EVERY year at the end of January, we are invited to grab a cuppa, pull up a chair and sit for an hour counting the birds in our gardens, writes David Carnduff.
The Big Garden Birdwatch, organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, is the world’s largest wildlife survey, providing an annual snapshot of how Britain’s garden birds are faring.
The society provides a handy guide to help people put a name to their feathered visitors in case there is any doubt.
Last year, the house sparrow topped the league as the most common in Scotland, followed by starling, chaffinch, blue tit and blackbird.
If you are a newcomer to birdwatching, taking part in the project may prompt you to venture further afield for new species to add to your list, and you don’t have to go far because Inverclyde has a wealth of good birding spots.
Lunderston Bay, Cardwell Bay and the Parklea shore are good for wading birds and ducks, while local woods are great places to spot a variety of species in spring and summer.
First, however, you will need a field guide, an essential part of the birdwatching kit, which will help you put names to those puzzling “little brown birds” that inevitably will test your ID skills.
The must-have guide back in the late sixties when I was a fledgling birdwatcher was “A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe”. It was written by three “giants” of ornithology: Roger Peterson, Guy Mountford and PAD Hollom, and you weren’t considered a serious birder unless you had a copy.
The guide was innovative because Peterson’s meticulous illustrations — numbering more than 1,000 — each had arrows pointing out the distinctive feature of each species.
To whet your appetite for a bit of twitching, the book also has a check-list for you to tick off the species seen in your ornithological endeavours.
Back then as a beginner, I pored over the illustrations of spectacular species waiting to be seen in Scotland: golden eagle, osprey, capercaillie, great northern diver and many more.
The guide also whetted the appetite for trips abroad to search for “exotics” such as hoopoe, bee eater or golden oriole in the balmy south of Spain or, if you were really adventurous, the ghost-like great grey owl deep in the forests of northern Sweden.
The value of field guides as a way improving ID skills was recently emphasised by a leading ornithologist in Scotland who advised against using social media to seek help in naming a bird.
A typical Facebook request for help might be: “There is a black bird in my garden with a bright yellow beak. Can anyone tell me what it is?”
A Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe tells you not only that the bird in question is a male blackbird, but also gives details of its habitat, song and geographical range.
Of course, since my interest in birdwatching first took flight, a plethora of other field guides have been published with new artists brilliantly depicting everything from grebes to crows.
However, I was pleased to see that second-hand copies of the book by the intrepid trio of Peterson, Mountford and Hollom can be bought on eBay for just over a fiver.
I fetched my dusty copy from the bookcase and, as I flicked it open, there staring at me from the page was none other than the great grey owl as if to say “I have been waiting for you to pay me a visit.”
No, despite my best intentions, I never made it to Sweden’s forests and I doubt that I ever will. So for now I will have to be content with grabbing a coffee, taking a seat and counting sparrows in my garden.
More information on The Big Garden Birdwatch is available at rspb.org.uk/birdwatch