Arjun Dutta is a prominent figure in the UK's growing community of young
birders. Arjun is an ambassador for the Cameron Bespolka Trust, a young leader for the British Trust for Ornithology and a volunteer with the National Trust. Arjun is breathing life into London’s young birding scene by sharing his passion, new ideas, photography and writing. Arjun was born in India and now lives in London. He has been birding up and down the country but frequents his dedicated birdwatching path at Morden Hall Park in London.
I’ve always loved being outdoors. Whether that’s playing cricket or other sport, or on a family walk, the natural world always brings me the greatest sense of peace, calm and happiness. Though birdwatching and conservation have always been my greatest passions, the past year or so has seen my passion for the natural world become more closely focused on what you can hear more than you can see.
I always struggle a lot in the winter - darker, colder, shorter days; very little cricket; less time outdoors. I feel happier and safer within myself when it's the complete opposite to that, and I know that I'm not the only one to feel such a way. With spring meaning so much to me, I spend most years myself desperately looking forward to its return, this year more than ever in many ways. Lockdown has undoubtedly affected mental health and stress levels in an A-Level-filled year.
Even birdwatching hasn’t got through to me as much as years prior. Whilst I have several birds which mark the return of better times, such as Wheatears and Swallows, the bird which I will always describe to be my favourite British bird is the Common Swift. The arrival of 'proper' spring and indeed summer for me generally comes with the first Common Swift of the year, which in 2020 came in the form of 300 new-in Swifts swirling around the lake on my patch, Beddington Farmlands in South London, in light drizzle mixed with sunshine. The deep breathe I took at that point, the relieved smile - I'll never stop appreciating that once-a-year moment.
Photo by Arjun Dutta
With lockdown keeping everyone at home or within close proximity to home for spring and early summer, I set myself a simple, little target from around the start of May, a few days after I saw the first 2020 Swifts on the 29th April, and that was to make sure that, at least once a day, I spent even a few minutes standing in the garden watching and more importantly to me, listening to the Swifts. So that's exactly what I did. To start, sometimes I took my camera out with me as well as my binoculars - I've always wanted to get some half decent pictures of them, so whilst not amazing I was pleased with this year's efforts. Most of the time however I just stood there, watching the screaming frenzies of family groups fill the skies over South London.
Photo by Arjun Dutta
There are so many things to love about Birdsound – not only is there no essential kit needed to enjoy or look out for it, but the benefits it brings to mental health and stress is, to me at least, unparalleled. Going back to Swifts specifically, I find the sound almost enchanting at times, just so peaceful and soothing. In the end, I started to go outside with my sound recorder and microphone in a mission to record them, which proved harder than I thought due to the volume of other birds, traffic and other mechanical noise. However, I did get some recordings I was happy with and I'm not scared to admit that I've probably listened to the recordings upwards of 50 times since I got them:
Sound Recording has probably been my birding highlight of the year. To be able to record family groups of these living missiles brought me joy that at times, almost nothing can beat, so I continued to do so until our local birds left in the first week of August.
As well as Swift-watching/listening at home, the second place I normally take special notice of them is at my cricket club, Cheam CC, where I've played since I was 7. As a substitute for not being able to watch them there as much in 2020, until the middle of July at least when I could actually play cricket again, I focused on them at Beddington. Though brilliant to patch during lockdown on warm, sunny days especially, where the reedbeds were alive with the sound of warblers, the lake holding several Little Ringed Plovers, and the bushes holding several pairs of rattling Lesser Whitethroats, I started to go to the patch specifically on days where I knew Swifts would be there. Stormy days meant that the arrival of rain brought hundreds of birds from the local area to gather in feeding frenzies of 400+ birds, picking off insects over the lakes. They came so close sometimes, within metres of where I was stood, and it's safe to say those were some of the best birding memories from the summer. I went to Beddington for Swifts over 10 times in the end, and was never disappointed, returning home feeling much better than when I left.
Photo by Arjun Dutta
By the end of July, I started to fear their departure, and so each bird heard or seen was even more valuable than the last. Swifts are just one of many birds that hold a special meaning to me, not just for their aerial acrobatics when seen, but for the powerfully connecting sound they make, as well as the fact that they remind me of certain times, people and emotions that keep me going through the hard times. They do me wonders for mental health and my frame of mind, and I always love hearing that others feel the same about them. The same goes for so many birds – winter’s whistling Wigeon, the fluty trilling of Curlews at the coast or on moorlands, even the simple yet joyous melodies of songbirds like Blackcap. My dreams of finding a singing Nightingale continue into summer of 2021…
Little matches the power of sound in the natural world. I feel it can sometimes be easy to forget things you take for granted, things which would make the world noticeably worse if we didn’t have. Birdsound for me is one of those things – imagine if the sounds of the automated human world we live in wasn’t drowned out by the joyous voices of nature in the dawn chorus.
To end how I started. It’s easy to enjoy the sights of nature, but appreciating the sounds is easier and sometimes more thrilling than what can be seen. Swifts will always be the joyous, peaceful sound of summer – and I know that when I see the first Swift of 2021, it'll be such a good moment...