Bird watching is a funny old game. Birders love nothing better than to count the numbers of birds they’ve seen every year. The more species the better, the rarer the birds, the greater the satisfaction.
I’m not immune to the challenge of counting birds. This year, I’ve managed 100 different birds in four months. My target for the year is a daunting 300 which may require a couple of foreign trips!
In Norway I’m told that they have an exclusive 300 Club for birders taking on this challenge. So how do you get 300 feathered beauties in a year? Here are a few ideas on how to reach the magic number.
The ‘Bird Numbers’ Game
Bird Watching Magazine recently ran a feature about counting birds every year. Their readers’ comments flooded in like a flock of starlings heading back to their nightly roosts.
The general consensus was that 200 birds is a good target to have for British birds, although this excludes foreign trips. But I’m sticking with my goal of 300 birds from around the globe.
Achieving that target is harder than it sounds because some seasons are better than others for bird watching, notably the spring and autumn migrations. Summer can be tricky with birds hiding in heavily leafed trees, away from the bird watcher’s gaze.
I once spent an hour trying to see a nightingale in a tree in Suffolk but gave up after listening to 60 minutes of its fabulous song. That bird wasn’t going to budge from its bush!
So what’s the trick to racking up large numbers of birds, whether common or rare species?
The first rule of Bird Club is to try for as many different habitats as possible to maximise sightings, especially at the right season. Go for a broad mix of habitats from mountains to moors, wetlands to woodlands.
I hit the magical figure of 105 birds this weekend. But what tilted the numbers over 100?
It was a trip to St Abbs Head on the Scottish coast where birds were returning to breed and nest. It’s a great place for sea birds including Guillemots, Kittiwakes and Razorbills which form large colonies on its rocky cliff faces. Gannets also sweep gracefully along its coast, diving head first into the waters looking for fish.
The great advantage of a spring trip to the coast is that you’re bound to see birds returning from Africa, flying in after their exhausting trip to the UK.
Having decent binoculars helps too, if you want to get a good look at the action further out to sea. They also help with spotting birds hiding in rocks and bushes on the ground.
I saw this wonderful Wheatear hopping around behind the cliffs at St Abbs, nicely camouflaged against the grassy tussocks. Only its yellow chest and black wing stripe gave this bird away – with the help of binoculars.
Getting out early in the year, whatever the weather, is another big help when ramping up your bird numbers. The early bird definitely gets the worm!
Back in January, I took a trip to Caerlaverock on the Solway Firth which is renowned for its large numbers of winter birds. There are around 20,000 Barnacle Geese which make the annual journey from Svalbard in the frozen Arctic to comparatively ‘warm’ Scotland. This place is also a magnet for Whooper Swans and other foreign visitors.
You’re guaranteed to see the geese flying overhead in huge waves at sunrise or feeding on the farmers’ fields around the reserve. It’s one of winter’s great nature spectacles.
Birds of a feather cluster together here in such large numbers that you’re guaranteed sightings of a heady mix of avian varieties from ducks and waders to geese and swans.
A winter trip to Britain’s coast can be very productive with birds being forced out at unusual hours to look for food after bad weather. Earlier this year, I spotted a hungry owl hunting for food during daylight hours, hovering low over the ground at Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve.
The island’s causeway, submerged twice daily by the tide, is another great spot for ticking birds off your list, especially in early spring.
Flocks of Pale-bellied Brent Geese can be seen on the mud flats whilst its habitat is also favoured by wading birds like the Black-tailed Godwit, Curlew and Redshank.
Lindisfarne is a great place for rarities at any time of the year and in the past I’ve been rewarded with unusual sightings including a Ring Ouzel hiding in one of the island’s stubby trees.
I’m lucky because I live on the North East coast of England which is fantastic for sea birds. But timing is everything. I still haven’t seen a Tern or Puffin this year – normally they arrive in late April or May.
In summer, Coquet Island in Northumberland is a hot spot for the rare Roseate Tern which can be spotted from Hauxley Beach. The Boat Trip around the island is also recommended as you’re guaranteed to see Puffins which can be spotted from May-August. The nearby Farne Islands is another must-see trip for bird lovers.
Visit a Wetland Wonderland
I’d recommend going for as many different habitats as possible if you’re hell-bent on joining the 300 Bird Club. Wetlands are a good way of ticking off new birds which are attracted to lakes, ponds and rivers.
Washington is increasingly strong for birds which we’d never have seen in this part of the country until a couple of years ago. It has been successful in attracting Avocets which now come in sizeable numbers to breed.
Slimbridge is one of the best birding sites anywhere in Britain with its estuary habitats and wetland ponds. Highlights on the reserve in spring include Spotted Redshank, Ruff, Black-tailed Godwit, Mediterranean Gulls, Avocets, Teal, Kingfishers and Peregrine Falcon, to name a few.
Other favourite bird hot spots include RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk, Rutland Water (great for summer Ospreys), Montrose Basin (Scotland), Lizard Point (Cornwall), Bempton (Yorkshire), Martin Mere and Leighton Moss (Lancashire).
It’s ‘tick, tick, tick’ for anyone who is heading to these excellent birding sites – and it gets better and better as spring goes on.
Go Wild in the Woods
If you go down to the woods today, you could be in for a bumper haul of birds. Spring is the time when warblers come back from their winter migration so listen for their distinctive bird song.
Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps are amongst the first to arrive back but expect the imminent return of Willow and Wood Warblers plus the striking Lesser Whitethroat. I’ve already clocked up three warblers this year including a Blackcap from the woods close to our garden.
The warblers are the opera stars of the bird world with their trilling songs and high notes. If you can’t see these brownish-pale green birds, you’ve a good chance of hearing them. In late spring, the males like posing on tree tops whilst singing to attract a mate.
Winter is a good time for native birds like Crossbills, a finch with bright red or greenish colouring which likes pine woods. I haven’t seen any this year but Scottish friends have spotted them flying from pine to pine. Scotland is one of the great strongholds of this characterful bird.
Woodpeckers are another woodland favourite but I’m yet to see the elusive Green Woodpecker this year. Perhaps it’s too early to see them sitting on the ground, prodding for ants, their favourite food. My first ever sighting of this bird was in our garden when we had an ant problem!
Fabulous Foreign Birds
This is controversial but I’ve included ‘foreign birds’ in my bird list which has boosted numbers dramatically. But is this cheating?
A spring trip to the Doñana National Park in Andalucia in southern Spain was incredible for chalking up bird numbers. This marshy wetland is a surefire winner for birds such as Spoonbill, Flamingoes, Cranes, Egrets and Glossy Ibis.
Look overhead and it won’t be long before a Griffon Vulture or Booted Eagle flies your way. Scan the landscape with binoculars at dusk and there’s a good chance of seeing owls.
I was lucky enough to see the elusive Spotted Cuckoo, a Short-Eared Owl, Squacco Heron, Purple Gallinule and Corn Bunting. And there are huge numbers of more common birds like Black Kites, usually seen gliding above on the thermals in the spring and summer.
Spain is a great bird watching country. Storks can be seen almost everywhere – without binoculars – whilst you’re on your travels. They love nothing better than to make their nests on the top of telegraph posts, church towers and power lines.
Another Spanish bird is the glorious Hoopoe with its orange Mohican and black and white tail feathers which look like a Newcastle United shirt. I watched one posing on the roof and dotting around the patio garden eating insects at my hotel in El Rocio back in March.
What will future travels bring? A trip to Scotland in May could bring me my first Golden Eagle of the year? I’m also thinking about Switzerland this summer where there’s a chance of Alpine birds.
If you’re travels take you to more exotic climates than mine, bird watching in South Africa, Brazil, Australia or Peru is seriously going to boost your list of species. The USA also has many excellent wetlands and bird reserves as well as a fantastic range of habitats from mountains to deserts.
Visit Bird Observatories
I guess it’s stating the obvious but hanging out around bird observatories is a guaranteed way of spotting birds. Last spring I saw a rare Spanish Spotted Cuckoo, far from home, in the gardens around Portland Bill Bird Observatory. A gaggle of birders with scopes became very animated as it flew from tree to tree.
But this isn’t the only bird observatory with great opportunities for spotting rare visitors to our shores. Any observation tower perched on a prominent headland is a good way of seeing birds as they hit land following migration or – in this case – lose their way.
Spurn Head in Lincolnshire is an excellent bird watching point. Hang around near the Observatory or head down to the dunes by the lighthouse.
In north-west England, Walney Island is a star spot for bird watching. Southern Walney with its lighthouse is as remote and wild as you can get with its landscape of dunes, shingle beaches, ragged vegetation and mud flats. It’s no surprise that this is a wildlife watchers’ paradise.
Bird watchers will enjoy the large numbers of waders and ducks including Goldeneye, Wigeon, Red-breasted Merganiser, Shoveler and colonies of Coots. I also clocked up two bright white Little Egrets which swooped gracefully over my head as they moved to the next pond along.
Heading down to the beach there are hundreds of birds feeding on shellfish in the mud ranging from the unmistakable Oystercatchers and Redshanks to Turnstones and Godwits.
Spring and summer brings a host of sea birds to Walney including terns and a large colony of Lesser-black Backed Gulls.
The summer gull spectacle has become known as “dive bomb alley” as 17,000 pairs of lesser black backed and herring gulls zoom around overhead during the breeding season.
Other recommended British bird observatories include Flamborough Head, the Calf of Man and Fair Island.
Discover City Birds
What if you don’t get the chance to travel to wild places as much as I do?
There are a few surprising ways of boosting your bird count in urban areas, from city parks and streets to tall buildings which provide safe nesting sites.
Starlings, Gulls and Feral Pigeons are three species that you’re bound to see anywhere but look closely and you may be rewarded with surprising bird life.
There are several English town centres where you can see Peregrine Falcons nesting on cathedral towers including Derby, Norwich, Chichester and Salisbury.
Brighton Pier boasts one of the most sensational wildlife spectacles in Britain with its black clouds of thousands of starlings at dusk. This murmuration of birds will knock your socks off.
Another unlikely location for birds is Gateshead which has a kittiwake colony – another bird for your list. Despite building them a special tower, these pretty birds love to roost at their favourite haunt – the BALTIC Art Gallery!
Take to the Countryside
Farms are a magnet for many different bird species especially in summer. Swallows, Sky Larks and Swifts are three great species that make for easy ticks on your bird lists.
It’s easy to see Swallows hoovering up insects as they zip around farmers’ fields. The Sky Lark gives itself away by hovering on high and flying upwards vertically, singing its distinctive song.
I’ve seen all these birds already this spring, mainly in lowland farming areas.
Swallows love to make their nests in farm outbuildings and the overhangs of roofs. I love watching them feed their chicks in the summer, zooming in with food like racing car drivers entering the pits.
Birds of prey also love farming areas especially Barn Owls, Buzzards and Hen Harriers. My best tick this year was a Short-Eared Owl sitting inside the window of a farm’s barn in Southern Spain.
Moorlands are great for Black and Red Grouse, Capercaillie and Partridges but I haven’t ticked any of these birds so far this year. Perhaps I need a trip to the Cairngorms in Scotland? However, I did spot Sand Grouse in Spain, a first on my all-time avian list.
Discover Garden Birds
It goes without saying that keeping a beady eye on birds close to home can be incredibly productive. This year I’ve boosted my bird list with garden visitors including a Greater-spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Grey Wagtail and Blackcap.
With a little work and correct placement of bird food (fat balls, suet blocks, ‘buggy feed’ and seeds) you can double the number of birds in your garden. Goldfinches love a social visit to our niger seed feeder whilst the Great Tits and Blue Tits rely on our fat balls and seeds as a useful ‘top up’ for feeding their chicks.
The Greater-spotted Woodpecker loves perching on the nuts and suet feeders, although his presence frightens off smaller birds who fear getting pecked by his powerful beak
Having a wild garden help too. Paving over every bit of green space, digging up trees and removing bushes from your garden does nothing to enhance wildlife numbers.
Birds like somewhere to hide, perch and dive into. A garden pond is another good way of attracting birds who like bugs and insects. A mix of bushes, plants and trees in a garden can boost numbers too.
The Birding Year
So what’s my most unusual bird so far this year? I’m no serious twitcher but I am proud of the Squacco Heron and the Booted Eagle, but I did have to go to Spain to see them.
As summer draws closer, I have a few carefully chosen ‘target birds’ including a Golden Eagle, Osprey, Red-necked Phalarope and Dartford Warbler.
I’ve never seen a Dartford Warbler yet even though we visited one of their summer haunts in Dorset last year. I live in the north of England, this bird lives in the south… perhaps we’re destined never to meet?
The numbers game is an amusing diversion for me. But I’m happy to watch birds, whatever the season, even if I miss my target of 300. I love wildlife watching – plain and simple.
Getting 100 birds in one season is a first for me. It goes to prove that building a bird list of 100 is easier than you might think.
But the real challenge will be getting to the 300 mark. I think the 200 bird target is well within my sights but notching up 300 birds is a tough call. Time for some serious birding!
Tammy’s Guide – Boost your Bird Watching
Here’s a few tips for getting started building up your list of bird species this year…
- Think like a serious twitcher. Plan your birding trips ahead to maximise opportunities to add to your annual birding list.
- Get up early in the morning!
- Don’t discount local sites like parks, ponds, country estates and even rubbish tips (a magnet for Red Kites and Gulls).
- Have the right kit. A decent pair of binoculars are worth their weight in gold. A scope with a longer lens and a lightweight tripod is a great idea, if you’re serious about bird watching.
- Check bird watching sites to see what’s being spotted and where. It will help you add to the bird species you’re missing from the list.
- Visit bird reserves with a high concentration of different bird species and habitats such as RSPB and Wildlife and Wetland Trust sites.
- Try to vary the habitats you visit to cover moorland, open countryside, coastal areas, wetlands and mountains.
- Timing is everything. Migration months are great times to see birds moving around and discover a few unusual species.
- Don’t rule out unusual birding spots. For example, I’ve found that our local marina at Royal Quays in North Shields is an unexpectedly good bird watching location with Terns, Cormorants and a variety of gulls using it as a wildlife corridor. They’ve even built a special island for the breeding terns.
- Listen to the birdwatching experts on TV, websites and social media.
- Take a bird identification book with you or download a bird APP on your mobile phone.
- Finding time to do all the bird watching trips can be tricky if you have a busy job. Try combining bird watching with other activities. For instance, I’ve seen dozens of birds from my office window during coffee breaks!
- Wear suitable kit. You don’t have to go the full commando with camouflage clothing but try to avoid wearing red and bright colours in open areas. The birds will spot you a mile off. Why not go the whole hog and build a camouflage bird watching tent?
Take the Bird Watching Magazine 200 challenge here or via their #My200BirdYear Twitter account.
For the birding record…
Here is my list of 105 birds spotted during the first four months of 2017 – they cover a wide variety of habitats. Let me know how your birding year is going by dropping me a comment.
- Glossy Ibis
- Little Egret
- Cattle Egret
- Griffon Vulture
- Booted Eagle
- Spotted Cuckoo
- Azure Magpie
- Squacco Heron
- Purple Gallinule
- Red-headed Pochard
- Little Grebe
- Short-eared Owl
- Corn Bunting
- Crag Martin
- Sand Grouse
- Black Kite
- Barnacle Goose
- Whooper Swan
- Mute Swan
- Tufted Duck
- Peregrine Falcon
- Marsh Harrier
- Green-winged Teal
- Rock Pipit
- Black-headed Gull
- Black-backed Gull
- Common Gull
- Eider Duck
- Common Scooter
- Sky Lark
- House Sparrow
- Greylag Goose
UK town centres
- Feral Pigeon
- Herring Gull
- Pied Wagtail
- Greater-spotted Woodpecker
- Black Bird
- Blue Tit
- Coal Tit
- Great Tit
- Long-tailed Tit
- Wood Pigeon
- Collared Dove
- Grey Wagtail
- Goldcrest (next to back garden)
- Tree Creeper