Urban birding: Expert David Lindo explains how and why to take up this ‘sexy’ pastime

David Lindo spends his days urging urbanites to open their minds and see their cities in a new way. When he’s not gazing at birds from the roof of a London skyscraper or trotting cities around the globe, the Urban Birder (as he’s also known) is reaching out to city dwellers through his writing, photography, tours, courses and radio and TV appearances.

His message is clear and simple: look up and enjoy the nature around you. If you do, you’re likely to be rewarded with a new surprise every day. We interviewed Lindo to get his advice on starting off an exciting and satisfying journey into urban birding.

There is a commonly-held idea that there are far fewer bird species to be found in the city than in the countryside. But that’s not your experience, is it?

Well it’s not true, full stop. I think people do not expect to see wildlife in urban areas, so they don’t see it. It’s all about opening your mind to the idea of seeing wildlife and to imagine the city as how a bird would see it. So for me, buildings become cliffs and even the trees I see around become scattered woodland and even a small patch of reed bed or a small lake can replicate what you’d find in the outer countryside, so I expect to see the same sort of things—albeit in lesser numbers usually . . . The UK had just under 600 species recorded from whenever they started recording back in the early 1900s and nearly 400 species have been seen in London. So I don’t see being in an urban area as a block to enjoying birds and wildlife.

David Lindo. Photo courtesy of Robin Sinha (Leica Images)

You recommend finding a birding ‘patch’ in your area to visit regularly. What features should people look for when selecting their patch?

You need to find somewhere that, I think, offers several habitats. Water is essential and so it’s good to have a lake or pond or river within your patch. Even if it’s in a park with manicured lawns, there’s always a part of a park which is a bit overgrown or for whatever reason has much more cover, and that’s a good option in terms of studying.

You can actually start getting to know nature and birds just by studying your backyard or on the way to work. You begin to see the local resident birds, and over the course of a year, you’ll notice that at certain times of year, birds are migrating and you may see some unusual sights.

How does your birding strategy change from season to season?

When spring comes, I have this urge to be at my local patch to meet the dawn. If I get there early in the morning, there’s a possibility I might catch [migrating birds] whilst they’re getting themselves stocked up before they dissipate during the day. I also, if I’ve got time, come out during the afternoon because around 11 o’clock until maybe three in the afternoon, if it’s a calm, sunny day, you get thermals that start to occur. Especially over cities, which are obviously warmer than the outside countryside. And raptors, birds of prey, use these thermals to migrate. They ride the thermals, get to the top, then they swing themselves off to travel another 15, 20 miles, whatever, until they hit the next thermal. That’s a great time to see raptors.

During the summer, I suppose you can strategise slightly differently in that birds are more settled . . . so you can go out almost at any point of the day. And then in the autumn, I get hit by the migration urge again because things are heading south and coming in from all different directions. By winter, I’m a bit more relaxed and I go out at any point during the day because things tend to be a little more static. But having said that, if there’s bad weather, if there’s lots of snow, it’s always worth going out because lots of birds get displaced . . . [The] last couple of winters in North America, there’s been an influx of snowy owls. I remember seeing some really beautiful pictures of snowy owls in Detroit standing on top of buildings and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing to see that bird.’

Binoculars are the one big-ticket item beginning birders will want to get. What should people know before purchasing?

I think the first thing to say is that if you’re buying a pair of binoculars, it’s an investment. So I would shy away from buying cheap binoculars. They’re optically not fantastic and after a while, they’ll probably fall apart on you anyway. I’m not saying spend thousands of dollars, but get a feel for what kind of optics suit you. Ask people to allow you to look through their optics to see if you like it, because buying binoculars is a very personal thing . . . It’s how they fit in your hands and how they fit your face. In the past, 10 x 50 was the classic binocular. And then you had 8 x 40s, which were the ones that you’d use in woodlands; they tended to be smaller.

In this day and age, the 10 x 50s are small, so you can get roughly the same size binocular with different magnifications. 8 x 40s are better for watching birds in woodlands and the rough rule is that the 10 x 50s or 10 x 42s are good for general watching, so watching over reservoirs and watching the sky and stuff. I always go for the 10x42s: It’s 10-times magnification and the lens size, 42mm, lets in lots of light. I wouldn’t worry about a telescope at this stage, until A: you’re really into it, and B: you really do want to spend that money and you spend a lot of time looking out to sea and looking at large lakes.

Birders nowadays have so many tools at their disposal, including smartphone apps and websites such as eBird. Do you find these sorts of technologies helpful?

A peregrine flacon flying over. Photo by Tom Lee
A peregrine flacon flying over. Photo by Tom Lee

I find them useful. In North America, you’ve got Merlin, which is the ID app that the Cornell Laboratory have produced, and that’s pretty good for beginners. And I use eBird [a global online tool for reporting and exploring bird sightings]. I think it’s a very interesting tool because I like the idea of contributing to the knowledge. In the past, people did a lot of their survey work in the most famous places, but urban areas are quite important when it comes to conservation because in some cities around the world, they have very important populations of breeding birds that haven’t really been recognised previously.

It takes people like you and I to get out there and to record that information so that people realise, ‘Well, actually that wood shouldn’t be chopped down.’ In the UK and in Europe, there’s another guide that I use, which is called the Collins Guide. . . but I use it as an app. And you can also get certain apps that have songs on there so you can recognise calls. I think that technology’s been a really good thing, because it’s drawn in people who may have initially been stuck in front of computer screens who may not have thought about nature in any respect. Those people can now come out with their appliances and use them whilst looking for birds and nature.

You suggest birders get their friends involved. What are some ways to make birding a social activity?

There’s two sides, really. The first bit is going out with like-minded people. It’s good to hang out in a group, especially when you’re a beginner. There’s always someone who has more experience than you and it’s always nice for them to impart their knowledge, but everyone learns. I’ve been birding all my life and I still learn, and I even learn from people who’ve just started, because after they’ve asked questions it makes me think, ‘Actually, I haven’t thought of that before.’ And there’s no such thing as a stupid question, basically. And then you can involve your friends . . . You might discover something in your local park and you bring your spouse or your friend and say ‘Look, I saw that the other day and isn’t it amazing?’

And that sometimes rubs off. Because initially people are skeptical or they’re making fun of it, but when they get immersed in it, they realise, ‘Well, actually, I see what you like about this.’ It’s not a nerdy thing anymore. I think it’s become much more of a sexy thing to do these days, much more accepted. And I think it’s an important thing because we need to keep an eye on what’s going on and we need to conserve what we’ve got. And we don’t know what we can conserve until we know what we’ve got, basically.  

With regards to conservation, what can people in cities do to help birds?

Well, if you have a local patch, aside from sending your information into eBird, I think it’s important to let whoever runs the park know as well. It’s important because a lot of people who manage those sort of areas don’t have any idea as to what value the place has. And it will help, because once they are aware . . . it will make them less likely to be going in there and chopping down trees and all that sort of stuff.

Maybe a ‘Friends of’ group can be formed for your local patch or you can get involved in the conservation in terms of making sure areas are kept for wildlife. On a more personal level, if you’ve got a backyard, then it’s nice to put out food for birds. Put it out all year ‘round, but particularly in winter. If you have it there as kind of a permanent fixture, perhaps with less food during the summer, [the birds] know that if they come to your yard, there’ll be food if they ever need it. It’s also nice to leave an element of the garden for the wild. Grow some weeds. Plant some shrubs and flora that attracts insects and that, in turn, will attract birds.

One initiative you’ve been working on is the Tower 42 project. Can you tell us about it?

Tower 42 is a skyscraper in London . . . I’ve been standing on top of that building for the last six years now and I managed to convince the management that if we set up the Tower 42 Bird Study Group, it will be beneficial because they’ll look green, but also, we can study the raptors coming over . . . The media were very excited when I said I’m standing on top of a building in central London. They were sort of saying, ‘Central London? What can you see apart from pigeons?’ And then, that’s the thing: People started looking up, which is what I wanted people to do anyway.

How can people go about birding from rooftops in their own city?

A snowy owl. Photo source: US Army Corps of Engineers
A snowy owl. Photo source: US Army Corps of Engineers

I think it’s a good thing to do no matter where you are. If you live in an apartment block, stand on top of that block. . . Just really watch the sky, because, especially in spring and autumn, things drift over and I’m sure you’d be surprised as to how many things you might see. You might see peregrines, you might see hawks and eagles, even, pass overhead. In some cities, the health and safety aspect is so stringent you can’t get on top of anything.

But in other cities, you’ve got a better chance of getting on top of a roof. If you become more proficient as a birder, then perhaps in the spring and autumn you can get up there at first light and hear, or even see, birds migrating over . . . You have to be quite experienced to work out what’s what [from their calls]. But if you just want to see a spectacle, then it’s worth just being there to see that.

Is there anything else you’re excited about at the moment that you’d like to mention?

I’m always excited anyway . . . I was behind the vote for Britain’s National Bird, which was last year, and I managed to get nearly a quarter of a million people to vote. Interestingly, most of the people that voted were urban and 60% of those people were not members of any NGO, which was fantastic, because they were the audience I wanted to reach anyway: new people. But aside from that, apart from my usual day-to-day stuff which is running tours and writing, I’m just getting out there as much as I can, talking to as many people as possible to try and get them to see their cities in a different way.

Want to learn more about urban birding? Keep your binoculars trained on theurbanbirder.com or Lindo’s Twitter feed (@urbanbirder).