Becoming A Twitcher: Part I

In which I recognise a gaping hole in my zoological knowledge, and begin trying to fill it…

I think the first time I properly realised that I know NOTHING about birds was 3 years ago, while on a trip to Australia…thanks to some lovely people pointing out every new animal that appeared in the garden of the house I was staying in, within a week I could identify by sight and sound around half a dozen birds. And I wondered if I’d be able to do the same with British species (the answer: probably not). While I can identify many mammals by sight (and by skull these days!), I have never paid much attention to birds. Which leaves me, as a vertebrate zoologist, with a large black hole of ignorance surrounding a good chunk of the animal kingdom. And nobody likes having a large black hole of ignorance (and yes, I’m aware that’s a crappy metaphor…physicists, please don’t write in to complain).

However, I didn’t do anything about this distressing lack of knowledge for a couple of years…years spent being generally too busy to worry about birds. But in the last few weeks I have found myself with the spare time, and the motivation, to take action. The spare time has been helpfully provided by my lack of a job, and the motivation by my voluntary work at Bristol Museum: I was recently drafted in to help two apprentices catalogue the learning and handling collection, which consists mostly of British mammal and bird taxidermy, and found myself unable to identify to any useful level (“Some kind of duck” being not particularly helpful!) many of the bird mounts.

So with my trusty Bill Oddie guidebook (that I bought with the best of birdwatching intentions while living in Glasgow last year, and never used) and my shiny new monocular, last week I started trying to identify the birds in my garden (not that there are many – I have 2 cats); seemed as good a place to start as any. My first victory was over the birds that nest in the neighbour’s roof and flit about in my hedge – Bill Oddie helpfully identified them as house sparrows (which I’m aware are common as muck, but I didn’t know what they looked like! EDIT: Apparently they’re no longer common as muck, and are in fact now on the Red List of threatened species due to a drastic population decline in recent decades. They’re certainly not threatened around here!).

Unfortunately, so far that remains my only real victory…I took both monocular and book down to the field that my parents own yesterday, which is always teeming with small birds: you can hear them all around you. What I hadn’t factored in was actually being able to see them. Small brown birds on brown tree branches are really quite hard to spot. The only things I did see were the few large and obvious species that I didn’t need Bill Oddie to identify for me:

Rooks (lots of them – there’s a large and very loud rookery at the top of the hill)
Wood pigeons
A pheasant (male, accidentally flushed out of a nettle patch)
Two mallards (both male, disturbed on the stream)
And one falcon, probably a sparrowhawk (it was too far away to identify even with the monocular, but it wasn’t a kestrel because it was circling rather than hovering, and since sparrowhawks are the most common birds of prey in this area it seemed a good guess)

Next task: Learn to identify birds by song as well as sight, because I may never be able to see all the small twittery things that lurk in the bushes, but I can certainly hear them!


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