Lockdown day 10 in south-east London. A loud rhythmic tweeting is emanating from the cherry plum tree in my back garden. A great tit? Blue tit? I catch a glimpse; too small for a great tit, not as colourful.
I don’t know my birdsongs beyond the basics, but I remember a friend imitating calls to coax birds nearer so he could identify them. I have an idea and grab my phone and Google “coal tit song”. I press play and the rival tweeting produces instant results. Hopping from branch to branch towards me a delightful but agitated coal tit emerges and alights on a branch barely two metres away (I think it knows). Is it angry or amorous? My exhilaration at our proximity turns to doubt and guilt – I’ve used gadgetry to disrupt the natural world. What was I thinking? The coal tit flies off, its song tinged with irritation.
Clearly, playing birdsong on phones can produce results but could this be unethical? I decide to ask Chris Packham through the Facebook page he’s set up, the Self-Isolating Bird Club , which is crewed by thousands of nature enthusiasts.
There can be few better online platforms than this in showing how modern, accessible tech has revolutionised local wildlife reporting. People have put mini cameras in nest boxes, on feeders; installed trail cameras on patios; and remote-triggered DSLRs have been placed in tree canopies. This stuff is no longer the preserve of well resourced global-roaming wildlife film production teams.
Packham says of the daily morning live feed, the focal point of the group, which has attracted more than 500,000 viewers daily: “We’re doing it all on mobile phones and Skype with earpods, and I’ve got a digital microscope. Fabian Harrison, a former RSPB guy, is mixing it in his bedroom in Norwich. It’s Dad’s Army makes TV. It’s very real and in the moment but with no campaigning – no banging on about shooting or anything. It’s all just joy and enjoying wildlife and getting people to engage. As long as it [lockdown] lasts, we’ll just keep going.”
The results are extraordinary, and not just on the live show. Each day, the public posts gems such as barn owls evicting jackdaws that had attempted to squat their nest box; sea eagles being mobbed by red kites; hedgehogs scurrying under garden furniture; and adders emerging into the spring sunshine.
Michaela Strachan, Packham’s colleague on the BBC’s Springwatch programme, who has also featured on the Self Isolating show from her home in South Africa, tells me that even she has now changed the way she enjoys wildlife: “A whole new wave of birdwatching is happening. Amazingly, I’ve never taken the time to sit down and watch birds on my feeders.”
Strachan says the appeal of placing cameras in the garden comes from a different place to the motivations of expert birdwatchers: “The birds become like family. Right now our lives have never been so uncertain. You know the birds are coming to feed every day… we look for those kind of certainties. The mental health benefits are proven. When I took those two hours in my garden, I instantly felt better.”
Others go further, suggesting that watching animals is instinctive behaviour. In an essay for Aeon, biologist David Barash writes: “Our well-being – survival, even – depended on relationships to other animals, many of which were predators, with us as their prey.” Our ancestors’ awareness of animal behaviour would hold a “potent selective advantage”.
Strachan says it’s important that people remember that webcams will show violent, upsetting scenes and warns that we shouldn’t turn against species for being predators: “There’s nothing wrong with getting emotionally attached but you have to put it in perspective. Don’t demonise animals.”
She recommends webcams such as those run by the Dyfi osprey centre (ospreys are a favourite bird of hers), and local wildlife trusts featuring “flagship” birds such as peregrines (Leamington Hall) and barn owls (Dorset), as well as badgers, bats and waterfowl. With several webcams on screen at once you’ll soon be feeling like naturalist security guard.
Watching webcams can be monotonous of course, but the action, when it happens, is often spectacular – ospreys touching down, peregrines returning with their prey, an otter passing a lakeside nest … and anything you might have missed will be picked up and pored over by the commenters.
Osprey webcams are already up and running this year, the majestic birds returning from Africa in recent weeks, others will be online early in April. Among them will be Wild Days on the Earthwatch Europe platform, featuring Strachan as part of a team offering an hour’s worth of daily activities online, to show you what’s going on in your gardens, patios and balconies.
Although Packham says his group is about enjoying and engaging with wildlife, webcams also play a role in campaigning for nature. Rewilding Europe invites you to “become a citizen scientist and help analyse camera trap photos”.
Using the Zoological Society of London’s Instant Wild platform, animals such as wolves and wild boar, pine marten and porcupine have been tracked in Italy since the programme’s start in August last year, with plans to expand into more rewilding areas across the continent. “With camera trap photos and videos from locations around the world posted online, Instant Wild lets citizen scientists take part in vital global conservation work,” says Kate Moses, a project manager with ZSL’s Conservation Technology Programme.
Back with the Self Isolating Bird Club, I’m waiting for my admonishment for using Google to attract a coal tit through recorded birdsong. Meanwhile, naturalist Lucy Hodson is waxing lyrical about woodlice (“crustaceans not insects”) and millipedes (“absolutely love ‘em”). Then I get my answer: it’s OK as long as you don’t keep doing it in the same place with the same species, and don’t do it with rare birds at all. It’s a partial let off, but I get the feeling that for me and many others, our relationship with the natural world is about to become more intimate.
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