1 November 2021

Birdwatching For Beginners

By Rachel Sloane

Are you the sort of person who can spot a bird and immediately know it is a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker or a Dartford Warbler? Or, unless it is something obvious like a robin or an owl, are you more of a ‘it’s an LBB’ (Little Brown Bird)? 

It is a hobby that is enjoyed by millions of people but what is the attraction of birdwatching and how do you start? 

The RSPB suggested the best person to give advice was Louise Chapman, a Visitor Experience Officer, who commutes to her work at RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk, from her Norfolk home.

“I have a creative background in education, and only started here in December 2020, so I am still learning all about wildlife and conservation. It is my passion, but I came here with very little knowledge and was very lucky to be taken on.  I spot things and want to know what it is. The staff never put me down or laugh, but happily tell me more. In the few months I’ve been here I’ve learnt loads. No days are ever the same and I am still over-awed by it all – it’s like being in Disneyland,” she laughed, as she walked around the reserve, empty of birdwatchers but looking forward to when the site could fully reopen again.

‘The impact of lockdown on the wildlife means that they have had a chance to recharge with the quiet and calm. We have red deer here that usually you don’t see but now, with less human intervention, you often see them.”

To help the newcomer, the first thing Louise recommends is to get a good bird watching book, that’s small enough to tuck into your pocket or bag, and the RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds (£5.99) is ideal.  What about binoculars? Many experienced birdwatchers will be equipped with impressive ‘bins’ or ‘scopes’ (binoculars and telescopes) but do you need to buy any equipment when you start?

“Binoculars are wonderful, and you’ll get to see details of a bird, but you don’t actually need any equipment. Flying above us now are two marsh harriers out hunting, and that is so special, but I can see them just using my eyes. Be patient, stand still and really look and listen.” 

Across Suffolk and Norfolk there are many reserves run by the RSPB, so what is special about Minsmere?

“Minsmere is a Site of Special Interest. It’s special because of its diversity. It has woodland, reedbeds, heathland, a coastal area, and scrapes on the wetlands (islands for the wading birds). Minsmere is huge –  people don’t realise how big it is – but it is ideal for a beginner as there is so much to see. Including plants and fungi, there are over 6000 species. Birds here include bitterns, marsh harriers, avocets, and other rare birds, along with the more common blue tits, great tits, finches…. There are deer, otters and even ponies, who help the RSPB to manage areas of grazing… they are our green conservationists!”

During the pandemic lockdowns RSPB Minsmere was still open and locals came to walk the many wheelchair friendly paths, but the café and education centre were closed, as were the hides. In normal times, when there are many of the very keen birders around all the reserves, with their camouflage clothes, cameras and impressive lenses, it can be a daunting for a beginner to push open the closed door of one of the hides, (wooden buildings with large viewing windows that can be opened by winding a handle) that overlook the wetland, woods etc, and see the row of silent backs of the birders, perched on the benches, binoculars raised, studying the reedbeds and birds beyond.  

“Before I came for my interview, I visited a few times to get a feel for the place, and I came to the hides and I remember hesitating to walk in. There is a hide etiquette, but it is for the benefit of the wildlife. People keep quiet so they don’t startle anything. I sat in there silently with no binoculars but loving it, as it is so beautiful. Someone would say, very quietly, ‘there’s a such and such over there’ and point it out and tell you a bit about it. It’s like a little friendly family in there. The hard-core birders are knowledgeable people and are very happy to pass on their knowledge. You don’t need to feel intimidated, just ask – wildlife is for everybody.” 

Minsmere, in normal times, is open and staffed from dawn to dusk and the  RSPB hope that their guided tours can come back at some point. There are always experts around who can help. 

‘As a beginner never be afraid to ask. You just need to love nature and want to learn more. The wardens and other members of the team are very knowledgeable. You could take a picture on your mobile phone and send it to Minsmere, and we’ll tell you what it is. You can message us, and we answer questions or you can record bird song on your phone and compare with the birdsong on the RSPB website…. If you post a question on social media someone, somewhere, will answer. The quickest way is to put it on Twitter!” Louise laughed.

Louise is keen to mention that, wherever we live, it is possible to appreciate birds and wildlife.

“There is wildlife everywhere. You just have to be patient. Here at Minsmere we have the unusual species, and they are protected, but you can start with your garden and put out bird food. Ideally, birds also like to have a tree or bush nearby so they can dart from the foliage to the feeder and back again. Even a flat can have a window box or special feeders.”

May is an ideal time to visit a nature reserve such as Minsmere. It is noisy with the songs of the birds as they seek to find partners and breed, the hammering of woodpeckers in the woodland, and you can see the marsh harriers soaring above the reed beds. If you are lucky, you may see a timid deer watching warily from behind the bushes or a busy otter swimming in a stream. 

“The martins will back from their migration and will be flying in and out of the sand cliffs by the café, there will be lots of flying birds as they are breeding and will be out hunting for food. The feeders will be up, and all the garden birds will cluster around, including the greater spotted woodpeckers who come each day to feed. There will be water voles in the ponds…. Spring is a good time to visit.” 

At the time of writing the RSPB had not announced when their reserves would fully reopen so always check their website before travelling. However the birds, deer, rabbits, otters, etc are all waiting in their beautiful peaceful surroundings, protected and nurtured by experts, waiting for dedicated birdwatchers and newcomers alike to come back. Country lovers and townies, individuals and families, people of all ages and knowledge levels are welcome.  

With so many people, like Louise, keen to share their knowledge and encourage newcomers, even if we don’t become experts, we should soon know that we are looking at more than an ‘LBB’!

(This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine in May 2021)