Birding for a beginner

Bird ID is something I’m really trying to work on at the moment. Before volunteering at the RSPB, I’d never really given birds much of a thought. They just move so much, and are so hard to find, let alone get a good look at! Now, armed with a greater awareness and a pair of my own, cheap but adequate binoculars, I’m starting to see the attraction.

Cheeky little robin singing his heart out on the Meanwood Valley Trail

One of the modules I’ve signed up for this semester comes under the ambiguous title of Conservation Skills. This is a tiny 5 credit module designed to give us a little bit extra to put on our CVs. The options range from chainsaw and brushcutter tickets, to a tree climbing course, small mammal trapping, bird ringing, and the one I chose: bird survey techniques.

Obviously in order to count birds, you need to know what you’re looking at… or indeed hearing (spotting songbirds in the woods is very difficult!) so this is something I need to get better at!

I’ve taken to walking around a lot more and just being concious of the birds that are around and trying to identify them and their calls has really helped. It also makes morning runs pass a lot more quickly and instead of listening to podcasts or music, I just enjoy the sounds of songbirds.

I’ve also just started reading birdwatching with your eyes closed by Simon Barnes. This appears to be the perfect time of year to start learning to recognise bird calls, since it’s early in the season and not many birds are singing in earnest yet. The most distinctive song and the only one I can recognise confidently at the moment is the loud trilling song of the robin. Robins are the only songbird to keep singing throughout the winter and so an easy one to start with.

On a recent walk along the Meanwood Valley Trail I counted 17 species of bird I could identify, and probably missed quite a few more due to my inexperience! I know that just going out and observing is the best way for me to learn, as context is as important as anything in being able to confidently ID birds so it’s worth knowing what you are likely to find where and getting a feel for the kind of habitats different birds like to hang out in!

Grey heron on the Meanwood Valley Trail. I watched this chap fishing with great success!


With the bird surveying module group, I visited Fairburn Ings RSPB reserve for the first time last week. This was mainly for a bit of casual bird watching practice, checking we all had adequate binoculars and some basic bird identification. There are a wonderful array of feeders next to the visitor centre where we saw tree sparrows, greenfinches, blue tits, great tits, dunnocks, chaffinches, goldfinches,long-tailed tits, robins, blackbirds and collared doves. We then went on a bit of a walk to a hide. Along the way we learned some tips on distinguishing common gull and black-headed gull in winter plumage and had a go at counting a flock of gulls. Our answers varied from 40 to 100 and the expert opinion was put at about 90 individuals! Another tip learned is that a rook on its own is most likely to be a carrion crow, but since carrion crows have increased in number in recent years, a crow in a group in not necessarily a rook!

Getting tips from the experts at Fairburn Ings RSPB Reserve

We also visited two different hides to observe some of the water birds that Fairburn Ings is known for. Apparently the offerings were pretty sparse when we went so I’ll have to go back for another visit some time! There were a variety of ducks on view which were all pretty new to me including teal, some displaying goldeneye, shoveler, pintail, pochard, shelduck and tufted duck. Other water birds included coot, cormorant, canada goose, lapwing, little egret, grey heron, great crested grebe, mute swan, greylag goose. I’ll round the list off with a few other birds seen at random along the way which included buzzard, goldcrest, marsh tit and bullfinch. I think that makes a list of 34 species that I can remember, not bad for a couple of hours!

View from one of the hides

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