Discovering the Art of Birding


Close up of a small bird perched on a hand
Bird perched on a hand

Photos by Dong Liu and friends


With a bit of shuffle, we halted on the muddy path trodden by a few other explorers. It seemed as if no one wanted to break this perfect serene morning. Silence. A soft breeze drew across the field. Tips of long grass tickled my fingers. Further away and faintly, the continual song of a river warbler was still lingering. It was a distinctive machine-like shuttling, a continuous metallic tune coming from the swaying reeds.


In the mountains of Transylvania, it was where my journey with birds began. Prior to this expedition, I had little idea what ‘birding’ meant. Put it bluntly, one barely noticed any birds apart from pigeons or gulls in urban cities. So on the very first day, I set off on the trail at dawn in a haze. Following the pace of an experienced birder, I went on a bird point count. The task was to record all birds detected at every point count station, by sound or sight.


We began our first point count standing between a couple of brick houses. A village dog jogged beside us and wagged his tail, whimpering and looking at us with interest. In the distance, a dozen feral pigeons lined up on the electric wires that connected one pole to another, barely awake in this early morning. There seemed to be nothing - but soon, they appeared: a small skittish, alert creature hopped on the middle of the dirt road, tweaking its graceful tail. It dressed itself in an elegant grey suit with glossy black patches covering its crown, nape and throat. Its black eyes peeked around keenly. A pied wagtail.


Above us, a pair of dark ravens spread their majestic wings. With a wingspan comparable to those of buzzards, the powerful duo swept across the vast, light blue sky. Their silhouettes are heavy and defined, and even more extraordinary with their wedge-shaped tails. ‘Korrp!’ Loud and deep, they cried.


‘Look! Bee-eaters,’ said the birder excitedly as he pointed across the hill. I turned my gaze; a flock of rainbow-coloured birds flew with their undulating wings, reflecting the first ray of sunlight. Dazzling. Bright yellow throat, scarlet crown, pale shoulder patches and a lake blue underbody. How I watched them with admiration.


From that point on, I dove uncontrollably into the realm of birds. We went from one point count station to another. In the village, in the woods, with each standstill, I watched the birder, whom with the greatest ease, utter bizarre names of birds from near and far.


We walked across cornfields into deep forests. Sunlight flickered through the dense forest leaves. Where vision was blurred, we closed our eyes, pricked up our ears and attended to the sound of nature. ‘Knock knock,’ a couple of hundred metres to the west was a woodpecker beating out a drum roll. Sometimes short and sharp, sometimes long and slow. ‘Tick-ick-ick-...,’ on the branch came the rapid calls from a robin. Within a second, the Christmas bird was tuned for its bright, trembling carol.


We passed through raspberry bushes to scenic overlooks. The greens stretched from our feet into the distance. I listened to the birder telling stories of these brilliant musicians. The most well-known one, perhaps, is of yellowhammers. Their melodic song inspired the famous opening line of Beethoven’s Fifth’s Symphony. An invisible bond was forged between birds and me: we are both lovers of music.


It was the last day of my expedition in Transylvania. On the muddy trodden path, I took a deep breath. It was the familiar scent of the dewy grass and the crisp air. There performed a big band ensemble: silvery trills from the golden orioles, sweet melodies from the blackbirds, soft harmonies from the collared doves, and there - the bright, airy solo from a yellowhammer. One, two, notes sparkled in the swinging rhythm; purple, gold, blue…, colours appeared in front of my eyes.


One year later, I started to live in the metropolitan city of London. Enclosed by high-rises and busy streets, I have long missed strolling among the twirling greens. Pigeons and gulls - they once again dominated my recollection of the urban scenes.


It was one day that I stopped by the Waterstones near Covent Garden where a book caught my eye: The Meaning of Birds by Simon Barnes. In one of the chapters, the author described a bird that one would be ‘lucky enough' to see in Britain. ‘The sides of the neck are glossy purple and green, set off with two prominent white patches,’ he wrote, ‘the pale yellow eyes add drama to the head. The front is a rich pinky-purple, merging subtly into rich textures of mushroom and mauve.’ I searched long enough for what this bird might be, but came to no conclusion.


The answer, to my surprise, was the wood pigeon. So commonplace these birds are that after a year of birding, I took little notice of them. Yet, so gorgeous they are. One would be ‘lucky enough’, indeed, to see them dabbing vitality in the London sky.


Birding is a revelation of the beautiful details in life.


Vibrant, rhythmical, spontaneous. The avian world is composed of some mystical feelings. If you are ever so curious about the wonders of birds, I will encourage you to pay closer attention to them as you go. They will draw you in with their musical notes, fascinate you with their spectacular colourization and take you to discover a new form of art - delicate, but omnipresent.


Photo by Dong Liu and friends


Edited by Chen Ly, London and Beyond Editor

FEATURED