Did you know that one of the best places you can begin to watch birds is on your very own doorstep?
If you’ve been tempted to take up bird watching but are put off by the vast number of birds you need to identify, or you don’t fancy travelling the length and breadth of the country to find them, then bird watching closer to home might be the answer.
Observing garden birds is a great way to start bird watching. You’ll lean to identify different species from their markings and calls, and it’s the perfect opportunity to study their behaviour up close.
With the destruction of many wild birds’ natural habitats in the countryside, gardens are becoming more and more important to birds. Private gardens now occupy more land than nature reserves and although individual gardens may be small, the potential for them to help counteract natural habitat losses is vast.
Birds, such as goldfinches, long-tailed tits, bullfinches, and wood pigeons, which were rarely seen in gardens 40 years ago are now much more common. The populations of other species like sparrowhawks, magpies, and carrion crows, have also increased because they predate on the smaller birds that visit gardens.
Watching birds can have a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. Being close to nature and taking an interest in the world around you can bring great joy and birds, particularly those in your garden, are easily accessible compared to other wildlife.
If you want to see more birds in your garden, then begin by creating a bird friendly environment. Put out food and water, and plant shrubs, trees, and flowers that will benefit birds and other wildlife.
A simple wooden bird table or hanging feeder is all you need to start. Place it somewhere where you can see it from a window but not too close that birds won’t feel safe as they eat. Popular bird foods include sunflower hearts and peanuts and will attract a wide variety of species. If you’re worried about the cost of bird food, then many kitchen leftovers can be safely fed to birds.
If you have the space, bushes and trees that grow berries such as rowan, pyracantha, and holly will provide some much-needed natural food, particularly in the colder months. It’s not unusual in winter for a flock of birds to strip a bush completely bare as they fill up on much needed energy to keep themselves warm.
Some birds that use your garden, such as sparrows, starlings, robins, and blackbirds, may already be familiar to you. But many other birds use gardens on a seasonal basis, and these may be a little trickier to recognise. Winter visitors including fieldfares, bramblings, and redwings which were once confined to the countryside now regularly visit gardens in search of food.
And every year, the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch team receive reports from people who have spotted more unusual birds in their gardens. In recent years goldcrests, barn owls, and yellowhammers have all made an appearance.
It’s worth investing in a field guide to help you identify any unfamiliar species. Choose a comprehensive guide with colour photographs or illustrations and written descriptions to help you look out for markings and understand the difference between male, female, and juvenile birds. Some birds also change their plumage throughout the year so can look very different in the winter from how they look in the spring and summer.
Once you have started to attract new species, you might want to keep a journal of the different birds that come and go. Over time you’ll start to build up a detailed picture of the seasonal activities of different birds and what types of things brought them to your garden.
Taking part in surveys and citizen science projects such as the BTO’s Garden Birdwatch project is a great way of contributing to the conservation of wild birds. Simply keep a list of the birds that you see in your garden over a week and submit the results via the BTO’s website.
It was armchair bird watchers who first noticed the decline of the house sparrow and those currently watching birds in their garden are keeping a close eye on the falling numbers of blue tits and starlings – all without leaving their homes!
To add to your record, you might want to try sketching or photographing the birds you see. This can be a fun way to pass the time and you might even discover a talent you never knew you had! Joining a group on social media, such as our very own Facebook group, is a great way to share pictures and find out what other people are seeing in their gardens, as well as ask for help with identification or feeding tips.
You only really need your eyes and ears to start observing the birds in your garden. But a compact pair of binoculars can be useful if you want to watch birds close up without disturbing them. There are many budget binoculars available on the market that are perfect for armchair bird watching.
Most phones include pretty decent cameras these days, and are just as good as many point-and-shoot cameras on the market. For even better photos, an entry-level digital SLR camera will help you refine your photography skills and pick up some of the details you might miss with a more basic camera.
A trail camera is another option and means you can literally take photos from the comfort of your living room. You’ll be able to capture birds in their natural environment and get some candid shots that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.
If you have a bird box in your garden why not invest in a nestcam so you can watch birds bring up their chicks? You can either buy a special box that comes complete with a camera or install a separate unit yourself.
Birds will visit gardens throughout the day. However, they are often at their most active first thing in the morning, particularly in the spring when they’ll wake you up with their song.
Birds need breakfast just like we do so try and put food out as early as possible. They’ll also feed again in the evening to stock up on energy before turning in for the night. But remember their routine is dictated by the hours of daylight so will be up much earlier and later in the summer than in the winter.
Don’t be alarmed if your garden birds disappear during the year. In the summer many birds moult and hide away in bushes when they are vulnerable. They may even return to the countryside when food sources are more abundant.
Whether you live in a small village or the heart of a big city, watching birds in your garden is a great introduction to bird watching. After some time you may even want to spread your wings a little and go birding further afield.