Tag Archives: halemejse

RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

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.

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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.)

The Songbirds Return

Up until February we’ve had an unusually mild winter and it was noticed across the country that songbirds were not frequenting gardens simply because there was abundant food in the countryside so they didn’t need to avail themselves of our feeders. The RSPB were advising people to clean their feeders and place a small amount of feed in so that passing birds would recognise it as a source of nourishment if times got tough. So a couple of weeks ago I topped my feeders up in anticipation of some cold weather and saw nothing apart from my resident cock blackbird who likes to dig worms out of my lawn.

And then the times did indeed get tough. The snow came last Saturday, lots of it, and on Sunday morning the transformation in my garden was immediate and the place came alive with hungry squabbling birds. Hen and cock chaffinch brought welcome splashes of colour:

Chaffinch are normally ground feeders so I’m not sure if this lady was confused by the contraption or the snow covering the hole.

(There’s a fungus there too on the branch of my plum tree which I must put some effort into identifying).

The sky was completely white and murky with total low cloud cover after the snow, so all the colours of the birds were muted and photography was challenging. Even the colours of this cock chaffinch, which was looking for seeds on the ground (more customary chaffinch behaviour), proved difficult to capture:


As well as chaffinch, dunnock, robin, blue tit, long tailed tit, collared dove, wood pigeon and blackbirds were all availing themselves of the platter. All the birds are welcome but the collared dove and particularly the wood pigeon can completely clean up in a matter of minutes, leaving very little for the other birds, so this time I put enough food out for all the visitors. A pair of great tit were gorging on some chopped peanuts, they are cautious birds and would visit the seed tray, pick up a piece of nut or seed:


Parus major – great tit, the male of the species

…and carry it off to the adjacent buddleia where it clamped the nut between it’s claws and pecked at it until it was gone, and then fetched another. If they’re not disturbed they can carry on flitting to and fro many times.


Female great tit demonstrating classic great tit feeding behaviour

I was shown how to easily differentiate between the male and female great tit by some bird ringers at Wicken Fen. They had caught a male in their net and the way to tell is by the width of the black stripe down the breast. The female has a thin stripe and that of the male is much thicker and can broaden as it descends widening to fill the gap between the legs. The broader the stripe the more attractive he is to the ladies.


Greenfinch – the first one I’ve seen in my garden since last winter

I often see, and hear, greenfinch in the trees where I walk and also the ones around where I work on Cambridge Science Park, but unless the weather is particularly inclement they don’t often venture into my garden, so this one was a welcome visitor.

Male house sparrow looking for a top up

None of my garden visitors were particularly unusual but it was lovely to see so many at once and to discover they were still out there. So I shall keep feeding them until the weather warms up and they move back to countryside.

Where have all the birds gone?

There are virtually no birds in my garden at the moment, and they have been conspicuous by their absence all through the autumn. This appears to be a more widely observed phenomenon as reported on BBC’s Countryfile, and the RSPB have been seeking to reassure people who are concerned by the apparent dearth of birdlife visiting their gardens that it’s simply due to the abundance of suitable food still accessible in the countryside, and whenever possible that’s where the birds prefer to be.

I can vouch for the disappearance of the small birds from gardens. Apart from the occasional blackbird and blue tit  (and a jay last week – the first one I’ve ever seen in my garden!) very few birds are availing themselves of my feeders. If this is happening in your garden the best thing to do is to keep your feeders clean and put a small amount of feed in so any passing birds recognise your garden as a source of food and can stop to refill if they need to. But it looks as thought the cold weather is starting to arrive here in Cambridgeshire so garden bird numbers may well increase in the near future.

So last weekend I ventured to the fields on the edge of Histon to see if they are still in residence. The hedges and fields were well populated with goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis, Dansk: stillits) and chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke), great tit (Parus major, Dansk: musvit) and long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus, Dansk: halemejse) and green woodpeckers were abundant too. I don’t know if the numbers of green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) I see are representative of national trends but they seem to be numerous here in Histon, also where I work on Cambridge Science Park and today I was at the RSPB reserve at Fen Drayton near St Ives and there were good numbers there too. Two birds that I haven’t seen recently in the numbers I’d expect are dunnock and greenfinch – I hope that’s because they’re out in the countryside and it doesn’t reflect a decline in overall numbers.

I talked in my post a couple of weeks ago, Forests and Fungi, about how I’ve been inspired to look for other ways of photographing nature rather than simply taking traditional portrait shots. Rowleys Meadow which is on the edge of Histon, has mature ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) on the periphery which are laden with ash keys and as a result there are thousands of young ash saplings:


Brown grass stems merge with the taller, thicker, silver stems of the ash saplings

And this presented a good opportunity to capture some abstract nature images. I like the way the low, bright sunlight creates a vertical pattern of silver and shadow as it illuminates hundreds of young ash trees

Back to birds, as well as our regular winter residents migrants from Scandinavia are much in evidence, redwing (Turdus iliacus, Dansk: vindrossel), and fieldfare (Turdus pilaris, Dansk: sjagger):


A lone fieldfare perched in a tree after gorging on a blackthorn bush laden with sloe berries

Small flocks of fieldfare can be seen and heard making there distinctive and diagnostic call, and the flocks will get bigger if the weather does turn wintry. Last winter, which was brutally cold here and in Scandinavia, huge numbers of waxwing (Bombycilla garrulus, Dansk: silkehale) arrived in the UK from Norway, but due to the much warmer weather I don’t think we’ll see them here in quite such abundance this year, which is a real shame because they are indeed spectacular:


Waxwing – it’s around the size of a starling and the colours are amazing

Histon has a resident rook colony (Corvus frugilegus, Dansk: sibirisk allike) who have their rookery in the tall trees adjacent to the church and are a constant source of aerial entertainment. They were feeding in a field along Guns Lane, which runs from Histon to Ely, as I wandered along it and this one took exception to my presence and flew over squawking at me as it went,

I took the hint and moved on, heading home. But a little further along Guns Lane I paused when I heard the quiet and delicate song of a flock of long tailed tits. So I stood still and they went about their routine in trees about 10m away. I really like these diminutive, gregarious, birds and I love trying to photograph them, which can be challenging as they are very small and they never settle in any one place for very long. But I managed to get this series of shots which I’m rather pleased with:

Even though the weather is pleasantly mild at the moment, I prefer winter when it’s cold, so I’m hoping it will start to behave as it should and these delightful little birds come back to feed in my garden!