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.
Posted in Birds, Garden birds, Ornithology, Songbirds, UK wildlife
Tagged Carduelis spinus, finch, grønsisken, niger seed, siskin, siskin conservation status, siskins in gardens, UK garden birds, unusual garden visitors
Spring appears to have now definitely sprung, but before that the weather was very cold and many songbirds were coming to the garden to feed. One of the regular species was the blackcap pair which arrived during the fierce weather after Christmas and left around three or four weeks ago when the weather started to warm up.
The female blackcap – easily identified by her brown cap
There are two types of blackcap in the UK: those that migrate to sub-Saharan Africa to overwinter and those which migrate here from central Europe to overwinter. So I guess my pair, which oddly I rarely ever saw in the garden at the same time, were European visitors sampling our balmy winter weather.
Even though the female was the first blackcap I saw in the garden she visited nowhere near as often as the male and it took me a while to get a good portrait of her, but I managed to get these just before they disappeared to enjoy their springtime and rear their chicks in Germany or Poland.
Constant visitors all the way through the winter and still resident are my pair of chaffinch which are always welcome to brighten up a dull day.
Cock chaffinch resplendent in full courtship plumage
…and the charmed lady
The chaffinch pair probably have a nest nearby with chicks in, but before eggs and chicks the delicate matter of mating needs to be taken care of:
A pair of collared dove demonstrating that the act of lurv is not always so delicate
Spring has indeed sprung!
Posted in Birds, Garden birds, Ornithology, Songbirds, UK wildlife
Tagged blackcap, chaffinch, collared dove, Fringilla coelebs, mating, migrants, Springtime, Streptopelia decaocto, Sylvia atricapilla, warblers
Earlier this week I was learning about a technique called ‘dynamic light scattering’ (DLS) which is used to determine the size of very small particles, even those as small as protein molecules. My teacher was a scientist called Ken who designs and builds DLS machines. It came up in conversation that he lives close to the southern end of the M40 corridor where I’ve seen lots of red kites and read stories of them stealing food from people, so I asked if he sees them in his neighbourhood.
Red kite (Milvus milvus, Dansk: rød glente), this one was at Hamerton in Cambridgeshire
Red kites are big, distinctive, birds of prey and they’re a conservation success story in the UK, having been almost driven to extinction but then reintroduced in the 1990’s since when their numbers have rocketed. And as it happens they are very common indeed in that part of the world and Ken kindly agreed to upload this video clip to You Tube so I could post a link to it here. This all happened in Ken’s garden and I think it’s highly entertaining stuff, I think I’d struggle every morning to get out the front door to go to work if I had this kind of show going on in my garden!
Later on, at the end of the same day, a big flock of a few thousand starlings were murmurating over the Cambridge Science Park as I left work to come home. I was keeping one eye on the starlings and one eye on the road when I stopped at a red traffic light on the edge of the Science Park and the starlings were swirling and wheeling around the sky just in front of me. Then a sparrowhawk drifted by but the starlings carried on murmurating until the hawk suddenly accelerated up towards them. Then all of the flocks shrunk down into very tight groups and focussed on taking evasive action. It was a piece of natural theatre going on in the sky which was spectacular to watch. Then the traffic lights went green and I had to move on so I didn’t get to see the culmination of the chase, but it was a captivating end to the day.
Posted in Birds, Birds of prey, Cambridge Science Park, Garden birds, Hawks, Ornithology, Songbirds, UK wildlife
Tagged Accipiter nisus, birds of prey, conservation, M40 corridor, Milvus milvus, murmuration, Nature, ornithology, rød glente, red kite, reintroduction, sparrowhawk, starling, Sternus vulgaris
About this time last year I published a post about the battling blackbirds in my back garden. The weather last February was mild and vry pleasant and I think the breeding season really got going then. As you can see, full on combat ensued. This year has seen none of the aggression of past year, at least not in my garden, but whilst watching the other birds I noticed this female blackbird making repeated trips to collect moss from my lawn. I’ve never understood why us Brits in particular want our garden lawns to look like the centre court at Wimbledon (before the All England Championships), I’d much rather see sights like this:
Behind the magnificent mossy muzzy is a female blackbird
She has been toing and froing for at least three days now collecting these huge beakfuls of moss and I reckon her chicks are going to be as snug as a bug in the nest she is busy constructing.
The male has also been very busy in the garden but his activities are rather less altruistic…
Seed or fruit, which is it to be?
There might even be a worm under there…
Result! That bloke in there has left me an apple core
All his visits seem to be focussed solely on replenishing his energy supply, but the reason I’ve seen no battles this year is because he’s dealt with the opposition, so I guess he needs to concentrate on feeding himself up again.
The blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort) and the fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger), both members of the thrush family, like fruit and any old grapes, apple cores or pears get thrown out for them.
Like a lot of other folk I gave up making new year resolutions a long time ago because the resolve would normally last until the 2nd or 3rd of January before slipping quietly unnoticed into the flotsam and jetsam of recent history, never to be seen again. But for 2013 I made two resolutions – the first was to get current with my wildlife diaries which have been appallingly neglected for far too long – and the second resolution was not to condemn the first one to the black hole into which it would normally be swallowed. And so far so good, hence I’m feeling rather pleased with myself.
This years listings can be found here at ‘Histon Wildlife Diaries 2013‘ and if you notice gaps of more than a couple of weeks opening up please feel free to leave a pointed reminder that I need to get my finger out and get up to date!
As a consequence of my girded up loins and renewed efforts I’ve been spending more time peering into the garden to see which creatures are in residence. Just before Christmas I saw the first blackcap in the garden, it was a male with his coal-black cap, like a judge about to hand down the ultimate sentence, and he stayed for all of 2-3 seconds before zooming off into the sanctuary of our neighbours orchard. And of course I was very pleased with this visitation because it’s always good to welcome a newcomer.
Then a couple of weeks ago when the winter weather was at its filthiest here in Cambridge a female appeared and spent some time refuelling on my fatball feeder:
A female blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) on the birdcam fatball feeder
The birdcam used to be around 6m away from where it is now but there were very few takers for the lardy delights on offer. But since I moved it to its current location it has been busy every day with numerous bird species. The reason for the change is the lack of cover in the original location which left the birds exposed to the possibility of predation by the local sparrowhawk. But now they have cover within a metre or so and and I can sit and watch them all in close up on the TV. And one of the first to arrive after I moved it was my lady blackcap, who you’ll have immediately noticed has a rufous brown cap, not the blackcap of the male. The specific name ‘atricapilla‘ means ‘blackcap‘ and the Danish name ‘munk‘ means ‘monk‘. I wonder which godly habits gave him that name, or is it simply his ecclesiastical bonnet?
She arrived early on a murky morning, fed quickly and left, and that was the last I’ve seen of her. But a couple of days later a male blackcap arrived and he’s been visiting several times a day every day ever since then:
The male blackcap feeding on an old apple
I’m puzzled as to why the female has been so conspicuous by her continued absence, I guess that now the weather is considerably more pleasant she is more comfortable feeding out in the countryside.
The male doesn’t restrict himself to ground feeding on fruit but is a more regular visitor to the fatballs.
And he tops up with water too. In the picture below he is wary of the goldfinch nibbling niger seed on the adjacent feeder. He was also aware of my presence behind a glass door around 8m away and when the goldfinch disappeared he threw numerous glances in my direction, but so long as I remained still he wasn’t too bothered.
Until recently it was thought that the blackcap was a migrant breeder here in the UK and that they spent their winters in Africa, apart from a sub population that remained here in the winter. But it is now thought that all of ours overwinter south of the Mediterranean and our winter visitors are a separate population from central Europe which migrate here to overwinter. In which case my visitors will be heading back east in the near future. After that I’ll hopefully see and hear our migrant breeders out in the hedgerows where they make a distinctive call which I think sounds like someone flint-knapping.
The British Trust for Ornithology have published a factsheet about blackcaps and their migration behaviour which is worth a read. We also have passage visitors as Scandinavian birds head south and it appears that garden bird feeders are having a major impact on the behaviour of blackcaps and other species too, such as nuthatch, which are now spreading into Scotland, assisted by garden feeding and climate change.
Posted in Birds, Garden birds, Migrants, Ornithology, Predator/prey relationships, Songbirds
Tagged blackcap, garden birds, migrant, munk, Nature, ornithology, song birds, Sylvia atricapilla
When the snows came a few weekends ago an influx of birds came to my garden to feed up on the seeds and fatballs I put out for them. I also threw out some squidgy grapes which had been getting overripe at the bottom of the punnet. And as well as all the usual species a winter visitor from Scandinavia also appeared.
Fieldfare – Turdus pilaris (Dansk: sjagger)
The fieldfare is a species of thrush from Scandinavia which migrates to overwinter in the UK. They’re hardy, feisty birds and utterly resplendent in their psychedelic finery! I’ve seen large flocks of them flying above the countryside around Histon but rarely within the village itself. And then this handsome bird arrived in my garden to feed on the squidgy grapes.
Dismembering a grape
It finished the grapes and then took up residence under a bush in the garden and repelled all comers. Whenever another bird came within striking distance it would emerge from its refuge at speed and chase it off. Which sufficed for everything smaller than a blackbird.
After the grapes had gone I augmented its diet with some apple, which coinidentally is also a favourite food of blackbirds. And within minutes there was competition for the fruit. The fieldfare adopted a very distinctive stance when the blackbird, or anything bigger, like a collared dove or a wood pigeon came within range and several fights ensued. And the fieldfare wasn’t always the winner because blackbirds are also accomplished pugilists when they need to be. So it all worked out evens, they both got some apple and a good scrap would keep them fit too:
The’repel all boarders’ stance, wings down, tail in the air. If that didn’t suffice then all out assault ensued
The fieldfare, I assume it was the same one, appeared in the garden after first light every morning until the rain washed away all the snow and it hasn’t been seen since. At the same time the trees and bushes in the village were also frequented by the fieldfares during the snow but they all disappeared with the snow too.
Posted in Birds, Garden birds, Migrants, Ornithology, UK wildlife
Tagged blackbird, collared dove, Columba palumbus, fieldfare, migrants, Nature, Scandinavia, sjagger, solsort, Streptopelia decaocto, thrush, Turdus merula, Turdus pilaris, tyrkedue, wildlife, winter visitor, wood pigeon
I filled up the birdfeeders first thing this morning, made a jug of coffee, and sat in the window waiting for the birds to flock in. And very little happened. So I waited a little longer. And still nothing happened, and I put it down to the fact the sun was shining, all the snow had gone and the temperature was in double figures.
A dunnock mopping up seed scattered by great tits on the hanging feeder
Then at 9.26am a group of four long tailed tits arrived on the fat balls and from then on the birds came and went in rapid succession. So the plan was to count from 9.26 to 10.26 until at around 9.50 the dog vomited on the carpet so the next 20 minutes weren’t spent counting birds. The finish time was therefore a tad delayed, but the final counts were:
Species Total counted Maximum number at one time
Long tailed tit 18 5
Blue tit 18 3 Dunnock 3 1
Collared dove 6 2
Blackbird 13 2
Greenfinch 5 4
Wood pigeon 6 2
Robin 3 2
Starling 5 2
Great tit 3 2
Chaffinch 2 1
A female greenfinch enjoying some longed for sunshine
So all in all, what with the Vesuvian intervention from the dog, it was an entertaining hour and a half.
Posted in Birds, Garden birds, Migrants, Ornithology, Population studies, Songbirds, UK wildlife
Tagged Big Garden Birdwatch, Chloris chloris, conservation, dunnock, grønirisk, greenfinch, jernspurv, Nature, ornithology, population study, Prunella modularis, RSPB
This weekend, the 26th and 27th January 2013, is the weekend of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This is a form of citizen science by which the RSPB can harness the collective spotting power of the nation to assist in compiling data on the nations bird populations.
The idea is to spend one hour noting which bird species visit a chosen area and the maximum number of each seen at any one time. This point is important because an individual can make several visits over the course of an hour, so counting total numbers will overestimate the numbers of a particular species.
A long tailed tit paying a visit to my garden this morning
If you want to make a pot of tea and sit by the window for a relaxing hour sipping and counting the details of how to take part are here on the RSPB’s website. Even if you don’t get many interesting birds in your garden, or even many birds at all, this is important and useful data too for compiling population sizes and distributions, so every participant is crucial in creating an accurate picture of the health of the nations birdlife. Which is in turn a useful indicator of the health of the natural environment in the UK as a whole.
I’m going to do my recording tomorrow morning and I’ll post my results here too.
Posted in Birds, Garden birds, Ornithology, Population studies, Songbirds, UK wildlife, Uncategorized
Tagged Aegithalos caudatus, Big Garden Birdwatch, bird populations, citizen science, halemejse, long tailed tit, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, RSPB
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!
Posted in Birds, Garden birds, Histon, Migrants, Ornithology, Songbirds, UK wildlife
Tagged blackbird, blåmajse, blue tit, bogfinke, British Trust for Ornithology, chaffinch, coal tit, Cyanistes caerulius, dunnock, Erithacus rubecula, Fringilla coelebs, garden birds, guano, jernsurv, Liverpool, murmuration, Nature, ornithology, Periparus ater, Prunella modularis, rødhals, robin, solsort, songbirds, sortmejse, starling, stær, Sternus vulgaris, Turdus merula, wildlife, winter
In the last post I described the tits visiting my bird feeders. But of course they’re not the only species fattening up in the garden so this post is about the others. The berries and other food from the countryside are now becoming rather more scarce so greater numbers of more species are appearing.
One of the first to arrive, which has been around for a couple of months now, was my resident robin (Erithacus rubecula, Dansk: rødhals). Robins are fiercely territorial and this little guy being no exception makes it clear that my garden is his manor, in fact it’s fair to say he’s a complete thug. He only picks on birds of a similar size or smaller and he won’t tolerate them for even a second. The two species he seems to dislike most are the dunnocks (Prunella modularis, Dansk jernspurv) and the coal tits (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) who have the temerity to enter his domain and he chases and beats them up remorselessly. Earlier this afternoon another robin turned up and I expected real fireworks as I’ve heard stories of rival robins fighting to the death and scalping each other! The fighting this time was restricted to a short chase and a bit of posturing and then it was all over, fortunately no injuries or fatalities were sustained.
A source of much concern this winter has been the absence of goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits). I have a niger seed feeder for them which I keep full, but they ignored it until a few weeks ago, but even then there was only ever one or two making the occasional visit whereas previously they would be feeding there every day, often five or six at a time. And then a sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus, Dansk: spurvehøg) attacked a goldfinch on the feeder and I didn’t see another one until a few days ago. I don’t know if the memory of the sparrowhawk was enough to keep them away but they have been conspicuous by their absence.
A lone goldfinch feeding on niger seed
There is a tall old tree 10 metres from my garden which I often see flocks of 20+ goldfinches in but they just don’t seem to want to drop down onto the feeder. Maybe if the weather turns icy they’ll alter their behaviour as food gets even more difficult to find.
Greenfinch (Carduelis chloris, Dansk: grønirisk)
I’m always pleased to see greenfinches because they’re one of my favourite small birds and also because their numbers have been under threat from a nasty parasitic infection called ‘trichomonosis‘ which I posted about last year. So this little chap was very welcome. I was surprised to see him sitting on the niger seed feeder, but he wasn’t eating the seed, he was waiting for an opportunity to descend onto the seed tray which was already occupied.
The small birds usually have free access to the seed tray but occasionally it’s fully occupied by a pair of collared doves:
Collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto, Dansk: tyrkedue)
This was one of a pair and its partner was just out of shot further along the fence. A lot of folk seem to be very unimpressed by collared doves but I like having them around and I particularly like this guy with his feathers ruffled by the wind.
Previously I’ve been taking my close ups with a Nikon D40x and a Nikon 70-300mm zoom lens. This has been a really good combination, it’s small and light and therefore easily portable and has performed really well. But last year I bought a Canon 7D because I wanted to upgrade my camera body to one which is more robust and with more capability. I chose Canon rather than Nikon because the lens I thought most appropriate for what I needed was the 80-400mm telephoto zoom, but every review I read of it was that it was no good at all for wildlife photography because the autofocussing speed was much too slow. So I reckon Nikon missed a trick there because Canon have the 100-400mm L series telephoto zoom for around the same price as the Nikon lens which I decided to go for because it is supposed to be good for wildlife.
Wood pigeon (Columba palumbus, Dansk: ringdue) keeping the small songbirds away from the seed tray all by himself
All the photographs in this post except for the greenfinch were taken in murky conditions using my new Canon lens and I’m very pleased with the image quality. So now I’m looking forward to experimenting with it further afield. I’ll post the results as soon as I can.
Posted in Birds, Garden birds, Ornithology, Photography, Songbirds, UK wildlife
Tagged Accipiter nisus, Canon 7D, Carduelis carduelis, Carduelis chloris, coal tit, collared dove, Columba palumbus, dunnock, Erithacus rubecula, garden birds, goldfinch, grønirisk, greenfinch, jernspurv, Nature, niger seed, Nikon D40x, ornithology, Periparus ater, photography, Prunella modularis, rødhals, ringdue, robin, songbirds, sortmejse, sparrowhawk, spurvehøg, stillits, Streptopelia decaocto, trichomonosis, tyrkedue, wildlife, wood pigeon