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Three Ways to Make the Most of Your Garden Birding

Red-headed Quelea

With my first cup of coffee for the morning in hand, I settled down with by binoculars and camera on the well-worn two-seater couch that I had placed near the glass doors overlooking my bird feeders.

The birds slowly started to fly in to devour the ‘seedy’ feast that had been prepared – weavers, bulbuls, bishops – all the usual birds that visited the garden made an appearance.

I looked through the binoculars and saw a bird – another non-breeding plumage bishop was the guess. I was about to write it off as another difficult to identify LBJ – and then I started to look closer.

I pulled my Faansie Peacock LBJ book off the shelf and decided to work out what I was looking at. As I observed the bird, I noticed a slight tinge of red to the head – which is what made me think initially that it was a Southern Red Bishop. Then I noticed a yellow panel along the edge of the wings. As I looked more at the bird, more features started to show – I noticed the shape of the bill. As I paged through the book armed with all this information, I was able to identify the bird as a non-breeding Red-headed Quelea. This information allowed me to start to enjoy these birds more as they came to the feeders daily – firstly in a small flock, and then in a larger flock. Eventually they were joined by a large flock of Red-billed Queleas. As the seasons changed, I was able to observe their transition from non-breeding plumage into the breeding plumage with their beautiful red heads.

Last year during the Level 5 and later 4 Lockdown, Birdlife eThekwini KZN organised a challenge where club members were asked to record the birds that they had seen in their gardens. What was amazing was that from the 27th of March till the 31st of May 2020 there were more than 286 species recorded in member’s gardens! The sizes of the gardens were varied – with one member lucky enough to live on a farm (they only recorded what was seen from the garden of their house on the farm), but there were even members that lived in blocks of flats. But the comment that came up again and again, is how the members were amazed at just how many species they got to see in their gardens.

The sad thing is that as we were to leave the confines of our gardens and spread our ‘wings’ further, many stopped taking as much note of what was in their gardens. My sad confession is that I have moved to a new place this year, and I have spent hardly anytime exploring the treasures that my new garden contains.

For birders, our gardens – no matter how small – allows us a level of access with the birds that frequent our gardens. This access will help us have a greater understanding of the bird’s behaviour and ways, which will enhance our enjoyment of birds and birding. For newer birders, their gardens may be one of the best tools to learning to identify birds, thereby building a strong foundation for their birding journey going forward.

So here are three ways to maximise your garden birding:

1) Learn to Identify what you see.

With all the fantastic online birding platforms we have in this technological age, sometimes we can forget the thrill of working out a tricky bird ID ourselves. Get your binoculars strapped on, get your bird book and app, and start to look at what you can find. When you see a bird in your garden that you can’t identify, instead of just saying you don’t know, spend a few minutes observing the bird. In a notebook write down as much as you can about the features of the bird – learn to look past only the colour of the bird and look for other details such as bill shape, size of the bird, wing shape, how the bird flies, and even listening the call of the bird.

David Sibley points out the following, ‘There is a natural inclination to put a lot of emphasis on a bird’s colour, but again and again in bird identification, you will find that certain aspects of shape and structure are more meaningful than colour. Features like bill shape and wing shape are very consistent within each species. The male and female, adult and juvenile, of nearly all species share a characteristic size, structure, and habits, and these contribute to the fundamental “look” of the species.’

Once you have spent some time observing the bird, go to your field guide or app, and using the information you have gathered, try to identify the species you have seen. If you are unsure of the identification of the bird, once you have worked out what you think it is, as someone more experienced to check. Do not be afraid of getting an ID wrong – the truth is that even the best birders sometimes identify birds incorrectly. It is better to try and identify a bird and get it wrong, than not try yourself at all.

2) Start a list if the birds you see in your garden.

Starting a list of birds you see in your garden, will in my experience add to your enjoyment of birding. As you start to ‘tick’ off the birds you see and your garden list starts to grow, it gets exciting as you look out for new birds to add. There are birds that I have seen while out birding, but there is a whole level of joy when I get to add any of those birds to my garden list.

There are many ways to keep a list – some prefer the old school methods, while other embrace technology that is available to modern birdwatchers. One of the simplest methods that many have done through the years is to tick birds off in their field guides and writing a note of when the bird was seen.

The Birdlasser App is a must have app for any birdwatcher. You can make a card for your garden and as you record birds in that card, the app will keep you garden list for you.

Another way to keep your list on your computer, is to download the free Scythebill program. This is a great tool that if used to its fullest extent allows for later analysis of sightings you have had.

3) Spend Time Observing the birds in your garden.

Garden birding allows one to slow down and enjoy the birds that show up. Bridget Butler is a birdwatcher from the USA who has a website where she writes about ‘slow birding’. She speaks about three areas that this approach encourages people to adopt:

a) Deeper Observation – She encourages birders to ‘move beyond mere identification’ and to shift their ‘focus to bird behaviours’. In our gardens we can watch and observe the behaviour of the birds that we get to see.

A few weeks back I found a comfortable rock to sit on at the back of my garden and just sat and waited for birds to come to me. A Red-capped Robin Chat landed a few metres from me and spent half an hour digging for worms and insects amongst the dry leaves, not concerned the least bit about my presence. I was in no rush, I just spent the time observing and enjoying the bird.

b) Deeper Listening – When we slow down, we don’t only OBSERVE more, but we start to HEAR more. We become more tuned to the sounds of the birds around us. There are many calls I have learnt simply through seeing and hearing the birds in my garden. When you hear a bird call in your garden, it’s the opportunity to see which species is calling.

Even as I write this there is a Familiar Chat that is calling from the top of the roof. I get to hear it’s vocal interaction with the Cape Wagtail that often occupies the same roof space. I don’t only listen to HOW they call, but also look at WHY they call a certain way at times. Our gardens allow us the opportunity to eavesdrop into the conversations that our feathered friends have.

c) Deeper Connection – Something powerful happens when we start to connect ourselves to the natural world about us. I love what Butler says in this regard, ‘We have the opportunity to connect with birds on a daily basis if we’re tuned in. Recent studies have shown that noticing birds can improve your mental health, reduce depression and improve memory and attentiveness.’. Our gardens allow us to connect in a deeper way to the birds around us.

I mentioned the Red-capped Robin Chat earlier, the thing is the bird may have been a common species, but I was absolutely fascinated by its behaviour and almost felt a connection as it moved within no more than 2 metres away from me. I got off that rock at the end of our time together and I felt more relaxed and peaceful.

I encourage you to spend some time enjoying the birds in your garden – you might just be surprised what just what turns up!

If you have a great garden birding experience, please share it with us in the comments section of this article.

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Sources used:

Sibley, David. Sibley’s Birding Basics. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002.


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