Ornithology. Birding. Twitching. Whichever way you look at it, it amounts to the same thing. Bird-watching. And whichever way you look at it, it’s what’s led me to this. The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch; an annual event where those who take part log the birds they spot in their garden across an hour of one of three days in January. What is the world’s biggest bird survey, is something that we’ve taken part in, as a family, for several years now and it never gets any less tense. What should be a bit of fun, counting and identifying the birds in the garden, can actually play havoc with one’s heart rate and blood pressure. Surely, I’m doing it wrong?
While we’ve done it for quite a few years now, we’ve rarely had a really successful one. And by successful, of course I mean dramatic exciting, like an emu leaping the fence and having a go on the trampoline. (Well somebody needs to; ours is reduced to garden sculpture status these days). However, some would say that you’re missing the point if you’re only in it for the drama. The whole point is just to log what you see, however big or small the numbers or birds because that’s what helps the RSPB out. But as with anything, it’s always nice to stand out a little bit.
We have had some more remarkable birds in our garden in the past, but never on the day of the Big Garden Birdwatch. We’ve had a kestrel perch on our fence right next to the window as we were eating dinner at the table. I think we once, briefly, had a sparrowhawk, but its identity was shrouded somewhat by a huge camelia at the back of the garden (get me with my subtle garden based bragging!) and a heron landed on a neighbour’s roof one day. We sporadically have a Great Spotted Woodpecker that visits too. But we’re ‘reduced’ to our regulars more often than not on the day of the BGB. And rightly or wrongly, I’m always a little disappointed.
However, it’s always a bit of a thrill to take part and this year I felt inspired enough to write a poem.
Big Garden Birdwatch
Drawing the curtains, more in hope than anything else, I'm bouoyed by a blackbird, rallied by a robin. We plant the feet, scan the immediate horizon and stay as still as we can. Away we go. A tense hour awaits and maybe this will be all we see. Armed with a poster to confirm our bird spots and two pairs of binoculars at hand we scope every inch of the garden for more. Every so often something flits across our line of vision, but it's difficult to tell if it's in our trees or those in the fields behind. This struggle is real. But then, the pulse rate quickens at the sight of something on a feeder. We struggle to focus our sights, finding it, but losing it just as quickly. And then. There's yellow, no mustard, a black marking... We check the poster to confirm a coal tit. I was hoping for a vulture. A period of silence then ensues and we exploit this, taking turns to make breakfast, keeping one eye, at least, on the prize at all times. Within minutes, a burst of activity scatters toast and brings a clutch of sparrows, but no sparrow hawk, a lone blue tit, but no blue macaw or kingfisher. Suddenly they seem to be everywhere; sparrows scattered around the branches Only everywhere's a slight exaggeration, but we almost have a five bar gate. Close, but no cigar. Near, but still a bit too distant. We mark them on our poster and frown, underwhelmed by our visitors so far. We scan the garden for anything we've missed. Minutes tick by with nothing but hope. And then one of our ubiquitous woodpigeons thunks on to a branch gaining our attention. As I go to make a note a flash of red pulls me back. A focused gaze shows not only red, but yellow and black - we've struck gold...finch. These two have strayed from nearer the estate's equator to the frozen North of our silver birch Never once seen before and probably never to be witnessed again. From that mighty high, it's all downhill from here. Typically, a magpie lands and no other species dares enter our birdwatch for the remainder of the hour. We pack away our equipment and return to the more uniform duties of the day, the birdwatch over for another year, but a moderate cause for celebration. No doubt now an eagle will land, perhaps a dodo even, But outside of our golden hour, although a thrill, none of them would count.
Hopefully, that gives an idea of not just our experience, but the large majority of Big Garden Birdwatch experiences. I imagine lots of us set out hoping for something that we deem ‘exciting’ to happen and in a way, miss the point of the whole thing. It doesn’t matter; I still I’ll always retain that approach!
I think in many ways, that’s what made the appearance of the two goldfinches so good. As I mention in the poem, if I head further down the hill on our estate (south towards the ‘Equator’ if you will) there are certain places where you’ll see them in the trees. But we’ve literally never had them in our garden before. So what a time for them to arrive.
A few notes, if you like, about the poem by way of explanation (or perhaps I’m just trying to sound like a proper poet). I deliberately used alliteration in the second line to convey the sense of excitement in our house at that moment. Myself and my son were first downstairs and we knew we’d be doing the birdwatch, but having done it before and spent an hour seeing two or three birds enter the garden, it was a genuine thrill to see two within a second! So I thought the alliteration there was apt.
The line, ‘The struggle is real’ is sarcastic. I’m laughing at myself a bit there as I do get a bit carried away with BGB day and actually, I shouldn’t be quite so serious as to be surveying the entire family as to whether or not ‘that bird’ is in our tree or another that’s beyond our fence. It’s a dig at my seriousness as much as my eyesight! Middle age means that I can’t accurately see which branches belong where nowadays! A little later on, the lines about a vulture, macaw and kingfisher are the same; me gently mocking myself (and possibly lots of us who do the BGB) and my hopes that something rare will suddenly decide that it needs to visit my particular corner of the planet so it can get ticked off on a survey. I don’t know if I think I’ll achieve some kind of fame and notoriety by being the bloke who spotted the particular bird that no one else saw!
Two other things to explain: the ‘five bar gate’ in the 5th stanza is just a way of keeping score. Four marks on a page and then when you get to a fifth, you cross the four to make a gate. The other thing was the ‘thunk’ of the woodpigeon. This is the noise I like to imagine these ‘thick set’ birds make. I know it’s not as they’re actually quite graceful in real life.
So, I hope you enjoy the poem and I hope that if you are someone who participates in The Big Garden Birdwatch year after year, you can recognise certain things in it. And I don’t just mean birds. Hopefully, the excitement and element of competition is not just to be found in our house!