The birdmen of Wormwood Scrubs

Prisoners join the hundreds of thousands of Britons recording sightings at this weekend's annual Big Garden Birdwatch

A A A

The world's biggest mobilisation of citizen scientists – alias the RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch – got under way this weekend, with the number of Britons giving an hour of their time to count the birds seen from their windows expected to top an astonishing 600,000.

Most will have been watching from the comfort of a warm house, but there are other, more unusual vantage points. They include canal boats, lighthouses, the US embassy, and even prison cells. Regular participants in the past have included the birdmen of Dartmoor, Wormwood Scrubs and Leyhill. Altogether, inmates at 20 jails have taken part in previous years. The RSPB said yesterday it had had a "storming response" from the public, with participation 20 per cent up even on last year's record. And, in a possible first for birdwatching, the organisers reported that their Twitter feed was proving the third most popular in the UK.

Conservationists were hoping that the survey, expected to cover nearly 300,000 British gardens, would allow them to determine just how badly the winter freeze – the coldest for 30 years – has affected birds in the UK, especially smaller species. A preliminary read-out about that will be available tomorrow.

But some unusual sightings had been already reported to the RSPB by yesterday evening. They included marsh tits in mid-Wales, great spotted woodpeckers, black caps, nuthatches, tree-creepers, and some species not normally seen in town and suburbs, such as large number of fieldfares and redwings. These have probably been drawn to built-up areas by the lack of food in their usual haunts.

The Big Garden Birdwatch started in 1979 as an activity for younger members of the RSPB, and 3,000 took part. It has morphed into the largest mass-participation wildlife survey in the world. Last year, more than half a million joined in – 10 times the number of eight years before – and they spotted 73 different species and a total of eight million birds. Participants simply watch their patch for an hour, recording any species that deign to land, note how many, fill out a form, and send it off the RSPB – online or by post. The final results, announced in March, give a good snapshot of bird populations.

There are some firm favourites in the running to make the top 10 this year. House sparrows, starlings and blackbirds will be there, but the RSPB is more concerned about smaller birds, such as the long-tailed tit. The little bird has had a hard time of it recently. Weighing the equivalent of a 50p coin, it suffers greatly in harsh weather. It made the top 10 for the first time last year, after a run of mild winters boosted numbers, but there are fears that this year's particularly cold season may have drastically stunted populations of small birds. Reassuringly, six were seen by the keen spotters at the US embassy.

Flying high: Top 10 birds in 2009

1. House sparrow

2. Starling

3. Blackbird

4. Blue tit

5. Chaffinch

6. Wood pigeon

7. Collared dove

8. Great tit

9. Robin

10. Long-tailed tit

Suggested Topics
Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick