‘It’s not just a white thing’: how Flock Together are creating a new generation of birdwatchers | Birdwatching

I have lived in cities all my life. My childhood did not involve any education in the outdoors. It would be fair to say my knowledge of birds doesn’t go much further than the varieties mentioned in Old Macdonald Had a Farm. So when I arrive at east London’s Walthamstow Wetlands on a cloudy November day to meet Ollie Olanipekun and Nadeem Perera for an afternoon of winter birdwatching, I am already apologetic for all that I do not know.

But it’s fine: Olanipekun and Perera are used to showing beginners around. In June 2020 they brought 15 people to this very same spot for the first outing of their collective, Flock Together, a birdwatching club that organises monthly walks for people of colour. Since then, they have regularly taken bigger groups of birdwatchers to woodlands across the south of England, from the Surrey Hills to the Essex marshes. They estimate that on each walk, 60% of the group are first-timers. I ask whether demand stays high in the winter. “We had 80 people turning out in the rain last December,” Olanipekun says with a grin. At this time of year, you might be able to see redwings and fieldfares arrive from colder parts of Europe for the winter. The wetlands is also home to one of the UK’s largest colonies of grey herons, and every evening a flock of parakeets make their way there to roost in the trees.

The pair were brought together thanks to a chance encounter on Instagram: Olanipekun posted some photos of birds he had seen on his walks, and Perera replied, naming them. They set up Flock Together last summer to challenge the under-representation of people of colour in outdoor spaces. Back then, Britons generally were exploring their local green spaces more, getting back to nature – and taking up birdwatching in droves.

A Flock Together walk in June at Chobham Common – a rare heathland habitat in Surrey.
A Flock Together walk in June at Chobham Common – a rare heathland habitat in Surrey. Photograph: Aaron Hettey

Helen Moffat of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) says: “Our website had 70% more views than usual over the first lockdown. More than 50% of those were on pages looking at bird identification. People were looking outside and wanting to know what they were seeing.”

Last January, the charity’s annual Big Bird Garden Watch, which encourages participants to note sightings in their own backyards, brought in a million eager birdwatchers – double the usual number. And a study commissioned by the RSPB found that two-thirds of Britons had found solace in watching birds over lockdown.

We set off across the wetlands. As we walk, Olanipekun and Perera talk about what brought them together. Olanipekun, 37, an advertising executive, and Perera, 28, a youth sports coach, were both avid birdwatchers, but were used to going alone. When Perera took it up at 15, after becoming fascinated by a woodpecker, “everyone thought it was the strangest thing to be doing, ever,” he says. Their friends refused to join, thinking it was a “white thing”. Olanipekun, who turned to birdwatching when he was 28 to escape pressure from work, doesn’t blame them: the typical birdwatcher is still seen as someone white, elderly and middle-class. “Of course you’re going to think that’s not for you.”

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In the wetlands, our first attempt at birdwatching is frustrated by a tall closed gate. The southern walkway is closed for repairs. We turn around and head north, walking through the grass, briefly stopping by a sprawling tree. There, Perera points out a wren – our first bird of the day. He tells me that wrens on the island of St Kilda, out in the Atlantic off north-west Scotland, have evolved into a subspecies to deal with the crashing waves. “They are noticeably louder there,” he says. “The adaptation of these animals is fascinating.”

The writer, left, with Nadeem Perera and Ollie Olanipekun.
The writer, left, with Nadeem Perera and Ollie Olanipekun. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

Birdwatching, I soon discover, calls for patience. It is clear but windy today, which means that many are hiding. We see hints of bird life on the path, teasing us as we walk: black and blue feathers from a magpie; a brilliant green one from a parakeet. Perera keeps them all for his collection.

What advice do Perera and Olanipekun give to first-time birdwatchers? There are small tricks, like cupping your hand around your ears to help you focus on birdsong. Olanipekun also advises beginners to just enjoy themselves without stressing too much about results – to spend time soaking in the environment and the sounds of nature.

As we walk, we exchange (or in my case, learn) bird facts. Olanipekun’s favourite bird is the “beautifully majestic” barn owl, which can hear the heartbeat of the mouse from several metres away. Perera won’t pick a favourite, but admits he does enjoy watching crows, because of their intelligence. “They have the brain capacity of a human five-year-old,” Olanipekun agrees.

We begin talking about abilities we’d like to take from birds. Olanipekun envies the golden eagle’s impressive eyesight. After some thought, Perera decides on the bearded vulture, which can swallow and digest bones. “It means I won’t waste any food.”

Walking through an underpass, we meet a man on a day out with his family. He spots Perera and Olanipekun, and in a moment of instant kinship, asks what they’re up to. They tell him about Flock Together; he reaches into his backpack and pulls out a cap that shows he works for the Canal & River Trust. He wants to set up a voluntary group of Black Londoners to work on conserving the waterways. Can he stay in touch?

Every time they go out, Olanipekun says, people stop and say hello. It shows the incredible appetite there is for communities such as Flock Together, “which makes you ask why it didn’t exist before.”

We arrive at a wide-open field, dotted with trees. The sun finally emerges from the clouds. Olanipekun becomes suddenly alert: several metres away, in a tree, he has spotted a kestrel. Perera and I pull out our binoculars. All I can see is a blurry shape. What am I doing wrong? For a start, Perera tells me, I’m holding my binoculars upside down. Olanipekun adjusts my lenses, showing me how to focus, and I home in on the tree. The kestrel has gone.

Kestrel
Kestrels can be found in urban and rural areas in open areas where there is a good supply of food – mice, insects, small birds and worms. Photograph: Mark Hughes/Getty Images

We then turn down a path between marshes and the River Lea. A moorhen is hiding in the swamp, there are goldfinches and parakeets in the trees, and a cormorant flies past. I learn all these names by doing lots of pointing and asking, “What’s that?”.

There is no best time for birdwatching, Perera says. But in early November, people in London and the south can spot birds migrating to Britain from colder European climates for the winter. Flock Together will soon venture to Brighton to see the winter starling murmurations, hoping to catch the majestic sight of thousands of birds rhythmically swooping through the air.

Yet, with climate change, nothing is certain. A recent study in the journal Global Change Biology suggests that because of global heating, Britain’s birds may stop migrating for the winter. Perera saw changes himself when watching for the arrival of swifts from central Africa earlier this year. “They usually arrive in late April, early May,” he says. “This time they were really, really late. I didn’t notice them until two or three weeks after that.”

The swift population in Britain has also dropped by 58% over the past five decades, which has been attributed to a vanishing insect population, loss of viable nests due to building construction, and climate change’s impact on migration routes.

It must be staggering, seeing the effects of human activity ripple across the natural world. Of course, Perera says. “The relationship between these animals and the ecosystem dates back millions and millions of years. We’ve messed up the course of the world. We’ve been operating independently of the world, when really we are part of the world. Every action we take should have the ecosystem in mind.”

Barn owl.
Olanipekun’s favourite bird is the ‘beautifully majestic’ barn owl. Photograph: Fletch Lewis/Getty Images

For both founders, Flock Together is as much a movement for racial and environmental justice as it is a nature collective. After our walk, Perera headed to Glasgow to speak on a panel at Cop26. “We’re past the point of no return,” says Olanipekun. Black and brown communities are the most affected by climate change, and are entirely under-represented in mainstream politics; Olanipekun and Perera see Flock Together as a way to effect change at grassroots level.

Demand for Flock Together trips continues to grow: satellite groups have emerged in New York and Toronto; Olanipekun and Perera are working on a six-part television series for the BBC’s The One Show, as well as a book, and the group has collaborated with many fashion brands, including Gucci, Uniqlo and The North Face.

And they are getting more ambitious with their walks. They are preparing their first night-time expedition this winter, as well as a moth walk, which will be a challenge for Olanipekun, who is scared of moths.

Ollie Olanipekun (red hat) and Nadeem Perera co-founders of Flock Together
Through birding, Ollie Olanipekun (left) and Nadeem Perera are hoping to encourage children and young people to deepen their understanding and love for the environment. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi/The Guardian

For now, though, they are most excited about Flock Together Academy, which runs sessions for younger nature lovers. The children arrive in the morning bored and disengaged, says Olanipekun, but after a day of plant potting, birdwatching and meditation, “they can’t wait to tell their parents how great the day was.”

Their projects are underpinned by a simple goal. “Each young mind that we affect is like an acorn from an oak tree. There’s a bird called the jay. It’s thought that over 30% of the oak trees in this country are the result of jays picking up acorns, and carrying them great distances. Who knows where the wider ecosystem will take these little acorns, these young minds, once they’ve been equipped with the skills and confidence to know the outdoors?”

Cycling back home that afternoon, I see a group of gulls circling a park. It’s a familiar scene, but now I start ruminating, for the first time in my life, about what their lives look and feel like – their personalities, their life cycles, their magical abilities. My mind has, in the space of two hours, already been decisively changed.

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