Tag Archives: house sparrow

Returning songbirds

There’s a particular spot in my local meadow where there are some large clumps of brambles which are home to numerous species of bird including songthrush, blackbird, linnet and house sparrow. And in the summer chiffchaff, willow warbler, blackcap and common whitethroat are all there too. Chiffchaff have been here for a couple of months now, and willow warbler almost as long but I hadn’t yet seen a whitethroat, so I set off last Monday in the hope of seeing the first one of the year.

A cock robin singing to the ladies

There were many species of songbird in the meadow including the robin (Erithacus rubecula: Dansk: rødhals) and the house sparrow (Passer domesticus, Dansk: gråspurv) and the air was alive with the song of all these species.


House sparrow female

Robin and house sparrow are resident species in the meadow and I see them all year round there, but not the chiffchaff:

The chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita Dansk: gransanger), which is a warbler, and willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus, Dansk: løvsanger) can be very difficult to tell apart if only seen at a glance, but they can be distinguished by their song, of which more in the next post. This chiffchaff was one of a pair which were calling to each other and flitting around the bushes passing within a few feet of me on several occasions and seemingly unfazed by my presence.

Cock linnet

Resident in the UK is the linnet (Carduelis cannabina, Dansk: tornirisk), they disappear from the fields around Histon in the Autumn, presumably to congregate at a winter feeding ground, and they reappear in the Spring. And they have recently turned up in the meadow. Also resident, and present all year round, is the dunnock…


Dunnock, Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv

… and the chaffinch:

Cock chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, Dansk: bogfinke

There were no whitethroat back in the meadow last Monday but as you can see there were plenty of other birds. In the last week I’ve also seen kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard, blackcap, green woodpecker, jay and magpie.

I recce’d the meadow again this weekend and the whitethroat are now back from wintering in Africa. They are very distinctive and both sexes are easily identified by their strikingly white throat, and the males display by singing from the top of a bramble thicket or a sapling and flit 4-5m vertically into the air and then descend to land in the same spot. They’re lovely little birds, with a very distinctive song, and I’ll hopefully have some pictures to show you in the near future.

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Carduelis (or Chloris) chloris

A sound I hear frequently at the moment when I open a door or a window which stands out from all other birdcalls is the call of the male greenfinch. It’s quite variable in tone from fairly high pitched, as in the recording here, to lower pitched where it almost sounds like a whirring mechanical toy.

The bird in these pictures has a reddish hue to it because it was being lit by the evening sun as it was getting lower in the sky, and also from the reflected light of the rusty ironwork and insulators of the electricity supply cables:


Greenfinch male calling from the top of a telegraph pole

The female greenfinch is similar to the male but her colours are much more drab, she is darker grey/brown without the vibrant green of the male.

The greenfinch is a resident breeder in the UK and can be found in gardens and parks at all times of the year feeding on bigger seeds and sometimes insects when rearing youngsters. It has a chunky beak which is typical of finches and is custom built for cracking open seeds.

The taxonomic name for the greenfinch is listed in some references as ‘Carduelis chloris‘, as in my RSPB ‘Complete Birds of Britain and Europe’ by Rob Hume published in 2002, (RSPB – Royal Society for the protection of Birds) ISBN 0751373540, and also in the RSPB Bird Identifier website. But in the BTO BirdFacts website (BTO – British Trust for Ornithology) and in my Collins Bird Guide 2nd edition from 2010, ISBN 978 0 00 726726 2, it is listed as ‘Chloris chloris‘ (Dansk: grønirisk). Somewhat confusingly the BTO entry goes on to explain that the name derives from ‘carduelis‘ meaning ‘goldfinch’ and the Greek ‘khloros‘ meaning ‘green’. So it appears that the two names may be interchangeable. Incidentally, the chemical element chlorine also derives its name from khloros as it exists as a green gas.

He’s turned round to keep on eye on me – his seed-cracking beak clearly visible

The poor old greenfinch has taken a bit of a battering in the last few years since 2005 from the trichomonad parasite which causes a disease called trichomonosis. This microscopic parasite lives in the upper digestive tracts of several birds species including other finches, house sparrows (Passer domesticus, Dansk:  gråspurv) and pigeons and doves. I’ve heard that feeders may become contaminated by pigeons from where it infects the smaller birds. It’s particularly unpleasant (as are most parasitic infestations!) because it causes the throat to swell to the point where the birds can’t swallow so they eventually die of starvation.

Fortunately I’ve never seen any evidence of infected birds but if you think you may have a problem you can click here for the RSPB advice sheet which has details on how to identify the problem and how best to deal with it.

More signs of Spring

The weekend before last, the 3rd/4th of March, was generally pretty murky and grey and generally not very pleasant, but a stroll around the fields and meadows of Histon showed up some encouraging signs of Springtime. To start with, several birds including blackbirds and house sparrows were plucking nesting material out of the shrubbery in my garden.

And in the meadow the buds of the willow, ‘pussy willow‘, were bursting out

…and amongst the buds was this little dunnock singing his head off. Dunnock (Prunella modularis, Dansk: jernspurv) make a big sound for such a small bird. You can here the song here.

And other birds which are all adding to the avian orchestra around here at the moment are the green woodpecker (Picus viridis, Dansk: grønspætte) whose striking call I posted a link to a short while ago:


Not just one green woodpecker, but a pair. There are lots of these in the meadow but it’s seldom I see two together, and even more seldom they let me photograph them!

And this delightful wren who sat high and sung loud

I was very pleased with my wren picture because I rarely see them in a suitable place and they’re usually flitting in and out the undergrowth and don’t stay still for long enough to photograph. And even though it was very murky that morning and I had to use ISO 400, I like this shot. Like dunnock, wrens also make an amazing sound for such a small bird. And wrens (Troglodytes troglodytes, Dansk: gærdesmutte) really are tiny, they are 4-5cm long and weigh approximately 10g but they make a huge sound which is easily recognisable as it’s punctuated by short stretches of ‘whirring’ which differentiates it from other small bird song.

And the last thing to catch my eye on this trip was this tree bark. I couldn’t tell what type of tree it is so I’m waiting for the leaves to open so I can give it it’s proper name, but it has some wonderfully textured bark which is covered in a white mould:


I had to get down and crawl through the leaf litter to get to the base of the tree

Lots of early Springtime phenomena were going on, from pairs of green woodpeckers to singing wrens and blackbirds collecting nesting material. More Springtime firsts next post.

Garden Gladiators

For the last three mornings my garden has been frequented by numerous blackbirds (Turdus merula, Dansk: solsort), at least four; two males, two females and possibly others. I couldn’t tell the females apart because they looked very similar but the males were identifiable. One was a typical black blackbird with a striking yellow beak and the other was very slightly smaller, slightly more brown and had a dark tinge to the end of his beak so he has been named ‘Blacktip’.


Blacktip

The second male blackbird, henceforth referred to as ‘The Arch Rival’


And one of the ladies

The initial skirmishes of the Histon Blackbird Wars started in my garden on Friday but I didn’t have a chance to study it what with getting the children to school and myself to work. The real gladiatorial action took place yesterday morning and commenced with the males and the two females chasing each other around at high speed on the ground and in the air. I’ve never noticed before but when blackbirds compete on the ground they actually run rather than hop, which from the human perspective lends the whole drama a comic angle. I imagine they can move alot faster when running and are therefore more intimidating to any rivals.

The Arch Rival perched threateningly atop the rabbit run

The females departed fairly early on in the proceedings leaving the two boys to battle it out, and it turned into an amazing spectacle which was very entertaining to watch. The Arch Rival occupied a battle station on top of the rabbit run from where he would walk round the edge and look down at Blacktip on the ground, and from where he would launch the occasional strike and chase Blacktip  around for a minute or two before resuming his vantage point on the rabbit run. This behaviour led me to think the The Arch Rival was possibly the dominant male as he seemed to hold the advantage all along and it went on for probably half an hour or so before the real battle commenced:

Aerial hostilities break out
The dogfight slowly gains more and more altitude, toe to toe and beak to beak
Higher still, now around 4-5m off the ground
And then they separated and descended to draw breath in the wisteria.

This was followed by The Arch Rival resuming his place on the rabbit run which he circled around for several minutes before dropping to the ground and walking and running around the same route for a further few minutes whilst Blacktip remained on the ground. this cycle of events was repeated several times over the next hour.


The Arch Rival back on the rabbit run, Blacktip was lurking on the ground

This activity eventually petered out and Blacktip was left on his own to recuperate under cover of the buddleia bush. Leaving me to think that he was the apparent victor…


Blacktip in the cover of the buddleia foliage

…Or was he?

This morning Blacktip appeared with a lady and seemed to be performing a courtship ritual where he was running around on the ground calling and she was following. That went on for around half an hour and they seemed to be getting along famously. And then The Arch Rival arrived back on the scene and 20 minutes or so of aerial combat ensued. the dynamic was different this time though. The female and Blacktip seemed to be chasing The Arch Rival, not Blacktip on his own.

As I go to press the action has ceased and all the blackbirds have disappeared although both the males have made short forays back into the garden looking for some breakfast, but the female hasn’t returned. Incidentally while this was taking place, all the other birds: goldfinch, dunnock, house sparrow, blue tit, great tit, starling, collared dove and wood pigeon were using the feeders as normal, completely unperturbed by the battle taking place. My back window is like a 75 inch 3D HD TV showing nature documentaries all day, to which I can add my own commentary. As I write a pair of fieldfare are flying over and the blackbirds have been replaced by three dunnock.

And now… all three blackbirds are back and fighting again, so I’m going to sign off and watch them and I’ll report back with further developments.

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.

LBJ’s

I recently finished reading Simon Barnes book (he being the sports writer in The Times and nature writer) ‘How to be a bad birdwatcher’. In his book, which, if you love nature and wildlife and birds in particular, is well worth a read, he talks about the difficulties of getting to grips with all the species of small songbirds which flit through daily life largely unnoticed. He describes them as those ‘little brown jobs’ or ‘LBJ’s‘. I think that’s a good description, because until I made the effort to have a good look with binoculars they are simply little brown things which are largely unidentifiable.

However, a little time and effort spent getting to grips with them can be extremely rewarding. I mentioned in a previous post that there are alot of fledglings to be seen just now and a walk along my local hedgerows has provided lots of avian family entertainment:


A family of house sparrows. The male is on the left with the black bib and the female and three youngsters above and to the right.

House sparrows are getting more scarce although in total there are still large numbers of them, apparently there are 13.4 million at the last count according to the BTO. They have suffered from changes in farming practices but I’ve encountered reasonable numbers of them at various places around Histon this year. They’re highly gregarious and garrulous and I often hear them before I see them.

The family in the photograph are in a bramble thicket close to a substantial old hedge which every year plays host to various species of small birds, most notably linnet, blackcap, whitethroat, great tit, goldfinch and long tailed tit. A field close to here (approximately 150m away) has a good size fallow area which has various wild flowers including oats and this has provided alot of food and cover for families of whitethroat, yellowhammer and linnet this year and just this morning a small flock of 10-20 house sparrow were in that area. A fellow dog walker also told me there was a grey partridge nest there this year which had been abandoned and the eggs eaten, probably by crows. I’ve seen grey partridge in that area in previous years and they also have Red conservation status. It goes to show that even a small area of mixed vegetation can be highly beneficial for insects and birds.

And on the subject of linnet, they are also in plentiful supply this summer. They are less visible now the harvest is underway and the rape seed they were feeding on until a couple of weeks ago has now disappeared, so they have dispersed to find other food supplies.

A pair of linnet younsgters perched atop a bramble bush


Another linnet youngster with a common whitethroat. This is a frequent sight at the moment, common whitethroat are abundant and often appear alongside other species in the hedgerows such as corn bunting, reed bunting and linnet


… and another one sorting it’s plumage out


Whitehroat family with a male reed bunting…


…and the reed bunting fledgling who was just around the corner of the bush from the male above.

These pictures were taken in the evening when the sun was low in the western sky, which is why the colours are quite red, and a corn bunting was singing away just out of shot. More LBJ’s than I could shake a stick at!


Male yellowhammer feeding chicks on the nest

It’s also the time of year when alot of species are rearing second broods and I watched this yellowhammer with a beak full of bugs waiting for me to move on before he dropped down into the nest.

April birdwatch

The activities of the birds in my garden have changed significantly in the last 2-3 weeks. Until then I was seeing multiple blackbird, robin, starling, goldfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, collared dove and house sparrow with less frequent visits by long tailed tit. Since then a pair of wood pigeon have virtually taken up residence in my back garden and hoover up all the bird food before the smaller species get a look in. There is still the occasional dunnock and blackbird on the ground and much less frequent visits by blue tit, robin, starling and chaffinch but the goldfinch have all but vacated. This is interesting because when I’m outside I regularly see and hear groups of goldfinch in the trees around the garden but something seems to be keeping them away from my feeder.

My friend Chris told me he had a songthrush rearing chicks in a nest in a tree in his garden and she fledged four youngsters last week, which is very early in the year, so hopefully she’ll fit in another brood this year. But his garden has been subject to the attentions of a sparrowhawk in recent months so he was worried it would catch the fledglings, but clever use of carefully placed hanging bamboo canes has successfully deterred the hawk and all four fledglings seem to have successfully flown the coop. Songthrush 4, sparrowhawk nil.

Continuing with garden birds, last week it occurred to me that the fat balls hanging in my front garden were requiring replenishment rather more frequently than usual so I guessed the nesting birds were feeding more often. The reason turned out to be rather more amusing:


One of the local rooks has worked out that these are edible…

…and that it can reach them. And it takes alot of fat ball to fill a hungry rook!

Slightly further afield in the hedgrows and scrub bordering the farmland around Histon it’s a very good time to survey the local wildlife. As I mentioned in a previous post many species of wild flower now including forget-me-not, yellow archangel…


Forget-me-not

Yellow archangel – Lamiastrum galeobdolon, this variegated version is an invading subspecies ‘argentatum’

…herb robert, cow parsley and periwinkle are all in bloom and lining the paths through the countryside filling them with a palette of colour.

And in the fields, trees and bushes there is an abundance of birdlife:


Corn bunting perched in the midst of a field of oil seed rape

The countryside is ablaze with the yellow of rape flowers right now and just occasionally a photographic opportunity such as this one arises. I’m not particularly keen on the vast swathes of rape but it created a lovely backdrop for this corn bunting which are becoming increasingly uncommon.

It’s not unusual to see and hear bullfinch in one patch of scrub near the church in Histon, which is a regular destination for my birdwatching outings. That makes me very happy because I used to see them all the time when I was a kid in the 1970’s but since the 80’s they seem to have been persecuted to near extinction in alot of the UK because of their fondness for the green shoots of commercial fruit trees. They are still fairly elusive but I managed to get this photograph of a male (just!):


Male bullfinch – the female has similar markings but they are not pink she is more pale grey/brown

And in the same field as the bullfinch linnet are in residence, as are willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap which have now returned from over wintering in Africa:


Blackcap male

Chiffchaff

…as are whitethroat:


A female whitehroat, one of a pair patrolling a patch of brambles in the middle of the field

This field is an amazing place, I reckon it’s approximately 10-12 acres and it comprises several habitats including open-ish grass, it’s sorrounded by some old established trees: oak, ash and horse chestnut with hedgerow joining up the old trees consisting mainly of hawthorn and in the field itself there are alot of ash and other saplings and some large patches of bramble. Consequently it provides good supplies of food and cover for nesting for a number of different species. Green woodpeckers can be constantly heard yaffling to each other:

…and birds of prey including kestrel, sparrowhawk and buzzard are regularly in the skies above. The green woodpecker are there all year round and are usually hidden in the grass so I’ll flush one off the ground only for it to disappear into a tree too distant to allow a photograph. So this is about the best image I have of one. Most of the common or garden birds are regulars here too, house sparrow, dunnock, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit:

…and chaffinch

…blackbird, songthrush, rook, crow and magpie are all present every day. So a small area of mixed scrub an the edge of the village supports a wonderful number of our birds.

There’s lots to see by simply look up in the village too. On the way back from the playground in Impington with my kids today we cycled along a road under a tree as a jay emerged from a silver birch on the other side of the road and landed in the tree a few metres over our heads. We all stopped to look at it and marvel at it’s amazing colours, and it looked at us for a minute or two before flapping off higher up the tree.

Guns Lane

As I mentioned in my previous post, Guns Lane links the north of Histon with Willingham and Ely, and provided the raw materials for my winter warmer, sloe gin. Due to the profusion of heavily laden trees and bushes – hawthorn, dog rose etc., providing food and cover for the resident wildlife, it is a great place to go birdspotting too.

My first stroll up there this winter was three weekends ago, 13th November 2010) and the profusion of birdlife on display was spectacular. Shortly after entering Guns Lane from Cottenham Road under a copse of tall trees several chaffinch were flitting around at the top. Closer inspection revealed the sumptuous pink breast and black cap of a cock bullfinch who exited the tree accompanied by three others. That was only the second time I’ve seen more than one bullfinch since I was at school. And the first time was the weekend before in Girton. Bullfinch feed on the buds of fruit trees in springtime and have been accredited with decimating fruit crops and I believe it is still legal to trap them in some parts of the UK. Consequently, their numbers dropped dramatically in recent decades so it’s great to see them in threes and fours.

Further on a wren appeared at around eye height craning on a tall grass stem to see me. It didn’t appear overly perturbed by my presence and followed me along the path for 30-40m. Simultaneously, several goldfinch were patrolling the top of the hawthorn trees on the other side of the lane until a visit by a kestrel frightened all the smaller birds away.

N.b. You can find full list of my sightings by clicking on this link to my wildlife diary.

All along the walk numerous small birds such as blue tit, great tit, a flock of long tailed tits, chaffinch and goldfinch appeared and redwing and large flocks of fieldfare are now regular fixtures.


Looking north along Guns Lane on the edge of Histon. These bushes are a hotspot for blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit and magpie

On another walk there had been very little birdlife to see until approaching a bend a little further on from the spot in the photo above, there was a commotion going on which I thought was due to my presence. As I approached blue tit, chaffinch, blackbird and even a green woodpecker took to the air all alarm calling and as I rounded the bend a buzzard emerged from a bush close by and glided up the lane away from me for 50-60m before turning off into a field. That all happened within 30 feet of where I stood and I don’t often get to see a buzzard that close – all very exciting!

Blue tit feeding in a bush on Guns Lane
Fieldfare – this one was difficult to photograph due to the position in the top of a tree and the bright white sky behind – I aim to get some better pictures as soon as possible!

Adjoining the lane at the Histon end of the lane is a field of scrub, which I call Church Field, and is always full of birds, with regular sightings of green woodpecker, chaffinch, greenfinch, latterly bullfinch, kestrel and the occasional sparrowhawk, among various others.


Looking north east across Church Field – it’s a good mixture of old established trees, young scrub and grass

The weather this weekend past (27th and 28th November 2010) was freezing:

and during an early morning foray into Church Field last Sunday (28th November 2010) a kestrel was perched on the uppermost branch of a tree with his feathers ruffled as protection against the cold:

Male kestrel trying to stay warm on a fiercely cold morning

It’s unusual to be able to get close and take photographs of most birds including birds of prey, so I was very grateful to this one for sitting tight for so long. He kept a watchful eye on me as I slowly sidled round the bottom of his tree which gave me time to capture a few decent shots. I particularly like this one looking down the lens with his feathers all ruffled up. On my way back through the field a couple of hours later a cock bullfinch flew right over my head, his colours against the bright blue sky were vibrant.

The section of the lane approaching the Oakington to Cottenham road is different habitat consisting of old, thick hedgerows which are frequented by big flocks of fieldfare and flat open fields which this weekend were hosting small flocks of lapwing (~20) and larger flocks of golden plover (at least 40) in the midst of which a heron landed and sat catching its breath until after I was out of sight. The hedges bordering the fields here are also home to many small birds such as chaffinch, goldfinch and dunnock.


Part of a small flock of 22 lapwing in a field off Guns Lane

And part of a larger flock of golden plover

The end of a walk on Gun Lane can also be the best part and I usually linger right by the Cottenham Road end where trees overhang the lane on both sides. These trees and bushes are usually full of birds including blackbird, chaffinch, blue tit, great tit, coal tit, house sparrow, dunnock, goldfinch and sometimes they’re all on parade at the same time.


House sparrow male in a hawthorn tree at the Cottenham Road end of the lane

And this brave squirrel sat watching me as I was photographing the birds

As you can hopefully see, this is a really good place to go for a stroll and see lots of really good wildlife. All the pictures and observations in this post were collected in just three walks. I’ll post again soon to tell you about my next outings on Guns Lane.