A short essay on how birding helped me stay sane during the lockdown in the UK and took me through the seasons of almost an entire year 🙂
It was a lovely March afternoon when I found myself standing under a gigantic horse chestnut tree in the middle of the Cherry Hinton Hall park, with tears running down my cheeks. I had just seen my first Great Spotted Woodpecker. Not one, but two of these birds sat high on the branches of the tree, half-hidden by fresh young leaves. We were three weeks into the nationwide lockdown in the UK, following the news of a novel virus that was claiming lives. The sight of these beautiful birds seemed like an unexpected gift that made me weep with joy and relief.
As an amateur birder, I had just started to find my way around tits and finches and thrushes and warblers. I was lucky to live in a leafy neighbourhood of Cambridge that allowed plenty of opportunity to spot different kinds of birds and listen to their calls. When I moved to the UK from India five years ago, I became quickly acquainted with the most common garden birds: robins, blackbirds, magpies. I didn’t know then that I had barely scratched the surface: there was a whole world waiting for me. With time, like a baby delights in the discovery of new words, I relished in expanding my knowledge of birds beyond the usual suspects. Every new call, every new song was researched with the help of my trusty BirdNET app, RSPB forums and Xeno-canto.
As COVID-19 peaked, most countries were more isolated than they had ever been before. The days grew heavy and monotonous, and I, increasingly anxious. But the more the silence of the lockdown dragged on, the more I trained my ear to pick up avian sounds. It helped that it was spring, and the birds were busy singing, looking for food, attracting partners and making babies. I heard the fluty melodies of blackbirds: I also learned to identify their chinks and chooks and whistles. I heard the cicada-like call of the greenfinch but also its urgent rattle. I let bird sounds guide my walks, leading me to discover new routes and places. Birding during the lockdown took me away from the anxiety of a COVID-19 world to an oasis of peace.
Imagine my delight one day when, as I strolled past a hedge, a streak of yellow whizzed past. A goldcrest, the UK’s tiniest bird! I got a quick glimpse of it before it disappeared into the bush. Over the next few days I walked the same path and saw that there was a Meet the Finches theme going on: I spotted goldfinches, chaffinches, greenfinches. Another day I walked further out into a small wood where I saw my first ever kestrel. As I got better at identification, I found that all the birds I would have classified as “sparrows” five years ago suddenly became clear and distinct groups: dunnocks, whitethroats and warblers.
Of great entertainment during the lockdown was the duck pond in our local neighborhood park, where a couple of swans had just turned new parents. Over the summer weeks, we saw the cygnets grow from tiny brown furry babies to large, long-necked beauties, almost indistinguishable from their parents. People of all ages regularly visited the park to check on them: we felt a collective sense of pride. We measured the passage of time by how much they’d grown (“But it was only April when they were so tiny!”) and felt glad that there was something to bind us in spite of all the isolating and distancing. A grey heron visited the pond one morning, standing like a statue on its long, thin legs. I stood 2 metres away from another lady who was watching it with keen interest: and we both gasped in delight as it spread its wings and flew across the water. A moment of connection that sustained me during the following weeks of isolation. The pond seemed to be a good place to escape to during our permitted once-a-day exercise. Gulls, mallards and moorhens: they seemed to be just like us: searching for their next meal, going to bed at night, with no idea of what tomorrow would bring.
On many days I didn’t have to step out of the house to be around birds. They seemed to be everywhere once I learned where to look. A wren visited the rose bush outside the kitchen window every morning: a treat to watch while doing the dishes or making coffee. I set up a bird feeder in the garden, which attracted jackdaws, pigeons, blackbirds and the occasional great tit. I watched blackbirds feed their little ones with worms and bits of the suet balls. A blue tit came by one day, infrequent in this neighborhood, and I nearly fainted in excitement.
Listening to and watching birds not only helped me cope with the coronavirus situation but also changed my life in ways I cannot measure. I feel like the default mood of my everydays has been lifted to another level. I do all the same things I did before — but this time, knowing that I will always have something to look forward to. This year has driven home the fact that our time in this world is limited. Life may seem routine and mundane many times, but birds help make each and every day extraordinary.
Also read: Bird-watching: A first-time experience