Swinging to Birding

I wanted to write an article on swingers. It was planned to be a raunchy, sexual adventure about the hidden sex parties in lockdown. Instead the article has taken a new direction, I am now writing about birdwatching. 

In a twist of fate just as I’m about to ring a swingers club in Leeds, my flatmate catches Covid-19. Our flat is subsequently put under lockdown and I have to stay inside potentially for the next 10-20 days.

Having watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, I was inspired by the unfolding stories happening before him as he sat there, watching with his broken leg and sipping on his brandy. I was left with a dilemma, what photographic story could I do for the next 10 days within my own four walls? So I followed suit with Rear Window and watched what was outside my window, birds. Without the brandy, sadly.

My birdwatching setup overlooking Woodhouse Ridge.

Bird watching would be a change of pace for me since I was running around my flat completing last minute assignments and doing my best to stay on top of my work. But to sit down for 30 minutes once a day with no phone, no music, no distractions and just the birds to look at, it was the sort of meditation I needed. I pulled up my chair by my window, got my camera out and let time go by.

Is it a rook? Or a crow?

I first sent my neighbour to buy me some bird feed and a bird feeder from Wilkos, together it set me back a lovely £5.

£5 and three weeks later I’m still using what’s left of that same bird seed! One aspect of birdwatching is it’s relatively cheap to get into. While there is expensive equipment to take you to the next level, so much can be seen without any binoculars or cameras to begin with, just simply look up.

Although Woodhouse Ridge is teeming with wildlife, my garden seemed to only attract a certain set of regulars. Four days after hanging the birdfeeder and the locals began to arrive, and they stayed alright.

Grey Squirrel

It began with the squirrels. Everywhere I looked I could see them scuttling around. I woke very early one morning to the sound of squeaking and two bushy tails upright by my window (Which I must add is a 3 story building so I don’t know how they got there). It was 5am but I didn’t mind.

In fact it was only the squirrels that seemed to love the bird feeder, so much so that they decided to take it home with them. One morning the thing had disappeared completely from it’s hanging spot. I may be losing my mind who knows but I’m convinced it was them.

Female Blackbird

My time in lockdown was coming to a close but I was really starting to invest myself in this hobby so I decided to up the ante. There are only so many crows, pigeons and squirrels you can look at after all. 

I then searched for a group of people which would allow me to tag along and learn more about birdwatching and I came across Linda Jenkinson. Linda runs runs a website called Start Birding where she hosts her own guided tours where you can learn more about the craft.

Kestrels will sometimes fly to the pylons

As her website states:

“You’ll be able to learn in a friendly, supportive environment and develop at your own pace with like minded people. My aims are to connect people with nature, with each other, and to showcase the special places that Leeds has to offer.” Sounded like bliss.

And off I went to Rodley Nature Reserve. Just west of Leeds it makes up a series of meadows and wetland that sits in a bowl of greenery and canals

Linda loves Rodley Nature Reserve and regularly arranges classes there when the reserve is closed to the public. She has also partnered with them several times to run its own Birdfair but because of the pandemic they’ve had to cancel two years running.

“Lockdown affected my business very badly. I wasn’t able to work at all for long periods. However, as a result of the lockdown, many people are now beginning to appreciate nature and are keen learn more”

“I’ve been seeing a lot of new people booking classes now”

While in some instances lockdown has encouraged more people to pick up new found hobbies such as birdwatching, it did have some more negative impacts in the physical world outside of the garden. Linda said that local nature was struggling to cope as “Quiet parts of Leeds became inundated with the public during the breeding season and many nests were disturbed.”

“The only downside is the latest craze of trying to photograph every British bird. Many of the people attempting this have no regard for the birds and create a great deal of disturbance. Some even don chest waders to enter a reedbed and cut down reeds to photograph nests that scare birds.”

As her Rodley Nature Reserve tours are only done when it’s closed to the public, it created the perfect conditions for a completely unheard level of tranquillity which is hard to imagine while living around Leeds city centre. So to catch it at a time where the public outdoors is busier than ever was something special.

I asked Linda what it is about birdwatching that makes it so special to her, she said:

“Watching and being part of nature is my life. Birdwatching makes you aware of seasonality, life cycles, climate and its affect on nature. I love facilitating everyone’s understanding of nature and their part in it.”

Her favourite birds are a drake smew and a winter visiting duck but her favourite birdsong is in fact the blackbird! If I was to recommend a time for anyone to go birdwatching it would be now, or next year around the same time as it’s during birdsong, the few months of the year between April and June were you can hear all the birds singing in the morning at their loudest.

Mute swan swimming to say hello

What made the tour so different from the everything mundane was the chance to meet some new faces for the first time in months. Talking to strangers and sharing these intimate moments in the sun as we looked at birds through the telescope was a feeling I forgot could exist. I’d gotten so used to passing people by in the streets, not even acknowledging their faces with half of it covered up by a mask most times. And now here I was, chatting away while watching the birds.

One bird watcher I caught up with was Carol-Ann Reed. Fairly new to birdwatching she started back in 2019 when she had her first guide with Linda:

“It was quite late on in July and it was a day tour in Malham, I didn’t know what to expect but god I just really liked it! Using the binoculars, seeing birds, listening to them chirp”

“She lists absolutely everything, everything we heard and everything we’ve seen and even everything that we didn’t hear”

Describing what she loves about birdwatching she goes on to say that when your in the moment, out on a tour, you feel like there is no pressure whatsoever:

“You go along and discover something, every trip is new and different, different weather, different birds”

“I’m used to going and doing stuff while being accountable for what you’ve learnt and this is just, go along and you don’t have to be the life and soul of anything, you turn up and just let what happens happen in the 2-3 hours that you’re there”

Two Reed Warblers, dancing in the reeds

“I’d never seen thrushes up close before through Linda’s periscope that she brings with her and it’s just brilliant, totally out of my everyday experience, you don’t really think about anything else while you’re doing it”

“I just wish I had more time to spend watching them”

“You won’t see the same sort birds with the same people again and it’s just that moment in time where, whatever your day to day worries, your work worries or your study worries they just don’t exist”

She points out that walking on it’s own without paying attention towards the birds around you just doesn’t have the same effect:

“You can have this when your walking but your left to your own thoughts there but with birdwatching there is something to distract you in the most relaxing way”

Carol wasn’t always this chirpy about birdwatching however:

“I was always very phobic of birdwatching, as a child living in a rural part of Yorkshire, we had birds nests around all around us and I remember being lifted up and looking at these chicks, and bare in mind chicks are rather ugly looking, and being horrified by them”

“I also watched one of the Alfred Hitchcock films, Birds! I watched that when I was young and it just freaked me out, what was I doing watching it?”

“And it just put me off birds, if they flew me near me I’d freak out, I did still enjoy looking at them though”

Red Kite

Eventually we came back round to swinging. After all, where would this article be if not for swinging? Me and Carol tried to come up with a link between the two pastimes:

“I guess when people are swinging they might not be thinking aswell”

“And same with the birds you may just never see them again, birds come together then they go their own ways again and of course all the noise they make with their bird calls is similar to mating!”

It might not be swinging but it’s the next best thing.

There where no swingers spotted in the wild however. But the list of birds we did spot for me personally was staggering.

The reed warblers pictured earlier were stunning to watch hop amongst the reeds. There was the Chiffchaff, Moorhen, Lapwing, Swift, Grey Wagtail, Blue Tit, Great Crested Grebe, Grey Heron, Red Kite, the Sparrowhawk, I could go on! And that’s just some of the ones we saw.

But the reserve in all it’s beauty is something worth protecting. It’s undergone chemical damage from floods in the past and the fact it exists at all in Leeds and hasn’t come under the threat of modernisation or any housing development of some sort is a testament to the work the volunteers do at Rodley Nature Reserve to help protect it.

Linda herself while not a volunteer directly at Rodley Reserve, has still worked hard as conservationist:

“I’ve worked as a volunteer since 1986. I volunteered with Leeds Urban Wildlife Group when it was running; Yorkshire Wildlife Trust; the RSPB Leeds Local Group for 12 years and I now co-run Leeds Swifts, part of a nationwide collective of swift conservationists. Volunteering has given me lots of transferable skills, some of which have helped me to successfully run my own business.”

Linda and her periscope

Leeds Swifts are a project aimed at the conservation of the one and only Swifts. Their numbers have dropped by 40% in the last 20 years alone and while many swift nesting sites are being destroyed and replaced through urbanisation. They offer specialist help to those who would like to help protect the species by offering solutions to protect swifts when renovating or advice on providing swifts with new bird boxes.

Linda has gathered the experience over the years to do tours like mine the other day with ease, so what advice does she give for newcomers hoping to start out?

“Birdwatching is a lifelong hobby. Many aspects of birdwatching can be learned indoors. Read about the birds you want to see before going out and guided birdwatching will help you to fast track your learning.”