In recent weeks, birders and photographers have emerged from months of lockdown and have begun to move around the country again, visiting sites after the strangest spring and early summer most of us will ever experience. Many nature reserves and birding hot-spots have not yet fully reopened and of those that have while most have trails open they are yet to reopen most hides.
With the introduction of updated government guidance on face coverings, and a developing sense for many that COVID-19 is more likely to be transmitted in enclosed spaces where you may be in prolonged contact with anyone who may have the virus, it would appear that hide users are going to need to adapt to changes.
Social distancing isn't straightforward in bird hides (M J Richardson / geograph.org.uk).
As has often been the case throughout these extraordinary times, government advice is ambiguous – unsurprisingly there's no specific mention of birdwatching hides – and it states: "You are … strongly encouraged to wear a face covering in other enclosed public spaces where social distancing may be difficult and where you come into contact with people you do not normally meet."
However, later in the guidance, it says: "They are also not required in entertainment venues (such as cinemas or casinos), visitor attractions (such as heritage sites or museums), exercise and sports venues (such as gyms)."
Hides are clearly enclosed public spaces but arguably they're also visitor attractions – so what should hide users be doing? There are a small number of nature reserves where hides have already reopened. Sites run by the Wildlife Trusts and private, member-only reserves have put number restrictions in place. Birders are asked to observe social distancing, too, with Wildlife Trusts issuing guidance that recommends that you "bring your own hand sanitiser and use facial coverings while inside".
It would appear that regular visitors have noted and adopted these measures, but reports suggest that occasional day visitors, who may be unfamiliar with this new guidance, are choosing to ignore it and are entering hides regardless of guidelines. The RSPB has developed guidance that includes mask usage and hide occupancy on their reserves.
Recently, birders who turned up to twitch a locally rare bird at a site with a single hide reported a mixed picture – some wore masks, but some were happy to socially distance without wearing a mask. Several birders have reported leaving hides feeling uncomfortable when they felt numbers had reached a level where social distancing became more difficult and those in the hide were not masked.
Anyone who has spent a few hours on a cold January day in the shed-like structures that are prevalent at many nature reserves will know that they are among the best ventilated of indoor spaces available to the public. Some larger reserves are already asking visitors to leave all hide windows and doors open to reduce contact points and increase ventilation. It's likely that this is a measure that will be adopted elsewhere. It's improbable that locked hides at sites that are not wardened or secure could adopt this measure and it remains to be seen whether this will contribute to their continued closure.
So, in the absence of clarity, how should birders be best approaching hides, where they are open? Here's a series of simple common-sense measures that all birders could adopt to help protect each other and hopefully ensure everyone – birders, photographers and casual visitors – who visit a hide, feels safe.
- Wear a face covering (even if it is just a camouflaged buff) inside any hide where others are present;
- Carry hand sanitiser to use before and after entering hides;
- Read and follow site-specific social distancing guidelines;
- In public hides, leave doors and shutters open to reduce contact points for everyone;
- Take extra care to enter hides where all the windows are opening to avoiding flushing birds that may be close by.
If using a hide isn't essential at certain sites, then it remains sensible to avoid using them altogether – but, with the weather likely to deteriorate soon as we go into autumn, their appeal will of course be greater. It remains to be seen how the pandemic will unfold in the coming weeks, with local lockdowns and tightened restrictions coming in to play in certain areas. Above all, stay safe and be courteous and sensible if out birding, especially if it involves using a hide.