Off to a flying start

Birding with Bill Oddie BBC2 Fridays 8.00-8.30pm February 21-March 28 Age range: all. As Bill Oddie packs his binoculars and goes bird-watching, Bernard Adams reports on a soaraway success

The publicity says the series will be "a practical guide to watching, listening to and learning about birds". Sounds modest, worthy, perhaps a bit dry. In the event, this is an entertaining, and often visually stunning, set of programmes which start with a huge bonus - the presenter is Bill Oddie.

He's friendly, funny in a low-key way, knowledgeable - but without any of that eye-popping, gut-busting enthusiasm which certain outdoor presenters go in for. And director Stephen Moss has managed very skilfully to give a real feeling of going on a series of expeditions - during which anything may happen.

Take the first programme: perfect May weather at a great location, Minsmere in Suffolk. Oddie takes the idea of "dawn chorus" quite literally as he stumbles out of bed at 3.00am, and into the woodlands, just as a marvellous blue light creeps up behind the trees. He carefully identifies the different voices in the choir - almost seeming to conduct the unseen warblers.

Back for a bird-watcher's breakfast, and then more familiar sights at the sanctuary - redshanks (red legs), greenshanks (green legs) and turnstones (they turn over stones). Here Oddie's the guide - the old hand helping the learner. A bit later he's the enthusiast when he and another party stumble upon three baby tawny owls. In 40 years of bird-watching, he confesses he's never seen three together before.

Next a disappointment - he's determined to locate the nightingale singing so sweetly in the bush, but can he find it? Not this time.

Oddie confesses that it all began with a now almost unmentionable activity - egg collecting. But he was still in single figures when he began to be more interested in observing than in snatching the eggs.

"I was about nine or 10 when my parents gave me a bird book and binoculars. I used to go out on my own on my bike, around the fringes of Birmingham, and by the time I was 12, I was well into my bird-watching pattern," he says.

Oddie admits it has become increasingly obsessional. In his later teenage years he used to do long expeditions and became a qualified ringer. Somehow bird-watching successfully survived serious competition from sport, girls and music.

Although ecological and environmental issues now have a far higher profile than they did 30 years ago, he's not sure that bird-watching is on the increase. "The trouble is," Oddie believes, "there are so many in-house distractions for children. It's a pity because playing computer games is not as healthy as watching wildlife out of doors. Bird-watching is unquestionably a healthy lifestyle.

"My brief in the series has been to do an entertaining programme which makes you realise that it's great to get out there to look. We've tried to capture the feeling of being there, of the ambience. Bird-watching has an aesthetic, even a spiritual side to it."

The Minsmere day ends with a satisfying coup. Word spreads that some cranes may fly in from Norway, and sure enough - in front of an assembled body of long lenses which would have done justice to a squad of paparazzi - they arrive and circle gracefully and visibly as dusk falls.

Television programmes take the waiting - and the cold and the wet - out of bird-watching. But Birding with Bill Oddie humanises a set of people unflatteringly known as "twitchers", opens up a huge store of knowledge and above all makes you want to go out there and try it. What better definition of a successful educational programme?

This series is accompanied by a book, Birding with Bill Oddie, by Stephen Moss and Bill Oddie (BBC Worldwide, Pounds 9.99)

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