The back garden birder
Our other senses can be wonderful for helping us experience the wildlife we cannot see in our back gardens
By its very nature, birdwatching is just that. Birdwatching. There’s very little suggestion in those semantics of the other ways in which we might use our senses to immerse ourselves in the activity that brings us so much joy. Bird spotting could be another way to describe what we do but, again, that’s all about what we see. It neglects what we hear, feel and smell. You’ll notice I’ve left out taste – for obvious reasons. If you want to eat the birds we feature here, this is definitely not the magazine for you. I just want you to think for a moment of your favourite experience. Don’t close your eyes just yet, I want you to read on. Let’s say you woke up early and you wandered into a dense forest as the morning light filtered through the canopy. Or you stayed up as the sky turned from inky blue to ebony and the stars appeared like glittering pin pricks in the sky. You were there. And you were looking. But you were also listening to the cooing of the Woodpigeon perhaps, or the shrill shriek of the Barn Owl. It helped you to establish where these creatures were, and how, if you were lucky, you could get a glimpse of them by following the sounds that are unique to them. I’ve said many times to you that I am not a bird expert in any way and I am rubbish with facts. Everything I share with you comes from my own amateur experience and all the things I discover in my garden and the surrounding areas. If I want to know who is making a particular noise, I open my laptop and I Google it. Last week, I sat on an old Welsh blanket beside my firepit toasting marshmallows (remember, I’m a fluffy sort of person) and drinking hot chocolate spiked with rum. It was around 10pm. It was a beautiful, quiet evening, aside from the low-flying aircraft that have clearly chosen a new flight path to take in the beauty of my garden with my own illuminations of solar lights with varying lumens. The marshmallows had now vanished and I heard noises coming from the bottom of the garden beyond the compost heap and the piles of kindling I’d been collecting. I closed my eyes and really tried to listen.
Dogs rarely ‘woof’, but it seems that Tawny Owls do ‘kee-wick’ and it’s a sound that is becoming increasingly scarce according to The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) who, in September this year, asked people to take part in its Tawny Owl Calling Survey by spending just 20 minutes in their gardens, local park or even their beds (with the window open, of course) to try to hear them and report their findings to better establish a picture of this species in today’s landscape. It runs until 31 March next year, so if you want to take part, you still can via bto.org Bird listening, then, can be as useful as birdwatching. Smell, too, has the power to transport us to another time or place, but perhaps this is the least tangible way we know that birds are near because we never get close enough to them to trigger our olfactory receptors. I’d imagine that they have a more earthy, less flamboyant odour than Chanel No. 5 but I might be wrong. To each other, I’m sure, in mating season, they smell fancy. Instead, consider the smells of certain habitats that your favourite birds frequent and absorb it. A study uncovered that Starlings use certain leaves in their nests which are chosen for their smell because they are known to keep parasites away and many birds will know their nests by its smell. Mallards, too, know when it’s time to employ some Barry White, when their mate releases pheromones. We’re yet to cover touch. And it’s an elusive one. Have you ever been close enough to touch a wild bird? And if you have been, should you? Literally, though, we’re all touched by birds – we are amused at their behaviour and impressed at their skills or wowed by their synchronised mating displays. We are in short, touched by their very existence.
One of the delights of a winter garden is listening to a singing Robin