Q&A: Mya-Rose Craig AKA Birdgirl

Mya-Rose Craig, AKA Birdgirl, in her own words…

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A young birder, birdwatcher, twitcher, naturalist, environmentalist & writer about birds, wildlife, nature, conservation & ringing (banding) who is an Ambassador for See It Her Way and a Charter Champion for The Charter for Woods, Trees and People

What first sparked your interest in birdwatching, and when?

I was taken on my first twitch when I was only 9 days old to the Isles of Scilly to see a Lesser Kestrel. Then, when I was 18 months old I was taken to see the Black Lark on Anglesey. The bird came really close to my pram and apparently, I pointed and shouted “birdie” with great excitement. That was my fourth word. I still need to see both birds for my British and World lists. For me that was what my childhood was like, lots of birds out with my family and lots of kind birders in my life.

Who was your birdwatching inspiration or mentor?

I think that when young children get to about 3 or 4 years old they realise they are a separate being from their parents and can make their own decisions. That’s when some birders find their children refuse to go out birding any more. For me, the difference was that I had a much older sister. At that point in my life, she was 15 years old, beautiful, cool and obsessed with birds. If she loved birds, I was going to love birds. So when I was able to decide for myself, I chose birds and decided my life was going to revolve around nature.

Do you bird alone or with a friend?

I bird in my garden, the woods close to my house and around my village on my own as I don’t drive yet and the roads are pretty dangerous. I haven’t got any friends who like birding but I go dog walking in the woods with them, when I get to bird at the same time. The rest of the time I go birding with my Dad and Mum. My sister has young children now and they don’t all fit in our car, but I like to take my niece out with me. I do also love to share my passion with inner city Visible Minority Ethnic (VME) children and teenagers when they come to my birding and nature weekends, Camp Chew and Camp Avalon.

Your dream bird to see?

The bird I would most like to see in the UK is a Wallcreeper. There was one which over-wintered for two years in a row in Cheddar Gorge in the 1970’s very close to where I live, which would be amazing. The bird I would most like to see in the world is a Harpy Eagle. It is the biggest eagle and I’ve tried to see one a few times in South America. I am going to Brazil this summer and so am hoping to see a young bird on the nest. My Dad saw one in Brazil in January, which I was pleased for him about but also a tiny bit jealous.

Your favourite birding spot?

In the UK it has to be St Agnes on the Isles of Scilly for its rarities, scenery, beaches, friendly pub and just our family ‘place’. In the world, definitely Bolivia for the huge Andean landscapes, fantastic birds and lovely people.

Your classic birder’s lunch, grabbed from the filling station chiller cabinet?

A large packet of Doritos and a Divine bar of white chocolate (neither have palm oil) to go with my water bottle brought from home to reduce on plastic.

Blackcap or Garden Warbler?

Blackcap. I have caught a few in my garden bird ringing and they are even more beautiful in the hand. A couple of years ago I made hundreds of painted ones out of salt dough for a project Chris Packham and Ruth Peacey were doing, to highlight the number being killed in Cyprus.

Favourite bird song or call?

Bittern booming down on the Somerset Levels, it’s such a strange sound and for me the sign that spring is here. It also fills me with hope, thinking that they were down to 11 males in 1997 at RSPB Ham Wall and were up to 55 males last year as well as Little Bittern recent years. It is a fantastic site for our Camp Avalon with so many scarce species to keep our young birders happy.

Birdwatching’s biggest myth or misconception?

“Teenagers can not be engaged with nature”; I hear it all the time. How wrong they are. I have never met a teenager who hasn’t connected with nature when it has been made relevant to them and with the right role models. When the VME teenagers arrive at our camps, they are not expecting to enjoy wildlife and are apprehensive about camping. It does not take long for them to find something they love often bird ringing or mothing. At our last camp, we added a bio-blitz session at the last minute, splitting the group into two for a bit of competitive spirit with myself and another young birder helping with ID. The young people absolutely loved it, especially the pond dipping, probably because it was led by them. It turned out to be the most popular session over the whole weekend. However, I feel that having a nature GCSE, making it academic, would have a negative impact including making nature even more privileged.

The best bird you’ve seen?

My favourite bird in the world is a Southern Cassowary which I saw in Queensland, Australia. They are 6 feet tall, have amazing colours on them, look like a dinosaur and have 12 cm long sharp nail like talons that can kill with one kick. What is not to like about that?

Identifying gulls – nightmare or a nice day out?

My gull memories are overshadowed by my worst dip ever. My Dad and I went to try and see a very rare Slaty-backed Gull at a rubbish tip near Rainham Marshes in 2011. It has to be my worst birding experience, for the long walk, the stench and the dipping two days in a row.

Your favourite bird joke?

I really love the film “The Big Year” as it came out a couple of years after our big year in 2009 and just makes me laugh out loud. There’s bit in the film where Owen Wilson gives a “knowing look” to Jack Black about a young loved up honeymoon couple on the flight to Attu. The girl clearly has no clue what she is about to experience and thinks she is going to have a romantic week away. It’s funny because we know what is coming and obviously she doesn’t last long! It just reminds me of Scilly in autumn.

How do we encourage young people to watch birds?

In 2016 I organised a conference, Race Equality in Nature, to look at the barriers to VME people going out into green spaces, what can be done to overcome them and how we can create VME role models. We have two more conferences arranged for June looking at young VME people. The key thing is to make it relevant to them (not you).

The first thing is for organisations to focus on finding and training VME volunteers and staff so that they are sending VME volunteers into inner city schools. I think that outdoor child led learning should be available to every primary age child weekly. Child led means that it is unstructured and not a lesson as such.

Into secondary schools, we need outdoor interesting sessions put on by outside organisations, but again we must have VME volunteers otherwise we are sending the message out that really nature is for “white middle class people”. If young people are engaged with nature and wildlife, they will grow their interest in their own way. Learning names of species is a very traditional colonial approach to connecting with nature.

It is also important that this is supported by young people learning about conservation issues such palm oil, logging and climate breakdown concentrating on Years 7-9, ensuring that biology and geography lessons teach issues relevant to the VME pupil’s family backgrounds. For example, Bangladeshi pupils in the Tower Hamlets learning about the fact that Bangladesh is top of the list for the county that will be most affected by climate breakdown, already has 4 million climate refugees and is hardly contributing to carbon emissions. I have spoken to Geography and Science teachers at their conferences about how to make these topics relevant.

Also, we need huge numbers of paid volunteers to go into all secondary schools and run eco-green-nature groups and work to engage students across the school and not just the usual suspects. Again we need volunteers from diverse backgrounds and why should they work for free and those “working” for the organisation get paid?

Tengmalm’s Owl or Snowy Owl?

Snowy Owl 100%. Only because I was in Spain seeing my 5000th bird species in the world during half-term (A Rock Bunting) and missed the Tengmalm’s Owl, so I prefer not to think about it.

The one place you’d love to go birdwatching?

This is really hard. Do I choose the place with the best birds or most new birds? I think the Island of Papua, for the Birds of Paradise. I’ve seen a few in Australia and Indonesia but they have the most amazing mating displays.

One birding or conservation issue you feel strongly about?

The conservation issue that is really important to me is about equality in nature, conservation and the environment. Everyone in the UK has the right to access nature, like the right to education or health. At the moment those who are VME or living in areas of deprivation, are not accessing nature. There are many reasons for this, but much of it relates to the fact that only 0.6% of those working in the sector are VME. Until the sector becomes diverse, the organisations will not know how to engage all people or act as role models and mentors.

Secondly, when we think about climate breakdown, we must consider those people living around the world that are reliant on globalisation, for example eco-tourism to save a community’s part of the Amazon and wildlife. Biodiversity is here right now, so we must do what we can to help. I have no qualms about travelling, because supporting these projects, seeing their issues first hand and then highlighting them in talks, articles and my blog are really important. The idea of ‘going local’ is all great, but you have to find ways to support farmers abroad to sell different crops locally first.

The bird that annoys you most?

This is a funny question…I don’t think there is a bird that I find annoying, they are just part of nature.

The bogey bird that still eludes you?

Little Auk. They are on the east coast in November, just when it’s hardest to get over there from Somerset because of school.

The bird book you’d never be without?

In the UK, Collins Bird Guide is never far away, I mean, I grew up with it keeping me company on long drives. In the world, the field guide to wherever we are. So our shelves are full of them, all marked out with elaborate tick systems.

Why do you love birdwatching, in three words?

Sword-billed Hummingbird

One piece of advice for birders taking part in our #my200birdyear challenge?

Sorry I have to give two.

I know this is all about seeing birds locally, which is great for the environment so try to go to one locale for the whole day or weekend with a group of birders, so that you get the most out of the miles that you drive and split it between more people.

Second, have fun, don’t get stressed about the numbers or get competitive (unless it’s with your partner in life or in crime - that is allowed). In the Big Year, Jack Black does a victory dance when he is on the phone to the girl he likes who tells him that she has split up from her boyfriend. She asks him if he has just done a victory dance and he says “no, maybe, yes”. When I was young, I had a celebration dance I did every time I saw a new bird. It might be infantile but it still makes me laugh.

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