If you think a ‘birding lunch’ is posh slang for chicken sandwiches, think again. Alison Goulding reports.
WHAT could be more civilised than a bit of bird watching during your lunch break?
From April 1 to 5, Bird Watching magazine is encouraging workers to unglue themselves from the office and step outside to discover wildlife on their doorstep.
Keen to try it for myself, I headed to the Washington Wetland Centre, certain that I’d fare better there than the Echo car park. The centre is Wearside’s busiest bird airport, with arrivals and departures every hour across the nature reserve.
And with its own collection of rare birds, I was guaranteed some feathered friends one way or another.
Reserve manager John Gowland, 38, showed me what to look for as we headed to the Paddy Fleming Hide on Wader lake.
He said: “We have avocets arriving back from Africa and Southern Europe from mid-March and then the common terns start arriving mid-April.
“They help protect the other wading birds because they’re so aggressive.
“We notice that when the terns arrive the herons change their flight path and fly around the lake instead of over it.
“Last year we had 19 heron nests and 30 adults.
“Wader lake has a meadow next to it where lapwings nest and a gravel island where the avocets lay their eggs.”
After a few minutes in the Paddy hide, we saw two Canada geese squabbling with a pair of grey lags.
The latter won the argument and with peace restored, John explained that this time of year is full of scraps as the birds breed and become territorial.
Attracting a diverse range of wading birds is no mean feat.
John said: “There’s a lot of habitat management involved.
“We clear the island because if it’s overgrown the avocets won’t use it.
“We also flood the banks of the lake in the winter to release the grass seed for the wildfowl to eat.
“In the autumn we drain the lake to expose some of the mud banks and that encourages passing migrant wader birds to call in.
“I do a fence check each morning. I’m first out and about so if there’s any new birds I can get the message out on the website so visitors that morning can plan their route to coincide with a decent bird.
“Then sometimes we’ll get 200 red shanks at high tide and it’s quite a spectacle.”
Next we moved to the Diego hide to see if we could see the avocets. These black and white birds have a long up-turned beak and are the emblem of the RSPB.
Straight away we saw two couples on the gravel island.
One of the males was scratching up a nest.
John said: “They just scrape a hole in the gravel, add a couple of twigs and their eggs blend in perfectly.”
The next bit of interest was a lapwing chasing off a magpie and herons flapping around their prehistoric looking nests. Once I started it was hard to put the binoculars down. A tufted duck and a black-tailed godwit then joined the island.
John said: “Some people just want to come and find things for themselves. Birds are so mobile too so it changes all the time. “One day we had no avocets and an hour later we had seven.
“We also have a CCTV camera - five avocets came in as we were looking at the CCTV and it was quite a buzz.
“The seasons bring different birds with them: swallows in the summer and curlews.”
John’s interest in bird watching began as a child.
He said: “My dad was a miner at Wearmouth Colliery.
“He didn’t have much family time except holidays. He was interested in wildlife, probably from being stuck down a hole all day so he liked to visit nature reserves and we went to Scotland a lot.
“Me and him would head off up into the mountains and my mum and brother would go shopping.
“Spending time with my dad got me really focused on bird watching- where other teenagers had footballers or popstars on their wall, my wall was full of bird pictures.
“It was very exciting, when I was young, to see things for the first time.”
John began volunteering at Washington Wetland Centre when he was 13 and after leaving school, did a YTS at the centre for three years.
John, who went to Monkwearmouth School, said: “After that I returned to college to study catering and worked at Sunderland University. All the while I was still volunteering at the centre and keeping my hand in.
“London Wetland Centre opened its doors in 2000 and I got a job there as reserve warden. I got a taste for managing when the reserve manager went travelling. I got married in 2007 and my wife is from the North East too so we decided to move back to start our family. We couldn’t see ourselves bringing up children in London.”
John’s daughter, Jasmine, is two and already has the birding bug.
John said: “She loves it here, she has her own pink binoculars and when we’re at home she stands in the window and points out seagulls. She’s always a bit disappointed when they fly out of her sight.”
John runs Walk with a Warden sessions that are growing in popularity.
He said: “We’ve got quite a crowd who come down now. Because it’s once a month there’s usually something new to see.
“All of the wading birds have got different shaped and length beaks to feed off different things so they’re not competing.”
As he spends so much time bird watching, John has collected a wealth of knowledge.
He said: “Crows, ravens and magpies are very intelligent but game birds like pheasants and partridges are less so. Curlews can live into their 40s. Our captive birds live longer because they get fed and they don’t have to face extreme weather and predators.
“I see how they interact, especially when they’re paired up and mating. They reestablish their bonds a lot and tidy up their nests.
“Severe weather disrupts their breeding patterns. We lost all the lapwings nesting in the meadow last year because of the snow.
“Birds are very active in the morning and then they’ll have a siesta. If it’s mid winter the little birds need to fuel up a lot so they’ll spend a lot of time feeding.
“When it’s warmer and there’s plenty of food they don’t have to work as hard.”
He believes bird watching is a great way for people to connect to environmental issues.
John added: “The way planning permission is going, green spaces are being eaten up so little bits like our reserve really help. “It’s important to monitor populations too. Even sparrows are in major decline.
“Wildlife finds a way regardless but places like us are important.”
After my hour of bird watching I felt a lot more like Kate Humble and a lot less like Rod Hull.
It won’t be too long before I give it a go on my own - what about you?
To find out more about visiting the centre, go to wwt.org.uk
Twitter @AlisonGouldy or @WWTWashington
BIRD watching columnist and One Show regular David Lindo, known as The Urban Birder is backing this year’s Birding Lunch week.
David, who has visited the Washington Wetland Centre, said: “Over the years, I have made many discoveries whilst indulging in
lunchtime urban birding strolls.
“Whilst munching on my sandwiches I have had surprise encounters with singing Black Redstarts, watched garrulous flocks of
berry-gobbling Waxwings and very recently, witnessed inner London’s first ever Bearded Tits in Hyde Park.
“Talking a walk at lunchtime is not just about seeing unusual birds. It just great to find that there is a wealth of birdlife to be seen just outside of our workplaces. Just look up!”
Taking part in Birding Lunch is easy. Download a poster from the website below and put it up at your workplace, school or
community centre. Then, on at least one lunchtime from April 1 to 5, spend an hour exploring your neighbourhood and recording what birds you see, before completing the results form on the website.
For more information go to: Birdwatching.co.uk/birdinglunch or Facebook.com/birdinglunch