The Great Garden Birdwatch 2018

Dear Readers, the last weekend in January is the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) annual citizen science event, the Big Garden Birdwatch. All over the country, people sit and watch the birds in the garden or local park, and record the maximum number of each species that they see. It started in 1979, and was aimed at junior members of the society, but when the event was featured on Blue Peter, the most popular children’s TV programme at the time, more than 34,000 school children submitted their forms. Today, over 40 years of data has been collected, and over half a million people, from residents of care homes to private individuals (like me) take part.

Usually, for whatever reason, the birds opt to stay away in my garden for the hour of the count, only to come back in their dozens as soon as I submit my results. I did wonder if this was because of my presence looming at the kitchen window, but this year, the birds didn’t care. As soon as I started my timer, a great flock of starlings descended. I have noted before that I’m convinced that they watch from one of the big trees on East Finchley High Road and swoop down as soon as the feeders and bird table are topped up.

I had recorded 17 starlings when a charm of goldfinches flew into the whitebeam. I love the way that they approach at speed, jinking at right angles as if to confuse any passing predators. And what splendid birds they are!

A wren has recently taken up residence in the garden, and stayed long enough for a brief portrait. Everything about them seems explosive: they burst from cover like feathery bullets, and their whole bodies vibrate with song. I was very lucky to get any photograph at all.

The chaffinches appeared, a group of six, with their elegant mothy flight.

But then, something flew in fast over the roof, and seemed to wipe the whole garden clean of birds with a stroke of its wing.


It sat in the tree for a few minutes, surveying the garden with monomaniacal yellow eyes. Where do the little birds go, I wonder, it was as if they had dematerialised. I was able to walk out into the garden and get a few shots of this juvenile (there have been a pair of adults around for a while). I suspect it was only the inexperience of the bird that protected his prey, for other visitors have been much luckier in their pursuit of something to eat.

Well, I thought, that puts the kibosh on my bird count, and indeed for a full ten minutes there was not a single visitor of a feathered variety, though someone popped in to take advantage of the peace and quiet.

But then, the birds started to drift back. Of course, the starlings were first, bold characters that they are.

And then the resident robin.

And one of the pair of blackbirds. A few years ago, a male fell prey to a sparrowhawk, but the territory was reoccupied the following year. So far, so good.

The pond has always been a great draw for creatures of all kinds, and the blue tit often perches on the branch that I’ve partially submerged to attract dragonflies, and has a little bath.

The finches are back on the seed feeder. Although the chaffinches are larger, the goldfinches are more aggressive, and usually win any perches that they contest.

And then, something catches my eye down by the pond.

A blackcap! This is a kind of warbler that has historically been a summer visitor, but increasingly blackcaps from central Europe have been overwintering here. I was visited by a female a few years ago, but this is my first male. They have a lovely song, described in my Crossley Bird Guide as ‘somebody cheerfully whistling as they walk through the wood’. See what you think.

And so, my hour came to an end. Of the twenty species on the list that were seen as ‘general’ garden birds, I’d recorded ten, and some regular visitors, such as the long-tailed tits and the coal tit, hadn’t put in an appearance in the hour. On the other hand, I’d had two species, the sparrowhawk and the blackcap, who weren’t on the list at all, and that always makes me happy.

I have two thoughts at the end of my hour. Firstly, this was a lot of fun, and gave me an excuse to do nothing but watch, listen and record for an hour. Did anyone else do the Birdwatch, or do you have an equivalent where you live? Or do you take part in any other citizen science events? In the UK there are recording events for everything from moths to earthworms.

And secondly, I wonder what else I would see if I took an hour a week, maybe at the same time of day, to sit and watch and record? I have an urge this year to look at things in more depth, rather than being distracted by the sheer wealth of things that there are to pay attention to. Does anyone else keep some kind of record of what they see, maybe a diary or a photo album? The blog encourages me to pay attention and to share what I see, but I am very curious about what you get up to. Let me know what helps you to appreciate nature, and what helps you to make the most of your garden or local area. I am definitely up for new ideas.

11 thoughts on “The Great Garden Birdwatch 2018

  1. Sarah Ann Bronkhorst

    There’ll be lots of replies about the Birdwatch so I’ll make mine quick. I also have disappointing turn-outs some years (actually not bad this one). My theory is that everyone who can puts out lavish goodies to attract the fickle birds, who then dash from garden to garden seeking the best offerings. Bet they have the date in their diaries.

    1. Bug Woman

      I bet they’ve got the date in their diaries too, Ann, and your theory is not bad at all. I imagine they all have indigestion by the end of the weekend…

  2. Anne Guy

    We always do the birdwatch and submit results but have you noticed it’s either raining or blowing a gale on the due dates? I am also convinced that the birds stay away as after we’d done the count the next day lots of different species which are regular visitors returned!! We live in a small rural village with farmland behind and none of our neighbours feed the birds so where do they go? Also we never ever see a sparrow or a starling! Despite having 15 pheasants clearing up under the feeders they didn’t appear of the list so couldn’t count them! Even the regular nuthatches have deserted us! We have kept a garden list since 1992 by the way and take photos when possible.

    1. Bug Woman

      How nice to keep a garden list, Anne….I started doing that, and think I must take it up again, though I do know who has visited and who hasn’t. I am still waiting for my first bullfinch, for example. I once nearly had a heron, but just as it descended it was chased off by two crows. Oh well, I imagine the frogs were delighted to see the back of it…

  3. Andrea Stephenson

    You have lots of lovely visitors Vivienne. I don’t have a garden, but I usually record what I see when I’m out and about in a diary and on my blog – I did keep a separate nature diary but found it was easier to just record them in the same book.

  4. Fran and Bobby Freelove

    We too keep a diary, we record, weather, birds, wildflowers and butterflies, and anything else that takes our fancy, they’re interesting to look back on. Just thinking of your lone male Blackcap, we have a female that’s permanently on her own, probably he’d like to pop down if he doesn’t mind travelling 😁

  5. meloe!

    I keep mental track of the local garden invertebrates throughout the year, using my (relatively new) blog to record particularly notable or unusual events. Over time, one starts to see patterns and connections.

    Citizen “science” is also rather unusual in the field of entomology. A number of abundant and widespread insects are so poorly-studied that one can effortlessly break world records! I am reminded of the days when North America was unknown to the Europeans… 🙂


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