The eyes have it as birdwatching is set for take off

The silhouette of a big bird flapped into view above some treetops and for a few seconds it seemed, obligingly, to freeze against the sky for the benefit of a group of women watching from below.

"Red kite", someone said and the others murmured their agreement, soon followed by a chorus of "ooohs" and "aaahs" and comments about the bird's distinctive forked tail and graceful flight.

A few years ago they would not have been quite so positive about the bird's identity, even though the red kite is a common sight around the area of north Leeds in which they were birdwatching.

But since joining a class in Leeds called Start Birding, they have taken up a hobby that is increasing in popularity more than any other in the UK. An online store specialising in outdoor equipment conducted a survey of 1,500 adults which revealed that almost one-third of them intended to take up birdwatching

this year.

That was as much as the combined totals of those people who said they hoped to take up gardening, walking and camping.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has seen its membership rocket from 5,000 to more than one million in 40 years, was delighted by the result. The organisation's Grahame Madge commented on how little money it costs to appreciate birds in the garden. And with many bird populations now in decline, he said, it was good news that interest in their welfare among the public was predicted to grow.

The Start Birding course is run by Linda Jenkinson, a qualified life coach and stalwart of Leeds bird and conservation organisations for more than 20 years. She takes a number of different groups on birdwatching walks and augments these with classroom sessions.

Linda says that equal numbers of men and women have attended her classes, and some of them have gone on to join the committee of the Leeds RSPB group.

Others have become such keen birdwatchers that they have made the transition to "twitcher" – those who go chasing after rare migrant birds which usually arrive in Britain by accident. Her introductory classes cover topics like how to choose binoculars and the right field guidebook, the characteristics of particular birds which help to easily identify them, how to recognise birds by their songs and calls, and advice on the best clothing to wear.

"Many ex-pupils keep in touch, so I know they're really getting a lot of enjoyment out of their hobby. It's not just the birds, though. People soon realise there is so much more to enjoy outdoors when they start going out regularly."

One group of former pupils – she calls them her "fully-fledged birders" – has stuck together, having become good friends as a result of Linda's course, and meet regularly at one of their homes.

On their winter walk at Eccup Reservoir, on the north side of Leeds, the red kite was the highlight of the day. But they agreed that 2009 had been their best

year for birds since they came together.

Their star species was the reclusive water rail, spotted at Staveley in North Yorkshire, while a close encounter with a kingfisher at Fairburn Ings was still fresh in their memories.

Their days out have included trips to Bempton and Blacktoft Sands in Yorkshire, across the Pennines to the Wildlife and Wetland Trust reserve at Martin Mere, and up to Northumberland to see a nesting colony of little terns.

"Basically, we've made the discovery that there are a lot of fantastic pubs with nature reserves in their back gardens," joked one of the members, Rosie Vincent.

"But seriously, the social side of the class has become very important. Between us we are rather good cooks, and enjoy some lovely

dishes when we have our indoor meetings."

At these classes Linda talks for an hour so, highlighting a particular aspect of birdwatching or bird behaviour. Then there are question and answer sessions, and quizzes with names like "Would You Like A Chat" – to help with identifying the different members of the chat family – and advice on good local birdwatching sites.

"It's nice for us all to go out together," Linda said, "but I also like people to birdwatch of their own accord. It's important that the hobby becomes part of their lives outside the group."

Angela Yates, whose conservatory in Roundhay, Leeds, is used for meetings, said: "It's a testament to Linda that she has filled us all with so much enthusiasm for birdwatching. She keeps our interest fresh by coming up with such exciting talks. Some of these are quite breathtaking. For example, did you know that birds grow their sexual organs again every year?"

Rosie Vincent said birdwatching was better than sitting at home watching soaps on TV. "There are storylines out there in the bird world that'd make even the soap writers blush. I mean, female dunnocks often have two male dunnocks as partners."

She laughed at the thought. "You know, I think when I come back in another life it'll be as a female dunnock."

n Details of Linda's courses are available on www.start birding.co.uk or email her at linda.jenkinson1@ntlworld.com

The RSPB's website at www.rspb.org.uk has many useful links for people of all ages wanting to take up birdwatching as a hobby.

SARAH GLYNN EXPLAINS ALL

I signed up for an evening class in birdwatching three years ago. At first there were not enough of us for the class to continue at the local school so we relocated, along with the tutor, to one of the members' houses.

Some of the class travel this country and beyond spotting, identifying and observing birds and are really knowledgeable.

I'm a bit rubbish. By the time I've managed to adjust my binoculars correctly the bird has usually flown off. And I don't like being out in freezing cold either.

But I get huge pleasure out of the flocks of blue tits and starlings which come to my bird feeders, and felt so excited when a woodpecker showed up that I was nearly hyperventilating.

You don't need fancy equipment or books to enjoy the birds and wildlife around you, and you don't have to go anywhere special. All you have to do is look upwards and outwards and listen a bit more.