Sunday, 27 January 2013

Big Garden Bird-watch

Starlings are back.
It's that time again. The RSPB has done a brilliant job in publicising their Big Garden Bird-watch so you can't fail to know about it. And it's not just a publicity stunt; they get real data from the survey that can show us the population trends in our resident winter birds as well as the movements of migratory species.

Every year, our attention is drawn to the disappearance of yet another species from our garden. This time it is the mistle thrush which should be singing right now. Their song, which is usually given from the highest branch of a tall tree, is nothing like that of a song thrush, or a blackbird, but consists of short, confident bursts that start out strong and then fade away into melancholic uncertainty. Then silence. They do a lot of listening to see if there is a potential rival in the area, which they defend fiercely.

One autumn I was lucky enough to watch a ring-ouzle feeding on the lawn outside my office window at The Lodge. He tried to stay for two days, but every time he landed, the resident mistle thrush found him and drove him off. Two good "office ticks" in one go!

Fieldfare on mistletoe
I'm pretty sure we saw a mistle thrush on New Year's Day at Paxton, but I haven't seen one since. They usually breed here and they are easiest to see in the open ground behind the old Lafarge plant. At home, they used to have a territory spanning several gardens, centred around a big, spreading cedar tree.

Today, I generously topped up the seed on the bird-table and put out an extra apple at about 10 am, ready to start my hour-long birdwatching log for the RSPB. Nothing came what-so-ever! I abandoned the count and tried again, starting at 13.15 because I saw a single blue-tit. Thirty minutes later, he's back again and I'm halfway through my session. I can see why it's called a bird-watch and not a birds-watch. (I thought it was because they wanted to avoid an argument about apostrophes in the press office or in the letters page in Birds magazine.)

You might think I would be worried that my garden has only one, reluctant blue-tit in it, but I'm not.

After a week of snow, this is the first really mild day and it is windy. There is plenty for the birds to eat and drink out there, but last week it was different story.

When all was frozen, my garden was full of birds, including half a dozen reed buntings, some greenfinches, chaffinches, a goldfinch, great-tits, blue-tits, two gold crests, four dunnocks, two robins, four blackbirds and a fieldfare. The starling/sparrow mob would descend every now and then and oust the collared doves and a fat wood pigeon from the table. I even had a couple of guests from the United Nations in the form of two white doves. These are really someone elses pets and I begrudge feeding them.

Hold on! A starling and five house sparrows have come over from next door. 15 minutes to go.

My garden fieldfare.
It was the fieldfare that gave me a boost during the cold days. When he arrived, he was really nervous and the blackbirds kept him away from the apples I had put out for him, but he soon gained confidence and for four or five days he ruled the garden. As soon as the snow left, so did he.

Judging from the local situation, I reckon this year's national survey will show a welcome increase in starlings and sparrows; a decline in thrushes and nuthatches, but some interesting sightings of black-caps, redwings, fieldfares, waxwings and chiff-chaffs. I have even heard of woodcocks landing in people's gardens this week.

Time up! No more birds, except a starling flying across my garden to get to the neighbours. So that's it: one blue-tit, one starling and five sparrows.