This weekend Mrs B and I took part in the Big Garden Birdwatch a kind of informal National Census of Birds organised by the RSPB in order to produce its annual avian Domesday Book. Although the BGB has been going for over 40 years, 2021 marks the first time we have been organised enough to contribute.
The idea is simple enough: at some point between 29th and 31st January, we simply had to sit down and spend an hour staring out at the garden identifying any birds that alighted on our estate. To take part you did not actually need a BIG garden. Any size would do, and the information pack supplied pictures of typical garden birds one could expect to see. So, before setting our timer we took a look at the list – eighteen different species ranging from blackbird to wood pigeon, coal tit to collared dove and Greenfinch to Great tit. These were all birds that we see regularly in the garden – with the possible exception of collared doves. And, to be fair, we have only seen greenfinches hereabouts in the late summer, feasting on the borage seeds. But in addition to the chosen dirty dozen and a half, we knew that we were likely to see wrens, woodpeckers and wagtails which, for some reason, had not made it onto the idiots’ guide to garden birds. So we were all set for our three score minutes’ worth of Midlife Garden feathered feeding frenzy.
At this point, I need to clarify that it is, merely, a survey. It’s not a competition. There is no reward for spotting the most birds – in contrast to the sponsored birdwatch I did as a callow youth at Chew Valley Lake on the Mendips. Myself and an even more geeky school chum, had lulled potential sponsors into a false sense of security, telling them we might see ten or so species of duck on the lake, thus bumping up our price-per species sponsorship. Come the day, as well as numerous waterfowl, we included every bird we spotted on the one hour round trip there and back, notching up an absurd number of different feathered friends, to then fleece the unsuspecting donors. I reckon we probably included roadkill as a bona fide spot. But I recall it was all in a good cause.
So, no: the Big Garden Birdwatch is not a competition, and yet we were keen for our garden to show the numbers that would represent its worth to the natural world. To prepare for the day I had replenished the peanuts in the feeders and had been to the farmshop and stood for twenty minutes, risking the pandemic, agonising over which fat ball / fat bar / seed type would attract the broadest range of birds.
We laid out the feast and sat in the kitchen with a cup of coffee and waited.
It seems the birds got stage fright. As soon as the clock was running, so were they. Or flying – anywhere, except into our garden. After ten minutes, we nearly knocked over our coffee mugs when a wren emerged from the undergrowth. And when not one, but two blue tits fleetingly landed on the nuts, we felt the dam was about to break. But it didn’t. By the end we had a meagre total of seven species. We were left to ponder where were the robins? The coal tits? The STARLINGS FOR F%$KS SAKE! Like Man United’s forward line, they were here one day, AWOL the next. We had to resort to including a starling that landed on the fence as being in the garden. (It was clear on VAR: it had a tail feather over the line).
Of course, there is always the temptation to complete the survey on what could have been, rather than what was. But, like a golfer with a dodgy lie, it all relies on the honesty of the participants, and where is the satisfaction in not playing by the rules? We don’t want to be the twitching equivalent of Patrick Reid.
There is irony in the fact that, for some reason beyond rational thought, these days we associate sightings of robins with Josh. It would be no surprise if Josh was having a laugh at his parents’ expense by warding off the robins that would normally strut around the the garden with brazen confidence. He would be chuckling at our despair over the relative dirth of birds.
Of course, the next day, they were all back, like it was Camp Granada. Popping over from Dave and Yvonne’s next door, there was no sign of the performance anxiety of the previous day as they dug into the nuts, fat and seeds. Long tailed tits flocking in, robins and chaffinches everywhere, more tits than you could wave a big stick at. Today I even saw the lone grey wagtail that always brightens my day. The pictures below are proof of the abundance of Midlife Garden Birdlife, so if the RSPB report a decline in garden birds, we will know better.