11 September 2023

Fancy becoming a birder? Countryfile presenter and Strictly star Hamza Yassin shares advice for beginners

11 September 2023

When there’s a tap at the door of Hamza Yassin’s cottage in the wilds of Scotland, he knows that the female song thrush has been visiting.

“She comes and collects all the snails and slugs and uses my front doorstep as an anvil. She smacks all the snails on there, ” the wildlife cameraman and presenter explains.

“I’ll open the door because I think someone’s knocking and she’ll fly away. But now when I open the door she sits there looking at me, going, ‘It’s just me again’.”

The Countryfile host – who recently fulfilled Dame Judi Dench’s dream to see a golden eagle, taking her to a secret Scottish location where they spotted two in flight – likes to keep his garden on the Ardnamurchan peninsula on the west coast of Scotland wild. He confesses he’s not cut his grass for the last five years.

He lets the 10m2 plot grow wild for much of the year, until the local crofter’s sheep are allowed in to munch away at it. “They mow it down to absolutely nothing, and once that’s done they get kicked out again and I let it grow wild.”

There’s no herbicide or pesticide used but the wildflowers, including wild orchids, which emerge each year are a magnet for insects – and for birds, which remain his passion.

He has now written a book – Be A Birder – a guide to how to get started, describing the many birds you may see and signs to look for.

A birder is different from a twitcher, he points out.

“A twitcher spends his time and money wanting to look at rare birds that come from different parts of the world. A birder is someone who’s happily walking his dog doing the same circuit for the last 50 years, then happens to see something cool on his local patch. It’s not about ticking boxes.”

Yassin, 33, who lifted the Strictly glitterball last year with dance partner Jowita Przystal, says his home is full of wildlife.

“There are song thrushes nesting. There are pine martens in the attic. There are starlings nesting in the eaves and I’m getting the fascia boards and gutters replaced but have told the guys I want holes in them, because the house sparrows and starlings are nesting in there.”

He may not own a big garden but the view is amazing, with vast moorland at the back of the cottage and the Atlantic Ocean 30 metres in front of it, where corn crakes and reed buntings nest in a marshy area.

He has been a birder since he was a child growing up in Sudan, coming to the UK at the age of eight when his parents, both doctors, were invited to work here by the Royal College of Medicine.

His inspirations include Sir David Attenborough and the late Steve Irwin.

“Sir David Attenborough and Steve Irwin made it fun for me. You have the passion of Irwin, who made something like the crocodile cool, but a thing of beauty. Then you have the calm demeanour and relaxed, informative voice of Sir David Attenborough.”

He laughs at the suggestion he could be the next Attenborough.

“I appreciate the thought, and to have my name and his name in the same sentence is an absolute blessing. He’s an idol of mine, but Attenborough will never be replaced. He’s done so much for nature that no-one in our era could fathom doing, at a moment when nature wasn’t cool. He made it cool for all of us. He lit the spark in me.”

In the UK, his favourite birds are the Eurasian starling, the sparrowhawk and the golden eagle.

“Starlings are completely underrated. They have such beautiful iridescence and little white feathers, which look like love hearts. And they have these beautiful murmurations in the autumn. Imagine having a million birds flying together and none of them hit each other.”

Fancy being a birder? Yassin offers the following tips and tricks…

Use your ears first

“Use your ears. Don’t put your ear pods in and listen to music. You’ll hear the birds often before you see them.”

Look for signs

For instance, if a group of pigeons suddenly takes off from a rooftop in the centre of London, the chances are there’s a predator around – most likely a sparrowhawk, as the other contender, the peregrine falcon, almost always catches its prey in flight, he explains in the book.

Buy binoculars

“Buy the best pair of binoculars you can afford. A rubbish pair of binoculars will mess your eyes up.” Invest in a small travel pair that will go in your pocket as a starting point, he suggests.

Don’t worry about location

“Go outdoors if you can and look up. Get off your phone. You can birdwatch from anywhere, from a seventh floor flat in the middle of London. Open your windows and I guarantee you will see birds. They are everywhere.”

Join birding clubs

“You’ll see a lot on Facebook. Go to RSPB reserves. Some of them are free to just go in and ask. The birding community is very friendly and as a result of it, I’m a birder.

“My mum took me to my first RSPB reserve – I had nothing, just a little leaflet. Some old dudes were sitting either side of the hide and I was curious and asked them about the birds I could see. I borrowed their binoculars while they used a telescope.”Feed the birds

“Autumn and winter are the best times to feed the birds, and regularly put your bird feeder in the dishwasher, disinfect it. Otherwise it could become a hub where infection can start.

“There are parts of the year when you shouldn’t feed the birds because they are trying to feed their chicks. Instead of feeding them peanuts, it’s better to feed them grubs and caterpillars, which are better for them.”

Be A Birder: The Joy Of Birdwatching And How To Get Started by Hamza Yassin is published by Gaia on September 14, priced £16.99.

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