Monday, January 25, 2016

Identifying Birds for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

This weekend is the RSPB annual ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’, an opportunity for us all to help the conservation charity count up Britain's bird species. 

Long tailed tit on catkins. Painting by Robert E Fuller. 
This national counting exercise is, in fact, the largest citizen-nature observation in the world, and last year around 500,000 people got involved. I think it is a great thing to do and usually take time out to count the birds in my own garden with my two young daughters. 
It only takes an hour and the great thing about it is that you can choose when you would like to sit and do it during the course of the weekend. 

I usually make myself a brew and then sit down with my two girls. It's great fun getting the kids to tick off the birds we see on an identification sheet downloaded from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch website.

Wren. Painting by Robert E Fuller.
I have found its also a great way to teach them how to identify different species. Usually I find that I identify a bird by its sound, and can usually tell which bird is about to appear on the scene before I've actually seen it. The girls think it is amazing that I know when a particular bird is going to show up. Learning bird song isn't as hard as it seems. There are quite a few identification CDs on the market, although I admit that I am a bit of a technophobe and prefer the old-fashioned way of learning in the field and gradually building up my knowledge.

Goldcrests on Larch, Painting by Robert E Fuller.
It has taken me years to develop this skill and, although it does not happen that often, I still get caught out once or twice with a species I don’t know so well and sometimes I get a surprise when one bird mimics another. Still my daughters find it impressive since I do know the repertoire of different calls and songs that each bird has and can tell if a bird is simply announcing its territory, raising the alarm or calling another adult or young - which means I can usually point to young chicks or a predator with some accuracy.

The bird-feeder outside my studio window is usually teaming with birds and when we sit down at home to count them it isn’t long before the girls start shouting out ‘sparrow’ or ‘blue tit’.

Painting by Robert E Fuller

But trying to get an accurate figure of how many of each can be amusing since they flit about so fast.  My house is very rural, so I get a wide variety of birds, including dunnocks, fieldfares, bramblings and red wings.
Bullfinch on apple blossom. Painting by Robert E Fuller
The RSPB has run this event for 30 years and relies on the results to create a snapshot of bird numbers in each region, gaining a good indication of where there are serious dips in bird populations. Last year the friendly blackbird was the most observed bird, but other common species included robins, wrens and song thrushes. But the count also revealed continuing serious declines among species like house sparrows, greenfinches, starlings and song thrushes. 

Robin. Painting by Robert E Fuller.
Don't forget to get counting the birds in your garden this weekend! Getting involved is easy, and the RSPB offer a free bird watching pack to help you get started. The idea is to identify and count as many different birds as possible in an hour. You can then submit your observations online via the RSPBwebsite

Goldfinch. Painting by Robert E Fuller.

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