Birding. Where now?

By Steve Gale

If you walk up to a crowd of birders and utter the words “Low Carbon Birding” there will most probably be two different responses. The first will be from shiny-eyed converts, nodding profusely as they extol the virtues of adopting such methods. The second will be one of panic, with crucifixes thrust forward to ward you off dare you suggest the banishment of fossil-fuel-propelled means of travel to go birding. Middle-ground tends not to exist.

I’ll come clean. I’m more of a shiny-eyed convert than a crucifix wielder. It has taken me many years to arrive at this point and there have been many wrong turns and bumps in the road on that journey. How each of us reach a point of embracing some, if not all, of the ‘low carbon birding’ ethics varies from person to person. To some it means to renounce flying, to stop eating meat and to study the provenance of all that you purchase. To others it will be as simple and basic as to try birdwatching closer to home on a more regular basis.

It isn’t easy to leave the car in the driveway and suddenly stop visiting areas that have impeccable ornithological pedigree, that have served you well over the years, to then down-size to ones that most probably won’t – and let’s face it, if you reduce your birding travel then this is likely to be the case. You will be swapping the known for the unknown. My own journey started when I became disillusioned with wandering around from county to county – it was just not cutting it for me and was becoming unfulfilling, soulless even. Long car-journeys started to bore me, the increasing traffic an irritant. I would not be telling the truth if I were to claim that I started to look at birding closer to home out of a wish to help reduce my carbon footprint, although I was of course aware of climate change and the unsustainability of our lives in the capitalist world.

Walton Downs, a mosaic of horse paddocks, farmland and chalk downland. Top image: Canons Farm played host to an enormous flock of Chaffinches and Bramblings in the winter of 2007-08. Photographs: Steve Gale

I need a reason, or at least an aim, to my birding and always have done. A framework on which to hang it, to give it purpose. In all honesty I was sceptical that local birding would fit the bill. But slowly I started to withdraw my birding horizons closer to home and found myself watching any local site that I came across, especially those that I perceived to be not already watched. For any site to be ‘un-birded’ is normally a sign that it has been previously rejected by birders as being poor for birds and did not deserve adoption as a patch! There is also the common belief amongst most active birders that to participate in meaningful birding requires you to visit the coast, a large reservoir or a wetland. Somehow tame, local sites are just not considered as, well, proper birding. I was pleased to find that this was far from the truth and was starting to truly believe that I could get my kicks out of going back to birding basics and rediscover the joys of… discovery! To start to obtain real joy out of simply counting woodland tit flocks, discovering the roost sites of winter thrushes or identifying areas favoured by migrant chats took me back to my ornithological roots, but painted the scene in different colours as it was all being looked at through experienced eyes.

The ease of this ‘second birth’ was not that surprising really. When we start to bird-watch we just want to see birds – any birds will do. Then, after we have dipped our toes in the ornithological water for a while we move on and want these birds to be rarer, bigger and better. But what then? There is another level that exists, where the manner of the birding takes on added importance, a philosophical or intellectual exercise even. And this ‘third’ stage is ripe for the ‘low carbon birder’ to experience.

The recent lockdown, due to Covid 19, forced many of us to focus our minds on how we behaved, not just socially but also recreationally. The option for birders to jump in a car and drive several hundred miles was closed, and the necessity to bird locally – for several weeks or months – became a novel reality for many.

Most of us largely withdrew into a much smaller ornithological domain – a garden, balcony or window became our realm, the place to watch from. Social media allowed us to share our observations, to voice our feelings in what we were doing and to try and make sense of this new world order. Those of us who remained in one place, and one place only, slowly became aware that in all of this awfulness there were crumbs of comfort to be had. For a start, being in one spot, over several weeks, revealed another dimension to our birding. The unlikely and the unusual were, in fact, more likely and more usual than we gave them credit for. Hidden pulses of migrants were hiding in plain sight – they were not really hidden at all. The behaviour of our common-or-garden species was, for once, discovered and enjoyed, this adding another dimension to our birding, one constructed from the most simple and basic of observation. We were all sent a message, and that was that we don’t need to travel to get our ornithological highs. We live with them, if only we are prepared to invest our time and patience. But can this take the place of a contrived trip to see a rarity or a long journey to visit different habitat?

The scarp slope of the North Downs at Colley Hill is worth checking for passage migrants each spring and autumn. Photograph: Steve Gale

Not everybody will buy into it, but slowly the tide is turning. Staying local is a real option. It can be hard work and it will, at times, be limiting. Maybe it will be easier for those of us who have already and had our fill of long-distance travel and twitching. It is a difficult choice to turn away from proven birding locations to plough some lonely furrow on dry farmland or down land. But when you hit it right the rewards are all the richer, all the more meaningful, all the more personal.

In recent years, within a relatively short-distance from home, and at places that have not been considered worth birding, I have seen Little Bittern, Ring-necked Duck, Dotterel and Bee-eater, plus have witnessed Brambling flocks in their thousands, Hawfinches in their hundreds and enjoyed visible-migration sessions that would have impressed an observatory warden – skies filled with thousands of hirundines and thrushes. How can anyone, in all reality, suggest that areas that can provide such spectacle are a waste of time? It may not be a case of throwing away the car keys and never booking a flight again – although there are urgent grounds for considering such action – but by using your local area to conduct your principal birding, you will not only be discovering what is going on close to home but helping – a little – towards reducing your carbon footprint.


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