Category Archives: Garden birds

The great grey shrike

Back in January there was a report of a great grey shrike at Wicken Fen and I’d never seen one before so I decided to go and have a look.

A distant tree across the reedbeds through the thick early morning mist

It was a very grey morning and not really one of those that gives me high hopes of seeing much wildlife, but the shrike put in the very briefest of appearances, probably less than 2 seconds, so short I couldn’t photograph it, but it was a striking bird! It was bigger and paler than I thought, and with its piratical black eye stripe it was completely unmistakeable. And despite my initial pessimism there was lots of birdlife around that morning.

Fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger)

The Tower Hide at Wicken Fen is usually a good place to survey the area and see the local birdlife, and as the shrike had appeared very close to it I climbed the stairs to see if it would reappear and pose for a portrait. Unfortunately it didn’t, but all the following pictures are from the top of the Tower Hide:

Redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel)

The redwing and the fieldfare are winter visitors in the UK, making the flight here from Scandinavia as the weather turns cold there for the winter.

A pale male bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula, Dansk: dompap)

This male bullfinch may have appeared a little more washed out than he actually was. Or he may have been a youngster or waiting for some warmer weather to change into his sumptuous breeding regalia.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemajse)

And finally…

A kestrel (Falco tinnunculus,Dansk: tårnfalk)

The drops of condensate clinging to the twigs around the kestrel give a fair indication of the prevailing weather – it was very cold… and very damp!

The indomitable wren

Even though my regular finches had been conspicuous by their absence in the garden one of my favourite birds, and one of the tiniest, was often flitting around the flower pots hunting insects:

The wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The word ‘troglodyte‘ has derogatory connotations so I wondered why the taxonomic name for the wren uses it twice, and apparently it originates from the Greek for ‘cave dweller’. Even though the BTO website lists its habitat as woodland and undergrowth as it’s an insectivore I guess that could make sense in some countries, so I guess it may depend on the nationality of the scientist who named it.

Wrens are tiny, weighing on average 10g and with a 15cm wingspan. They’re resident in the UK and I think it’s remarkable that such a tiny creature can survive a long cold British winter. A real testament to the effectiveness of feathers as insulators. And another amazing thing about wrens is their voices, they have incredibly loud song for such a tiny bird, if you’d like to hear it click here: Eurasian wren song.

Yet another remarkable fact about the humble wren is that it’s the most numerous songbird in the UK with 7.7 million territories. And as they’re not always easy to see as they flit around the undergrowth I was surprised by that statistic until I learnt to recognise the song. After that I realised they are everywhere!

This little chap appeared one day in February this year on a bug hunt in the flower pots, he posed right outside the window and let me snap a series of portraits. Wrens have been regular visitors through this year and I’ve deliberately avoided tidying the garden hoping they continue to treat it as home.

Where did all the finches go?

Until a couple of years ago my garden bird feeders were always visited by lots of finches: chaffinch, goldfinch, greenfinch, even the occasional siskin. But then the goldfinch disappeared from the feeders, I didn’t see a single one for around 18 months, and then, even more bizarrely, the chaffinch stopped visiting. Greenfinch were always occasional visitors even though I could hear them in the nearby trees, but they seldom came in to feed.

I don’t know what caused the finches to change their habits but it made my garden rather less colourful.

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) – a rare visit to the niger seed

In the last year or so I’ve seen goldfinch on my TV aerial and regularly in the front garden around the pond, but they still tend to avoid the back garden even though there is always a feeder full of niger seed for them. I often see and hear both chaffinch and goldfinch in the nearby fields when I walk the dog, so they are still in the area, and chaffinch seemed just as common as ever… except in my garden. But goldfinch sightings increased over spring this year as did those of chaffinch:

An erstwhile unusual visit from a male chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke)

And along with chaffinch and goldfinch, greenfinch have also been visiting more frequently, and in springtime this year there were a family with a couple of young:

Adult male greenfinch fuelling up (Chloris chloris, Dansk: grønirisk)

And one of his fledged brood:

The male and a fledgling feeding together:

It’s a mystery why they moved away, maybe sparrowhawk visits became to frequent, or maybe because of recent warmer winters there is enough easily accessible food in the countryside. I stopped feeding the birds later in the spring because the seed was left uneaten and it began to go mouldy, but now the weather is getting cold I’m going to clean the feeders and refill them for the winter. And keep my fingers crossed the birds find them to their liking.

Winter fieldlife

This post’s a tad unseasonal now, but I’m on a mission to try to catch up with myself,  so this is the first edition of the my race to the present! For the last couple of years the bird species that frequent my garden seem to have been changing. Greenfinch all but disappeared for over a year, even the ubiquitous chaffinch completely vacated for many months. There is always a niger seed feeder for the goldfinch and siskin, and even though siskin seldom visit, goldfinch were there every day. And then they weren’t. if I see one in a week these days that’s as many as it is. The strange thing is that all three of these finch species haven’t disappeared from the village so maybe, hopefully, they’ll return soon.

A goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) in a field on the edge of the village

During a stroll with the dog across the local fields at the end of December the goldfinches, and lots of other birds, were enjoying a glorious sunny winter morning. A grey heron flapped lazily across the tops of the trees:

Grey heron (Ardea cinerea,Dansk: fiskehejre)

Grey herons aren’t an unusual occurrence in this location, but what was unusual was that it alighted in the top of a tree:

To the general annoyance of the local corvid population. I think this is a carrion crow, it took exception to the presence of the heron and proceeded to dive bomb it and then landed in the same tree and squawked at it. To which the heron voiced its own displeasure:

All this bickering led to the departure of the crow followed shortly by the heron. And while I was trying to unobtrusively find a spot to get closer to the tree, a wren, one of my very favourite little birds, appeared in the hedgerow close by, so I had to spend a minute or two snapping a portrait of it, so I missed the departure of the heron. But it was worth it to get this little chap:

Wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdsmutte)

The wren is one of our smallest birds and has an incredibly loud and varied song for such a small bird. It’s the most numerous bird in the UK, it weighs around 10g and is resident in the UK throughout the year. It’s a brave little chap and is one of the species that appears reasonably regularly in my garden where it’s always welcome.

Another bird which appears in the fields when the weather gets cold is the black headed gull:

Black headed gulls (Chroicocephalus ridibundus, Dansk: hættemåge)

It feeds in the fields in sizable flocks, sometimes hundreds strong, alongside other gulls such as the herring gull, common gull and lesser and greater black backed gulls, but they all disappear as soon as the weather warms up. This one was already starting to develop the black head summer plumage even though it was still only December. I guess the mild winter weather made its thoughts turn to mating early in the season…

A less welcome guest

In my last post I showed you some pictures of some minibeasts I was cohabiting with in the summer last year. As the post title indicated, I don’t mind providing board and lodging for those little guys.

But every winter, and often through the summer too, I put seed and nuts out to feed the birds, and I always put some in a tray feeder and also on the ground so the smaller ground feeders don’t get bullied off the food by flocks of noisy squabbling starlings like this one:

Starling, Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær, availing itself of the seed platter

I welcome all creatures to stop by for a nibble in the depths of winter because I think how miserable I’d be if it was me out there in the freezing cold with no food. And until a couple of weeks ago the only non-avian guests I’d entertained were the occasional mouse and the even more occasional squirrel.

But then last week I spotted this little chap poking his head out from under the bush adjacent to the bird feeder:

Brown rat, Rattus norvegicus,

I know that rats can be a problem when there are too many of them in the wrong place, but I have a lot of respect for a creature which seems to me to be the ultimate survivor, I reckon ratty will be around long after humans have killed themselves off! Consequently, even though he is less welcome than my invertebrate visitors, I’m not going to panic and call for the rat catcher or put traps and poison out to try and kill him.

In the blink of an eye he was up the pole and tucking in to the bird food

As I watched, he scurried out from under the  bush and shinned up the metal pole with the bird feeders on and helped himself to a nibble at the fat balls. Now I reckon any creature that has the brains and the balls to do that deserves a little sustenance as reward for his skill and ingenuity. So fair play to him.

I know there are no rats living in the immediate vicinity of my house, and I only ever see them occasionally and one at a time, so unless he moves in and brings his family I’m content to let him scavenge the occasional nut or seed.

Winter’s on the way

I can tell when winter is on the way because the bird population in my garden changes to reflect the season. A coupe of weeks ago a flock of long tailed tits passed through, the first one this side of the summer, then this weekend the garden was so full of birds I had to refill the seed feeders.

The one species which, when I first see it, confirms the imminent descent into winter chiiliness is the coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse):


Coal tits can be tricky to photograph because they don’t stay still in the open for very long at all. And on top of that, the weather last weekend was foul: cold, grey mist, murky and damp with very little natural light. So I wound up the ISO to 3200 in order to allow me to get a suitable shutter speed and crossed my fingers that it would work. And I was pleasantly surprised by some of the results:

The coal tits flit rapidly and cautiously onto the feeder, grab a seed and immediately make a beeline for the adjacent buddleia bush to shell it and consume the contents under cover. It’s a small bird, about the size of a blue tit, but it has a black head with a white stripe up the nape and is pale rufous brown underneath, so it’s immediately distinguishable from it’s more prevalent cousin.

It’s not unusual to see blue tits all year round but the coal tit feeds mainly on conifers, so as there are no conifers in or around my garden, it only ventures in when the harsher weather of the approaching winter necessitates it.

And of course, the blue tits were here too:

Blue tit  – Cyanistes caerulius, Dansk: blåmejse

My resident dunnock was on parade, present and correct, I like the pose in this image and even in the shabby light conditions the colours stand out. I think the dunnock is the archetypal ‘LBJ’ or ‘little brown job’, but you can see here that it’s much more than that!

My resident dunnock – Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv

The Danish name for the dunnock is ‘jernspurv‘ which tranlates as ‘iron sparrow‘ which I think is a very apt name.

The third member of the tit family that visited on Saturday was the great tit which is our largest. It’s probably the most frequent garden visitor too, at least in my garden, or maybe just the most visible one:

Great tit – Parus major, Dansk: musvit

This great tit is female, the black stripe on her underside is narrow and short compared to that of the male which is longer and stretches from one leg to the other at the bottom of the abdomen. I think the one below is a male but I didn’t get a good enough view of its nethers to be sure. He has what looks like a parasite on his face next to his eye and I wondered how that was affecting him. He seemed to be feeding and flying OK, but the next day he was back and he was wobbly in flight and actually flew into the wall of my shed, so it appears to be affecting his vision or balance, or both. So I reckon he could become a meal for the local sparrowhawk before too long. Nature is beautiful but brutal!

Whilst all the tit activity was going on on the feeders a wood pigeon alighted on the shed awaiting an opportinity to grab some seed from the tray feeder. Last week the hanging feeder was emptied in a couple of days, which is unheard of, and when I watched I saw the wood pigeon was standing on the tray feeder from where it emptied the hanging one in record time. One wood pigeon can hold a phenomenal amount of seed and it also means the small birds get less of a look in, so I rearranged the hanging one so the pigeon can  no longer reach it. (I also scatter nuts and seeds on the ground for the pigeons so they don’t starve).

Wood pigeon – Columba palumbus, Dansk: ringdue

And the last bird I managed to get a picture of was the ever present robin. I love this little chap, it’s always there raising Cain with the dunnocks and brightening up even the greyest day.

Robin – Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals

Chaffinch, blackbird and wren all put in appearances as well, but I didn’t manage to get pictures of them and I’m looking forward to seeing which other species pay me a visit over the cold winter months.

Meadow warblers

Our migrant warblers were all back from Africa and nesting by the beginning of June. There are four species which normally frequent my local countryside, the blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk), chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita, Dansk: gransanger), willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) and the whitethroat (Sylvia communis, Dansk: tornsanger).

The blackcap have been conspicuous by their absence this summer. The central European winter population, of which a pair took up residence in the garden last winter, disappeared in the spring and that was the last time I saw one. Chiffchaff were, as always, the first winter visitor I noticed returning because of their characteristic song calling out from the trees. There are several other birds singing in the background here but the call of the chiffchaff is clear above the others, and it’s easy to see where it gets its name from.

Chiffchaff male declaring his availability in early spring

It’s now at the start of September and I haven’t seen a chiffchaff for a while, but through the summer I regularly saw willow warblers which were nesting in a bramble thicket that I passed when I was out walking the dog. Willow warblers are very easy to mistake for chiffchaff by sight but willow warbler song is quite different.

Willow warbler parent with a beak full of insects heading for the nest

The song isn’t the only diagnostic differentiator between these two species, there are a couple of others but they are more subtle. The most noticeable is the colour of the legs, chiffchaff have dark, almost black, legs and the willow warblers are red brown. Differences in plumage of the willow warbler are the brighter stripe over the eye (the ‘supercilium‘), a more promounced dark eyestripe and the patch under the eye (the ‘ear covert’) is olive grey with a pale patch immediately below the eye, compared to the more uniform dark grey colour of the chiffchaff. So if you get a good look through binoculars it’s not too difficult to tell them apart, but the song is the easiest way.

Another foray to collect flies for the chicks

Pausing to check up on me before heading into the nest

For a couple of weeks there was a spot in the field where I could stand close to the nest and watch the comings and goings of the adult willow warblers bringing food for the youngsters, and they seemed cautious but otherwise content for me to be there if I stood still.

Whitethroat male – my best ever bird portrait!

My favourite warbler is the whitethroat. They are easy to tell at a distance, even without optical assistance, and this is my favourite picture of one. The male whitethroat has a jingly jangly song and when he’s advertising for ladies he perches on top of a bush and flies repeatedly in a jerky motion straight up and then flutters back down to the same spot.

And while I was busy photographing the warblers I was being serenaded night after night by this chap:

A male songthrush (Turdus philomelos, Dansk: sangdrossel) filling the meadow with song

A tad incongruous in a post about warblers, I grant you, but he was there all the time and his songwas magnificent! As with the chiffchaff there are several other birds calling too, but the thrush is easily distinguishable from the noise. This is the first time I’ve posted a link to my own (amateurish!) sound recording, but I think it’s OK. Let me know what you think.

Garden guests

It was in June that fledgling birds finally started to appear in the garden. With so many natural phenomena being late this year due to the delayed onset of spring and the warm weather, the birds were no exception. The first one that I noticed was this robin chick who appeared on its own every morning for quite a few days feeding on seeds and nuts from the tray feeder. I placed an old kettle in a bush near the feeders a couple of years ago hoping that robins would find it a suitable nest site, but they haven’t been tempted so far so I think it may be too close to all the other avian activity. I’m going to find a less disturbed location for it for next years breeding season when I’ll hopefully see a few more of these:

Robin fledgling gathering its strength before striking out on its own

The robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) is a feisty little bird which I’ve often found hopping round my feet looking for the insects that get turned over as I dig the garden, or sitting on a feeder within inches of me, completely unfazed as I’m working,  as long as I don’t do anything overtly threatening. Often I don’t know it’s there until I glance up and see it sitting on the fence peering at me, and if I ignore it and carry on working it will go about its business unconcerned by my presence. They are iconic garden birds and according to the British Trust for Ornithology our unofficial national bird.

A less frequent visitor to my garden is the greenfinch. I hear the males calling almost every day through the summer from the top of a tall fir tree in a nearby garden. They don’t often venture into my garden outside the breeding season, but this year both the male and female and then the fledglings would feed here, and this is the male:

The male greenfinch clearing up seed fallen from a hanging feeder

The shape of the pointed, chunky, beak of the greenfinch (Chloris chloris, Dansk: grønirisk) clearly marks it out as a seed eating member of the finch family although they also hunt invertebrates to feed the chicks to give them a rapid calorie boost.

The geenfinch showing off his seed cracking beak and sumptuous plumage

From a distance the greenfinch can look fairly dull, but in full breeding condition and good light the males have magnificent plumage. This one is also decorated by tiny drops of rain on its back.

This year the starlings were numerous and entertaining, another feisty visitor, especially when they bowl in mob-handed complete with sizable broods of unruly youngsters. For several weeks, families of starlings (Sturnus vulgaris, Dansk: stær) with many fledglings invaded the garden and fed mainly on the fat balls. There were often 20+ individuals making a right old cacophany and emptying both the fat ball feeders every day. It was good fun to watch, and as the starling is red listed in the UK due to huge population decline it was good to see so many fledglings.

Starling fledgling on the right begging for food from the parent

Two more fledglings waiting to be fed, they haven’t yet grown the dark irridescent feathers of the adults

Taking matters into its own hands and being seen off by the adult. Note the fat ball feeder is nearly empty

The biggest and most colourful guest this year was the jay:

The jay, Garrulus glandarius, Dansk: skovskade

Jays are extremely infrequent visitors to my garden but this one appeared every morning and throughout the day over a week at the end of May beginning of June. It was taking seed from the tray feeder and I’m guessing it had a nest close by. (The ‘decorated’ wood of my fence really isn’t the most attractive backdrop for a nature picture so I’ve since moved the bird feeders to a new location infront of some foliage!). The jay is by far the most colourful of the crow family, most of which have almost entirely black plumage, except the magpie which is black and white. As you can see it’s the size of a small crow but the colours are magnificent. This one was brave too. I was sitting on a bench just 6-7m away and it was quite happy for me to sit that close and photograph it.

Jays feed mainly on seed and in the autumn they cache acorns by burying them in the ground for retrieval when things get tough through the winter. I’ve heard that a single jay can bury up to 5000 acorns… and remember where they all are! But I’ve also heard that jays are very good at propagating oak woodland, so maybe they do forget where some of their treasure is buried.

Armchair twitching

You may have noticed that there are few things I like better than getting out into the countryside and taking photographs of the wildlife. But just occasionally the wildlife comes to me and I don’t have to even leave the armchair. Such was my good fortune during a recent visit to my parents.

The garden there is fairly green and the birds know there is always a square meal for them because my Dad has been feeding them regularly for over 40 years. So on this a particular afternoon the feeders were replenished and the birds visited in droves.

Great tit pair (Parus major, Dansk: musvit) crunching peanuts in the holly bush

Because everything was late in the spring this year due to the cold weather the birds were paired off but were not all sitting on eggs yet and various species were behaving as though they were starting to think about mating but hadn’t yet got round to it.

Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto, Dansk: tyrkerdue) perched in the laburnum tree waiting for his mate

It was Easter Sunday, March 31st, the leaves of the laburnum tree were just starting to shoot and the thoughts of the collared doves were turning to lurv:

The good lady duly arrived and bonds were reaffirmed

The Danish name for the collared dove ‘tyrkerdue‘ translates to ”Turkish dove‘ in English because their home territory is in Turkey and the Middle East from where they spread to the UK, arriving in 1955. The gentle and peaceful  image traditionally associated with doves is belied by the reality, they are one of the most agreesive garden birds and I’ve watched them chase off all comers including much bigger birds than themselves such as wood pigeons. They’re feisty characters!

Siskin

Ten days before this visit to my folks I’d seen siskin (Carduelis spinus, Dansk: grønsisken) in my garden near Cambridge and I talked about them in this post. So within the space of a couple of weeks I saw them in two gardens, having never seen that at all before. Another sign that times they are a-changing, climatically speaking. This one is sat just above a niger seed feeder which is what tempted it into the garden in the first place.

Feral pigeon

Much to the annoyance of my Dad a flock of 20-30 feral pigeons have taken up residence on an adjacent roof and as with other pigeons they have an insatiable appetite for free food. As they are mob-handed and not slow in coming forward they deter the smaller songbirds so I can fully understand the old boy’s ire, but on the other hand they are handsome birds and entertaining to watch as a flock in flight.

And then this little guy turned up:

I don’t know what happened to him but I’ve heard it said that robins (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals) will fight each other to the death in competition for mates, and peck at each others heads to the point where they scalp each other. So I wonder if this little monster has been fighting and got a sub-lethal pecking that subsequently became infected. Whatever it was, it didn’t kill him and he was turning up in my folk’s garden for a couple of months in this state before he eventually disappeared.

Needs as needs must

Two species of bird are said to use niger seed feeders, but up until this winter I’d only ever seen one of them on mine, and that’s the goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits). The other species, that I had never seen was the siskin (Carduelis spinus, Dansk:  grønsisken).

A siskin refuelling on niger seed

Not only had they not appeared on the feeders but I hadn’t seen one for years before this winter. My friend in the village said that he had seen one on his feeders and it was reported that the dreadful weather last year had caused such a shortage of wild seed, the siskins natural food source, that they were showing up in gardens in unusual numbers. Needs as needs must when hunger prevails.

The normal diet of the siskin consists of seeds from spruce, pine, alder or birch trees and they will occasionally feed on invertebrates too. In the photograph above it’s easy to see the long and pointed but powerful beak it would need to extract the seeds from pine cones.

The conservation status of the siskin according to the British Trust for Ornithology is green and they don’t appear to be in any danger, which is unusual in itself these days, so it’s surprising I haven’t seen one for so long. It’s a resident breeder here in the UK and a passage and winter visitor, flying in from further north in Europe.

They are particularly handsome birds and although it’s a pleasure to see them I hope the need to use garden feeders doesn’t go on from year to year or their green conservation status may not last.