Stay still sparrows, I’m trying to count you.
Cup of coffee on the table, notepad and pencil in hand and I’m set for a happy hour looking out the window. Make it two hours. Settling down for the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch I wondered if it would be cheating to do the count over the whole day.
Counting birds does not send you to sleep, they move too fast (is that three sparrows or seven in the climbing rose?), but it is a kind of meditation. The fluttering and bickering of finches at the feeder, the robin hopping on the ground, blackbirds rummaging in the leaf litter – there’s an almost hypnotic fascination in the comings and goings round the bird table.
There’s serious purpose to this exercise too – many birds we used to call ‘common or garden’ are on the list of threatened species – but there’s also some family fun in the air today. I’m spurred on by a Facebook report that my nephew in London has recorded an enviously impressive list of the birdlife in his garden. Aaron (aged nine with the keen eye of a young David Attenborough) has spotted not just pigeons, magpies and blackbirds, but a dunnock, long tailed tit and two goldfinches. Two goldfinches! In Muswell Hill!!
Our back garden in Edinburgh is not so rich. Not any more. When we first moved in, almost 40 years ago, we could have counted a lively range of songbirds: chaffinches greeting sunrise, starlings splashing in the gutter, robins competing for worms, even the occasional thrush bashing the living daylight out of the pesky snails. Now, as almost every house has turned their back yard into a parking lot, the birds have lost precious habitat and feeding ground and the diversity has dwindled – fewer finches and tits, starlings and thrushes long gone (snails flourish). The dawn chorus has diminished too. Still, we are glad that our jungle supports a healthy population of sparrows (despite occasional raids by sparrowhawks) and every year blackbirds rear a new family outside the kitchen window.
There’s a very different scene from the window at Pond Cottage, in the wilds of Perth and Kinross. Two years ago Aaron left us a colourful report of the wildlife he saw during his holiday there (“the pheasants are so dumb!”). Surrounded by farmland, on the edge of a pond oozing through willow and reeds, we sometimes catch sight of exotic visitors. Cormorants and shelduck have stopped by from time to time.
Rural birds face their own challenges – intensive farming does not favour the birds and bees – but we were lucky to buy our patch of marshy woodland at a time of generous tree and hedge planting grants. With extra help from feeders full of nuts and seeds, we have seen a cheering increase in the numbers and varieties of birds in the garden.
Not today. On the pond there’s the two resident swans – they arrived as usual at the beginning of the year – moorhen and heron. But apart from flurries of chaffinches (too many to count accurately), fancy feathers are thin on the ground. No sign of woodpecker, siskin – or the jays, which appeared for the first time two weeks ago. So, I’m mighty obliged to the tree creeper which turns up three times. Or is that three tree creepers visiting singly?