In the midst of lockdown, I started really paying attention to what was outside my window. Blue tits, goldfinches, blackbirds… all staples of the British garden. In a time which is so turbulent, I find it calming to watch them bob around the birdfeeder, watching the politics of who pushes who off of the prized perch. Is giving birds personality a sign I’ve been cooped up too long? I’m not sure, but it’s entertaining.
I head out to the local ponds in search of bats. We’ve seen them swooping over the garden, but it’s always just as it’s getting too dark. We can only really spot the movement and the vague shape of wings.
We figure the nearby ponds must welcome numerous bats at dusk thanks to the abundance of tasty bugs. We time it perfectly and are treated to an aerial display from little pipistrelle bats. I feel my hair whip up as one flies next to my head, hearing the quick flapping of its wings. I think I’ll remember this forever.
Seagulls. The absolute mainstay of any seaside town. Chip thieves, champion of staring contests and now the soundtrack to working from home. The local speciality here is herring gulls. I suppose there are worse things for my colleagues to hear in the background when I talk via video call. At least I get to hear some sort of birdlife outside, the songbirds chirping their way through when the seagulls decide to take a squawking break. I spare a thought for those who don’t have easy access to nature.
Walking to the river, I often hear a loud peeping echo across the grounded boats. The culprit is a red shank, who’s size doesn’t match the echo of it’s call bouncing off the banks. They are small shore dwellers with a long pointed beak (perfect for digging into mud and sand) and almost absurdly long red legs. If you spot one, you can always spot a mate close by. When the tide is out along the harbour, I usually spot an adorable trail of tiny footprints in the mud.
We’re back to seagulls again. Do seagulls play? There are several young looking seagulls making swooping circles over the ponds. They seem to do it all the time, regardless of the time of day. They dive down and then glide up with the updraft, turning to do it all again. A few seem to do it in unison. The sensible answer is that they are after bugs for dinner, but it’s far more entertaining to think they do it just for the fun of it
There’s the old folktale that whenever you see a robin, it’s a lost loved one paying you a visit. We often see one when we take a walk, feeling like something is missing if we don’t manage to spot one. We also have a resident robin who likes to perch in our garden and peck at the seed we leave out. In a winter where visiting family is filled with blockers and maybes, it is a comfort to see the robin’s defiant red out of the window.
I saw a kingfisher! Something I never thought I would see just 10 minutes from my own home. I managed to get a picture, it’s absolutely terrible but it is MINE. It was a frosty day, so the brilliant blue and orange plumage stood out against the start white riverbank. We held our breath as we watched it dip into the water and emerge with a tiny fish. It spots us and takes off, gliding low over the water. We spot it again a few days later, the sunset reflecting off its feathers making it look like it was made from sapphires.
We’ve gone for a walk on a windy clifftop. As we get out of the car, we see a smallish bird hovering over the field. The fanned tail and the fact that it stays perfectly in place tells us that this is a kestrel. Looking at the mostly brown plumage, we think it’s a female. We watch it for a while, creeping a little closer. We eventually get close enough to spot the details of her face without the binoculars. We might as well not be there for all the attention the kestrel pays us. She’s far too interested in lunch, which I can appreciate. She dives with impossible speed, but she’s unsuccessful. She continues to hover-hunt. We finally tear ourselves away to start our walk. The final thing we notice is that no one else in the busy car park is paying any attention.
February 2021 (again)
We have winter visitors at the beach. Turnstones have set up camp on the wall that overlooks the sea. They are a bit like red shanks, but much smaller. One of them only has one leg, but it seems to do fine, having perfected the art of the one legged bug hunt. They've chosen a good spot, as people fishing off the arm will often slip them some leftover squid. Visiting the turnstones becomes a motivation to get out for a walk.
We’ve travelled to a lake I’ve never been to, but apparently is full of birds. There’s no denying it anymore, I’m totally into bird watching. We see something climbing up a tree, tiny and brownish. At first it seems like a mouse or other small mammal, until we see it has long legs and a beak. Turns out it is a treecreeper, who grips on to the bark with specially evolved feet and circles around the tree trunk, making its way up to the top before dropping down and starting all over again on a new tree. The things we do for bugs.
An appreciation of ducks
Growing up, when thinking of a duck you always think of the traditional mallard. There’s nothing wrong with mallards of course, but it's a bit like picking a cheese sandwich for lunch. Perfectly nice, but there are so many more options to shout about. There’s the teal, with a nutty brown face and green patch around the eye, like some kind of mask stitched with yellow thread. The beautiful mandarin, who glides past with its orange ‘sails’ and long orange face feathers. The goldeneye will fix you with a stare like no other, leading to an array or comical expressions.
Lastly, what might be my favourite duck: the tufted duck. They sport a long feathery hairdo that flaps in the wind with all the energy of someone who manages to roll out of bed looking perfect. The black spot at the end of their grey beak reminds me of rebellion. I feel like tufted ducks are who you would want leading a duck-fronted protest. I’ve decided I want to embody the confidence of a tufted duck shaking glittering water droplets from its immaculate hair.
There were two moments that came to me when I was thinking about how to end my year in birds (and various flying things).
The first, was a visit to a wetland centre with family. As the canada geese kept an eye on their waddling goslings, it felt like a time of new beginning. Loved ones are starting to see each other again, things are opening up… it seems like a light at the end of the tunnel.
A few days later we were watching a moorhen chick, a tiny bundle of black fluff propelling itself with miniscule feet. Perched on a tree nearby was a grey heron, the fluttering of its long white chest feathers contrasting it’s utter stillness. The heron has to eat of course, but I hope that moorhen chick is safely tucked up in its mother's feathers.
What would life be like, if none if these birds were around me?
Birds have been a source of calm, joy, entertainment, exploration and fascination over the last year. There were far too many examples to include here. Both of these moments with the goslings and the heron were a reminder that whatever goes on in our lives, life goes on for all the birds and ecosystems that surround us. For now and evermore, it is our responsibility to ensure that it is able to do so.
I want to end this blog with two shoutouts. Firstly, to Tubby P, the wood pigeon who always manages to get snacks from our bird feeders, even if he doesn't quite fit. Secondly, to our battered and well loved RSPB bird spotting book. It might be hefty, but we can never leave it behind, just in case we spot something new.
- My terrible kingfisher photo
- Canada goose goslings
- A blue tit
- Turnstones in their winter coat
- Grey heron