When I was a child, I never really got into bird watching. I’m a huge fan of the natural world (as any poor person who has come across my ramblings will probably guess) but while I could understand other people’s fascination for birds, I never really developed it in the same way. I suspect partly it was because the birds I grew up with suited rather too well the place I grew up in – perfectly fine, but nothing, well, that appeared that special.
Before you shoot me down in a fit of ‘what do you want… a bunch of Sea Eagles and an American Blue throat?’ let me say in my defence that I have since revised my view. The robins that accompany my desperate battle against the ground elder in our garden almost make the effort worth it. The sparrows that bicker outside my window are a welcome distraction sometimes from the most tedious phone conference. And nothing says summer to me than lounging back in the garden in the fading light listening to the blackbirds declaring their territory with a wonderful mixture of beautiful music and promised brutality.
But when I was a child it seemed like the same old birds, year in year out, diligently fed by my mother (who used to stress when we were away that the poor things would starve) and that was a lot less exciting that the evocative ruined castles and abbeys or the diverse North East rock pools that were some of my happiest memories (connected as they were with frequent holidays on the magnificent North East coast).
But I think it would have been a bit different if I had lived on the coast, or within walking distance of a decent reserve or WWT centre. We are on holiday in the Yorkshire Wolds (no, I did not know that there was such a place, but it is rather lovely – just North of the Wash, stretching up to Bridlington/Filey – and after a recent feature on Springwatch we wanted to visit the RSPB reserve at Bempton Cliffs. It is really easy to get to and is one of the few mainland places you can get close to breeding seabirds. And even in April, without the excitement of eggs or chicks, there is plenty to see – especially the gannets. They are wonderful birds – huge, impossible to mistake for anything else, pale blue eyes and with a range of fascinating behaviour that with the most basic of binoculars you can just spend hours watching them. If you get bored, there are plenty of other things to see – this area of the English coastline also has large populations of Kittiwakes, small delicate gulls that looks so sweet but have the noisiest calls (hence the name) and can be the most viscous battlers –we spent ten minutes watching two birds locked in combat beak to beak, and they only stopped when it looked like a mutual drowning in a rock pool was likely. We were also amused that immediately afterwards, the two exhausted combatants immediately seemed to be on the receiving end of amorous attractions of the girls, so clearly they were impressed by this feathered fight club.
I think if I had access to this kind of drama – or was able to recognise the drama acted out by the so apparently ‘ordinary’ birds in my garden at home – then maybe I would have been more of a passionate bird watcher. But to be honest, we are so lucky to be surrounded by such an exciting collection of birds without really trying other than just keeping your eyes open. I defy anyone not to smile at a pair of goldfinches on a feeder, or a gaggle of long tailed tits – one of our all-time favourite birds, tiny chattering pink lollipops of birds – if you see them.
And sometimes you just have to be lucky. Tonight, as we drive back from Flamborough Head, a barn owl flew over the bonnet of the car and kept pace with us for a few wonderful moments, giving us probably the closest encounter we will ever have with a wild individual – truly one of our greatest birds and a completely ‘never forget this’ moment.
Who knows what you will see today.