Back Garden Birding – Your Newest Competitive Sport

I’m starting the day as I write this sentence, sitting in bed with a cup of tea listening to the birds singing just beyond the back door. I’d wallow in the luxury, take time to count my blessings… but the birds have me worried and I’m busy counting them. Great tit, blue tit, coal tit, marsh tit, long tailed tit, robin, dunnock.

Sunday 12th April 2020, possibly the saddest, strangest and most hopeful Easter weekend of my lifetime to date. The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world upside down; loss and grieving, fear and concern have become daily emotions. Somehow though, it seems to have another unexpected effect. the sun shines all the brighter and spring blooms and sings so much sweeter despite the creeping insidious shadows.

As I drove to work yesterday I was struck but the sudden bursting of life in the woods, fields and hedgerows I was passing – in the space of the previous day, which I had spent at home, shoots seemed to have doubled in size. The oak trees have opened their buds, and fizzing between them are pipe-cleaner hedgerows of bright green hawthorn. On the escarpments each side of the road where they felled the trees last summer (the ones that held the rookery), between the replanted copse of plastic tubes, garlic mustard has claimed the sunshine. Also known as Jack-by-the-hedge, this edible ‘weed’ is said to be quite tasty, but I wouldn’t fancy picking any here even with current reduced traffic levels – I’m not keen on a seasoning of exhaust gasses on my salad. Above the Jack-by-the-hedge, in a few remaining trees on the very top of the slope, the rooks have returned. Glancing up as I freewheel downhill, it looks like a sail of black plastic wrap loosed from the nearby feed store in the barn yard across the field, was torn and snagged in the top most branches during the late winter storms. But plastic doesn’t chatter – or build nests. A congregation of village gossip and black-feathered superstition. I’m glad they’re still there, being spring.

If the rooks brought an upwelling of joy, this was equalled by the mixed emotions triggered by a colour. I drive this route to work, and home again, five days a week. It’s easy to find yourself on auto-pilot, especially when the roads are empty. I climbed out the village, slipped past the dairy farm, the house with the ducks in its garden, past the stubble field where pheasants and occasionally deer can be seen, the trees stepped up to show off their new hazel and oak leaves… and I was smacked hard on the side of the face with a shock of vivid blue. My eyes whipped to the left, leaving the tarmac for barely a second, before I had to drag them back to navigate a bend. Bluebells. The bluebells are out and carpeting the woodland. Had they opened just in the last day or so, or had they begun blooming earlier in the week and I’d not been looking? I longed to turn the car around, park up and walk amongst them. Not this year.

* * *

9:20am. I am now sat in a deck chair in my back garden, trying to melt into the foliage around me. Those birds I was worrying about over my cup of tea first thing this morning are now commanding my whole attention (well aside from the part of my brain typing this). Because it is all very well counting them at half 7am, but its now that really matters…or between 10am & 11am to be precise. I have a challenge to meet – Bird Race.

Several miles further east across Sussex, Mr Michael Blencowe of Sussex Wildlife Trust fame types a message that pings up on my phone seconds later. “10-11am, any bird, seen or heard, in or from your garden.” Challenge accepted. Then I contemplate asking if the neighbours ducks and chickens count….probably not. Just as I hit send on my confirmation of the rules, a raven calls loudly and repeatedly, flying over the garden heading North-West. I’m not sure if its a good omen or not, but am more distracted by the formidable and frankly terrifying looking queen wasp which is chewing our garden fence to wood pulp a few feet from my right shoulder. I’m starting to wonder about the wisdom of my strategy and my ability to sit still for another hour and twenty five.

* * *

11:05am. He won. A score of 28 species to my 25; but I had the three red kites circling directly overhead. And the first house martins of the year. A bit jealous of his fly-over lapwing though.

To the east of the garden now a stack of five buzzards is still circling and soaring, gradually fanning our south and west. Chiffchaff is still singing from the scrub over the back boundary, and I expect any minuet now the dunnocks will appear from wherever they’ve been hiding all this time.

Think I’ll pop indoors and make a cup of tea, and rummage in the biscuit tin. Then I’ll sit here a while longer and watch the pair of blue tits that are nesting under a loose roof tile behind the pyracantha bush.

Ah, there’s a magpie – one for sorrow? Well, it’s his fault for turning up late. Blooming birds.

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