recent over-wintering warblers like my blackcap. We have firm data collected over time illustrating the decline in once common species like house sparrows, starlings and song thrushes, and the increase in collared doves, wood pigeons and siskins.
Meanwhile, I also continue to fill in my Garden Birdwatch returns for the British Trust for Ornithology. These comprise species and numbers records completed week by week and sent in quarterly. It’s more time-consuming but also more satisfying to one’s pride. On it, I can record the goldcrest that visited my nut-feeder twice last week – probably the same individual that eluded my friend’s allotted hour. I can look back at my own garden records and remind myself that a reed bunting visited briefly in March 2009 and one (the same?) graced our garden from March till May last year. I can recall past glories like the woodcock paddling with its feet and then probing our lawn with its long beak one magical August dusk. Each year, I can look forward to the arrival of the siskins and redwings, the possible sighting of bramblings and fieldfares or, perhaps, even a waxwing or two.