What a difference a frost makes

Having bemoaned the lack of wildlife in my garden, last Saturday the weather turned very cold here and after replenishing the bird feeders they were flocking in in droves! These resilient little guys were obviously finding sufficient sustenance elsewhere until the cold set in but now they’re here in numbers daily, and today we have had 10-15cm of snow and it hasn’t stopped yet so I reckon they’ll be around for a while longer too.

One of the species which I have missed because they are normally here all through the winter is the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke):

The cock chaffinch always adds a splash of welcome colour

Chaffinch are resident breeders in the UK and can generally be seen and heard in trees and hedgerows all year round. Another resident breeder I hadn’t in the garden or in the countryside much this year was the dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernsurv), the archetypal ‘LBJ‘ or ‘Little Brown Job’. When viewed closely they’re anything but LBJ’s. They feed on the ground so I always throw a handful of seed in the undergrowth for them. This little guy has been terrorised by my resident robin, but the arrival of a second robin has given him respite as my resident no longer has his eye on the ball.

My dunnock keeping one eye on the ground for seed while the other looks for the robin

The coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) is a pine tree specialist, seeking insects and spiders in the summer and seeds in the winter. This makes it a bit of a mystery here because we have very few conifers in the vicinity, but there are at least two flitting in and out of the garden all day:

The coal tit waiting it’s turn to get on the seed tray

A blue tit (Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmajse) about to join the coal tit and grab a seed

Starling – (Sternus vulgaris, Dansk: stær)

Starlings are a bird that used to be very common and would murmurate in humungous numbers but this only happens now in a very few places. When I was an undergrad in Liverpool they would gather on icy winters evenings over Old Haymarket in vast numbers. The aerial manouvres were breathtaking, as was the acrid ammoniacal stench from the guano left behind on the pavements! I generally only see them in small flocks of a few tens these days, but they regularly come and avail themselves of the fatballs in my garden. And they’re more than welcome!

And finally, usually the most visible diner at my avian restaurant, the ubiquitous blackbird. Even they were conspicuous by their relative absence until very recent weeks, but now they’re back in  numbers:

And no English garden is complete without a feisty blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort). Having said that, according to the British Trust for Ornithology the blackbird is a ‘Migrant/Resident Breeder, Passage/Winter Visitor’ and they migrate within the UK but also in winter we get an influx from Europe coming from Germany and Poland and other parts of eastern Europe. It makes me chuckle that whilst us folk moan about the weather and then jet off to the Canary Isalands in the winter, the blackbirds are coming here to make the most of our balmy winter climate. Just goes to show, everything’s relative!

42 responses to “What a difference a frost makes

  1. Hi Naturephile, great bird photos and thanks for the comment. If you’re a facebook user we’d love for you to “like” our page. See you there!

    • Hello guys, alas the Luddite side to me precludes FB. However one of these fine days I will set up a Naturephile FB site and then I will definitely whizz over and click your like button. Thanks for visiting and leaving a comment.

  2. Lovely photos, Finn, all of them — each evoking different memories, associations and other thoughts. Even though the blackbird is not perched, I immediately hear the song. Grateful to you, as always.

    • It’s nice to hear the pictures are so evocative. As I write I’m watching a pair of blackbirds going trhough their courtship ritual – which augurs well for next years offspring.

  3. What a treasure to have such an abundance of visitors in your garden, Finn…. I do enjoy your bird photos. 🙂

    • Thanks Scott, I do think I’m lucky to have such diversity oustide the window. We’re close to the countryside and scrubby woodland where there are a lot of birds and fortunately they find their way to me feeders. I’ll keep posting them, especially if I get any interesting or unusual ones.

  4. It’s so sadly interesting that you say that, because, though we do have sparrows in our agricultural countrysides, both birds thrive especially in cities. I wonder how this could be. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that when these birds were first introduced to America they were set free in New York City. I’ve read that at least some of the birds died initially, and that more than one release was required before they started establishing a foothold. New York is, of course, a bear of a city to get accustomed to, and quite different from a pastoral English scene. Maybe the birds that were able to first start surviving here were especially equipped to succeed in a city, and their progeny have thus benefited from a cosmopolitan-friendly genetic heritage.


    • Sorry – meant to reply to our specific comment thread. Also, I’m glad those birds have a friend in you 🙂

    • You never know, perhaps there is a subset of avian genes that predisposes them to cope with city life more effectively. I think the interesting part here is that there were multiple releases of starlings and sparrows, I guess the British immigrants wanted to make it feel as much like home as possible.

      • Yes, that’s the case for the sparrows. I write about the story of Nicholas Pike, the man responsible for the sparrows’ presence in America, in my book, actually. Amazing how he single-handedly altered American – not to mention North and South American – ecology so dramatically.

        As for the sparrows – they were released in an effort to have each bird mentioned in a Shakespeare play represented in the fauna of Central Park.

      • Blimey, that’s outrageous self indulgence 🙂

      • Ha, you’re telling me!

  5. It’s great to read about your garden birding. Now that my disability has robbed me of my bird table I like to know that our feathered friends are getting fed.

    Do you have any trouble with rats? I gave up putting food on the ground, for dunnocks, blackbirds and others, after our local rat population got far too comfortable. One rat in particular would barely glance around when I tried to chase it away. It goes its come-uppance when my partner’s elderly cat opted to use that rat for his swansong! He’d been a champion, terrorising other cats, packs of farm dogs and herds of cows, and in old age he had only one of his canine teeth remaining, But he caught that pesky rat and stabbed its skull with the single remaining tooth. Needed help with a spade to kill it, though.

    • Oh yes, there’s no skinny ones around here!

      Fortunately, I’m not aware of a rat problem. I put a small amount of seed down and the occasional bit of fruit (chunks of apple or pear or some grapes) and they generally all disappear by the time it gets dark so there’s none left laying around. I know we have mice under the shed but I like those little chaps, I don’t begrudge them a bit of seed!

      • Yes mice are quite sweet aren’t they? I’d have nothing against rats if they’d live and let live, but they’re so destructive and they carry zoonoses. If you have snow lying, I’m sure you know that any rats will leave pawprints and tail trails. The other way I’ve known about rats in my gardens has been their neat little burrows in the compost heaps.

      • Yes, I’m not keen on the idea of rats in the garden but I haven’t seen one yet, and I don’t think there are any trails either, so fingers crossed they haven’t found us yet. There is the saying that you’re never further than 20 feet from a rat, I don’t know if that’s true but I hope not!

  6. lovely pictures! I didn’t know blackbirds came from elsewhere either, very amusing. I’ve got one eating seed on the ground as I write, it’s made me think maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea calling a regular blackbird visitor Brezhnev. Something to do with its eyebrows. I think.

    We had loads of longtailed tits yesterday, it was such a beautiful sight. As you say the snow has really pulled the birds in, it’s a veritable aviary out there…

  7. Lovely! I especially like your photo of the chaffinch, he’s a fine fellow. I’ve noticed far more chaffinches than usual of late and their plumage stands out beautifully against the snow. I, too, remember vast flocks of starlings but haven’t seen so many recently, I did, however, see a large flock a couple of weeks ago over a field and it was a delight to watch their amazing flying patterns. I’m not surprised that all these small birds are making the most of your avian restaurant in this weather, this is a great time of year for enticing them in. By the way, your photo of the moment keeps reminding me of a stack of pancakes.

    • Like the thinking Lorna 😉

      It’s mesmerising watching starlings murmurate, I could gape at them for hours. Have you seen the research where they tried to work out how they do that and don’t crash into each other? I may look into that and post about it, it’s fascinating stuff. As much as anything I’d like to know what methods they used to analyse the moving flocks.

      Cock chaffinches are beauties, I spend far too much time taking photographs of them but I just can’t help myself.

  8. Lovely photographs! But did you really have no magpies? In my garden I have the same list as you except no greenfinch, goldfinch or house sparrow – but I have blackcaps and LOTS of magpies…
    Have a great day 🙂

    • We do ge the occasional magpie but never in the back garden, they prefer the less claustrophobic front lawn when I put chunkier food out like bread or fruit. So they do show up, just not on that day.

      I’m terribly envious of your blackcaps. Do you get the summer and the winter ones? I’ve only ever seen one here in my garden and that flitted through a month or two ago and didn’t stay.

      • The blackcaps have gradually crept up on us over the last 10 years. they started as a rarity, then we regularly had them in summer and for a few years now we have had some in winter. At first I thought they were the same few resident all year round. But I am told it is more likely the winter ones are here from central Europe, while our summer ones may go south to Iberia in winter. A bit of a time share arrangement…

      • That’s the current thinking about the blackcap. Did you see the BTO study that’s been ongoing for a couple of years in which they tagged migrating cuckoos to track them through their migration? Now that tracking devices are so small I’m hoping they may be able to do the same with smaller birds like blackcaps, because I think we’ve only started to scratch the surface where understanding migration is concerned.

      • Yes I followed the cuckoos last year. Fascinating. It would be a very small tracking device for a blackcap, but I guess they can be “chip” sized these days!

      • They are indeed chip sized, they have even been used to track dragonflies, albeit over short distances. But I reckon the technology will be available in the near future, if it isn’t already.

  9. Blackbirds…now THERE are birds to watch! I have learned a lot about blackbirds since we moved to Tasmania from Western Australia where they haven’t been able to naturalise. When we lived in the city I used to feed them and was constantly amazed at how these birds displayed a high degree of cognitive thought…we had one that would sit on the fence watching us as we watched television if we forgot to feed them. He didn’t say anything…just sat there watching us until we got up and fed him. Any bird that doesn’t fly off in a panic at human intervention is a bit scary and blackbirds hit the deck and run off. A lot like that penguin in Wallace and Gromit’s “The Wrong Trousers”…too clever by half those blackbirds!
    We have starlings in the neighbourhood but not here on Serendipity Farm. They seem to avoid this bit of Sidmouth most probably because there was a bit of an ethnic cleanse that went on a few years ago in the church down below us and they simply haven’t returned to those murderous eaves. Can’t say that I blame them really! I think that they are lovely birds and their singing is magnificent :). Cheers for sharing your winters day and the beautiful birds that come to share in your spoils 🙂

    • Always a pleasure!

      I can’t believe the church exterminated the starlings, what were they thinking of? That’s despicable behaviour. I shall put out some more seed for mine tomorrow to balance things up.

      Blackbirds are ace – I love they way they sit on the fence and look me in the eye. Did you see my post from last year about my battling blackbirds? This is one of my favpurite photographic sequences ‘https://thenaturephile.com/2012/02/25/garden-gladiators/’. They’re good value for money these little chaps.

      • And they are amazingly intelligent…any bird that doesn’t fly of squawking and that hits the deck and runs is alright by me! ;). Excellent post and pics by the way 🙂

      • They are, I think the expression ‘bird brain‘ is about as far from the truth as it’s posssible to get. Glad you like the gladiators, they put on a great show.

  10. SO wonderful, I love seeing images of them all…! The blue tit, what a colorful, sweet little one — but of course they’re all little lovelies. 🙂 So very resilient.

  11. Amazing list, and Lovely pics.. the chaffinch is one of my favourites, and we are lucky enough to have a pair here – and a few itinerant collared doves, whose coo reminds me of long hot English summer days of my childhood…

  12. So many bird species! What a lovely variety of things in your yard. There is not much around here right now but chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers. Sub-zero temps are not conducive to attracting the birds to my yard,

    • Hello Sue, you must have been poised over your keyboard, that’s the quickest comment I’ve yet had 🙂

      We live almost on the edge of the countryside and we have a good amount of greenbelt land close by, so we’re well blessed for bird species. And because I feed them they flock in when the weather gets wintry.

    • I meant to include a list of the species that came in on that day in the post, but I forgot so I’ll put it here:

      collared dove
      wood pigeon
      coal tit
      blue tit
      great tit
      long tailed tit
      house sparrow

      It was good day!

      • What a menagerie!

        It’s wonderful that you have such a variety of birds nearby. I really enjoy seeing the Coal Tit, as it so closely resembles the chickadee of my New England landscapes. I’m also fascinated to read of your dearth of starlings. We have so many here in Boston, just as we are teeming with house sparrows, despite both birds’ diminishing populations in Britain. It’s amazing how a species can become so successfully naturalized in a new place while its native population dwindles.

      • Hello Jenny, it’s good to hear that there are stable and healthy populations somewhere. I guess you have the wide open spaces, which stay that way, and can support the birds. Over here, the UK is so overcrowded and all spare land is agricultural so has been blitzed with chemicals, and woodland and hedgerows have been destroyed to such an extent that there isn’t enough food or habitat to sustain the normal numbers. So I try to help them out as much as I can!

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