Shape before colour!

Entering the yurt on a cool, sunny autumn morning is always a delight. Sitting quietly, power point at the ready is Fraser, who will be leading our session today alongside his delightful canine assistants, Angel and Lola.

Today, birds – a daunting subject of fast moving brown blobs to me. Being from a city with little awareness of the avian world around me, I am familiar only with friendly neighbourhood pigeons and ducks. I ready my large notebook and put my thinking cap firmly on. To others, an intricate world of passerines, waders, terns, auks and many more is something invigorating and important already.

Aware we have two days to cover a lot of ground, we bust through family and sub family groups in the order that the taxonomists have decided on (today anyway!) with a brief intro to these bird’s behaviours and preferences. Grebes, Tubenoses, Rails and Crakes, Swifts and Nightjars, exemplify some of the fantastical names of families into which I become absorbed. Some pelagic, living at sea, others specialising in catching airborne prey. All with their own niches. Then the passerines, the perching song birds, with local accents and born with a song they develop into adulthood.

We have familiarised ourselves with what types of birds we may be encountering, then delve into the nitty gritty of bird ID. “Shape before colour!” – the important mantra to repeat. As human animals which depend so heavily on our interpretation of colour, taking in shape to place a beak, wing, leg, tail and even “vibe” into a family is highly effective over relying on often seasonal, age and sex dependent plumage. Thinking about behaviour, time of year and location are all good indicators too.

By the afternoon, it is time to put the theory into action. An image appears and we observe closely to record all the detailed information we can. These field sketches start off as intricate guides but quickly become scribbles of beak here and tail there, as the birds only perch on the powerpoint for a moment.

By the end of the short course I am really amazed about what I have managed to digest. I see shapes, subtleties of behaviour and “ah it feels like X family” and where before I saw “bird?!”. I rush out in the mornings with my binoculars and have so far seen Kingfishers, Kestrels, Buzzards, Little Egrets, Curlews, Cormorants to name a few and am tuned into the beautiful chatter and song that fills the air around me.

Jess Bernberg: Autumn 2022 trainee