Birdwatch: Why do people in the UK love it?

Bird lovers in the UK will travel thousands of miles through the night to see a rare migrant. What makes the British so obsessed with it and how to start your own first birdwatching attempts?

As a coastal city, Cardiff is home to a large amount of wildlife. The most common of these are the seaside birds.

Everyday walking through the city, I can see pigeons, seagulls and other kinds of birds living in harmony with the locals. In some neighbourhoods’ gardens there are also bird feeders for the birds who may come. It has been almost eight months since I came to this country, and I’m still amazed at the British fascination with birds.

Besides feeders, someone even will go to great lengths to view new bird species. They call themselves twitchers. Some of them even have a big British List and a Rare Bird Alert pager which beeps so that they are able to make it in time to see a rare bird.

“If you are a hardcore twitcher like me, then birding can be quite stressful as you have to suddenly jump in the car and drive hundreds of miles to see a rare bird!” said Dr Rob Lambert, academic of University of Nottingham who was also part of a BBC’s four-part television series about the birds in the UK, called Birds Britannia.

The male blackbird has black plumage, however, females are brown often with spots and streaks on their breasts. It is one of the most common UK birds with its musical song.

“As a birder, I am birding every moment of my life. Birds are part of the rhythm of my existence, the rhythm of each and every year,” said Dr Lambert who is well known amongst his birding mates for loving waterfowl.

“Ducks and geese and swans…  nothing better than a winter’s day on The Fens with huge flocks of ducks or herds of wild swans from the Arctic flighting into a lagoon at dusk,” said him. “A real swan lake! The soundscape of a British winter. Wild geese on the Norfolk marshes.” 

Some birding pals of Dr Lambert even once travelled from all over the UK to the most remote island in Orkney, Scotland by charter flight to see a Agelaius phoeniceus which is the first ever red-winged blackbird turned up in Britain.

“The Brits are obsessed with birds. It is part of our cultural DNA and dates, in part, back to the late Victorian era. Our connection to nature and landscape is rooted in our eco-cultural past and is shaped by a host of social factors,” said Dr Lambert. “Remember, people watch birds in Britain for many different reasons and there are all types of birders.”

To understand this obsession, I start my first birdwatching trip in the park near my house with a bird guide book and a bag of bird food. And my aim is the Robin bird. This small and cocky bird with a beautiful orange-red breast is the UK’s favourite bird.

Walking gently through the woods, wherever the sound of a swish comes from I will look towards that place trying to find the little birds that are feeding in it.

However, those little things move so deftly through the high and low shrubs and grasses in the woods that often by the time I react I can only see the leaves shifting as they leave.

A loud chattering call comes from the tree. I look up, a long, glossy, green-purple tail catches my eyes. It is a magpie bouncing and chirping on a branch. Scattering a handful of bird food under the tree, I take a few steps back and sit down on the grass a short distance away and start my waiting.

Magpies are scavengers, predators and pest-destroyers which are one of the most intelligent birds.

Despite the obstacles and pressures of the lockdown, British love of birdwatching has not diminished, even more so than before.

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a charitable organisation to promote protection of birds and the wider environment. They organise bird record data collection in annual collective bird watching days in Britain which are called Big Garden Birdwatch.

In this year’s activity, over one million people joined which made it the biggest ever.

Veronica Mannion is a lifelong birder who now lives with her family on a working sheep farm along The Wild Atlantic Way. For her, the reason for bird watching is because she loves watching them interact with each other.

“I have learned a lot from them,” she said. “I feel great when I feed birds, especially during the cold season. During the pandemic, it helped me to stay calm and positive.”

Starling, a spotted, short-tailed, family-oriented bird, is Veronica’s favourite. Huge flocks of starlings look like smoke clouds from a distance. “I’ve watched them stand in a single file and then rotate with the birds behind them,” said Veronica. “Watching them dance in the sky is impressive as well.”

“I believe people, in general, are becoming disconnected,” said Veronica. “We must first stay connected with nature and the folklore stories associated with them.”

Raven, which is all black with a large bill, is the biggest member of the crow family.

A survey from RSPB shows that 58 percent of people said they get much enjoyment from watching birds and hearing their songs.

“I was mentally struggling a lot during the pandemic. I had strong feelings of loneliness as a consequence of the sudden isolation,” said Thomas Jepsen, the founder of Passion Plans who has been birdwatching at least once a week since the beginning of the pandemic.

According to him, birdwatching gives him great satisfaction. “Getting out and enjoying bird watching made me regain a connection with nature that I had missed,” said him.

Thomas is fond of big birds, Goshawk, Capercaillie, and Hawfinch are all his favourites. “I find the science of being able to carry that amount of weight in the air impressive. Although, it’s also very satisfying to see very colourful birds.”

“It gives me a level of tranquillity that I don’t get from other activities, as well as gets me outside and gets me active,” said Thomas. “There’s nothing more beautiful than watching a big bird just glide through the air.”

Bird watch is not a difficult activity to participate in. A bird field guide, a notebook, and a pair of binoculars would be enough for a daily birdwatching. And if you’re just birdwatching in a nearby park or your garden, a clear, observant eye can be an alternative to binoculars.

Trying and signing up for a local guided bird walk with a guide on a nature reserve or at a visitor centre is also a good choice for beginners. According to Dr Lambert, under this situation you can learn from experts on guided walks and soak it all up.

Birds usually don’t have good vision, so the tip from Thomas is to avoid colourful clothing while doing the birdwatch. He said: “The more you blend in, the better your chances are at seeing the bird you want.”

Parks and gardens are both good choices for new to birdwatching. “Start locally, get to know the local common birds first by sight and sound. Then start to head out a bit more widely,” said Dr Lambert. “Lakes, ponds, gravel pits, the seashore and get to know waterbirds and waders.”

Eventually, the magpie that I was waiting for flies away and does not come down to eat the bird food. Just as I got up to leave to walk inside the woods, a large black bird flew over to feast on it. It is a carrion crow. Shaking its smoother-feathers it walked back and forth, as if guarding against other birds coming to compete with it.

Keep walking on the narrow path through the woods, the sunlight dappled through the gaps in the leaves. I scatter bird food on both sides of the path and under the shade of large trees hoping it can attract those brightly coloured birds.

“Look, is it a raven or not?” whispers Ouffy as she patted me on the arm. “Or maybe not. I’m not so sure. It looks much smaller than a crow.” She is my companion and also a birdwatch beginner like me. 

Comparing it with the images on the guide book, we think it is a male blackbird from its yellow beak. It and a small squirrel share the meal under a tree where we have scattered bird food.

After that, I also saw another female blackbird and a tree pipit. They look similar. Only the last one’s feathers are a little lighter in colour and with a pale line over the eye. That blackbird twitches her feathers and walks among the wildflowers. We are both enjoying this leisurely afternoon.

With the breeze of birdsong blowing by, my companion and I left the woods in a relaxed mood. Although I do not find the fiery little Robin, I still capture moments when other birds are either singing or tending their feathers.

“Learning patience is also crucial,” said Thomas. “Don’t see a birdwatching session as a failure if you don’t see what you were hoping to see. See it as an opportunity to get some exercise.”