Reproduced below are two articles originally written for our local group magazine. Hopefully, by reading these, it will help you avoid some of the pitfalls of starting this wonderful hobby and to give you a better idea of what may be involved in the future once the bug has bitten you - and believe me it will!
Whenever you start this hobby you will find that it is very easy to make mistakes in identification (as I still do on occasions!), my main advice to anyone would be to join their local RSPB group as soon as possible where you will have the benefit of joining more experienced Birders who will be only too happy to pass on their knowledge to others, this will also enable you to join many interesting field walks, indoor lectures and coach trips. OK, I admit that this is a plug for our group but since I joined the group I have had nothing but wonderful times and have made a lot of new lifelong friends which can't be at all bad.
I hope that you enjoy the article.
We All Started Somewhere!
Two years ago I was sitting with James my nine-year-old son watching television. The programme we were watching finished and one of Bill Oddie's birding programmes followed. I have to admit I wasn't taking much notice but my son was watching avidly. Half way through the programme my son turned to me and said "Dad, will you take me birdwatching like Bill Oddie?" I thought that this sounded like a good idea, it would get us out in the open air, it would also allow for some quality Father-Son bonding and would be a very cheap and easily affordable pastime. Had I known exactly what sort of slippery slope I was embarking on I would have booked us on the next space shuttle instead!
Living where we do, we are fortunate to be very close to a wonderful location called Wakering Stairs, this is M.O.D land but is open to visitors at weekends and is largely unspoiled - this seemed an ideal spot to start our birdwatching. I armed myself with my father's binoculars which weighed at least 30 pounds and gave you the very strong impression that the last birds that were viewed from them must have been from the U-boat's conning tower. A pleasant morning was spent looking at various birds and, by the end of the day, we had ticked off our first twelve; Starling, Carrion Crow, Magpie, Black-headed Gull, that sort of thing. Although happy with these twelve, I was feeling rather uneasy because I had glossed over various little wading birds on the seashore and four or five little nondescript brown fluttery things in the bushes. My son was not impressed by this as Bill had always identified everything he had seen on his birdwatching programme and I could tell from my Son's sideways glances and uneasy silences that he had expected a lot more from his Father.
My son, having really enjoyed his first birdwatching, wanted to go out again the following week. Deciding that I really ought to be more knowledgeable about all these other birds, I went into town and bought myself a guide book, the Observers Guide to British Birds. I already owned The Observers Guide to Civil Airliners and had been able to identify every plane in the sky with this so I knew the books to be pretty good. Fully armed with book and binoculars we set out for our second birdwatching trip. Our first stop was the sea wall where I decided to get to grips with all these waders. First off, using binoculars and book, I was able to say in a very authoritative voice "that one there James is a Dunlin, or, maybe, a Knot, but, there again, it could be a Grey Plover, I think, maybe. Oh look, I know that that one right out there is definitely an Osprey, that's right the one on the left wading in the mud eating cockles". "OK, let's ignore the waders for the time being and concentrate on these little brown jobs. Ah-ha, there's a Meadow Pipit... wait a minute, it could be a Rock Pipit, no, it's not, it is definitely a Meadow Pipit, umm, or a Corn Bunting, possibly". It was at this point that I happened to notice the look of disappointment on my son's face. His father, who he had looked up to as the font of all knowledge up to this point in his young life, was obviously proving woefully inadequate and was patently showing the same decisive intelligence that one would normally associate with a plastic duck. With a heavy heart and only three new (possible) ticks we headed home. At this point I began to feel a very real sense of my own ignorance, an affliction that, sadly, all to few people seem to suffer with.
The next day I was deciding exactly where I had gone wrong. The answer, when it came, was so obvious - I had bought a really inadequate guide book of course! I went back to the shop later on that week and bought four more guide books.
We set off on our third birdwatching trip, this time armed with the five guide books. The day, unfortunately went wrong from the start as it became painfully obvious that none of the guide books could get it right as most of their illustrations looked the same! Even when the guide books did differ I was still totally confused as I had decided that one of the waders we were looking at was definitely a Knot but my guide book showed a lovely rufous orange/red bird and the one that I was looking at was just a plain grey - I knew nothing of summer and winter plumage at this point. This day ended with just one new (possible) tick, a complete and utter disaster. After a rethink it was decided that the problem lay in my 50 year old binoculars and the fact that we only had the one pair between us. A trip to the shops the following weekend saw us both armed with shiny new light-weight binoculars, 'recommended especially for the discerning birdwatcher'. One other thing that we had noticed was that, even with binoculars, the birds that we were looking at seemed a very great distance away - I had a brainwave about this. Being interested in astronomy at one time I had in my possession a four and a half-foot, bright white, non retractable star gazing telescope. Great! Just what we needed to bring these annoying little birds closer. At least this was still going to be a relatively cheap hobby.
On the next Saturday we decided to head for Hanningfield Reservoir to experience a bird hide for the first time. We felt that, armed with various books, binoculars, dayglo orange wind jackets and huge telescope we would blend in very well with the other birders. On arrival, our star gazing, four and a half-foot, non-retractable bright white telescope arrived in the bird hide at Hanningfield a good few minutes before our bodies did. I proceeded to set up a small box girder bridge within the hide that doubled as an industrial strength telescope tripod. With the end of our bright white telescope sticking out a good few feet from the hide window, I motioned my son to have a look through it - it was while he was doing this that I became aware of the reaction from the rest of the bird watchers in the hide, the effect was astounding. The nearest equivalent to this situation I can think of is when a madman gets onto a crowded bus. As soon as the madman looks at anyone, that person immediately turns away and becomes very interested in their left shoe. This was the reaction I was getting, whenever I caught the eye of anyone staring open-mouthed at my telescope sticking out of the hide window and giving a very passable impression of a 108cm coastal battery canon. I was becoming painfully aware that I had just made some sort of huge birding world social gaff. It is really quite amazing watching someone going bright red in the face, trying to politely stifle an enormous laugh. I hurriedly (after 20 minutes) disassembled my tripod and telescope and announced to James that we were leaving. Pulling my protesting son behind me we left the hide at the fastest speed possible given that all of our equipment weighed at least six tons. The explosion of hitherto suppressed hilarity that came from the building after we shut the door was something quite incredible, there couldn't have been an undisturbed bird left within a thousand yards of the hide! My one consolation was that my son was still interested in birds and the hobby itself was still working out to be pretty cheap, or so I thought.
On our fifth birdwatching trip we were sitting with our nine guide books and our new binoculars (but not in a bird hide and definitely NOT with the telescope) still getting absolutely nowhere, when an event occurred that would completely change our lives. This event came to us in the form of one very experienced, very friendly, tame birdwatcher. I was at the point where I would listen to a garden gnome if I thought that it would give me any advice enabling me to earn the respect and trust of my son again. This kind chap pointed out all the different waders to us patiently explaining what to look for and even identified a bird to us from its call. This last trick was deeply impressive, as we hadn't even considered that birds do actually make different calls and not all of them just go 'cheep-cheep'. We left the company of our new friend with 17 new (definite) ticks and plenty of good advice. Since this point in time I have always found that nearly all birdwatchers are of this same friendly, helpful and kindly disposition to 'newbies'. Talking of 'cheep-cheep', I was starting to become aware that there was part of my brain trying to get my attention. This was the part that looked after my finances and was trying, unsuccessfully, to get me to add up just exactly how much I had spent on this 'cheap' hobby so far - I was ignoring it.
That week, acting on the advice of our new-found friend, we joined the national and our local South East Essex RSPB group, the Essex Wildlife Trust and the Essex Birdwatching Society. This opened up to us many hours of field trips and coach trips in the company of many experienced birders and twitchers. My son and I were gaining the experience needed to make us fully-fledged birdwatchers. This also, incidentally, heralded the start of my road to financial ruin.
Three years on and my son and I now own 24 bird guides, new binoculars (the correct birdwatching types at last, bought from a store near Titchwell) new field telescope (only 1 foot in length and dull green), waterproof field jackets (camouflaged), thermal gloves, thermal socks, thermal hats, thick vests, scarves, back packs and hiking boots. (The thermal clothing mentioned was bought immediately after a Trip to Old Hall Marshes one February when, dressed in only regular clothing, the rest of our group became deeply concerned when they noticed that my hands and face had turned a nice rich blue colour and my conversation indicated that I was in the first stages of hypothermia. I was taken at great speed from Old Hall to the Abberton visitor centre where, after about five coffees, I began to remember who I was and most of the spiders and pink elephants went away). My Son and I are now regular visitors to at the British Birdwatching Fair at Rutland where, on our first visit, I purchased the CD-ROM guide to British Birds, Bird Recorder 32 computer software and the CD-ROM guide to bird calls. I also took out subscriptions to British Birds, the BTO, Birdwatching Magazine, British Wildlife, the Barn Owl Trust, the Hawk and Owl Trust and LIPU. Our back garden now looks like an advert for one of the better bird feeder and seed suppliers and I have now been elevated to the dizzy heights of the Committee of the local South East Essex RSPB group. We now drive out most weekends further and further afield in pursuit of our addiction (I mean hobby). Strangely enough after our first trip to Rutland the polite letters that I had always received from my bank manager seemed to take on a slightly sinister tone. I recently led my first local RSPB field trip for members of the public as part of the Big Garden Birdwatch week a few months ago and I was able to talk about the birds around us with, hopefully, experience and knowledge. That night I realised I had become the birdwatcher that we met on our fifth birdwatching trip. With this knowledge I resolved to help as many inexperienced and young enthusiasts as I possibly could.
What of my Son? He is still as enthusiastic and as fascinated by his birdwatching. Someone asked him recently what was his one memorable moment was since starting birdwatching? He didn't even have to think hard about this. It wasn't the Bittern he saw three feet from the hide at Rutland, nor the Bittern he picked up at Minsmere before anyone else had seen it, Not the Golden Eagles gliding over the Findhorn Valley in Scotland, It wasn't being one of the few on our coach trip that actually saw a Cetti's Warbler at Titchfield, Not the sight of thousands of geese returning to roost at Snettisham, not even the sight of 20 Little Egrets on our local patch. No, none of these. My Son's crowning moment and greatest achievement he will tell you, was when Bill Oddie took the time to speak to him and sign his bird guide book on our first visit to the British Birdwatching Fair in Rutland!
I don't want to even think about the cost of our 'cheap' hobby to date but the one thing that I am sure of is that I would gladly have paid double to enter this world of camaraderie and wonderful experiences.
We are now avid watchers of the Bill Oddie programmes, I must admit, however, I felt a bit dubious of his last series that was filmed abroad as this prompted from my son "Dad can we go to Israel to see all the raptors like Bill Oddie?" The only thing that we are waiting for now is for the BBC to release the Oddie programmes on video just so that Dad can wallow in nostalgia for those early days!
On a final note, deep in my attic, behind various boxes and other junk there lies a very dusty and unused four and a half-foot, non-retractable, bright white telescope.
Tips For Anyone Thinking of Dating or Marrying a Bird Watcher
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