Birdwatching in a pandemic

Just as we were looking forward to a break in Brexit media coverage and the chance to enjoy some spring weather after all those destructive storms, an even bigger challenge has presented itself. A tiny lifeform in China has mutated and is now affecting humans around the world.  Even if you don’t watch TV, listen to the radio or read the newspaper you will still have heard of it, it’s the coronavirus strain COVID-19!

Like birds, humans are never static. We are constantly on the move racing around the globe for pleasure or on business, but unlike birds, our movements are not so predictable. For years we’ve been tracking the movement of birds and have come to understand that the majority of birds follow flyways (see map). These mainly flow from north to south and have a recognised boundary formed by birds using terrain such as mountain passes, deserts and coastlines. When we were tracking bird flu, these flyways played an important part when predicting where infections and human cases might emerge.

Coronavirus is very different to bird flu in terms of the rate of infection and the number of fatalities. Bird flu had a low incidence of infection but a high fatality rate. Coronavirus is much more successful in that it easily passes from one person to another while keeping fatalities relatively low to ensure its survival. The response worldwide aims to prevent our health care services from being inundated so we’re being advised to avoid large crowds and perhaps be self-isolating. Your workplace may have suggested you work from home or you might not be able to run your business. The whole situation and fear of the unknown is causing a great deal of stress and anxiety.

One thing we can do is to take a break from all the media coverage and use the outdoors to remind us that the rest of the world is still ticking over normally. If you can, take a walk in your local park or nature reserve where you can safely stay away from crowds and get some fresh air. There are signs of spring everywhere, buds emerging from the trees; bees hunting through early spring flowers; the sound of the first chiffchaffs and willow warblers arriving and, if you’re strolling around St Aidan’s, bittern booming above the sound of hundreds of black-headed gulls. Sand martins and black-necked grebes have been seen already and these will soon be joined by our first swallows.

For those of you who are self-isolating, your garden is the place to watch. Keep your feeders full (get your bird food delivered if you can’t go out) and see if you can find a new bird for your garden. So many birds are on the move, and every bird is in textbook plumage, so it’s the best time of year to identify a species not seen on your patch before. Don’t forget to look up too. Your garden might be on a flyway to a different habitat further north. You may see birds such as whooper swan and pink-footed geese departing for their breeding grounds in the north. Look for red kite and buzzard as populations rise in the Leeds area.

So what if you don’t have a garden and you can’t get out? Why not make this the year you learn birdsong. There are some great resources available to help you learn. I recommend the Chirp app or get the birdsong CDs by Geoff Sample. Just a few minutes each day will help you become an expert.

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