New directions


In the first of a two-part series
on taking your birding to the
next level, Peter Alfrey looks at
how an interest in wildlife can
permeate every part of life, and
advises how to improve your
skills and get more out of the

Nightingale is a species that’s often heard before it is seen, and
therefore better identified by its song. Learning to recognise bird
vocalisations will improve your skills.


environment. Even better, it’s totally cross discipline – it covers
almost every major topic, including science, the arts, maths,
literature, technology, travel and more.
The pastime is something of a ‘free for all’: you can choose
to contribute to magazines, books, forums, websites, blogs,
Facebook groups, scientific journals or periodicals – or not. It’s
an open society that isn’t overly regulated, and is generally very
welcoming to innovation and new ideas.
To me, birding has been a window onto an understanding
of the wider world. It has taken me down all kind of paths, not
just in learning about bird identification but so much else: from



here’s a lot more to birding than just watching birds.
It’s an incredibly broad subject that covers all manner
of topics, including observation, listing, twitching,
photography, art, literature, recording, conservation, careers,
travel and politics. It also has an effect on everyday life, such as
how a birder interacts as a consumer, as a voter and so on.
That might seem obvious, but sometimes the most obvious
things are overlooked. With that in mind, this overview aims to
demonstrate what birding has to offer and, more importantly,
how it can open up all kinds of new pathways.
Birding is a decentralised, non-hierarchical, free-for-all

If you really want to specialise, you could try getting into the minutiae of the separation of subspecies. The two images above are both Rock Pipits.
However, the bird on the left is petrosus while the one on the right is littoralis. Can you tell why?

34 Birdwatch•January 2016


There are many
fantastic examples
of wildlife art, like
this study of Piping
Plovers by Barry
Van Dusen. You
could start your
own collection of
bird art – or even
try your hand at
creating your own


understanding weather patterns so that I could be a tactical
birder and increase my chances of finding rarities to setting up
a business so I could earn the time and money to go birding
and travel. It’s the only thing that has actually made me sit
down and try to understand statistics! It’s taken me to sea time
and time again, even though I get seasick and pushed me to do
things that I don’t like doing, but will do for birds (like having to
deal with other humans!).
Another great thing about birding is that as well as being
cross-discipline, it’s cross-society. In our local bird group we
have lawyers, insurance brokers, window cleaners, gardeners,
OBEs, vicars and even the occasional homeless person. Birding
is a real leveller. I would go so far as to say that trying to be
a better birder has helped me be a better person in terms
of developing skills, meeting all sorts of different people,
developing patience, communication, confidence building and
so on. All I can say is everything has worked out pretty well
and taken me in all kind of directions. But before I stray too far
from the core theme, here’s a personal overview of birding with
a few of those directions mapped out.


This is your ‘standard’ birding. All anyone needs is a copy of the
Collins Bird Guide and some bins. Then make a friend who knows
what they’re talking about. It’s good idea to join a local bird club.
There’s so much information online, too: BirdGuides, Facebook
groups and various experts are all easy to track down. The wealth
of knowledge out there means that it’s never been easier to learn
identification skills. But if you can’t identify a bird yourself, then
it’s just as good to know someone who can.
Specialist ID skills are another matter entirely. Maybe you
fancy becoming a champion in challenging species pair or
group identification – all you need is complete devotion for
several years, and to learn what it’s like to stare into the abyss
of infinite complexity. Then you can share everything you’ve
learnt, and save others the time and effort of having to take the
same rather disturbing journey.


Many birds are identified on call and it’s never been easier to
learn vocalisations, with a variety of relevant apps and online

Listing and twitching are the most
competitive elements of birding, but they
can also be a lot of fun. Here birders are
waiting for a Paddyfield Warbler to show on
Scilly in October 2005. Birdwatch•January 2016


Surveying (this photo) is one way you can make your birding count.
Logging the number and variety of wader species at a local wetland
(right) and contributing the data to the BTO’s WeBS count (below),
for example, provides important information
that helps with our understanding of
bird populations.

resources such as Xeno-Canto ( The
Sound Approach publications are essential reading if you fancy
getting to advanced level in this field.
However, as with all things, if you can’t be an expert yourself,
just ask one, or ask the collective ‘hive mind’ that is the internet.
It is, however, a good idea to become an expert in something
yourself, so that you can trade specialist knowledge. You only
have to do one thing well and the rest you get for free – result!
This is pretty basic birding, too – the reduction of the
infinitely complex landscape of avian DNA into a tick-box
exercise, which can prove to be an impossibly maddening task.
Twitching is often perceived as a sport. It isn’t, though – what
makes it so much fun and such a maddening pursuit is that
it’s a mutant hybrid between sport and science. Sport involves
a clearly defined arena, monitored by referees who enforce
standards to generate a level playing field in which the only
variable should be the skill of the players. Science, on the
other hand, is a methodology comprised of the proposal of
alternative hypotheses (supposedly objectives ones) and possible
realities. It can be very fluid and dynamic, hence the constant
flow of conflicting scientific advice.
Listing can also be dynamic – the ‘playing field’ (the listing
area) keeps changing as vice county boundaries alter, political
boundaries wax and wane and biogeographical boundaries
shift, while the taxonomic ‘pieces’ on the board are also in a
constant state of flux. Furthermore, there are no rules as
such; the whole tickable concept is subjective. There are no
referees: it’s very easy to cheat and it certainly isn’t a level
playing field. Often competitors are playing on different
boards using completely different pieces!
I’m pulling your leg here a bit, of course, as there is
a degree of stability within taxonomy and boundaries,
as well as a self-policing environment for listing, but
perhaps competitive listing could be more organised
and developed into more of a sport. Generally, however,
it’s more a case of Wacky Races, which I, quite frankly,
love. It’s fun and leads to lots of travel, experiences with
friends, personal challenges and good times.
There are lots of different levels to listing, too: local
patch, county, country, biozones, global and more. I keep
lists for my local patch, my foreign patch (the Azores),
birds I’ve seen in the Western Palearctic, birds I’ve seen
that are on the Western Palearctic list, all the birds I’ve seen in
the world and all the bird species I’ve eaten. I don’t take any of
them too seriously, but I do enjoy the structure and focus that
listing brings to a long-term effort.


Listing and twitching

It’s certainly true to say that birders are creative. The standard
of photography and art within the field of birding and natural
history is incredible. It’s also generally down to earth and
reflects a genuine interest in the subject, awe-inspiring attention
to detail and in-depth understanding.
My favourite artists are wildlife artists; I even started
collecting bird art for a while but unfortunately ran out of
money. I still think it’s great idea for all birders to own some
wildlife art – what better interior design than to have some wall
space dedicated to original bird art.
The standard of photography in birding today is exceptional,
and with the available technology it’s possible to achieve almost
professional results for a reasonable price. If I can do it, it must
be straightforward! I use a Canon EOS 7D, a 300 mm lens
36 Birdwatch•January 2016 


Get creative

Bird photography is another great way to exercise your creative powers,
and you don’t need to invest in expensive kit like that shown above – a
superzoom camera can produce very good results.


with a 1.4x extender, a laptop and Photoshop Elements. This
is standard kit for bird photography, and one with which I’ve
managed to sell plenty of photos; personally speaking, this is a
better reward than winning a competition.
As with all things, you can choose to take your photography
to the next level by trying to win awards or even make a living
out of it. But there really is no need – it can just be a bit of fun,
and any photos that you get published will be a bonus.

Recording and surveys


People talk a lot about making birding count; I believe
all birding counts, no matter what you do. Sharing your
photographs might inspire other people to pick up a camera.

Birding can even take you right out of your comfort zone. For the author
this involved several sea trips, despite suffering seasickness. Where will
your birding take you?

Recording birds on a news site like BirdGuides (see www. means that others can go and see the bird,
while the data gets fed into the British Trust for Ornithology’s
(BTO) BirdTrack scheme.
A more focused effort involves taking part in one of the
many surveys that run throughout the year. The BTO has
several recording schemes such at the Garden BirdWatch
(see pages 48-50), the Wetland Bird Survey and the Ringing
Scheme; go to for
more information on all the volunteer surveys organised
by the charity. The RSPB runs one of the biggest ‘citizen
science’ projects in the world in the form of the Big Garden
Birdwatch, which takes place this month (see
The data gathered from these surveys is incredibly useful for
conservation, but they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. A select few
birders will take it to the limit, becoming obsessed with data
collection, recording and presenting it in fancy ways. These
people are vital to the success of any collective pursuit – the
genuine enthusiasts whose consultation and opinions should be
sought out and listened to.
I find the systematic and methodical approach rather
restrictive, a necessary chore, but I also fully acknowledge
the importance of bringing together scientifically collected
data with creatively and more freely collected data. The great
thing about birding is that there is no ‘right’ way to do things,
and information can be collected from so many different
individual approaches. When all that data is brought together,
it starts to make useful sense. ■
• In part two, the author will look at how birders can get
involved with conservation and even turn an interest in the
subject into a life-long career. Birdwatch•January 2016