From spotting garden visitors to identifying tricky species in far-flung locations, this guide will tell you all you need to know to get the best out of birdwatching
Birdwatching is easy and rewarding because you can hardly avoid birds. Few other living creatures are so easy to see casually, in both number and variety, all over the world. They cross paths with us in a way many other animals don’t and, although they are shy, few of them are secretive. They are also often noisy, active in the daytime and colourful – a bit like us! It is only natural to take notice of birds, and this is the essence of birdwatching. You can take it easy, glancing out of your garden window, or you can become keener and travel long distances to see special birds in adventurous surroundings. You can do everything in between. At the very least it can get you out into the wild, into the fresh air. It is healthy for you and, as a hobby, it is one of the cheapest.
Birds are also quite easy to recognise and identify, especially compared to insects and plants. Everybody can recognise a swan or a gull, a magpie or a robin. Most people can also tell the hoot of an owl, or the caw of a crow. The sheer variety of birds means that even the beginner will always have plenty to see. A suburban garden in the UK will usually host about 25 species and a local park about 40. A trip to the country will add more and to the coast more still. Let the fun begin.
How to attract birds to your garden
You can start birdwatching just by looking out of the window. Many birds visit gardens, and you can affect their number and variety in several ways
You can put out food for the birds, but it’s even better to do so indirectly by planting bird-friendly shrubs and trees. Try to plant native species, because your visitors are adapted to these. Some shrubs are good for insects, others for shelter, others provide berries – variety helps.
Provide a water source
Don’t neglect to put out water; the birds will use it both for drinking and bathing. It has been shown that birds with clean feathers are better able to escape predators, so bathing is surprisingly important. Make sure you keep changing the water as often as possible.
There is nothing quite like seeing a bird raise a brood in a nest site that you have provided yourself and what’s more, it’s easy to do. Avoid elaborate designs, just a simple box with a hole (for a tit) or open front (for a robin) will do. Fix to a tree, and avoid facing it due south.
If you feed them, they will come. From mid-winter to early spring, you will be saving lives, and in the summer, extra feeding will help birds prepare for breeding and keep in good shape. Put up several feeding stations in different places, fill them with a range of food and clean them once a fortnight.
Not all birds use artificial boxes to nest in. Many prefer hedges – the thicker the better for keeping out cats and other predators. Don’t be afraid of a little untidiness; a few overgrown and neglected nooks and crannies may well provide nesting and roosting places for garden visitors.
A tasty refuge
Planting climbers like dog rose on your garden walls not only provides another refuge for birds to rest in, but climbing plants like this also attract aphids which are another food source for a wide variety of birds. Plants like honeysuckle and ivy are also recommended by the RSPB.
Chris Packham’s top birder tips
TV presenter and naturalist, Chris Packham, gives readers his expert advice on getting into birdwatching for the very first time…
“Reading books, listening to CDs and exploring the internet can all help you learn about birds but nothing can compete with first hand engagement – being out there with your binoculars. Teaching yourself ensures that you remember everything far more effectively. Set the alarm clock and get out there!
In birding you will never be an expert – there will always be someone who knows more than you and meeting and learning from them is always a treat. And birders love sharing what they know. That’s why you should never feel intimidated as a ‘beginner’. Go into the hide with your bins held high!
Birdwatching is only the half of it. Birdlistening is equally important as very often you won’t be able to ‘see the birds for the trees’, but you will be able to hear them. That’s why concentrating on songs and calls is essential.
Birding is immensely enjoyable and rewarding for many reasons but remember that many of the species you are looking at are in big trouble, in desperate need of conservation. Please don’t think “It’s okay, they will be looking after them”. There are not enough ‘theys’ and they never have enough resources. Our birds need us – all of us.
Keep a diary of your ornithological exploits and note as many details as possible. This will be of personal value but also may be a document that holds information that may be of interest to others in the future. The arrival and departure of migrants, nesting seasons, garden and local lists – all are worth keeping.”
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