Birding: Where to See Birds
Birds can be found everywhere from city centres and industrial areas to the most luxuriant and ancient woodlands and reedy marshlands. Some can be very obvious like the Blackbirds and Robins in your garden, although both can be very inconspicuous at some times of the year when in woodlands. Some warblers skulk in the bottoms of bushes and reedbeds, occasionally calling to each other, keeping an eye on you, but at the same time being extremely difficult to see. The phrase, ‘keeping an eye on you’ is a very telling one because when you do manage to catch a sight of the bird it is often the eye that you see, peering at you through some gap in the foliage. Quite a number of birds play hide and seek with you in this way: the Great Spotted Woodpecker hides its body and peers out from behind a tree, while the Wheatear peers over the top of a rock.
Although birds live in almost every habitat the problem is often to find them. The beginner will have difficulty in picking out the same number of birds as the experienced birdwatcher and will wonder at the latter’s quickness, which can be despairing at times. Improving the sharpness of your eye is a matter of continual practice. By all means start out with an expert, who will pick out the bird for you, pointing out its shape as it preens or hunts against its natural background. What you are really trying to do at this stage is to learn the shape of all the different species you are likely to see, to learn the ‘bird image’ in a wide variety of backgrounds, so that you will not think for long that a knob on the branch of a gnarled old tree, or that an oddly shaped tuft of grass on the meadow or a rock on a hillside, is really a bird. Like almost everything else continual practice at searching will bring you the acuity to pick up quickly the ‘bird image’ whether it is stationary or moving.
How you look at birds will depend to some extent on whether you are walking through the countryside or just sitting quietly. If you are walking and you see a bird with your naked eye that needs identifying you will stop and look at it through your binoculars. However, if you choose a reasonably comfortable position and sit still preferably with the light and some cover behind you, you can sweep large vistas. If you are facing open ground, you can count Lapwings and Golden Plovers, or check the edge of a reed marsh for Herons, Coots and Moorhens or even the stealthy emergence of a Bittern. If you are by an estuary such a position is ideal for counting ducks and waders.
There are many exciting habitats throughout the British Isles and abroad but a birdwatcher-naturalist will find, in the long run, that his own ‘patch’ provides the most rewarding field of discovery.
Even living in towns is not a bar to birdwatching and many birdwatchers spend their weekends studying the distribution of birds in the parks and squares. London itself, particularly the area included in Greater London, has some remarkably good birdwatching areas in which much research has been done.
Many of the reserves in this country belong either to the Government’s Nature Conservancy Council or to voluntary conservation bodies, particularly the County Naturalists’ Trusts, the National Trust, the RSPB, the Society for the Promotion of Nature Conservation, the Wildfowl Trust and a few enterprising local bird clubs. The RSPB, annually produces details of the arrangements to visit its superb range of reserves, covering most habitat types.
While most of the properties owned by the organizations are areas of natural or semi-natural vegetation, the Wildfowl Trust specializes in collections of birds. At Slimbridge, Gloucestershire and Peakirk, Northamptonshire, you can see captive wildfowl at close quarters under very good conditions, which may help you solve identification problems. It has also recently been acquiring land as wildfowl refuges where waterfowl may be seen under much wilder conditions.
Your enjoyment of birds on your visits to these areas may be limited to just identifying and listing the birds you have seen. However, my pleasure has been much increased if I have been able to write up a fairly complete description of what I have seen on the visit. From geological maps you can discover the nature of the underlying rock and perhaps details about the soil. A description of the vegetation including the trees, the shrubs and the herb layer, as well as the amount of water present, is useful. You could also use the sort of habitat check-list that I mention in the Ecology and Habitat section. This will complement your notes on the bird life and if nothing else the complete description will be much more interesting if you return in later years. If you visit the place regularly over the years your notes may provide a basis for a history of vegetation and bird population changes.