Tag Archives: coal tit

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.

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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!

All the other garden birds…

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.

Tits, tits, tits!

Coal, long tailed and great, that is, in case you were thinking the News of the World had reinvented itself in blog format! The reason I’ve dedicated a post to the tits is because they have been the most regular visitors to my feeders and on many days I’ve seen these four species there at the same time: blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus, Dansk: blåmejse), great tit (Parus major, Dansk musvit), coal tit (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse).

Two factors combined to make photographing the songbirds in my garden considerably more challenging than is customary. Long periods of murky wet weather meant that the light was rarely optimal, and secondly, very few birds came to the garden at all up until November, and even then not in the numbers that have visited in previous years. I think the reason for that may have been the relative abundance of food in the countryside due to the mild and wet conditions that prevailed in the summer and autumn which gave rise to an abundance of blackberries, haws, sloes, hips and other berries. Then after November the birds started to reappear but the light didn’t improve so I took photographs at ISO settings of 1000-2000 to get the requisite shutter speeds, which is higher than I would normally use because of the higher background noise. Despite that I got some nice images:

Coal tit looking for a meal on a murky morningCoal tit looking for breakfast on a cold foggy morning

The coal tit is distinguishable at a glance by the prominent white stripe on the nape of its neck. They’ve been regular but infrequent visitors to my garden in other years but in the last couple of months they’ve been coming in ones and twos every day. The tits are not always easy to capture because they usually feed by grabbing a seed or nut and then flying into the cover of an adjacent bush to eat it. But just occasionally they linger for long enough, as this coal tit did. They prefer coniferous woodland in the breeding season where they feed on spiders and insects and in wintertime they are also prevalent in towns when they will also feed on seeds. Their conservation status is green, they’re resident breeders in the UK and can be found across Europe and Asia and in Africa too.

Long tailed tits disobeying the cardiologist!Two of a small flock of long tailed tits

As with coal tits, the long tailed tit is also immediately recognisable. Seeing one almost invariably means there are more close by. They fly from A to B one at a time, each following the previous one by half a second or so and are usually in small flocks of 10 or a dozen. I often hear them before I see them as they chatter to each other as they’re on the move. They like to feed on the fat balls I hang out, as do the other tits, and there can be 3 or 4 there at the same time with several more in the adjacent bushes, waiting their turn. They’re very charming little birds and I’m looking forward to them visiting on a bright sunny day so I can get some better images. Like coal tits they are also woodland birds, found across Eurasia they are resident breeders in the UK and their conservation status is green.

Great tit preparing himself to launch onto the seed tray

Great tits are probably the most regular partakers of the fare provided by my feeders, and that’s no bad thing, they’re handsome birds. There are a pair, male and female, feeding on seeds as I write, and they’ve just been joined by a pair of blue tits. The great tit is one of the birds that put the ‘song‘ in songbird, my Collins guide describes them as having a ‘rich repertoire’ and I’ve read they have around 70 different vocalisations, which suggests highly complex vocal communication for a small bird.

The male above has a chunk of peanut between his toes which he is pecking from. He is distinguishable from the female by the width of his black breast stripe which reaches as far as his legs, and the female below who has a very thin stripe which tapers downwards, is nibbling at a fat ball. In the depths of winter small birds need to spend most of the day feeding because the majority of their energy intake is used to maintain body temperature. Birds as small as a coal tit, which weighs 8-10g, therefore spend virtually all day feeding just to stay warm and they can die of hypothermia very quickly on a wintry morning if they don’t find food within a short time of waking up. So as us humans have destroyed so much natural habitat, our gardens and feeding stations are an essential lifeline for many species of birds.

Great tits also have green conservation status, numbering 2 million in summer 2000 according to the British Trust for Ornithology. Other species which have put in an appearance are the wren (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdesmutte), blackbird (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk jernspurv) and a lone male blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla, Dansk: munk) flew through on one occasion – one of our eastern European overwintering blackcaps. Early one dark foggy morning as I was replenishing the feeders I caught a small movement out the corner of my eye so I glanced round without moving my head and a wren sat around 3 feet away watching me. When I finished I stood and watched him and he just waited for me to leave before grabbing some breakfast. I found out recently that wrens are our commonest bird, which really surprised me, but then they are adaptable and aren’t restricted to one particular habitat. It’s nice to see them flitting around the garden in their perpetual search for insects to see them through the winter.

(N.b. I source my bird feed from Vine House Farm. I wouldn’t normally do a free plug but I really like what these people do. They work together with the Wildlife Trusts and they farm the land to produce bird feed in the most wildlife-friendly way they can, and they publish a free newsletter to update on progress and news from the farm. Their feed is not always the cheapest but I’ve always found it to be very high quality.)

Cragside

Whilst exploring Northumberland in August we ventured into  Bamburgh Castle which is well worth a visit not least because it houses a museum dedicated to the Victorian engineering genius and arms manufacturer, William Armstrong. Armstrong used a portion of his colossal wealth to build a remarkable house at Cragside near Rothbury, which is also well worth a visit because it is set in some pretty amazing countryside which is teeming with wildlife. It’s also remarkable because it’s the first house on the planet to be lit by hydroelectricity. So the man who amassed wealth beyond belief by producing arms which were responsible for the deaths of an awful lot of people also set the stage for renewable energy. And that’s a dichotomy which, in my book, makes him a very interesting man.

So… on the way home from Northumberland we decided to avoid the A1 as far as we could which involved going close to Rothbury, and when, completely serendipitously,  we passed a road sign for Cragside (and having joined the National Trust whilst on the Farne Islands) we rapidly decided a visit there was on the days agenda.

And that was a good decision. The house itself would take a long time to explore so we stuck our heads in the front door and decided to explore the surroundings instead. It was a cold and windy day threatening rain, but despite that the gardens were full of flowers attracting bumble bees and butterflies, particularly red admirals. The wooded slopes were full of birds, particularly tits, and most particularly coal tits (Periparus ater, Dansk: sortmejse).

My son spotted a baby toad in the long grass but I didn’t want to disturb it too much so I didn’t get a photograph, but I was rewarded shortly after when I found this little chap walking along the woodwork of a bridge over a stream:


This nascent toad, Bufo bufo, was smaller than a 50p piece and slipped  into the water whilst crossing the bridge, but he sat still for just long enough

And as we were chasing toads a handsome cock pheasant appeared in the adjacent field,


Pheasant male, Phasianus colchicus (Dansk: fasan) showing off his magnificent plumage

The pheasant was introduced to the UK from Asia, where it’s native range extends from the Caucasus to China, around 1000 years ago. It is extensively hunted, which probably explains why it has been introduced to so many countries!

But the ornithological highlight of the visit to Cragside was the dipper (Cinclus cinclus, Dansk: vandstær). It flew past me at high speed low over the stream before landing on a rock which it used as a springboard to hunt insects underwater. I thought it is called a ‘dipper’ because of it’s diving prowess, but while it was perched on terra firma it flexed its legs resulting in a dipping motion of it’s head – so maybe it’s this action that gives it its name. I was wondering why it did the dipping and thought it may enable it to see small prey items underwater more easily.


Dipper perched on a rock contemplating a snack…


Hunting in the stream…


And with a catch – I think it has landed a damselfly

Dippers are unique in that they can swim underwater and even walk on the bottom as a result of having solid bones.

Photographically the dipper posed some interesting problems. It’s mostly a dark coloured bird and was in a dark coloured stream under tall trees on a cloudy morning so there was very little spare light, and it didn’t stay still for very long. Consequently I had to use ISO 800, f5.6 and 160th sec exposure and cross my fingers! Fortunately I was able to focus on the white breast and managed to get a few good shots. It’s a charming little bird and I was very pleased to be able to share some pictures with you.

Winter garden birds

The prevailing weather conditions have made me ponder what this post should be about, but a glance out the window made it immediately obvious that the numerous bird species in and around my garden would be a perfect subject. As I’ve mentioned previously, I feed the birds through the winter and as this one has been particularly prolonged and cold, and it’s still only Christmas time, my hanging and ground feeders have been kept topped up with mixed seed, niger seed, peanuts, sultanas and fat balls. There are numerous wild bird food suppliers out there and the one I prefer to use is Vine House Farm in Lincolnshire. The quality of the feed is always good and they take a proactive approach to managing their farm to encourage wildlife. Consequently the food isn’t always the cheapest but I’m happy to pay a little extra to support them.

The variety and numbers of birds visiting the gardens in my vicinity has been remarkable. Within the last week there have been numerous tits – blue tit (Cyanistes caeruleus), great tit (Parus major), coal tit (Periparus ater) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus).


Great tit male eyeing up a meal of seed on a bitterly cold morning

Long tailed tits usually appear over the space of 30 seconds or so, gorge on the fat balls and as rapidly disappear into a nearby tree. Coal tits appear on their own, take a seed and sit in the buddleia bush whilst they shell the seed and eat the contents and then usually fly away.  They occasionally stay for more than one seed, but not often. Blue tit and great tit behave quite differently, they are omnipresent and there can be up to 3 or 4 visiting  at any one time. Great tits are usually fairly nervous, they take a seed and sit at the back of the buddleia making maximum possible use of the available cover. Blue tits are much less neurotic and whereas they will take a seed and fly off to eat it, they sit in much more exposed locations. They are also happy to take on the resident robin (Erithacus rubecula). He’s a feisty little chap and he takes up position on a plant pot on the edge of the undergrowth and chases off all the other snall birds from his patch, particularly dunnock.

The resident robin guarding his territory on the flat feeder

The robin also stands on the flat feeder repelling all comers, but the blue tits have devised a technique to deal with this. They hang upside down on the edge of the feeder while the robin is on top and then flip over the top, grab a seed, and vacate quick-sharp to the buddleia bush giving the robin no time to attack.

Finches have also been conspicuous, up to half a dozen chaffinch are omnipresent in both front and rear gardens feeding on the ground. Before replenishing the flat feeder I sprinkle the remaining seed on the grass and under adjacent shrubs for chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs), dunnock (Prunella modularis), robin, wood pigeon (Columba palombus) and collared dove (Streptopelia decaocto) to graze on. There are always several chaffinch of both genders brightening things up:

Cock chaffinch resplendent in the freezing rime

Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) show up every day to feed on niger seed and in the last couple of days an immature greenfinch (Carduelis chloris) has appeared. Other regular visitors include blackbird (Turdus merula), dunnock, collared dove and wood pigeon which feed either on the ground or on the flat feeder and starling (Sturnus vulgaris) which gorge on the fat balls along with blue tit and long tailed tit. Less frequent visitors include wren (Troglodytes troglodytes), rook (Corvis frugilegus), carrion crow (Corvus corone), magpie (Pica pica) and pied wagtail (Motacilla alba).


Pied wagtail visiting during the coldest, snowiest, part of the recent cold snap

On several days over Christmas a flock of gulls consisting predominantly of black headed gulls (Larus ridibundus) has been swooping low over my front garden and the lawns on the other side of the road. I don’t know what’s attracting them but they’re a welcome addition to the roll of birds visiting my garden.


Black headed gull in winter plumage perched on a telegraph pole on Cottenham Road

As well as our resident birds there are lots of Scandin-avian visitors too. Opposite my house is an orchard-garden with lots of fruit trees and taller trees immediately adjacent. Since Christmas Day have been full of redwing (Turdus iliacus) and fieldfare (Turdus pilaris). It’s entertaining to watch when the fieldfare flock are feeding on fruit on the ground and someone walks along the pavement, within a couple of seconds the whole place comes alive with hundreds of birds heading for the perceived security of the taller trees.


Fieldfare heading to the orchard floor for a fruit feast

Redwing are feeding on the bright red berries of an enormous bush whose identity is unknown to me. There are many tens of them and they have been in situ for the last three days in such numbers. The pale face stripes and red patch around the leading edge of the wing are very pronounced and distinguish them from the songthrush which is similarly sized but lacks the stripes and the red patch:


Redwing – one of the sizeable flock surviving the winter in the garden opposite mine

And the other Scandinavian visitor which has descended on the UK in large numbers this winter due to the particularly dreadful weather in Norway is the waxwing. I posted on waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus) a few weeks ago after seeing them for the first time in Brimley Road, Cambridge. There have been several reports of waxwing sightings in Histon on the Cambridge Bird Club ‘What’s about’ blog in the last couple of weeks but despite keeping a look out I hadn’t seen any  myself… until yesterday. I took a walk to Narrow Close in Histon with my daughter, Sophie, where we found three waxwing in the top of a tree which were feeding on haw berries. We positioned ourselves behind a road sign and watched them for half an hour flitting between the top of the tree on one side of the road and a hawthorn hedge on the other:


Waxwing sitting in a hawthorn hedge

I think waxwing are absolutely exquisite and I’m immensely pleased they have descended on Histon, within a couple of hundred meters of my house. I planted a rowan tree in my garden three years ago to try to attract winter visitors such as waxwing but after a year or two of weak flowering and fruiting it keeled over and died. I don’t know why it failed but after a succession of very cold winters culminating in a ‘waxwing winter‘ the thought they could potentially visit is making me think I should try again. I took another walk to Narrow Close early this morning where there were 8 waxwing feeding on haw berries in adjacent hedgerows.


Another waxwing harvesting haw berries

A green woodpecker (Picus viridis), sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus) and grey heron (Ardea cinerea) have also passed overhead in the last two weeks. The best thing about the wintry weather is the abundance of wildlife that can be seen by simply putting food out on a regular basis. Most of the photographs in this post were taken in my back garden, and all of them are within 200m of home.