COUNT YOURSELF LUCKY

Cast your mind back if you can (or imagine ancient history if you can't) to January 1979. Britain is in the grip of the economic 'Winter of Discontent' which will soon lead to the downfall of James Callaghan's Labour government and the election of Britain's first female Prime Minister. Punk rock has shaken up the establishment but is already on the wane as a new kind of music known as 'rap' begins to emerge from America. And I am in my early teenage years, watching the most popular children's show on television, Blue Peter. The presenter, Lesley Judd, is talking us through a new idea from the RSPB. They want kids across the country to record how many birds they see in their garden. Sound familiar?

Fast-forward to 2022. Over the coming Friday, Saturday and Sunday (28, 29 and 30 January) many of you will hopefully be contributing to the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch. You just pick a spot at any time over the weekend and count for an hour, recording the maximum number of each species that you see at any one time. More details can be found at this link: Taking Part in Big Garden Birdwatch - RSPB

 

The concept now is still the same as it always was – you count what you see in your garden over a one hour period. 43 years ago you were required to produce the same basic tally as now but you had to do so at a specific hour on a specific day so that everyone did their Watch at the same time. You were also asked to record what each kind of bird was doing. And what the weather was like. And what kind of garden you had, including the species and maturity of any trees involved. Look at all that extra information that's no longer requested. We had it hard in the seventies, I can tell you. Don't get me started about what it was like back in my day, mumble grumble etc etc.

In 1979, 34,000 children responded to the appeal. These days adults as well as kids can officially contribute (though I remember my dad being heavily involved in that first one with me) and the number of people taking part last year had risen to over a million. And just because they call it the Big Garden Birdwatch, that doesn't mean that you can only watch if you have a Big Garden, or that you can only watch Big Garden Birds, though I'm sure there will be plenty of humongously fat pigeons recorded in the stately grounds of castles and mansions. The English language can be wonderfully ambiguous sometimes.

That first count gave the RSPB a great set of base numbers against which they've been able to compare bird populations over the last four decades. For example, since that initial Birdwatch the populations of House sparrows, Song Thrushes and Starlings have fallen dramatically whereas the number of Coal Tits, Wrens and Long Tailed Tits have increased across the country.

When you do your count you'll be adding to the data that helps us see patterns like that. And taking an hour out of your busy life “just” to watch birds can do wonders for your mental health. The simple act of sitting quietly and appreciating the wonders of nature, either alone or with those you love. What could be more calming? How fortunate are we to be able to take an hour to do such a wonderful task? We're back to the themes of last week's blog again. The link between birdwatching and the improvement of our mental health cannot be stated enough.

The BGB is not a competition, but there's nothing wrong in a little friendly rivalry between mates or family. Just make sure that what you report is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You may have a rare Honey Buzzard that regularly visits your garden each and every day, but strangely goes AWOL when it comes to the big weekend. If you don't see him in the specific hour you've chosen to record, please resist the temptation to include him. What if he's moved on to the next village? Double recording equals false information and as all good statisticians know, no data is much better than incorrect data. And a truthful return of “I saw nothing at all” is still a valid recording.

But you never know what you might see. True, it'll probably be the same birds that you see every day but just occasionally something ultra rare turns up. Blue Rock Thrush, Green Heron, Yellow-Rumped Warbler – all of these improbable rarities have been discovered by unsuspecting counters just like us as part of the BGB, several leading to the gardens involved being invaded by hopeful twitchers.

And here in the Dearne Valley? Well local legend has it that long, long ago, in the second half of the last century, a rare bird was first recorded in the area. They're quite common now but back then Collared Doves were only just being seen in the UK, having recently spread west across Europe. People of the day were quite interested in this newcomer, to the extent that they completely ignored the flocks of birds that the Dove had flown in with. After all, they were ten-a-penny, there were loads of them all over the local farmland. Who would ever be interested in looking at a Turtle Dove? Nowadays the story is totally reversed. Collared Doves can be seen just about everywhere in England but the Turtle Dove? Let's just say that if you see one, give me a shout before it goes viral. I'll be round with cake.

So what will you see in your birdwatch hour? Well if you live anywhere near Old Moor, as I do, then the reserve's recent sightings board would make a good starting list.

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