“BIRDWATCHING is fun: enjoy!”
So writes Richard Williamson in the introduction to his latest practical handbook.
The veteran conservationist and popular Observer columnist has watched over and recorded dramatic environmental changes across the country in the past 50 years.
In his new book, he brings this wealth of knowledge to the fore as he equips budding birdwatchers with all the information they could wish to know before heading into the wild.
“People are very interested in birds and they’re working out how to bring nature into the gardens. You would never have seen that 50 years ago,” he said, also pointing to drastic changes in the bird community during that time.
“Nobody would ever imagine 50 years ago that peregrines would nest on the cathedral.
“Nobody would’ve believed that you would get ravens nesting in Sussex.”
But it’s not all good news, as simultaneously many species have vanished completely – making it all the more important for people to get out and record now what they can see.
“The book covers the whole of the British Isles,” said Richard. “All counties are covered and I’ve highlighted the best places to see the most interesting birds.”
Packed with tips for every month of the year, as well as spaces for readers to fill in their own sightings, Richard described his new publication as a ‘user’s handbook’.
Bursting with tips, facts and folklore to guide readers through the birdwatching years, it details how to identify birds by sight or song, as well as everything people should know about their behaviour, habitats, breeding and migration habits and tips for encouraging birds into gardens.
“One of the reasons for doing this book is to help people be interested in the environment, because if they’re not, the planet is going to come to a grinding halt.”
He highlighted the need to record the changes to the environment, partly caused by climate change, and the subsequent impacts.
Much of this has formed the core of Richard’s work throughout the past 50 years.
Growing up in Norfolk, he picked up his love of nature from his father Henry, the famous author who among his many works penned Tarka the Otter.
By the age of eight Richard was able to identify all birds by sight.
Later he came to West Sussex, where he was for 30 years the manager of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve.
His knowledge of South Downs wildlife and lore is unparalleled and he is a long-standing contributor to the Common Bird Census for the British Trust for Ornithology and WEBS wildfowl counts on Sussex nature reserves.
“I’m just fascinated to see how things change and I want to record how they change for history.”
Of the data he has collected, he said: “It’s a database that will give planners and scientists a Domesday record of what the place looked like all those years ago in 2,000 years’ time.”
When he first moved to West Sussex, Chichester harbour was not recognised as the unique ecological site it is now, although it was classified as an area of outstanding natural beauty.
One of the things Richard did with others was to compile a report showing the importance of conserving the environment – in due course it was designated a site of special scientific interest.
“It’s never looked back since,” he said. “It’s now recognised as one of the prime sites in Britain and it’s 12th best for numbers of birds in British Isles.
“Anyone visiting the harbour could hope to see around 48,000 birds. There are 50 species of water birds in the harbour which a person could see in a year if they tried really hard.”
With invaluable insights garnered from Richard’s 50 years of birdwatching and packed with masses of information, The Birdwatcher’s Year should be an invaluable addition to any birdwatcher – young or old, for professionals or as a hobby.
Richard was in the Chichester Observer reception yesterday (August 22) signing copies of his new book.
There are still a number of unsigned copies on sale at Unicorn House, 8 Eastgate Square, Chichester, PO19 1JN.