“It’s Actually a Very Birdy Town, If You Look Around”: Interview With Tom, St Andrews Birding Society Member

Friday 31 May 2024

It’s ten past nine on a Saturday morning when I knock on Tom’s door.

When he first told me that birding would be better in the mornings, I agreed enthusiastically to a nine a.m. start. Now, however, as I stand bleary eyed on his doorstep, a creeping regret comes over me for forgoing my coveted weekend lie in.

He lets me in with a smile, excited for our interview and subsequent birding expedition. We sit in his living room, littered with all sorts of bird memorabilia: from RSPB magazines to several spare pairs of binoculars to field manuals on bird identification. A set of four bird prints hang on the wall above his bay window, near which a tattered piece of paper and pen sits as a “window list” of species spotted.

Quiet Please: Telescope in use, Credit: Georgina Parbrook

After our interview he expertly shifts the birding society telescope onto his shoulder- which has been entrusted to his care over the summer- and we make our way along the Fife costal path. He set up his affectionately-termed “’scope” to a panoramic view of East Sands, and we start looking at the numerous birds fluttering around the bay. We use the binoculars, which are easier to move around, to spot what we want to see first, and then Tom trains the ‘scope on it to get a closer look. Telescopes have 60x magnification, versus binoculars which tend to range from 8-12x magnification, with Tom’s being 10x. We quickly spot a gannet from below, with its black wing tips. It’s beautiful to watch it soar above. I would never have noticed it without Tom’s expert eye.

We are stopped by an elderly gentleman around fifteen minutes in, who proceeds to ask us all about the best birdwatching spots in St Andrews and the East Neuk. Tom eagerly tells him his favourite areas, and they converse about birds for a while before we wish him a nice day. The birding community is strong around this beautiful pocket of the world and it’s great to see how it connects people of all ages.

We manage to spot Eider ducks paddling in the bay, one of the largest ducks in the world. I try and record them through the inside view of the telescope, with limited success. I don’t think a career as a wildlife photographer is on the cards for me. A flock of birds fly past in the distance, barely distinguishable against the sky, but Tom quickly identifies them as scoters and counts them to put into his e-bird app, where he records all the birds he sees. The data links up with scientific databases to help us understand more about migratory patterns and the conservation of birds, he tells me.

A gull, as seen through the ‘scope. Credit: Georgina Parbrook

After a spotting a greater back black gull, not to be mistaken with a herring gull (although I see little difference: they’re both large seagulls who want to steal my chips), Tom gets a text on his phone from a birding society friend about a rare bird he’s spotted. A nightjar, has been seen in the Boar Hills. Tom quickly starts packing up the ‘scope, apologising for having to rush away earlier than expected.

“It’s a lifer,” he explains, meaning that its one for the life list that he’s not been able to see yet. It’s rare to see a nightjar on the Eastern coast of Scotland, and he’s excited. Who could deny him that?

Follow @bird.soc.sta on Instagram to learn more about the St Andrews birding society and be the first to hear about freshers week events! And follow the @ustasustainable Instagram for more St Andrews environmental content.

Written + Interview by Georgina Parbrook


Tom getting ready to head to the Boar Hills, Credit: Georgina Parbrook

Tell me a bit about yourself.

Hi I’m Tom. I’m the part of the bird soc here at St Andrews and I’m going into my third year.

How long have you been birdwatching for?

I’ve been birdwatching since my first semester at university, so not long, coming up to two years soon. It was a freshers week walk- not a bird soc walk actually- and I met a good friend Andrew who was a very keen birder, who got me into it and since I’ve been completely captivated by it.

How has birdwatching changed your experience of being a student at the University of St Andrews?

I think birdwatching makes you very attentive to things. It makes you pay attention to things to things you wouldn’t normally pay attention to. It’s something you can do very actively if you want— you can go on a bird walk—or you can do it more passively. For example, if I’m on my way to lectures I’ll stop by the scores and if I’ve got my binoculars I’ll just check if there’s anything exciting on the water if it’s low tide and so on. It just makes going around town— it’s actually a very birdy town if you look around, and it’s really fun.

So it’s not just the seagulls then?

No, no not just the herring gulls!

Why do you enjoy birdwatching so much?

Birds are cool, everyone likes birds, but I really like being able to list all the birds I’ve seen in different places, and how many birds I’ve seen in the year, and how many birds I’ve seen from my house and from my window. That is a bit of it that I really enjoy.

I know you’ve got a physical list at your window of all the birds you’ve seen-

I do yes. It is sparse- I don’t do enough window watching!

And you’ve also got an app on your phone as well. What’s your favourite way to track the birds you’ve seen?

The app and website is e-bird, which a lot of birders use. It allows you to make checklists and automatically sorts them into a life list and a year list of birds you’ve seen and a UK list of birds. And it gives you a map and some really cool data and I really like that and the data goes to help scientists know what birds are up to in order to help conservation efforts.

From left to right: Scooters (Credit: Shutterstock / Danita Delimont), White Throated Dipper (Credit: Shutterstock / Greens and Blues) and a male Eider duck (Credit: Shutterstock / Colin Seddon)

What’s your favourite bird?

That’s a very hard question. It depends on the day! My favourite bird I’ve seen here is the white-throated dipper, they’re just really, really cute. You wouldn’t expect them to be able to swim when you look at them but they just swim effortlessly in the Kinnesburn. They’re lovely birds.

Can you tell me what you were doing yesterday morning?

So yesterday I woke up and news came through of a stone curlew which is a very exciting wader- a very, very strange bird. Fife bird news told me about it, and I had ten minutes to get changed and get the bus. I was walking there, it’s about a forty minute walk from Crail, but then some friends from bird soc stopped- they were driving- and picked me up! We found the bird, and in about thirty minutes there were nearly twenty people there, seven cars stacked by the side of this road to see this one bird. It was really great to see everyone being excited about this strange little bird that shouldn’t really be here in the East of Scotland.

What’s bird soc like as a society and community?

So at bird soc we mostly organise bird walks in and around St Andrews, so there’ll be about a dozen of us and we have spare binoculars for people who don’t have binoculars as well as a committee telescope which I’m keeping for the summer. We’ve been to the end of West Sands, the costal path, Ladebraes and the Kinessburn, sometimes we go to Guardbridge. At the end of this last semester we went to the Isle of May, which was very exciting, and we saw breeding puffins, razorbills and guillemots.

So bird soc is really good and really fun! I’m the social sec on the committee, and we’ve had a pub night this semester and I also wrote a round for the union pub quiz. The average score of the round was between one and two out of ten— but the bird soc team got nine, which is very good!

We’ll definitely have freshers week events on next year so you should definitely come to that.

Birding is sometimes seen as a sport for older people, but you and the bird soc committee are all quite young. Why do you as someone who is younger enjoy it so much and how are some ways that you think other young people can get interested in it and get involved?

I think a lot of young people like myself enjoy going out in nature and doing things and birding is the perfect excuse to get yourself out of the house. It’ll be not the best weather but you’ll be like “oh I just want to go and see what’s near me, what’s going on, if any exciting spring migrants have arrived” and it just brings you closer to nature and gets you out and about. It’s good for your mental health.

What are the threats to bird populations in St Andrews and what are some ways we can help to prevent them?

Across the country last year bird flu was a really big problem. Some birds like Great Skuas had 90% of their British breeding population completely wiped out. Greenfinches a few years ago did very badly. If you have bird feeders, clean them very regularly because they’re really bad at spreading disease amongst birds. Don’t touch sick birds obviously, and most importantly use e-bird when you go out birding, and upload your checklist of what you’ve seen so that scientists know more about bird migration and what we can do to help birds.

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