It has been remarkable watching the birds in the garden as they rush around to stock up on calories in this cold weather. Even the blackbirds have ventured really close to the house to take advantage of a bowl of mealworms.
In a heavy wind, the goldfinches hold on for dear life to collect nyjer seeds, but are not to be deterred, as this one individual demonstrates.
I have no idea why these two blue tits tried, tried again and failed to collect peanuts from this feeder! Fabulous to watch their quick dashing movements. I love the bit where one of them decides that if the holes won’t work, he’ll drill through the plastic with his beak! I went and had a look at the feeder, and although I could see nothing wrong I gave it a good shake and matters seemed to resolve themselves after that, and the peanuts began to be extracted in good order.
And this little visitor, not seen before or since, was quite a character. I had to move the peanut feeder onto an upturned flower pot because it was quite clear that the mouse was going to carry on taking and collecting peanuts until it had enough to see out the winter! He knew that they were there but couldn’t reach them. He reverted to the tray of seeds had been put down for the robin, sparrows, dunnock and the blackbird.
The pheasants have no difficulty helping themselves to a bit of everything. There were seven of them this morning, two males and five females, which is the greatest number I’ve seen in one go. I feed them twice a day and they are quite happy to help themselves to whatever the other birds are eating, but in spite of their apparent greed, they are big birds and must need quite a lot of food to sustain themselves.
Wednesday last week was one of those rare but gorgeous January days that provides a welcome reminder that spring lies ahead. Almost too good to be true. The tide was on its way out, always a beautiful sight as dips in the sand fill with still water reflecting the blue sky, and the millions of deeply scored fractal patterns in the sand are revealed, with the contrast of the dark shadows and bright surfaces always a sensational feature of the low winter sun. Apart from a few dog walkers the beach was almost empty, sensible people remaining in the warm.
My garden continues to be a source of wildlife activity, all the local species filling up on solid carbohydrates to see them through the bitterly cold nights.
The goldfinches, which turned up in my absence over Christmas, are now a daily presence, between two or seven of them at a time, four on the nyjer feeder with the others bouncing up and down in frustration in the tree. When they first arrived I was very taken by their beautifully minimalist movements and intricate eating habits, but when there are more than four trying to get onto the feeder at a time there can be real jockeying for position in a great thrashing of brightly coloured feathers, with some of the angelic looking little things chasing off others quite ruthlessly. A gaggle of goldfinches is called a “charm.”
Since I moved here in August, all the feeders have been popular, but in the last month the mixed seed feeder has been completely rejected, no matter where I hang it. Instead, most activity is concentrated on the fat ball, mealworm and peanut feeders. Do note that I put a soundtrack on the following video, just to get used to the software that I am using, but it is a really lovely piece of Bach, so hopefully not too intrusive.
My RSPB Big Garden BirdWatch pack turned up today. Lots of helpful material, including a handy bird counting sheet, and some useful suggestions for attracting birds to your garden and encouraging them to stay.
BirdWatch itself is such a great idea. You choose an hour, at any time of the day on one day between 26th and 28th January and write the highest number of each bird species that you see at any one time. The example given is “if you see a group of eight starlings together, and towards the end of the hour you see six together, please write down eight as your final count.” This is because the second bunch may be the same individuals as the first bunch, back for another visit. The purpose is to count individual birds, not individual visits. Even if someone participating in the survey sees nothing in the hour, it’s still useful information for the RSPB.
As BirdWatch has been going for 40 years (this is their anniversary year) some interesting statistics have emerged. Examples are that sightings of song thrushes have dropped by 75% since the first BirdWatch, starlings by 79% and house sparrows by 57%. There were some rises too, such as a 52% increase in long-tailed tits. One of the interesting findings is siskin and brambling numbers were up in 2018. I hadn’t heard of either, but both are winter visitors, and the RSPB site says that their numbers are higher in years when conditions here are more favourable in the UK than on the Continent. I suppose that global warming will result in even more visitors of this sort. Blackbirds were in 93% of gardens and robins in 83%. Figures like this allow ornithologists to get a much better idea of what is happening to bird communities across the country. As the survey is postcode sensitive, regional patterns can be determined.
The survey is not confined to birds, although this is the primary purpose. There is also a section on the form that looks at how often garden owners are visited by other wildlife – daily, weekly, monthly, less than monthly, never or don’t know. It’s a fascinating selection, everything from what I think of as fairly common species like grey squirrels, badgers, foxes and frogs to animals that I have rarely seen like red squirrels and muntjacs. Mind, I thought that pheasants were exotic until I moved here, and now I’m literally falling over them every time I leave the house.
All the photos on this post were taken in my garden at Aberdovey, and are just a sample of the avian life that regularly visits, one of the real joys of living here.
The survey can be returned by post or completed online, and must be submitted no later than 12th February by post or 17th February online. The survey results are published in April, and it will be fascinating to see what the results are. The results of the 2018 survey, consisting of 420,489 collated responses, are posted here on the RSPB website. The main findings are shown below, but you can also see the findings by country, and see an Excel spreadsheet of the detailed survey results.
The 2018 general wildlife findings were also interesting. The survey results indicated that although frogs were seen in more than three-quarters of UK gardens, that’s 17% fewer regular sightings than in 2014, whilst toads have been seen in just 20% of gardens at least once a month, which is 30% down on four years ago. At the same time, sightings of hedgehogs have increased and were seen in 65% of gardens during 2018, with foxes reaching 72%. I saw foxes all the time when I lived on the edge of a park in Rotherhithe (London), but I cannot recall ever seeing one here, although there must be plenty around.
Aberdovey’s Housebird Central has been a busy place in the New Year. I returned from Christmas in Chester to an absolute hive of avian activity. As well as the usual array of blue tits, coal tits, sparrows, the noisy pheasants, and a new small LBJ (Little Brown Job) that needed identification (a very pretty dunnock), a new community of birds had found the nyjer/niger (Guizotia abyssinica) seeds. I had been about to take the bird feeder down, because it really is the ugliest bird feeder of all time and was always ignored by every bird that visited the garden in favour of the mixed seed, mealworm and peanut feeders. The chaffinches and bullfinches that it was supposed to attract duly arrived but have been feeding happily on the mixed seed feeder. It has, however, been transformed by a small army of goldfinches from an eyesore into a thing of wonder. It’s difficult to count how many goldfinches there are, because there are so many, but there are never more than four on the feeder at a time, and that means that there is the occasional mad and multicoloured flurry of feathers as new arrivals displace incumbents. Unlike the blue tits, which are endlessly shifting gymnasts, the goldfinches fix themselves in one position and eat with small, minimalist movements, staying in one place for as long as they remain undisturbed. With beautiful red, yellow, black and white plumage they are remarkably exotic on a chilly grey January morning. Many goldfinch communities migrate as far south as Spain in the winter, so I am lucky that members of this particular colony have remained to face a Welsh winter.
The blue tits and coal tits are as enchanting as usual, and are having a major peanut fest at the moment:
Don’t forget that the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch is taking place between 26th and 28th January this year (2019), now in its 40th year. You can find out more on the RSPB website here: https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/everything-you-need-to-know-about-big-garden-birdwatch/
That’s blue tits to most of us. After a visit to the dentist in Machynlleth today for two fillings (with thanks to Tim Moody and nurse Sarah at Llys Einion Dental Surgery for overcoming the worst of my terrors), what I really needed to lift my spirits was the crazy antics of the blue tits on the bird feeders. In the tree any attempt to track their constant comings and goings on the seed feeder, swapping of positions and astounding acrobatics is absolutely eye-watering. It’s like a fractal in motion, pure chaos theory. My dentist was talking about the failure of physics to align General Relativity with the Standard Model of Quantum Mechanics. Perhaps the answer lies in the insanely complex interactions and dizzying gymnastics of the blue tits in my garden.
The blue tits have recently become very confident on the fat ball and mealworm bird feeders on the decking by my kitchen door. They were put there for the robin and a couple of sparrows, but the blue tits in particular have become addicts in recent weeks, and watching their antics so closely is remarkable, a sort of pared-down version of their performance in the cherry tree, as the following short video demonstrates:
When the blue tits are on the decking, the sparrows that are there much of the time are undeterred, but the robin takes off as soon as the lively gymnasts arrive. Everything, however, vanishes when the doves or pheasants arrive. In the bird world, size matters.
In his book How to be a bad birdwatcher Simon Barnes talks about the hierarchy of tits on bird feeders: “as you watch, you will notice that the big chaps can chase off the little chaps whenever they want to. If a blue tit wants a peanut, it has to wait for a great-tit-free minute, and then fly in and be quick and skilful. And by good fortune, or good evolution, quick and skilful is exactly what blue tits are.” That interplay between the tits is observable every day. The great tits take precedence over the blue tits and the blue tits take precedence over the coal tits. But the blue tits seem to win by sheer force of numbers. There are so many of them! Barnes points out that this highly competitive behaviour is restricted to the bird feeder – such competition does not take place elsewhere in their lives because in nature each has its own preferred niche, away from these challengers. I particularly love the symbiosis between those in the tree and those on the ground. As the tits chuck half of their food on the floor in amongst the roses, the pheasants and doves form a collection posse, scooping up all the rejects. Everyone wins.
The bird seed in the tree was empty and had to be refilled on my return. I will be in serious trouble with Housebird Central if I let my standards slip in this shocking way!
Last week I noticed a splash of colour in motion out of the corner of my eye, a dash of dusky red on the bird feeder in the cherry tree. It turned out to be a male chaffinch. In spite of trying to attract them with a special feeder stuffed with nyger seeds, it is the blue tits who have used that feeder, and the chaffinch was on the all-purpose feeder. He have visited a couple of times since, but unlike the blue tits, which form a semi-permanent cloud of activity, he’s only an occasional visitor to the tree, although he may well be hoovering up fallen seeds on the floor, which the pheasants and the doves also eat. The tits, particularly the great tits and coal tits, are really messy eaters, and throw seeds everywhere, so there is always plenty on the ground.
Another new visitor is a female blackbird. She hops around the decking, and when the tits are on the decking at the same time, as shown in this video below, she looks absolutely huge! She is a very occasional visitor, but when she arrives she is like a cat amongst pigeons. The blue tits are completely put out by her presence and don’t quite know what to do about her. The robin puts in a brief appearance, but takes off as usual when the blue tits arrive in force. The video was taken through the glass of the window, so it’s a tad murky, but still fun.