Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 2 September 2014

No way I'm ducking out of this Bird Watch challenge

Welcome visitor: a blue tit

I never imagined it would come to this. Not back in the era of late nights, post-punk trousers, gelled quiffs and fight-the-world attitudes. That I'd be sitting in my back garden, taking part in the RSPB's Bird Watch survey weekend, I mean.

Look, I don't exactly have a plaid blanket over my knees, but I do have a flask of tea, a practical warm jacket, a pair of binoculars, a spotter's book and a notebook. It's a long way from the Clash concerts, that's for sure.

I read about the survey in the Belfast Telegraph and, in spite of inner turmoil, came to the conclusion that this was the way I wanted to spend my Sunday.

Change comes without warning. In truth, I'd actually taken up birdwatching last year almost as a deliberately au contraire thing to do. To shock friends by my new-found ability to find tranquility in middle age. They said it would last two outings and nodded sagely when it was revealed my route around the harbour ended at a nice little inn.

I'm pretty useless at it, to be honest. The birds of the mud flat estuary that is my stalking ground all look the same to me.

Your godwit and your sandpiper seem to be distinguishable only by the length and upturn of their beaks. It doesn't help that my parents found an old Hamlyn Book of British Birds in the loft, which I have been using for identification purposes.

So dated is it that it still has space for the great auk and migratory graphics that are untouched by global warming.

The trouble with birdwatching as a way to relax is that you are always bumping into experts and they are as competitive as any Premiership manager.

The other day one stopped me and, pointing in the vague direction of the water, told me he spotted something which I think he said was a rare lesser spotted teal duck (I undoubtedly have that wrong, so don't look it up) and beckoned me to follow his directions with my binoculars.

So here was a moral dilemma. Having no idea what I was looking for, did I go for honesty and ask his help, or, given that he looked extremely self-satisfied with his expertise, take a look and express similar, but vaguely worded, wonder?

I chose the latter, but as I walked away I couldn't be sure that he made the whole name up to prove his point: that I was a fool with a new hobby.

But I've stuck at it and so to Sunday afternoon. The wind is howling and the rain coming in horizontally. The RSPB says we all have to stay there for an hour and post online the biggest number of each breed we see. Those flying above don't count.

I lay some breadcrumbs out and wait and wait and wait. Nothing comes along as the minutes tick by. On either side of my garden, there appears to be an Amazonian riot of bird noise, a feathered friend rave-up that I've not been invited to. I swear I even hear Carry On Up The Jungle's Oozlum bird from over the fence, but in my patch it is the avian equivalent of Year Zero.

The cat slinks by, nodding in satisfaction at a job well done. There's 15 minutes left when a pair of boring wood pigeons land in a tree for a few seconds before joining the party next door.

I glumly write down their name and then start to wonder should I make up some birds? Throw in a few wagtails, a pied warbler, or a citril finch.

But what if, in RSPB Towers, a light flashes on in the control centre when I post and before I know it my street is full of vanloads of bird boffins amazed at the first sighting of a citril finch in these parts for 100 years, asking tough questions about what it actually looked like? I abandon the idea.

With two minutes left, a pair of blue tits take pity on me. They perform a lovely little tree dance and hop off. But it's enough.

Later, I post my report from the frontline. I've done my duty under hellish circumstances. There's no way blue tits and wood pigeons are going extinct on my watch.

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