31/05/2020
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Dominic Mitchell: lockdown and beyond

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This has been an unforgettable spring, for all the wrong reasons. What began as an alarming outbreak in another continent swept around the world with devastating effect. By early April coronavirus and the rising death toll became the only news, healthcare workers and governments were battling to contain the pandemic, and almost half of all humanity was in lockdown. Life as we know it changed, dramatically.

Amid all the horror and chaos of the global crisis, the individual concerns of those who remain healthy seem trivial. But everyone is having to come to terms with massive upheaval of one kind or another – losing employment, being unable to visit family and friends or leave home except for essential reasons, and observing confinement from day to day, week to week, perhaps even month to month.

In these dark times access to the great outdoors has become more important, and for a much larger section of society. Rarely has it been more essential for mind, body and soul – a vital boost to start the day, a release valve for the stress of isolation, a welcome opportunity to reconnect with nature, however briefly.

Ever since the lockdown began, birders' horizons have become restricted mainly to views from windows and, for those fortunate to have them, gardens. Very quickly the birding community realised it would have to react inventively to keep functioning in such challenging circumstances. Pandemic listing took over from pan-listing.


The closure of iconic revenue-generating reserves like London Wetland Centre WWT will have an impact yet to be felt by the conservation charities (Dominic Mitchell).

 

Building community

In hard-hit north-east Italy, where COVID-19 first took hold in Europe, news of housebound birding marathons went viral on social media with the hashtag #BWKMO – birdwatching at zero kilometres. In Spain a private Facebook group for birders in lockdown grew to almost 1,000 members inside three weeks, while on Twitter the newly founded Self-Isolating Bird Club attracted 17,000 followers by early April.

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Across Britain, informal competitions and mini-leagues for home listers took off via WhatsApp groups and social media, as did the RSPB's #BreakfastBirdwatch initiative. Many of us joined in the fun, my own lockdown birding list being kickstarted by a female Firecrest in my small north London garden, followed by a new personal best of 37 species in one day at home. Others did better by logging nocturnal movements of Common Scoter, while several very lucky observers even added White-tailed Eagle to their garden lists.

In the big scheme of things none of this matters greatly, except perhaps by keeping us in touch with how life used to be, and also providing respite from the grim daily briefings on TV. News of improved air quality through reduced traffic and wildlife returning to areas now off limits are also welcome, but these short-term gains will no doubt dissipate as life returns to something approaching normal. For some, normality can't resume after the loss of loved ones, and also with other consequences of the crisis looming on the horizon.

The impact on the economy will be one such after-shock, and birding will certainly not be exempt from this. With international travel on hold for the foreseeable future it will be difficult times for tour companies. Conservation, too, will become more challenging in far-flung destinations that rely on ecotourism from the developed world. Increased unemployment and reduced consumer spending will also have an impact across other birding sectors, not least the optics industry. Falling revenue for wildlife charities through reserve closures, lost retail sales and reduced membership recruitment will surely also affect their activities.

As I was writing this the sad news broke of the cancellation of Birdfair, the global showcase on which many companies and wildlife organisations rely for their biggest boost of the year. This will impact sales right across the birding industry, as well as wipe out the significant financial contribution that BirdLife International projects would have received.

The hugely damaging effects of coronavirus will last far longer than the pandemic itself, in ways we can't yet fully appreciate. When the crisis does finally pass, conservation organisations and birding businesses will need our support more than ever before.

 

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