Birdwatching is a rewarding family activity and now is a great time of year to start. Once autumn leaves cover the ground, the bare branches are an ideal place to spot birds like flocks of long-tailed tits passing through – bouncing white fluffy balls with lollipop tails. Winter migrants return and flood our lakes and gravel pits with wildfowl, rafts of ducks, geese and swans in all sizes, colours and shapes.
The advantage of wildfowl for the beginner birdwatcher is that they spend many hours on the water making them easy for kids to watch from a hide and an excellent way to practice using binoculars.
The RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), local Wildlife Trusts and WWT (Wildfowl and Wetland Trust) have many reserves throughout the UK, all great places to start birdwatching. These reserves have lots of information about the birds you might see and often they have binoculars for hire.
When you arrive, look out for the ‘Recent Sightings’ board which will usually have a list of the birds seen on the reserve on that day and where they were sighted. There might even be some rarer birds visiting the reserve and often there are helpful wardens or volunteers in the hides to help you tell your mallards from your pochards.
This weekend we visited Paxton Pits Nature Reserve, a 78 hectare site in Huntingsdonshire with lakes, reedbeds, meadows, scrub and woodland. We’ve heard nightingales in the reserve in the summer but now we headed straight for the lakeside hides to see what wildfowl we could find.
My son spotted a couple of ducks from the first hide – funky diving tufted ducks and beautiful wigeon with chestnut brown heads and yellow foreheads. Behind them, on an island, a row of cormorants held out their black wings to dry like dark washing in the sun.
My daughter is only 6 and sometimes she still struggles to locate the tiny dots with her binoculars. So we practised using landmarks (in front of the big tree, behind the third island from the left, next to a cormorant, swimming right) and by the end she had begun to find the ducks by herself.
She really liked watching the bulky shovelers with their bright colours and broad bills held on the surface, filtering small invertebrates and plant material out of the water.
Just as we were about to leave the hide, my dad (our birdwatching guru) spotted a bobbing green sandpiper – a small wader – on the lakeside. We watched its low zig-zagging flight as it disappeared around the corner of the lake and marvelled that such a small bird could migrate so far - in 2016 a green sandpiper tagged in Hertfordshire flew non-stop to Norway in 2 days – a journey of 900 miles!
Then it was back to the visitor centre for hot chocolate and to add our sightings to the board. My daughter wrote up the only duck we’d seen that wasn’t listed – the shoveler – and after a lengthy debate about how many ‘l’s it had, we all piled in the car and set off home, worn out and happy.