Dominic Mitchell: changing times


Part of the enduring appeal of birding is its ability to evolve and adapt, while losing none of  the core traits that made it so engaging in the first place. The fundamentals of  our interest in birds remain just as they have for decades – at its most basic level, a binocular, a field guide and the desire to observe, identify and record what you see is enough to set you on a path of  discovery. Over time, you can then develop and specialise as much, or as little, as you wish.

That's the case on an individual level, but by and large we are social creatures, so by choice – circumstances permitting – most of us would opt to do at least some of our birding with friends or family, or interact in some way with those who share our interests. That's where community comes in and, whether through local bird clubs, national charities or WhatsApp groups and social media, birding (and the wider conservation movement) has a strong tradition of fostering these connections.

With the global pandemic affecting so many aspects of our lives over the past two years, that link with like-minded individuals has been a lifeline at times. Restrictions on movements greatly narrowed our birding horizons, yet paradoxically provided new perspectives on species nearer to home. For those fortunate to have a garden, feeder watching and window listing have taken on a new and perhaps permanent importance.

Local patches such as the author's much-visited one at Alexandra Park in London have proved a haven for birds and people during lockdown (Dominic Mitchell).

When social and outdoor activities were limited by time and distance to solo exercise close to home (unless of  course you happened to work, and party, in Downing Street), there's a fair chance that your local patch benefited from increased coverage. Mine certainly did: a year ago I wrote that I doubted my 265 visits to north London’s Alexandra Park in 2020 would ever be bettered, but 2021 saw a new personal best of 300 site checklists during the course of  the year.


Community in action

Like many others I started a WhatsApp group for my patch, but what began life as a basic local sightings service mushroomed in the pandemic into a flourishing community of birders and budding natural historians sharing knowledge and images, and making and maintaining those all-important personal connections. When one of our members died suddenly last summer, local birders – some of whom hadn't even met before the pandemic – formed one of the largest groups of mourners at the funeral to celebrate a life well lived.

That tragic loss of a friend also led to a memorial evening attended by many others in the community, in which an auction raised funds for habitat works on our patch, the site manager spoke about ambitious plans for improvements to the local landscape, and I talked about the surprisingly diverse birdlife of a park which last year attracted a staggering five million human visitors.

This is not an isolated lockdown birding story but part of  a much broader picture, with increasing emphasis on exploring closer to home which now extends across the country – look no further, for example, than this magazine's new #LocalBigYear initiative. By extension, there has also been a welcome reduction in our collective carbon footprint, though the flipside is the negative impact this will have on vital ecotourism initiatives which may struggle to survive.

Things will change as the travel industry begins to recover from the devastating impacts of the pandemic, but even as some kind of  normality returns in the months and years to come, it feels that for many of us, for whatever reason, life will not be quite what we knew before.

As unanticipated as it was unwelcome, the pandemic has at least forced us to reappraise certain aspects of our lives which we simply took for granted before. That applies to birding but extends far beyond it, and it will be interesting to see how lasting these changes will be over time. 


Written by: Dominic Mitchell

Dominic Mitchell is Birdwatch's founder and was Managing Editor for 27 years. He has written and edited numerous bird books, and has been birding for more than 45 years. Follow him on Twitter: @birdingetc