For years I've been saying when asked "Of course you don't have to have a garden to take part, you can do the Big Garden Birdwatch in your local park". So this year, having recently moved to Newton Abbot in Devon, we decided to try it ourselves, our new home town being blessed with a number of lovely parks. Our choice was Courtney park, opposite the railway station and a "classic" Victorian park if never there was one. It has the set of things that all town parks should have; a bandstand, a fountain, a toilet and a small playground with a number of very safe looking pieces of play equipment that do not include wood and iron rocking horses or witches' hats much beloved of my youth and childhood injuries. The park, naturally, has a number of tall native and non native trees and lots of green grass where people and dogs can and do wander round day and night in all weathers, frequently chasing balls and sticks.
Its not bad for birds too. OK, the foutain's unlikely to harbour egrets (unlike one town park I visited in Townsville, Queensland, years ago), and cirl buntings are unlikely to stray into the flower borders - but its home to quite a wide range of birds that always brighten up my morning stroll to the station or our dog walks. We chose Sunday morning for our Big Garden (Park) Birdwatch and were quickly notching up the species in our hour. First off were a few blue and great tits, then blackbirds going about their blackbird business alongside the bowling green. As per the rules, we only counted the birds that actually landed, so had to wait a little while to add black headed and herring gulls. Magpie soon followed, but sadly our jays didn't put in an appearance. Song thrush in full song was a bonus but best of all were the two goldcrests feeding happily in one of the park's small conifers. The park nuthatch also showed up late into the hour, calling unseen from high up in one of the evergreen oaks. By the end of the birdwatch we'd seen a respectable 18 bird species. We'd also spotted a bumble bee, which was a little unseasonal but not unknown.
Back at home, we entered our figures on the website, and proudly ticked "park" when prompted for location. And now, when asked, I can say honestly say - you don't have to have a garden to do Big Garden Birdwatch.
Tony Whitehead (Photo courtesy Laura Whitehead)
So how are your New Year resolutions holding up? Four days in, still going strong? For many, there will be the usual suspects... lose weight, get fit, stop smoking. For me, it’s always the same one: get out and see more of nature. I don’t keep lists, but I do write down little snippets about the latest amazing wildlife experience.
Last year was pretty good. Seeing my first ever smooth snake; watching minke whales fishing off Skye; marvelling at the sunflower-yellow neck feathers of a pomarine skua in breeding plumage (how can they be so bright?). And judging by some of the messages, calls and emails we receive, you had some wonderful wildlife experiences too.
So what about this year then? Well here are my top 5 suggestions for starters:
The Dawn Explosion - the dusk aerial spectacle of hundreds of thousands of starlings coming in to roost in the reedbeds of the Avalon Marshes is one of nature’s wonders, but have you ever got up at dawn to watch the same teeming flocks as they leave? For me it’s even better, the sound of the wings and chattering building to a crescendo as the starlings swarm around, before suddenly erupting over your head as the sun rises. Want to see it? Then why not join one of our special “Dawn Explosion” events (see here).
The Wildfowl Spectacular - the sight and sound of massed flocks of ducks and waders is one of winter’s wildlife treasures, whether its the wetlands of the Somerset Levels or the muddy estuaries of the Exe and Poole Harbour. Get the best experience by joining an Exe Avocet cruise or one of our “ducktastic” events at West Sedgemoor.
Daring divers - I could sit for hours watching gannets as they plunge dive for fish. These magnificent seabirds soar before twisting and diving headlong. The brilliant bit is just before they hit the water, when their wings sweep right back (no wonder an old Cornish word for gannet means “spear”). Anywhere along the coast will do, but why not visit our Centre at Land’s End from Easter onwards?
Avian Top Gun - the peregrine falcon, fastest animal on the planet (yes, it’s in the Guinness Book of Records). Supreme predator, yet frequently persecuted, but thanks to remarkable ongoing support from you, surviving well. Watch them at our Symonds Yat and Bath Dates with Nature which start at Easter.
Buzzing Brilliant - the sight, sound and smell of a field of flowers, full of insects. Chalk grassland in summer is a favourite of mine, but why not try our wildflower and sunflower walk at Arne this summer?
But what about you? Nature is amazing - what are you going to get out and see this year?