When a good friend from my Uni days got in touch recently and challenged me to a bird race in my back garden my first thought was that I stand no chance. For starters, they all have the ability to fly, and I’m not as sprightly across the turf as I used to be. His next message just said “Check your email – beat my mate Michael will you?” Intrigued, and always one for a challenge, I duly checked my email whereupon all became clear.
As a response to the lockdown Michael Blencowe, of Sussex Wildlife Trust, has been dutifully and, it has to be said, very amusingly posting a daily Corona Wildlife Diary. (In or out-width Sussex, if you like wildlife, want to learn something about nature, and have a good laugh at the same time I highly recommend you make reading this part of your daily routine).
Michael, and my pal Andy, had decided to have a duel. Who could see and/or hear the most bird species in their back gardens in one hour. They enjoyed it so much that Michael decided to roll the idea out to his blog audience, which is where I first got involved.
Now, as an avid naturalist (…checks spelling…) I don’t need much persuading to spend time watching birds. But as this also involved sitting (yay!) in my now blissfully quiet back garden (yaaay!) and avoiding work distractions for a whole hour in the sunshine (too exciting) I committed myself fully to the task ahead.
It’s funny the difference doing things with a group of people can have. Take for example yoga. I’ve done yoga on and off at home for years (to be honest with you, it’s mostly ‘off’, but that’s beside the point). Sometimes I feel quite motivated, but usually I just get bored, end up thinking about Jaffa Cakes and find myself standing next to the kettle without quite knowing how I got there. Go to a yoga class, however, and it’s a different experience. I get into it, I stretch, breathe, feel the good I’m told it’s doing me (not quite the spirit, I know) and then in the relaxation part of class, fall asleep and embarrass myself.
And the Back Garden Bird Race is rather like this. With all the Zen-like will in the world, I can normally sit in my garden for about 5 mins without getting fidgety. Almost the second I sit down I start thinking of all the things I need to do, none of them any fun. But as part of the Bird Race hour, all focus is on watching and listening to the birds. This time of year that is a glorious thing to do. Every new entry to the soundscape or visual landscape is a thing of excitement and cause for celebration. I don’t, but should, normally marvel at a wren singing. But in the Bird Race that’s as good a Honey Buzzard – they all add to the tally.
It’s not really about the number of birds you spot, of course. But having a focus makes you commit to the task in hand. It makes you really look and listen. It forces you to take the time to appreciate what’s around you and, it makes it exciting. And thanks to Michael and Sussex Wildlife Trust, it makes it interactive and a lot of fun. This week Michael, I and a few others decided to do the first half of the Bird Race blindfolded. Not to show off, just to spice things up a bit. Michael wore his Mexican wrestling mask. Someone else, a pair of pants. What can I say? It’s a ‘mend and make-do’ kind of world right now.
The community spirit is marvellous. There are beginners learning about birds for the first time, among seasoned professionals with Bird Race tallies that almost equal my ‘life list’. There is a little bit of slightly serious competition among some old pals. But most of all there’s an amazing sense of companionship springing up among people, most of whom don’t know one another. And the records are flooding in. A handful of people took part in the first week, slightly more the second and this last week, almost 400 people joined in and generated more than 2,500 records in just one hour, via the project’s Coreo app. The app not only streamlines data submission but also contains ID guides, including calls and songs, of all the common garden birds to help people tell their dunnocks from their ‘dunnos’!
The Bird Race has become the absolute highlight of my week. It’s my time to connect with nature and engage with others doing the same. If you want to join in, or maybe start your own in your area, I’d highly recommend it. Below are some links to inspire you.
Sussex Wildlife Trust Back Garden Bird Race webpage: https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/backgardenbirdrace
Michael Blencowe’s Corona Diary blog: https://sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/news/category/michael-blencowe
Coreo – “No code” build your own data collection apps: https://coreo.io/