It's that time of the year for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch (27-29 Jan) and your child's school may even be getting involved in the annual RSPB Big Schools' Birdwatch. Now couldn't be a better time to brush up on skills and boost your wellbeing by getting outside and appreciating nature.
Birdwatching is a great activity that all the family can get involved in. It is a simple pursuit and one that can be undertaken anywhere and at any time. Not only does it increase interest in the natural world, but it promotes a sense of community as the family learn together. It is also a way of getting out into your garden to reshape your outdoor space to encourage more birds in.
With all these benefits of birdwatching, here are some essential tips for nurturing your family’s love of the avian world.
Tip 1: Where to go
Some hot spots around the UK offer the sight of many different species of bird.
Spring may be the best time of year for bird spotting; visiting some of these locations can expand the activity all year round. For instance, the Exe Valley in Devon is twitcher heaven from November to February, while Gigrin Farm in Wales enjoys all year interest.
Over the summer months, you might try the Farne Islands in Northumberland, Castle Espie in Strangford Lough, Loch Garten in Scotland, or Minsmere Nature Reserve in Suffolk.
Birdwatching can become the perfect excuse for your family to have an away day, no matter the season.
Tip 2: Make your garden a bird haven
Rather than travel the country, you might want to see what's literally right on your doorstep instead. If you want your garden to become a bird paradise, then there are some changes you can make to your outdoor space.
Birds will come to your garden looking for food and water, so setting out some feeders and a water feature will naturally encourage visitors to your garden. However, birds will only visit if the area is secure from predators such as domestic cats or even the odd urban fox.
Certain trees, such as hawthorn, offer year-round food and a place to hide while eating. Ivy also offers excellent shelter and nesting opportunities, as well as being a honeypot for insects.
Tip 3: Get the right equipment
You can birdwatch happily from the armchair without any props at all. There is a simple pleasure in watching any winged creature bob into your space; it is both calming and grounding.
However, if you want to become a genuine twitcher, you and the family will need some kit.
First, you will need some binoculars if you want to get a close up look at birds. One of the birdwatchers’ rules is that you shouldn’t disturb the normal behaviour of the creatures with your activity. So, watching with binoculars allows you to see plenty while keeping your distance. Don’t forget your camera too, preferably with a telephoto lens, to capture those birds in action without disturbing them.
You might also want to invest in a bird book. There are some excellent field guides that you can use to note your spots. These guides are also often geographically specific, so you can be on the lookout for birds known to frequent your area. Books with paintings are often easier to use for identification than those with photographs – the plumage, colour, markings, etc., are usually more distinct.
Finally, dress appropriately. If you are going out into the countryside to observe birds, you need the right clothes and footwear. You might have an idea to go into a hide, but remember sitting around for a long time in cold weather can chill the bones! Also, dull the colours! Your little ones might love wearing yellow and red, but it will cause them to stand out and may be perceived as a threat. Try to blend into the background, so the bird acts as though you are not there.
Tip 4: Learn the behaviours of the top twitcher
Twitchers are well trained in behaving in a way that encourages sightings. One of the first trips out with the family will focus on learning and applying these skills.
First, learning to follow the song and calls of a bird can help you locate it and mark it as a sighting.
Second, keeping the sun to your back helps you identify birds, as you will be silhouetted, and the bird will be in full sunlight rather than shadow.
Third, be quiet and still. Granted, the idea of getting young children to remain still for a long time might be hard but remind them that their sudden noises and movements will scare the bird away.
Finally, patience is essential. If you are going to look for rare or visiting birds, you will need to sit and wait for their arrival – maybe for a long time.