Introduction to Bird Watching
We can watch birds in so many different ways and derive pleasure from most, if not all, of them. We often start by looking at birds in our gardens, sometimes from our kitchen windows, perhaps intrigued by their tameness. Gradually, we acquire a wish to give them their correct names. We probably ask our birdwatching friends at first and then buy one of the field guides, and start reading more about them, looking at or listening to natural history programmes on the television or radio, and above all watching birds and, in particular, wanting to see ‘in the flesh’ some of the exciting birds which we have learnt about. In the history of the birdwatcher, this stage is most easily arrived at and, indeed, some never leave it. They become very expert in identification but never really bother to ask themselves questions about how birds live.
Being able to identify birds can increase the interest of your walks, and can heighten your appreciation of the beauty of the countryside. This may be all you wish to do – to absorb the beauty of the scene – but few people can do this without wishing to express something in return. It may be that this expression is confined to a comment in a diary, a photograph or even a drawing. It may be expressed in something said to a friend. While I enjoy watching birds, and enjoy the places in which they live and also derive great spiritual satisfaction from them, almost every time I am out walking a question springs to mind from some incident I have seen. I particularly want to understand a bird’s relationship with its environment. How does it find its food? Where and how does it hide its nest? How does it shelter from inclement weather, for example, the sudden cold rain in summer or the rigours of a northern European winter?
I picked out the descriptions of the Choughs and Bullfinches from my notes because they represent two examples of the way I like to watch birds. Watching the Choughs in Pembrokeshire took me amongst some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the world, with its colourful rocks and rugged ever-changing scenery. Amongst all this beauty can be found both common birds and more unusual species such as the Choughs and Rock Pipits whose lives are linked with these rocky places, with the boundary of the sea and the land, and with the salt-laden air.
The other example comes from a very flat Cambridgeshire landscape where the Bullfinch with its blue-black cap and crimson breast spends much of the winter feeding on Ash keys. Many gardeners dislike Bullfinches because of the damage they can do to certain types of fruit trees. Indeed, we hear so much about the fruit damage that we often fail to think that for three-quarters of the year Bullfinches must find other sources of food. Here, during the winter months I had a wonderful opportunity to watch them and to study their ways of feeding on Ash seeds which one scientist has shown to be their favourite food, when it is available.
There seems to be a bit of an argument as to what birdwatching is all about and I have the feeling that a huge number of people who have become interested in birds have not yet discovered how tightly the study of birds can enthral them. Some appear to think that listing birds or touring round the favourite birdwatching spots is the only field work that can be undertaken by the average birdwatcher.
There has been no birdwatching ‘leader’ recently like the late Dr David Lack who inspired other birdwatchers to study and think more about such subjects as territory, life history, clutch size, migration, habitat selection, population and so on. A great deal of field research is stimulated by the British Trust for Ornithology but in order to maintain a degree of consistency in the results fairly strict guidelines have to be followed. The ‘individualist’ birdwatcher may feel that he would prefer to follow his own lines of research. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is an acknowledged ‘leader’ in the field of bird protection and conservation. However, what is needed is a ‘leader’ who can produce the germs of good ideas which ‘the lesser people’ can develop at their own level and still be able to sense the thrill of discovery.
The aim of this website is to help someone who is interested in birds to become a ‘birdwatcher-naturalist’ or a ‘curious naturalist’, who might be described as an observer and an interpreter of nature. Indeed, I could go on to say that such a person is likely to qualify, as well, for the title ornithologist. There has always been some confusion about the meaning of the term, birdwatcher. Some authors say that the term is restricted to someone who watches birds purely for his or her own enjoyment, but this description is not quite so clear today as many people who call themselves birdwatchers could legitimately be called ornithologists. The step between the ‘birdwatcher-naturalist’ and the ornithologist is not very large. When you begin to ask yourself questions and try to find the answers for yourself by collecting facts and testing theories then you are entering the realms of ornithology.
With this website, I am trying to tell you something of the way that birds live and inject the idea that you should stop and record what a bird is doing, and then try to interpret its actions. Ask yourself questions, and by making more observations and comparing them with other published material, as well as discussing them with other birdwatchers, come up with answers to your questions – your own answers which satisfy your own critical faculties.