Watch the birdy

Egrets, dippers and kites spotted in Britain's biggest ever twitching event
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The world's largest annual exercise in citizen science got off to a highly promising start yesterday.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Big Garden Birdwatch, which asks people this weekend to twitch back their net curtains and record the birds visiting their gardens in one hour, looked, from early indications, to be heading for possibly as many as half a million participants, 100,000 more than last year's record.

By nightfall yesterday, the RSPB reported that more than 15,000 online forms had been returned, representing some 22,000 people. These recorded sightings of more than 500,000 birds, an impressive total since there is another three weeks for people to send in their observations.

Among sightings were several species not noted for their presence at the nation's bird tables. One observer spotted five little egrets in bushes at the bottom of their south coast garden; four other recorders saw smaller numbers of these small, white herons. There were also reports of red kites, ring-necked parakeets, lesser spotted woodpeckers, a curlew, merlin, dipper, and, from Swansea, a real rarity: a black-throated thrush.

But the purpose of the survey, first begun in 1979, is mainly to monitor common birds and identify trends. This year, says Peter Holden of the RSPB, two recent developments will be watched with interest. First is the numbers of formerly very common birds, such as the starling and sparrow. Once, said Mr Holden, an average of a dozen or so would be seen by each spotter in their Birdwatch hour; now it is more likely to be four or five. Second is the arrival at many bird feeders of long-tailed tits and goldfinches, although whether because they have learnt to use this source or have been forced to do so by the lack of wild food is not known.

In 2005, the top five garden birds proved to be the house sparrow, starling (at a quarter of the level it was in 1979), blue tit, blackbird (down nearly 40 per cent since 1979) and greenfinch (up 83 per cent since 1979). The collared dove, unknown in Britain before 1953, made seventh place; the wood pigeon was eighth, up 615 per cent since 1979; and the song thrush dropped out of the top 20 for the first time. Robins have also gone down, by 36 per cent, but both magpies and wrens have increased.

To participate in the Big Garden Birdwatch, go to