BenHave you ever tried counting LBJs?

Do you even know what an LBJ is?

No? Well, let me enlighten you. LBJ stands for Little Brown Job, which is shorthand for all of those small brown birds which look like sparrows but aren’t, necessarily, although they could be. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the females of some quite colourful and/or distinctive sparrow-sized birds like chaffinches and reed buntings are ALSO Little Brown Jobs, the better to be camouflaged upon the nest.

None of which is a huge problem to the majority of  people for most of the time, but when you’re trying to count the little buggers and they (a) don’t have the courtesy to stay still and (b) all look like each other in the first place, especially through a grubby window, it’s a total pain.

Those of you who haven’t already wandered off to do something more interesting, like stare at a dripping tap, may be wondering why anyone would be counting LBJs in the first place. Well, it’s simple. Every winter, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds organizes the Big Garden Birdwatch, asking willing souls like me to sit down and stare out of a window for an hour to count and list all of the birds they see. It’s a sort of avian stock-take which provides an annual snapshot of the UK bird population. It’s also a rare opportunity to sit down and do nothing very much for an hour with a clear conscience (that bloody Protestant Work Ethic is SUCH a downer, man).

Inevitably, of course, some of the participants can’t help approaching it like a competitive sport, vying with each other on social media to snag the most exotic species. While most of us content ourselves with putting out fat-filled coconuts, sunflower seeds and industrial quantities of bird seed, you just know that someone, somewhere in the Highlands, has staked out a deer carcass …

So my Big Garden Birdwatch day arrived, and there was a Force 5 gale howling across the garden. Nothing daunted, I battled my way outside with two wildly excited Jack Russells swirling around me and hung up my fat blocks (two of), half coconuts (four of), niger seed feeders (one of), peanut feeders (two of) and seed feeders (three of), then scattered seed and suet pellets on the bird table, ground feeder tray, patio and garden table. Before I’d even got back inside the house, the fowl of the air were descending en masse behind me; the LBJs were twittering excitedly in the cotinus bush by the bird table, the collared doves were congregating in the fruit trees and the starlings were lining the edge of the roof, ready to drop like vertical take-off jets as soon as I’d shooed the dogs inside.

Anticipating a bumper crop of ticked boxes, I made a cup of coffee, grabbed a bar of chocolate, a notebook and a pair of binoculars, and settled in an armchair in front of the patio windows, which provide a grandstand view of virtually the whole of the back garden.

It was absolute bedlam out there: starlings were squabbling over the ground feeders, LBJs were scuttling around under the bird table and collared doves and wood pigeons were squabbling over the seed on the patio. I decided to concentrate on the LBJs to begin with, as there were so many of them bickering over the food falling from the table.

The trick with counting small, milling flocks is to look at them with your naked eye for a moment, zero in with the bins, do a swift head count in a slow sweep and then assume that the ones you count twice are probably cancelled out by the ones you didn’t count at all. I counted 14 tree sparrows – which are LBJs with chestnut brown heads and therefore relatively easy to identify.

I went to write it down … which is when I realized that I didn’t have a pen.

Normally, I have pen and pencils all over the place – in pockets, shoved down the spines of notebooks, on the tea trolley, on the coffee table, in pots, boxes and vases on every shelf and in every nook and cranny of the cottage – but could I find one anywhere immediately to hand? What do YOU think? In the end, I had to go and snag the one hanging on a string by the calendar in the kitchen … but by the time I got back to the armchair, every single bird had vanished. I mean ALL of them. The garden had gone from Piccadilly in the rush hour to the Russian Steppes in the off season, in the space of two minutes.

I printed “Tree sparrows: 14” in my notebook … and then waited.

I scanned the hedges, undergrowth and bushes with the binoculars in search of life.

I waited.

And I waited.

I did another sweep with the bins, and finally spotted something behind the cotinus bush: a sleek, blue-grey something exactly the same colour as the neighbour’s cat.

‘CAT!’ I screamed, shooting to my feet and causing the Boy Dog to hurtle off the sofa so fast that he crashed into the Old Girl, who was staggering out of her basket as rapidly as her creaky old legs would carry her. I was on the point of Deploying the Hounds of Hell to see off the invader when the blue-grey something emerged from behind the bush with a flagger of wings a sad little bundle of feathers in its talons. Not a cat, then.

With a sigh, I scribbled, “Sparrowhawk: 1” in my notebook.

After a moment’s thought, I then wrote, “Tree sparrows: 14  13“.

I waited again. Then I waited some more, and was on the point of giving it up as a bad job when a male chaffinch – the dumb blond of the bird world – landed on the nearest peanut feeder. For a few more minutes, nothing else happened, and you just knew that all the other birds were sitting in their hiding places  watching and waiting to see if he survived longer than five minutes …

Finally, as he continued to stuff his face unmolested, they all started to trickle back and, about fifteen minutes after the little fatality, the garden was once more full of birds.

I recorded my ever-present robins, blackbirds, collared doves and wood pigeons,plus a lone dunnock and the resident wren, then turned my attention back to the LBJs under the bird table again – at the precise moment that the low winter sun made a brief appearance, hitting the patio doors at an oblique angle and reminding me that I’d forgotten to clean the glass.

Gamely, I peered into the murk, sorting out the tree sparrows from the house sparrows and the female chaffinches and was eventually rewarded with a reed bunting. Then I spotted something lurking fuzzily behind it in the shadows. With an excitement that will only be understood by other bird watchers, I twiddled feverishly with the central knob-thingy on the bins and – just as I brought what I think was a twite into sharp focus – a great dark mass loomed up before me, nearly giving me a coronary.

The Boy Dog, with one paw on each of my knees, had climbed onto the tuffet in front of my chair and was staring straight down the business end of the binoculars at me.

I looked at him. He looked at me – and his look plainly said, ‘Enough already.’

‘But … Twite.’ (And yes, I often have one-sided conversations with my dogs.)

He didn’t move. The Old Lady Dog – his faithful wing (wo)man – moved into position behind him.

A shower of starlings hurtled from the roof outside.

‘Starlings,’ I whimpered pathetically.

Neither of them budged. I put the binoculars down and closed the notebook. The clock on the wall confirmed that it was, indeed, an hour since I’d begun the birdwatch.

I knew then that I was beaten.

I often tell people that although Jack Russells aren’t suitable pets for anyone who doesn’t think dogs should have opinions of their own, it’s only when they start developing language skills that you need to worry. The thing is, that day may not be very far away.


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