Monday, 29 September 2008

A Guide to Garden Birds : Brett Westwood, Radio 4

Having just moved house and not yet installed my TV, I have been getting my wildlife fix from the BBC iPlayer and my usual radio programmes.

Fortunately (unlike for TV) much radio content is available to us online indefinitely, so long as you have the right software to download and play it.

I am a particular fan of Radio 4's content: Radio 4 replaced the BBC Home Service in the 60s and today broadcasts a very wide variety of programmes from various genres including science and nature. It can be found around 92-95 FM and is the BBC's most expensive network. It's also one of its most successful, winning the Sony Radio Academy Award's "UK Station of the year" this year.

For wildlife programmes Radio 4 is your one-stop shop! Amongst my favourites are Scars of Evolution presented by David Attenborough, World on The Move following worldwide animal migrations, and A Year in the Life of Ants which was partly presented by my current postgrad tutor, the brilliant Nigel Franks. All of these are available to listen to by download and take barely any time to obtain.

"A Guide to Garden Birds" aired in conjunction with Springwatch 2008 and was, in my opinion, one of the most complete and well-presented programmes I have ever heard. Now this may have been achieved through its simplicity as a programme: Brett Westwood and his sound recordist Chris Watson enter Stephen Moss' garden where they sit and chat with him and listen to the birds.
Episodes alternate between bird groups, covering the Titmice, Thrushes, Finches and many more; and Brett and Stephen (pictured) lead the listener through each song and bird including clever anecdotes to help you learn to identify the species. As if this wasn't enough, they also throw in some handy hints on how to identify the birds by sight in your garden, and indicate how each species behaves and how this will affect your birdwatching.

I will attempt to describe some of the best (and my favourite) anecdotes that this lovely programme uses, but to truly appreciate it, I would urge you to get online and download a few for yourself. They're all of 20 minutes long and make very easy listening.

Episode one sees Brett and Stephen discussing the Song Thrush (picture by Bob Glover) and Stephen recalls how his grandfather Snowy, used to be followed home by the call of a bird that nagged him singing "Snowy, Snowy, Snowy. Pay the rent, pay the rent, pay the rent!" Ever since hearing this I have yet to fail to recognise the Song Thrush by ear.

In episode two we hear how the Blue Tit is a bold little bird that literally puts "all his eggs in one nest". The Blue Tit, it appears, lays up to 12 eggs only once in the nesting season whereas most other birds will lay 3 or 4 a few times. The Blue Tits have to work hard to keep 12 hatchlings fed and a breeding pair will bring around ten thousand caterpillars to the nest per day!

Did you know?: The Long-tailed Tit has the shortest body of any British bird (that is of course once we've excluded the tail)!

The blackbird, we are told, has a "fruity" song which we may hear at the first signs of spring. As a woodland bird, it has a particularly loud call which would have been necessary to attract a mate through the dense forest; of course now we find their song carries so well through our streets and gardens that when we expect it to be very close we may find they are halfway down the end of the street.

For amateur twitchers A Guide to Garden Birds is a godsend. Discover more anecdotes for yourself at A Guide to Garden Birds' website.

As mentionned above, A Guide to Garden Birds is just one of the many fantastic radio outputs of the BBC's Natural History Unit. At the moment you can follow worldwide animal migrations with Radio 4's "World on the Move" on Tuesday mornings.

For the truly keen you can revise what you have discovered at Brett's birdsong library, also a useful tool for identifying songs you've heard recently without having to go through the programme.

(N.B. You may need the RealPlayer to play your downloaded radio programmes. You can download RealAlternative for free here).


Samantha Dixon said...

I do think World on the Move might have included the recent migration of 90 odd BBC staff from BBC Bristol to the Masaii Mara...

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