Just because you’re based in a town or city, don’t think that
stops you from discovering a surprising variety of birdlife
on your doorstep, says urban birder David Lindo. Here is
his quick guide to getting started
Just because you’re based in a town or city, don’t think that stops you from discovering a surprising variety of birdlife on your doorstep, says urban birder David Lindo. Here is his quick guide to getting started.
I have been hearing these kinds of comments all of my life, but these days I allow myself a wry smile.
Perhaps surprisingly it’s not just city dwellers without an ounce of interest in wildlife that make these statements – even seasoned birders who should know better are guilty. The reason I smile is because I know that outside the window, wherever you’re reading this magazine right now, there will be loads of birdlife for you to discover.
“Okay then, prove it,” I hear you cry.Well, I will. In six easy steps I’ll have you clambering for your binoculars – or ‘bins’, as we like to call them in our game – whenever you see a bird. You might even surprise yourself the first time you’re reaching for them in the middle of a busy shopping centre or on a crowded commuter train.
I have been interested in birds all my life and began
David Lindo is a TV and radio presenter, wildlife
expert and author, founder of the Tower42 Bird
Study Group and patron of several wildlife
watching them within my local area in northwest London because I had no other choice. None of my family or friends had the remotest leaning towards nature. I was too young to venture far on my own and I didn’t have a mentor to take me out into the
countryside.Watching over my back garden in Wembley every morning before school astonished me because of the array of species that passed through.
They ranged from blackbirds and the formally common house sparrows to much scarcer visitors, such as reed buntings, goldcrests and once even a lesser spotted woodpecker.
I will always remember as an eight year old seeing my first ever kestrel flying over my primary school and landing in the nearby woods. Excited, I rushed in to tell my headmaster. “Sir, I’ve just seen a kestrel!” I blurted. His response was less than enthusing. He
looked at me and said the immortal words: “David, you haven’t seen a kestrel. You don’t get kestrels in cities.”
Luckily, even at that tender age, I had faith in my embryonic birding knowledge. I knew what I had seen.
From that moment, I devised a mantra that has stayed with me to this day: anything can turn up anywhere, even in a city. Thus my urban birding obsession was born.
Experience has shown me that the morning is often the best time to look for birds in built up areas, due to the fact there are less people around. In practice, birds can appear at any time of the day, so always expect the unexpected.
The secret to urban birding is not to worry about trying to identify everything you see initially. That will come in time. Just enjoy the birds for what they are.
Look up and enjoy what you see, is what I say. Birds have wings and practically anything can fly over your head – even in the middle of a sprawling metropolis. The problem is that most of us spend our entire lives walking and looking straight ahead and never up. If we tried to look up a bit more often we will start to see birds. At the very least, you will begin noticing the normally unseen architectural delights, as well as the monstrous carbuncles, that punctuate our skylines. Strolling the streets you will no doubt observe the obligatory pigeons, but there will also be other birds for you to ponder; big ones that glide majestically like gulls or possibly even a buzzard; or large birds like cormorants, geese and ducks, making their way towards some unknown destination. You may see birds that busily flap like herons, crows and certain birds of prey, as well as small bouncy ones such as finches or wagtails. Start with your garden or backyard, or, if you’re not fortunate enough to have your own patch of outdoor space, get into the habit of watching out of the office window for any avian action.
FEED THE BIRDS
Gardens are great training grounds for the apprentice urban birder. If you put out food for the local birds, your backyard can become a veritable fastfood restaurant, attracting several birds for your viewing pleasure. Just stick a couple of nut containers or seed feeders out and wait for them to be discovered. Remember to place your feeders in the open away from bushes and fences where predators could lurk. The birds will feel safer if they can clearly see if danger is approaching. Eventually, they may allow close approach, enabling you to watch them in the mornings through your kitchen window while you’re munching your cornflakes. Prepare to be surprised at some of the unexpected visitors you may get.Woodpeckers, parakeets and maybe even a marauding sparrowhawk could add a bit a spice to your garden birding.
GET A BIRD BOOK
Soon, you will be discovering birds all the time. This is the point when you will naturally start wanting to decipher the different species. Simply calling them ‘small brown bird’, ‘that blue one’ and ‘thrush’ will not be enough. So get yourself down to your local bookshop and buy a small book on birds. A simple guide to garden birds should be quite sufficient, as we are not talking about highbrowed ornithology here. Keep it by your kitchen window and refer to it when you see anything you don’t recognise. You’ll be an expert before you know it. Congratulations, you have reached the fourth stage in your urban birding training!
Not all the birds that you may see in your garden will conveniently pose in front of your nose. Some can be exceptionally shy and only offer distant, fleeting views. You now need binoculars. This is the point in your development where you really start to become a birder.When buying binoculars it’s important to test them out first. Make sure that they feel comfortable and, more importantly, that you can see clearly through them! It’s amazing the amount of detail you can pick out when looking at a bird through binoculars. The intricate plumage colours or the glint in their eyes all add up to bring the bird you are watching to life. Picking up and tracking anything through ‘bins’ is much more difficult than it first appears. Practise your hand to eye co-ordination in your backyard. Look at a slow moving object with your naked eye, such as a passing jumbo jet, then raise your binoculars to see if you can connect. Soon, you will be able to follow the flight of a speeding bullet – well maybe not, but you get the point!
MEET OTHER BIRDERS
At this stage you may want to hang out with other more experienced birders, so join a local bird club or visit a local nature reserve and don’t be shy to ask questions. Most birders will be only too pleased to share their knowledge with you.
FIND A PATCH
Your journey to becoming an urban birder extraordinaire is nearly complete, but every birder needs a local patch. Find an area close to your home or place of work and visit it several times a week, following the same route each time. Get to know the local resident birds over the course of a year and you will begin to notice changes in the populations, with the different seasonal visitors making appearances. I’ve had several local patches during my life and at first glance my current one looks like a totally unlikely place to find birds. But I have been amazed at some of the birds that I have found at my most beloved patch, Wormwood Scrubs. These have ranged from London scarcities like Mediterranean gulls to national rarities like Richard’s pipits that normally reside in Siberia. I even recorded Britain’s first ever over-wintering common redstart. I still dine out on that one! There are many great places to go urban birding in the UK and I am yet to find a city that is devoid of any natural life. Over the years I have watched some fantastic birds in some unusual venues. For example I love visiting the RSPB’s Harbour Reserve in Belfast, situated in the middle of a dockland industrial estate. I have witnessed rare honey buzzards drifting overhead while standing on the roof of Tower 42 in the heart of London’s Square Mile and enjoyed seeing great skuas harassing gulls out to sea as I stood at Ness Point in Lowestoft, Suffolk – the most easterly promontory in Britain. But as I keep saying, birds are everywhere, so just step outside your front door and start looking. YOU ARE AN URBAN BIRDER! You now can recognise most of the common birds that you encounter, your friends are now asking you questions about birds that they have seen, you own several bird books and feel more confident. Soon you will be able to nonchalantly identify some of the small ambiguous ‘bouncy’ birds that I spoke of earlier. You may even uncover a rarity on your local patch and be the talk of the birding world. If that happens, then you truly are baptised!