IT’S playtime at Dalmeny Primary School. The morning break bell has signalled time to dash for coats and scarves, doors are thrown open and, in a mad dash for freedom, pupils escape into the playground.
Outside, some noisily indulge in precisely the kinds of lively playground games expected in a busy school yard. But there’s another group, they sit hushed in deep concentration, eyes scanning the skies, pencils poised, paper ready, binoculars by their side.
While tig plays on in the background and groups gather to discuss Tracy Beaker, Justin Beiber’s haircut and the latest appearance of John Cena on WWE, the Dalmeny Primary School bird watching club settles into a quiet spot and sets about watching . . . and waiting.
“I’ve seen two sparrowhawks,” says nine-year-old Douglas Macartney, puffed with pride, “and lots of buzzards. I’ve seen magpies and finches too. Last week we counted just over 500 birds!”
“Robins are my favourite,” pipes up seven-year-old P3 pupil Hannah McLeod. She’s been an eager member of the club since the beginning of December when she figured she’d rather find a peaceful patch of the school playground at break times to watch the trees and scan the sky for feathered friends, than frantically pound across the schoolyard chased by whoever happens to be ‘it’.
In all 16 children at the small village school have signed up as fully ‘fledged’ members of the new bird watching club. And more, smiles headteacher Laura Brandon, from nursery upwards, are showing a very keen interest.
“I’ve never seen children so eager and interested in nature and protecting the environment as these ones are,” she says, barely able to conceal her delight at finding herself with such an enthusiastic group of nature loving pupils.
“The boys in particular are showing a lot of interest, that’s great to see. And, of course, our job is to give them the opportunities to extend that interest.
“For example, they came to us recently with a petition that was asking if the school could possibly afford to buy a couple of pairs of binoculars, they said it was getting tricky for them to see the birds up close.
“And, naturally, we have supported them.”
In fact, watching the birds has evolved into not just a one-off playground activity for the Dalmeny children. As the RSPB annual Big Garden Birdwatch looms next weekend – when we’re all asked to spend an hour gazing into our own backyards in search of feathery friends – the pupils have already been putting their findings into carefully constructed graphs and charts, they’ve jotted down thoughts and feelings about what they’ve seen in classroom writing exercises and the subject is even filtering into the IT suite as the children prepare to launch their own birdwatch blog to go on Scottish schools’ internet site, GLOW, in the hope of inspiring others to follow their lead.
Suddenly, what’s going on outside their classroom windows is finding its way into day-to-day lessons, homework assignments and even weekend outings with parents.
Over the coming week or so, their bird watching will take on a greater significance as the Dalmeny pupils join dozens of schools throughout Lothian taking part in the RSPB’s Big Schools’ Birdwatch, when youngsters set out to count and identify as many varieties as they can to help build up a picture of bird numbers and activity in the area around their school.
The aim of both school and garden bird watch projects, explains the RSPB’s communications officer Louise Smith, is to gauge how the nation’s bird population is weathering the storm of climate change, risks from pollution, habitat changes and ever-shortening food supplies.
“The Big Schools’ Birdwatch is just like the Big Garden Birdwatch. We ask schools to spend an hour counting the birds that visit their playground and often they build a week of learning around the event,” she says. “The schools discuss wildlife issues, talk about garden birds and nature. Some use it as a chance to build wildlife gardens, bird tables or to inspire art.
“We use information collected from both to create a snapshot of bird numbers across the country. And we’re interested this year to see how the weather of last year may have made an impact.”
Rebekah Stackhouse, RSPB education and youth programmes manager, says involving children in school can bring additional benefits for all concerned. She says: “What is so great about the Big Schools’ Birdwatch is that not only is it a useful piece of ‘citizen science’, it’s also an ideal opportunity for children to experience nature first hand. Outdoor learning is a vital part of a child’s education, and offers many varied benefits to them.”
Last year 20 Edinburgh schools – around 550 pupils – took part in Big Schools’ Birdwatch. Fifteen more schools with nearly 700 children from West, East and Midlothian also joined, helping to build up a picture of bird activity on school grounds across the region.
Added to the findings from thousands of locals who joined in the Big Garden Birdwatch, RSPB experts were able to draw up a guide to which species are thriving in Lothian and, perhaps most importantly, which are struggling.
“The most obvious bird that springs to mind is the starling,” says Louise. “There’s a common misconception that their numbers are steady. People see them in their gardens regularly, they don’t think they are a bird that is having problems.
“But even as recently as ten years ago it was fairly common to see as many as 30 starlings at the same time. Now it’s more likely to be just three or four. Numbers have steadily declined but because we still see them, we tend to think they are doing fine. In fact, they’ve taken quite a tumble.”
The reasons why, aren’t clear, she adds. “It might be habitat, or food. But every year their numbers decline.”
The annual survey has also thrown up the worrying possibility that bird life in the city centre could be at risk of virtually disappearing. “What you notice about Edinburgh compared to outlying areas of Lothian is the number of birds is very much lower in the city centre simply because there’s not as much green space. People in East Lothian may see around seven house sparrows at one time, in Edinburgh you might see two, maybe three. That’s why the Birdwatch surveys are important, they help us identify worrying trends so we can investigate what the causes may be and adopt appropriate conservation methods.”
Meanwhile, at Dalmeny Primary School, young Max de Salis has joined P4 pupils Douglas and Hannah on bird watch duty. He’s only seven years old, but he says he’s quite content to swap running games at playtimes to simply watch the birdies.
He’s even become quite the expert at spotting different species. “In different places you find different birds,” he explains confidently, binoculars at the ready. “I’ve seen quite a few crows and sparrows but I’ve also seen greenfinches and great spotted woodpeckers are my favourite. They come to our bird table for seeds and nuts.”
Headteacher Mrs Brandon insists this keen interest in birdlife is being driven by the children, the result of a visit last autumn from an RSPB representative whose talk about birds of prey inspired the pupils to find out more about the birds at the bottom of their own schoolyard.
“To be honest I thought by Christmas they might be ready to move on to something else,” she admits. “Now we’re looking at bringing on a junior birdwatching group so the primary ones and twos, even the nursery, can get involved.”
It is, P4 pupil Douglas patiently explains, very important to look after birds. “What I like is that you can relax while you do it,” he points out. “There was a period of time when people didn’t look after birds, but I think mankind now knows they are amazing things.
“I used to think we humans were the most amazing things on the planet, but after watching birds, I think they are just as amazing as we are.”
Keeping eyes on the skies
THIS year is RSPB’s 33rd Big Garden Birdwatch. The survey has grown every year since 1979, with more than 600,000 people taking part across the UK in 2011, including a record breaking 45,000 in Scotland.
The Big Garden Birdwatch is conducted at the same time of year, results are collated then published in the spring.
Most recent findings have shown the tit family of birds to have the greatest staying power. Blue, great, coal and long-tailed tits have all staked their claim in the Big Garden Birdwatch top 15 with regular appearances, year on year.
But starlings have decreased and the wren, which is vulnerable to cold weather, has dropped significantly in numbers.
Anyone can take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch. For details, go to www.rspb.org.uk.