Birdwatcher and blogger David Lindo has had an idea that might unify the nation at election time: establishing a national bird. He wants us to get voting for the feathered friend that best personifies Great Britain. “We put a committee of bird lovers and experts together and they came up with a long list of 60. Now that’s been whittled down by public vote to a final round of 10 birds.”
It’s easy to disparage our native birds when compared with the gorgeous strutting colour bombs that adorn other nations: the Guatemalan quetzal or Papua New Guinea’s bird of paradise, for example. On top of that, we don’t have any endemic species or even very many species – around 600, compared with Colombia’s 1,821. On the other hand, we do have reasons to cheer: birdwatching is a British invention, as is bird conservation. We have hauled several species back from the brink, notably the red kite and the white-tailed eagle. Others have made themselves welcome recently – the rose-ringed parakeet, the egret and the collared dove among them. This is as good a time to be a British wild bird as any in the last century.
Of the 10 nominations for a national bird, four are common garden birds (blackbird, blue tit, robin and wren); spotting the others requires a journey for most of us, so here are suggestions for good places to watch them. Voting closes at midnight on 7 May. Lindo’s own choice is the blackbird, for its song – and for the Beatles’ one.
The puffin seems eminently suitable to be our national bird: a dapper little character who is equally at home on sea or land, given to hedonistic feasting when the seasons allow, but also capable of austere self-denial (they spend their winters out in the North Atlantic). And going to see puffins is always a pleasure, because they only live in superior and beautiful locations. There’s Skomer in Pembrokeshire, for example, Bempton in East Yorkshire and Lundy Island (whose name is thought to derive from the old Norse for puffin). Lindo recommends Rathlin Island RSPB reserve in Northern Ireland, or those who like to be in the water could go on a “puffin patrol” kayak trip around the Channel Island of Herm. Most spectacular, however, must be St Kilda, in the Outer Hedbrides, where vast sea cliffs and abundant marine life make for sea bird heaven.• Hebrides Cruises runs one-week expeditions to several Hebridean islands from £1,450. Kayak puffin patrols at Herm run April-June, £35pp, or boat trips cost £29.50
Ornithologists are reluctant to reveal where, precisely, breeding hen harriers can be spotted: this marvellous bird’s existence is threatened constantly by egg collectors and misguided gamekeepers. The RSPB calculates that there is sufficient habitat for 300 breeding pairs in England, but only three pairs actually bred in 2014. An adult male in flight is a glorious sight, with its wingspan of well over a metre and ghostly grey plumage. Loch Shiel and Mull in Scotland are two possible locations; Blacktoft Sands RSPB reserve, at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Trent, again in East Yorkshire, is a great wintering site; and there’s Orkney or the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. The best site in the British Isles may be at Ballaugh Curragh marshes on the Isle of Man where, between October and March, harriers gather to roost before sunset.
Not so long ago you had to travel a long distance to have a hope of seeing this bird, but a determined reintroduction campaign got the ball rolling and now … Well, I saw one soaring over the A1-M1 intersection near Leeds recently. The RSPB reckons there are 1,600 breeding pairs in Britain, but that seems a conservative estimate. At Gigrin Farm in mid-Wales they’ve been running a feeding centre to help the species for over two decades. Also worth trying are Galloway Forest kite trail, Stokenchurch in the Chilterns, Fineshade Woods near Corby, or the Black Isle north of Inverness.
Traditionally nesting in open agricultural buildings, barn owls suffered as those sites disappeared. But humans responded, and over half of barn owl nests are now thought to be in manmade boxes. Seeing its ghostly form gliding silently across the fields at dusk is very exciting. With over 4,000 breeding pairs and many more wintering here, they are not too hard to spot. East Anglia is generally good, on farmland, verges and coastal saltmarshes. In Wales, the Gwent Levels is good or, in Scotland, the Gordon Moss reserve near Kelso. The Barn Owl Trust has spotting tips, and centres around the country.
We have only one resident swan species – the mute swan – and the most famous observation site is at Abbotsbury, Dorset, where the swannery is the only managed colony in the world. It was started by Benedictine monks in the 11th century.
That streak of aquamarine across the river is a glorious sight. There are around 90 species worldwide, most of them sharing that gorgeous blue plumage. Spotting them is generally easier in the south of Britain – they tend to suffer in the harsher winters of the north. There are a number of wetland reserves in the south where kingfishers regularly appear, such as Lee Valley Park in Hertfordshire. Rye Meads near Hertford is a good spot, with hides to observe them from, as are Radipole Lake in Weymouth, Attenborough nature reserve near Nottingham, and Fowlmere in Cambridgeshire. In Wales, twitchers may be lucky in Ynys Hir, Ceredigion, and in Scotland, where the species is increasing its range, there’s Lochwinnoch, Renfrewshire.
• This article was amended on 8 May 2015. The RSPB calculates that there is sufficient habitat for 300 breeding pairs of hen harriers in England, not Britain as originally stated. This has been corrected.
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