David Campbell: public engagement


I'm sure I'm not alone in that, when I'm birding, I'm not only watching the birds, but also taking note of how they are perceived by non-birders. This can sometimes make a day in the field one that sticks with me for a long time. Moments when non-birders seem to stop and appreciate birds can be quite touching, but I do find it hard to fight off a pang of cynicism when they don't notice something exciting.

I would have thought that there are few more obvious actions than a Eurasian Sparrowhawk eating a pigeon alive just feet away from you, but recently I watched a man walk past this raw drama without giving it a sideways glance. After his dog flushed the hawk off the pigeon for a second time and he walked straight in front of my lens, either without noticing or caring, I lost a little bit of hope for our relationship with nature. He didn't even seem to twig that his dog almost grabbed the pigeon.

This Eurasian Sparrowhawk in full attack mode failed to attract the attention of one passer-by, though two others were captivated (David Campbell).

Thankfully I am just as easily filled with optimism. Two women appeared from behind the trees and said they had been watching the sparrowhawk from the sidelines to avoid disturbing it and risk losing it the meal. I caught up with them further along the path where they had paused and pointed at the canopy. I could tell they were using an app to identify the sound of a calling Goldcrest.

That the mother and daughter, who did not seem to be birders, had noticed and taken an interest in what must be one of the most easily missed bird sounds in Britain, was the perfect remedy for my disappointed reaction to the dog-walker's blundering ignorance, and it made my day.

There may be little hope of inspiring someone who's not impressed by a raptor taking out another bird, but we really ought to seize any chance we can to engage with passers-by. I'm often counting waders, or watching seabirds go by, at the beach near home, only to be interrupted by someone who assumes I'm photographing the sunrise or the offshore wind farm. This can certainly be frustrating, but running with the conversation and pointing out the birds usually leads to a really positive encounter and might just plant a seed for a keen interest.

A couple of autumns ago, a group of local birders were logging the diurnal migration at our local vis-mig spot at Goring Gap and House Martins were pouring through. In that moment, there was nothing more inspiring to me than their sugar-lump rumps and dry twittering as thousands battled into the wind at eye level. But it felt as though we were experiencing something that was invisible to everyone else. One person asked: "Are you taking pictures of the turbines?"

I stopped my eyes from rolling and explained what we were witnessing. A few hundred birds later, I followed one group of martins in my binoculars to see the passer-by gazing at the sky and filming the birds.


Written by: David Campbell

David Campbell works for BirdGuides and co-runs Wildstarts Nature Ltd, a Sussex-based guiding company: www.wildstarts.com