The other day, I heard a sound that was new to me in nature. I was out on an island in the Thames Estuary. As evening drew on, I was watching geese on a bank by the side of a creek. Above me were telephone wires strung between poles.

I did not particularly notice the starlings at first. They came flying in and settled on the wires, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in packs. These are the go-getters of the bird world: energetic, pushy, vulgar, dressed in spangled purple.

I began to give them full attention. Gradually the wires started to resemble thick black cables as more and more arrivals somehow squeezed themselves into the throngs already perched there, wheezing, clicking, whistling, and chuckling as they do. The wires swayed as birds kept on landing. There were hundreds of them now.

Without warning they flew down as one into the field below them. The grass turned black. Then silence fell. You could sense them waiting, preparing. Something was going to happen. And abruptly all of them exploded into the air together like a miniature nuclear bomb. Think of the sound when a bird spreads its wings and takes off, and multiply it by hundreds. I can hear it in my imagination still.

So there I was, birdwatching. Many years ago when I began this pursuit it was regarded as somewhat odd, out of the mainstream. Not now. As an awareness of natural ecology has spread, people understand that birds are a link in the chain that has human beings at its apex. A link that is complete in itself, inviting and repaying intense study that can take a lifetime.

There are different sorts of birdwatchers. That’s a portmanteau word that covers them all, but there are gradations within it. “Birdwatchers” as such tend to be more passive. Some of them, though aware of birds, are not in the business of identifying them and becoming familiar with their habits; others associate birds with particular landscapes, and give their heart to both; others again concentrate on the lives and behaviour of particular species; others like to go to reserves and be shown the latest attraction or rarity.

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