Obviously there are no birds anywhere to be seen. Ben and Gemma, the lovely people from the RSPB, sit beside me and we all gaze hopefully out of my living room window, waiting. “This always happens,” says Gemma. “Every single time.”
Ben Andrew is one of the RSPB’s wildlife experts, passionate about birds since childhood. He and Gemma Hogg have come over to give me some tips about watching and taking photographs of wildlife, in advance of the Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend. Now in its 36th year, the birdwatch is the largest citizen science project in the world, with half a million people taking part every year.
“Everyone spends an hour just watching their garden, keeps a record of the birds that come in and out, and lets us know what they saw,” explains Gemma. They’ve kindly brought a bird feeder as a gift, but we are currently watching the one I already have, which normally bristles with blue tits. Not today. Somehow, just like dating, the birds have all picked up on our neediness and moved to next door’s birdfeeder, out of sight behind a shed.
Slowly we begin to pick out a bit more birdlife. On the communal lawn a large herring gull is paddling with its feet, thumping the ground to get the worms to rise. It tetchily glances up at us, then goes back to work, ignoring a cat strolling by (who carefully ignores the bird too). “Herring gulls are actually on the Red List, in decline,” Ben tells me, news that will startle any Brightonian, as we spend much of our time working out how to repel them from our rubbish. “If you live in a seaside town, it seems as if they’re on the increase, because this is where they’ve moved to. That’s because many of their natural habitats have been eroded.”
The seagulls are lucky enough to be good at relocating and adapting, unlike the disappearing sparrow, which is thought to have declined by as much as 70% since the 1970s. “Yes, they’re not very good at moving, unlike some species. So if their hedgerow is chopped down, they don’t tend to go anywhere. They just stop reproducing and die out.”
But Gemma points out that “actually our garden birds are doing really well”. Yes, some species are in decline. But others – such as blue tits, the greater spotted woodpecker, great tits and collared doves – are all doing pretty well. As if to drive the point home a collared dove swoops past the window (and straight out of sight again).
So what are the best ways to bring more birds to my garden? Happily it turns out that by neglecting my garden and failing to do any post-summer tidying up I’ve actually been doing the wildlife a favour. (Which is obviously what I had in mind all along.) “They love it like this,” says Gemma reassuringly.
The feeder already hanging from the ivy covered back-wall is so-called squirrel proof (although I’ve filmed a squirrel somehow fitting himself into it, like a fluffier David Copperfield) and we fill it with nuts which are attractive to a certain kind of bird. “You can try different foods, like seeds, fat balls or some kitchen scraps like cooked rice. You can try different types of feeding mechanism too. A bird table, where they can actually land, is more likely to bring in pigeons, jackdaws and jays. And if you want to put food on the ground that’s good for robins, dummocks and blackbirds.”
I explain that the huge number of cats and squirrels prowling around our communal garden mean that putting bird food on the ground would be like laying on a buffet lunch. Would bells on the cat collars make any difference? “We’ve got figures showing that it gives the birds enough warning to get away and can bring down the number of birds captured by 41%,” says Gemma.
A robin, finally, hops up on the back step to have a look at us, and we discuss their friendliness. “They always followed the big mammals around the wood,” explains Ben. “They’d follow the wild boar or the deer and pick out the worms that were turned up in their tracks. And then they became the gardener’s friend, for the same reason. Robins do seem to have a kind of boldness about them.”
The boys tumble home from school and are extremely impressed with Ben’s gigantic camera lens. He’s been giving me some useful advice on set ups. For example, you probably don’t just want a picture of your bird on the bird feeder, so it’s a good idea to set up something that it might hop on to nearby, “like a spade, for example. And then think about the backdrop behind the spade. You’ll want it to be quite simple and you need to think about the colours.”
My camera, after a good start, has suddenly gone on strike but I get a lend of his and manage a pretty good shot of a small blue tit who has given us a quick look-see. “What birds do you get here?” Ben asks the boys while I’m concentrating. “Jays, woodpeckers, magpies,” says Joe. Ben and Gemma beam, and I try not to look too smug. We do get birds! Honestly!