Stewart Bain is RSPB Scotland's Communications and Events Officer in Orkney. Ahead of this month's Big Garden Birdwatch, he's been reflecting on the joys of watching nature flourish in his own garden, and his birding journey so far.
As I sit here writing, with a male blackbird hopping around outside the window, it is ten years to the day since I moved into my home. This is the first house I ever owned, and the only place I have stayed in the last twenty years that has an established garden; a garden that, even though it is in Orkney, includes almost 40 trees of various kinds. Having this on my doorstep really opened my eyes to the variety of birdlife that visit our gardens in Orkney and introduced me to one of life’s great, simple pleasures, listening to birdsong on a calm, quiet day.
I grew up on a farm beside the sea, so the birds I regularly encountered as a child included dunters, chaldros, whaups, mallimaks and pickie-ternos (eider, oystercatcher, curlew, fulmar and arctic tern). I didn’t give a lot of thought to the smaller birds that constantly flew in and out of the byres to peck at the barley; to me, they were all starlings and sparrows. My bird identification skills have increased a little since then, but I am by no means an expert. I started working for RSPB Scotland in November and I have found that everyone on the team is always willing to share their birding knowledge and help when I am unsure what I am seeing.
It is only in the last three or four years that I have been regularly putting out feed to attract birds to my garden. I was prompted to do so when I began finding snail shells dotted all over the place; I couldn’t work out why, until one day I heard a repetitive crack and spotted a song thrush bashing its lunch off a low wall. I didn’t know what the bird was at the time, but I immediately had to find out more about this magnificent scourge of the garden gastropod. While there was a never-ending source of food for the song thrush, I decided it was time to expand the catering on offer and see what else may come to visit me.
Song thrushes are known for their sweet sound - and for smashing snails against rocks. Photo credit: Chris Gomersall
The answer was the rooks that nest nearby, who sat in the branches mocking me as I found my suet block feeder lying empty on the lawn below them about an hour after I had put it out for the first time. After a bit of trial and error, I have found the ideal bird feeding location is a patch of ground near the back door. By being closer to the house it seems to deter the bigger birds and I get a great view of the action from my sitting room window. I have now upgraded to a faux brass bird table/bird bath combo with a solar light; it’s the Pat Butcher of bird feeders, but they seem to like it.
One of my favourite birds to see in the garden is a wren. I love how they dash about all over the place, making a racket. I also enjoy the bravado with which they cling to the wall of the house, just out of reach, taunting the cat and hurling abuse at it. Now that the leaves have gone, just the other day I spotted a wren’s nest in one of the hedges at the front of the house, a magnificent construction of moss and small twigs. I think wrens were one of the birds I could already name when we moved into this house, along with robins, which are always cheery to have in the garden. I have also had a few pheasants visit over the last decade, strutting about like they own the place.
Despite being one of Scotland's smallest birds, wrens are also one of the noisiest. Photo credit: Paul Chesterfield
The community of birdwatchers and nature lovers who use social media in Orkney have been invaluable in helping me to know what it is I am seeing in the garden. Redwing and greenfinch have both been identified through blurry pics hurriedly snapped through a window. I may spot something during Big Garden Birdwatch that I need some help with, but whether I recognise every species that I see or not, I’ll light the fire, grab a cup of tea and enjoy birds for an hour. If you want to do the same, sign up to take part in this year's Big Garden Birdwatch at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.
Cover photo credit: John Bridges
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