“Robin”, “blue tit”, “crow” – those are the easy ones, but what happens when the children in our lives point at a brown-coloured duck and ask us, “what’s that one?”. This is something many of us will have experienced, the sinking feeling of not being able to answer a child’s innocent and inquisitive questions about the natural world around us.
This feeling was one that had motivated some of the participants to attend the Avon Wildlife Trust’s Winter Birds Identification course at Folly Farm centre in Chew Valley last week. As we eagerly gather in a classroom at the 250-acre nature reserve and discuss our reasons for being there, I am touched by how many people wish to be able to pass on their natural history knowledge to their grandchildren, nieces, nephews and godchildren.
The day kicks off with a fascinating and interactive ‘theory’ section. Our course tutor, Matt Collis, informs us that as long as we can learn to identify three particular species of bird (dunlin, redshank and godwit) then we will be well-placed to identify the other birds we will later see at the, as it turns out, surprisingly biodiverse Chew Valley lake. By this, he means we need to have a point of reference. When looking at the birds in my garden, I know them so well that I can instantly spot when a new visitor appears. Well the same principle applies with winter waders, he tells us. Learn the common ones and go through a process of elimination (yes, even mute swan and mallard are a good place to start).
Later at the lake, as we put our new ID skills to practice, we are delighted to see goosander, tufted duck and snipe right in front of us. As per Matt’s outstanding morning tutorial, I remember to look for the bill length and shape, the “supercilium” (eye brow), the leg colour, the eye ring – all things I had often previously overlooked. Details like this, we learned, can be excellent diagnostic features and are much more useful when later trying to ID the beige-coloured duck you saw.
As we devotedly try to identify the group of grebes sitting towards the back of the lake, another course participant cries, “kingfisher, right!” and we all instantly drop our binoculars and watch a show-stealing kingfisher hovering in place. Utterly spellbound, I feel assured that some living things are so beautiful they cross any generation gap and would spark wonder in us all.
The day ends on a high and, as we make our way back to the centre, I reflect on what a lovely thing it is to spend a day with like-minded people in a calm atmosphere surrounded by wildlife. So is my 4-month old nephew old enough to learn about winter birds yet?
The next Bird ID course is planned for April, please keep an eye on our events page if you would like to attend a course in the future, there’s more to come in spring.
Kingfisher photo (c) George Cook.