From the upstairs windows I can see the North Wales moors. There is a rather special bird encounter to be had up there, but it requires getting out of bed before dawn and dodging sheep sleeping on the road. “It’s like being in a David Attenborough film,” exclaimed the last visitor I took, my god-daughter from north London, as she listened in the dark to the cacophony of strange croaks and then, as the light came, saw what was making the noise: black grouse. A dozen males – a gleaming blue-black, with scarlet eyebrows and white tail feathers fanned out like a camellia – were charging at each other through the heather.
Spring is the best time to catch them at these display grounds, called leks, and they perform for an hour or two. When I went to a lesser bird of paradise lek in Papua New Guinea, the timing was much more civilised. “Come at three o’clock in the afternoon,” said the park ranger. And sure enough, there the males were on cue, swooping about and fluffing up their white and yellow plumes high in their display tree. The watching females did not seem much impressed; as for my local black grouse lek, I don’t think I have seen a female even bother to turn up.
Birdwatching – or birding as it is now called – has been an enthusiasm of mine since childhood. At home I always keep a pair of binoculars out of their case and at the ready, and in my old Hamlyn Guide to Birds of Britain are dog-eared scraps of paper recording interesting bird sightings in the garden over the past 20 years or so.
Next weekend the RSPB would like us all to be especially alert and participate in their annual Big Garden Birdwatch, which gives a snapshot of our garden bird population and an idea of which species are doing well. All you have to do is record the species in your garden and vicinity over an hour period and send the results in via the RSPB website. As in previous polls, the bird recorded more than any other in last year’s Birdwatch was the house sparrow, which I find surprising. They were so common years ago that our family called them flying mice. A cheeky pair used to nest in the roof of my tool shed – lodgings now taken over by real mice. But following their widely reported population crash over recent decades (caused by various factors, experts say, including pesticide use by gardeners and farmers), I see them in the garden only occasionally.
The other birds in last year’s top 20 were, in order, blue tit, starling, blackbird, wood pigeon, chaffinch, goldfinch, great tit, collared dove, robin, magpie, dunnock, long-tailed tit, feral pigeon, greenfinch, jackdaw, coal tit, carrion crow, wren and great spotted woodpecker.
If I was filling in my Birdwatch survey at this very moment, I would record only one species, sparrowhawk. When it appears in the garden, everything else vanishes. There is a fine red-eyed male perched on top of my weeping Cercidiphyllum tree, drying off after taking a bath: I built my pond with a shallow ledge specially for birds.
Water is always a bird magnet, with dripping, trickling and moving water particularly engaging their eyes and ears. In the garden I look after in Majorca, it has been fascinating seeing how the bird population has increased and become richer as we have added shallow water features, though as elsewhere in the Mediterranean even birds like robins and blackbirds are very nervous of humans and scarper the moment they see you. We had a major excitement two years ago when nightingales settled for the summer, their gorgeous, high-volume song floating through the night: if I were an insomniac, I would move somewhere that had nightingales.
Food as well as clean water helps our garden birds too, of course. The goldfinch, for example, has risen in the annual Birdwatch list, the experts think, thanks to more gardeners now providing nyger seed and sunflower hearts. My own feeders are just outside the kitchen window, with my main seed dispenser – called a squirrel buster – having mesh that slides over the feeding ports when anything heavy settles on the perches. In the United States, I have seen feeders with circular, electrically operated perches which, in response to weight, rotate faster and faster until the intruder either leaps to safety or is launched into space.
Garden centres have big bird sections these days, but if you fancy really immersing yourself in wild bird products, I recommend a visit to the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland Water – to be held this year on August 21-23. I particularly enjoy testing out the expensive scopes, which you can focus on real birds in the adjacent wetlands – maybe even on an osprey. When I was in Costa Rica a few years ago, there was a couple of novice birders from Manhattan in our group, who couldn’t seem to find anything with their own binoculars and were always flabbergasted when our guide showed them the birds in brilliant magnification through his scope. After two days of this, they told me they had concluded the birds were not for real and the guide had a series of colour cards which he dropped in front of the lens.
Birders of the world unite
Recording bird species I see, such as the RSPB asks us to do for Birdwatch, is something I do wherever I am on my travels. Gardens are always hot spots for birds, and I am often envious of what gardeners abroad have around them, ranging from hoopoes to hummingbirds, just as they are often envious of our birds (and especially of our dawn chorus) – early settlers to New Zealand and other outposts imported and released European birds to make them feel less homesick. Of course, they have their less desirable birds, too. One garden I visited in Canada had bald eagles with a criminal record (a little cat collar was found in their nest); in Australia, I have been stabbed in the back of the head by a magpie and had a pair of yellow-tailed black cockatoos deliberately drop large pine cones on my head.
Out of curiosity, I decided recently to make a tally of all the species ticked off in my various bird guides. A friend then suggested I enter my total on surfbirds.com where you can compare your prowess with other birders around the world. With around 900 species seen, I am in about 650th place, but I discovered there is no point being too competitive as the leaders have seen more than 9,000 (there are about 10,000 bird species on the planet) which, at my present rate, would take me at least another three lifetimes to match. In any case, the main pleasure of birding is the watching, and the familiar birds of home are at the heart of it.
For further information on how to take part in next weekend’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, visit the RSPB website.