Terry O'Connor

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Bank Holiday Monday


Tradition demands that I whinge about the grey skies, cool temperatures and drizzle, but having spent much of the long weekend clearing out the porch and loft, it really hasn’t mattered. In fact, I did manage to get trapped at the bottom of the garden by a torrential burst of rain around Saturday lunchtime. It was sheer precipitating hell: all alone in the shelter of a wooden arbour with a padded bench, with only a mug of coffee and the morning papers for company, and a grandstand view of numerous small birds stuffing their beaks with sunflower seeds at my expense.

There is a certain pleasure in watching the bird feeders from a few metres away. The birds know full well that I’m there. They could hardly miss an average-sized human at that distance. When I refill the feeders, the first arrivals are always the coal tits, whirring in to feed almost before I have stepped away. The other tits follow in ones and twos, typically grabbing a seed or two then perching in a neighbouring tree whilst picking the seeds apart. The finches are different. They arrive mob-handed and occupy the feeder, rotating nonchalantly while the feeder turns on the length of twine that is supposed to keep the squirrels at bay. It doesn’t. The bullfinches are fairly quiet about it. In winter, their soft contact call sometimes shows that a group of them are on their way, but it is the greenfinches that really make a noise whilst feeding. One or two arrive and set up a regular battery of tzeeping until more have come in. It is difficult to escape the impression that the first arrivals call in the rest of the small flock (family? siblings?) to take full advantage of my sunflower largesse.

OK, it’s a good excuse for passing the time. I could try to pretend that my sub-Gilbert-White observations on garden birds are some kind of citizen science, a small contribution to the sum total of human knowledge. The cold, hard reality is that bird watching (not birding, for which see below) is nothing more than a reason to sit and watch the world happen, an opportunity to over-ride the brain circuit that constantly says “You should be doing X”. If the birds are not up to much, there may be hoverflies or butterflies around the buddleia, or a buzzard overhead, or just sunshine through the leaves. It doesn’t matter which: the point is to sit and watch, listen, smell. Just for a while, focus on something that is not broadcast or otherwise artificially generated, and not electro-mechanical in origin.

Birding, proper ornithology, is another matter. Try as I might, and I have, I cannot get into the mind-set of someone to whom it is worth travelling tens or even hundreds of miles for a brief glimpse of a small brown bird, for no other reason than that one has never seen that species before and may never do so again. I was on North Ronaldsay on an occasion when a Spanish sparrow foolishly flew in. Throughout the day, the island gradually filled up with serious birders, including two who had chartered a flight from South Wales. Did I see the sparrow? No. I wasn’t looking for it. I have seen Spanish sparrows, in Spain, where they belong, not on a windswept smudge of land in Orkney.  Back in the 1980s, in my volunteer warden days, I turned up at the reserve on one bright Yorkshire winter morning to find more than the usual number of cars (i.e. more than mine). A bright-eyed and clearly excited man in camouflage-coloured waxed-cotton breathlessly informed me that a great grey shrike had been reported, a species that I had not, up to then, ever seen. Scanning the terrain, he announced to the small group of serious birders that the shrike would probably be in the shrubby area at the north end of the reserve. So off they went. And off I went, in the opposite direction, to count ducks as far from them as I could get. I had a lovely day in the hide, all on my own, with the scrape beautifully lit, loads of waterfowl including a few uncommon visitors. Oh yes, and a great grey shrike sitting a few metres from the hide in full view, presumably as glad to have evaded the birders as I was.

There is a lot to be said for sitting quietly and watching birds, and the backdrop of landscape, and any other wildlife that happens to come along. Some of those observations will be interesting, the occasional rarity may chance to come by, but it is the process of doing the quiet sitting and watching that matters, not ticking another species off a list. Apologies to any serious birders who happen to read this: carry on chaps, whizz off to Scilly in pursuit of a fan-tailed doobry, just don’t expect me to understand.

© Terry O’Connor Aug2011

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