The past two days have seen visits to Canons Farm and Priest Hill. Although neither habitats are 'birdy' by nature - they lack water for a start - the small number of birds seen at both sites was concerning. As seems to be the way of 21st century birding, the commonest species recorded were Woodpigeon, Carrion Crow and Herring Gull, but even these were in depressed numbers. The 'missing in action' list was long, with a lack of tits, finches and thrushes most alarming - there were representatives present from each family, but in worryingly low numbers. Where are they? Not here, that's for sure.
Away from the birding hot-spots our bird numbers are in free fall. Whereas sorting through and counting large finch flocks used to be a 'given', my pulse now quickens if I come across one, such is their perceived rarity. Any larks and pipits huddle together in modest clumps, not strewn across the hinterland so that you kick them up with every few steps. A walk along a hedgerow no longer pushes tens of thrushes ahead - that joyous sight when Blackbirds, Redwings, Song Thrushes and Fieldfares leave their hiding places in a rush of avian expletives - instead there might be an encounter with a small gathering in a field, or a handful on top of a tree. Hardly the same.
The birders reliance on cold weather at this time of year to get things moving used to be so that we could top up on geese, ducks and gorge on large numbers of Lapwings and thrushes. Now it is in the hope that we might just see birds in the same numbers that mild winters used to bring twenty years ago. I truly fear for the future.
I'm glad that I keep my notebooks and the old bird reports so that I can go back and relive the comparatively bird-filled 1970s and 1980s. I have one childish wish - to be able to travel back to a time when our farming methods were sympathetic to wildlife and we were not pollutants of our environment - say the pre-Industrial Revolution era. What bird numbers would I find? We will never know, because birds were not counted then, and very few people identified them beyond their use as food. My guess is that I would be stunned by just how many there would be and the number of species involved. But if I had been able to witness that, just how difficult would it be to return, and bird, in 2017? Very difficult indeed.