OPINION: How birdwatching has helped me through a year of lockdown

Jay bird on a branch

One of Nick's favourite birds, a jay, so hard to spot in the 1980s and now fairly common - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

I found a couple of old diaries from the mid-1980s this week and you'll be pleased to know that most of my hobbies are exactly the same.

Four of my five main interests are clear to see by thumbing through the pages of these marvellous documents of my personal history.

There are football results and references everywhere - I still love the game, especially watching old footage and picking up old memorabilia if I come across it at a boot sale or charity shop.

Indeed the last thing I purchased from a shop on the Friday before we went into lockdown one year ago this weekend was a bundle of old Match and Shoot! magazines from the 1980s from Oxfam on Norwich's Magdalen Street. 

Throughout the summer months every time I walked past the closed shop I could see the exact spot where I'd been rummaging before the world stopped. 


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The diaries show a love of music - in the back of one I'd written that my favourite artists were Paul McCartney and Go West. How cultured!

During lockdown the postman has still regularly delivered flat square parcels roughly measuring 12 inches by 12 inches.

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My other two hobbies were computers - there are references to computer games all over these diaries - and I also used to go to a Saturday morning athletics club at my primary school.

All these years later I still love to play video games, especially with my two sons and Saturday mornings almost always include a run even now.

But the other big hobby I had in 1985 and 1986 which has re-entered my life big time since last March and the start of lockdown is birdwatching.

Living deep in the countryside in the middle of Norfolk during the mid-80s was the perfect place for my fledgling interest in our feathered friends to be aroused, aided by my brother, Andrew.

We spent many hours watching herons and kingfishers and ducks on the pond in front of our house and we even had a pair of pet Muscovy ducks.

We used to find discarded egg shells and old nests and eventually our growing interest in birds led us to join the RSPB's YOC (Young Ornithologists Club). 

With the YOC we got a regular magazine - Bird Life - which was as eagerly awaited as the latest football magazine or programme in my young life. And we went on regular field trips - to Minsmere and Strumpshaw among other reserves.

My 1985 diary tells me that in May on a trip to Cley Marshes I saw a dunlin, an Eider duck, an avocet, a wheatear and a turnstone.

A week or so later I was at Ranworth Broad where I saw a ruddy duck, a greylag goose and a wood warbler.

Although those weekend trips around Norfolk are a distant memory, my love of watching birds has always been there, although I no longer have the desire to record my findings in such studious detail.

Nick's YOC badge from the mid-1980s

Nick's YOC badge from the mid-1980s - Credit: Nick Richards

I've been told off on many car journeys for pointing out kestrels or red kites hovering above the motorway looking for lunch when I should have my eyes on the road.

I've often stopped and waited patiently in Eaton Park or along Riverside Road if I've seen a heron and the distinct call of a yellowhammer of magpie can still turn my head and cause me to try and find it.

I've lost count of the people I've corrected when they identify a bird as a 'seagull', telling them that there is no such bird. 

And if I see a jay, which was such a rare site in the 1980s, and now so common, I still feel a sense of achievement.

I got a similar buzz a couple of weeks ago when a walk through Catton Park with my children was soundtracked by a thunderous pecking noise in a tree.

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I knew what it was and told my boys that although we could hear it we might not be able to see it.

For a couple of minutes we looked up in to the tree looking for the culprit - eventually we saw a great spotted woodpecker.

My youngest son was laughing hysterically as we watched it pummelling its beak into the hollow branch of a big tree.

Without my interest in birds, we'd certainly have wandered past.

In lockdown, though, when we've perhaps all spent more time walking and running and when we've switched commutes to work for walks in fields, woods and along rivers, we've probably all been surrounded by nature more.

And I for one have certainly enjoyed looking at birds on a daily basis. I guess when so much of the world has been changed by Covid, investing time in something that doesn't seem bothered by it has its benefits.

I can understand for the same reason why people have enjoyed spending time with dogs, horses or even fish.

Birdwatching has also, unlike my other hobbies from being a child, not really changed.

Football, music and video games have all seen big developments since the mid--80s but there is something very low-tech about simply enjoying spotting a bird and pausing to watch it for as long as it will let you.

I met up with my brother for a walk on my birthday on Tuesday and we strolled around Mousehold Heath for an hour.

Despite not mentioning birds our avian antennae were soon alert and the conversation turned to what birds we'd seen recently.

Andrew, who took the interest in birds to a new level by often drawing them, getting books by esteemed bird painter John James Audubon for his birthday and buying high-powered telescopes can recite the Latin name for most birds, which is as impressive to me as me naming the 1985 Norwich City Milk Cup winning team is to him.

And it didn't take long for the Latin names to be mentioned every time we saw a bird on our walk - and we still laughed like a couple of silly school boys when we dropped in the Latin name for a blackbird.

You'll have to look that one up.
 

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