Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The rules of just going for it.

By now many of you will have heard the sad news that Walks & Wildlife magazine is no more.  This is a big shame - it was a fabulous magazine which consistently sold well and always received excellent feedback.  Having worked with the team since issue 1 I know it was created by a group of committed and talented folks who put in an extraordinary number of hours to make it work.  Sadly, as with all brave new ventures, luck also plays a part and unfortunately lady luck refused to smile on this particular occasion.

One of things I most enjoyed writing was my "adventures of a novice bridwatcher" column where I charted our somewhat chaotic exploits as we began to learn about the world of birds.  The final column (which never made it to print) is below.  I've learned such a lot over the past few years, both about birds and about "going for it" and, irritating and elusive as they may occasionally be, birds are a lot more predictable than "going for it".

The more I've thought about it the more I've realised that there really are only 2 rules when it comes to "just going for it" and they are 1) just go for it, and 2) if you fail, get up and go for it again.  Sitting on the sidelines is not an option.  I sincerely hope that something will rise phoenix style from the ashes of the wonderful Walks and Wildlife - and I'll try and have my "bins" ready when it does.

The Rules of Birdwatching

A year or so ago I wrote a piece about the rules of birdwatching, well, based on what I’ve learned over the past year I think it’s time for a few more...

Soaring majestically or looking for Eagle Crag?
1.  Bird watching requires patience – lots of patience.  We were visiting Riggindale a few weeks ago and had hopes of spotting the Golden Eagle again.  Barely had we settled down at the RSPB hut and poured the tea when another couple appeared.  After the usual exchange of pleasantries followed by the sort of awkward silence that indicates both couples really rather wish they had the place to themselves, they asked us if we’d spotted the eagle.  “Not today” we answered.  More silence.  “Which one’s Eagle Crag?” they asked, so we helpfully pointed them to a crag on our left but mentioned that the eagle was generally at the head of the valley.  They then focused their entire attention on Eagle Crag for a full five minutes before giving up and heading back down the valley.  If only eagles appeared on demand at the crags named after them, this bird watching malarkey would be a whole lot easier.

This is not a bird
2.  You need to use your ears AND your brain.  I’ve rambled on about our many failed attempts at learning birdsong in the past but simply learning the calls and songs is only a small part of the battle.  Birds go out of their way to fool you, and they’ve roped in other members of the animal kingdom too.  Turns our jays can impersonate pretty much anything and that’s just cheating, plain and simple.  There should be a clearly written rule “Jays should sound like jays and jays alone”.  And now I’ve discovered that squirrel’s warning call sounds exactly like a bird.  Well, more like a bird that sounds like a squeaky gate if I’m honest, but that’s not the point – squirrels should at no time sound like birds.

3.  Knowing a bit about trees will help enormously.  If you think my knowledge of birds is bad; you should try me on trees.  In an effort to remedy this we spent a day on Brown Robin Nature Reserve learning how to tell one tree from another and a bit about which birds prefer which trees.  Our guide, Tony, tried starting us gently.  “What’s this?” he asked pointing to a clearly coppiced broad leafed tree and giving us his best encouraging smile.  “Erm...” we replied.  .  “It’s coppiced a lot and always has multi stems” he added helpfully.  “Ohhhh – multi stemmed” we mused trying to sound knowledgeable.
I’ll be honest, there then followed five minutes of what can only be described as a bout of arboreal Tourettes as we randomly shouted pretty much every tree name we knew.  Eventually, the encouraging smile now long gone and replaced with the look of man who knew he was in for a very trying day, Tony gave us our final clue “it has nuts” he said.  “Hazel” we both shouted with big smiles – though really we had nothing to be proud of.  Tony spent the entire day with us patiently helping us learn more about trees and bird calls and by the time we went home we’d really got the hang of it. 

Turns out we have an enormous Hornbeam hedge along one side of our garden which is, apparently, very popular with the hawfinch so hawfinch spotting is our next mission.  It may prove challenging but it has the added advantage that we can sit indoors in front of the fire peering through the window with our binoculars.  Or at least we can until the neighbours report us for being peeping toms.

4.  Make your own rules.  The more we’ve got involved with bird watching the more we’ve realised there are lots of different ways to go about it.  We see ourselves more as casual bird watchers – keen to see what we can and learn as much as possible.  At no time are we going to leap into a car and tear off to the other end of the country on the off chance of spotting something rare and exotic.

No less gorgeous than a golden eagle
We’ve also decided that, for us, captive birds don’t count.  They’re very lovely to look at but where’s the challenge?  Last week I arrived home hugely excited at having seen, and identified, a snow goose in the local park and was poised to call the RSPB before a quick internet search threw up the fact they’re there the whole time.  Curses.  I was still pretty excited that I managed to identify them though.

I also have to be able to see it long enough to know what it is before I’ll count it as being spotted.  Take last year, for example, when we spent days stalking the bearded tit – I was utterly delighted when, after hours of standing in the freezing cold watching blurry brown blobs flitting around, I finally spotted one in a nearby reed bed while I was sat in the hide with a hot flask of coffee.  Well I say delighted, I actually cursed the little varmint for not showing up 4 hours earlier but, like I said at the beginning, all I needed was a little patience (and maybe hip flask).

5.  And finally - have fun!  Who cares if it's a golden eagle, a humble blue tit or something pretty that you don't know the name of - not knowing its name, nesting or migration habits does not make it any less lovely to look at.  Get out there, go for it and have fun.  Lots of fun.

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