Tag Archives: winter

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!

Crystallised countryside

After the snow at the beginning of February, last weekend the temperatures in this part of the world plummeted to a wintry -12C creating a cold crystalline landscape.

So here are some pictures from the frost bound south Cambridgeshire countryside:

Ash saplings and brambles festooned with ice crystals on the shaded north side. The sun had already stripped the south side bare of frost

It was still early in the morning so the sun was low in the sky and created ghostly scintillations as it reflected from showers of dancing frost crystals dislodged by wafts of icy breeze.

As I walked my footsteps made loud cracking and crunching sounds but when I stood still it was completely silent. No cars, no birdsong, just the sound of the breeze. It was absolutely beautiful.

The rays of the sun couldn’t reach the grass stems so they remained coated with crystals through the day

Giant burdock

The burrs of the burdock (Arctium lappa) normally provide seeds for goldfinches to feast on but today they were twice their normal size and weighed down by a thick coating of frost.

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.

Hungry Heron

The current beautiful but brutally cold weather we are experiencing is lethal for many tiny creatures but also larger birds including our grey heron (Ardea cinerea). Cold spells such as the current one can result in the death of a large proportion of our heron population as they are unable to fish for their normal food supply when water courses freeze over.

Statuesque grey heron on Cambridge Science Park

The grey heron is a member of the family containing  bitterns and egrets and aswell as being the largest European heron is one of the largest UK birds.  They stand almost a metre tall with an average wingspan approximately 185cm and feed predominantly on fish and other creatures, in or close to water, such as frogs and other amphibians, but have been known to take small mammals, reptiles and insects.

Herons are considered to be among the more intelligent birds due to their ability to hunt and catch such a wide range of prey. One individual in Histon has recently exemplified this intelligence in an unusual and amusing way. It arrived in my friends garden looking very sorry for itself a few weeks ago at the start of the winter weather. My friend, being a thoroughly decent sort, gave it some fish from his freezer after which the heron decided to loiter. After several free and very easy meals of frozen pollock it took up residence in the garden and when the stipulated mealtime was not observed to its full satisfaction would sidle along to the door and tap on the glass with it’s bill to summon the next course.


The Histon heron
Waiting for a snack…

…and tucking in to a pollock fillet…
…then retired to a nearby vantage point for some post-prandial relaxation

As well as being sizeable birds heron can be stealthy and are extremely efficient fishermen. They catch smaller fish and eels in their bill but as you can see from the photographs the bill is a fearsome weapon and is used to spear larger prey. I once encountered a heron pecking at a prey item on the bank of the Lode at Wicken Fen, as I approached the heron flew away and I found an enormous pike on the riverbank, approximately 2 feet long (I don’t know if a heron would be capable of catching and killing such a big fish) and it had made a surgical incision running from top to bottom immediately behind the gill and had been busy extracting the entrails.

Heron are not migrants to or from the UK but they have been known to cross the English Channel and turn up in France and the Iberian peninsula. They have various common names including the ‘hernshaw’ in Lincolnshire, the ‘marshmens harnser’ in Norfolk and a ‘shiterow’ or ‘shiteheron’ thought to originate from the herons habit of defecating when disturbed prior to take off!

So if your pond is overstocked with fish in the freezing cold weather and could use  some thinning out why not spare a thought for the struggling heron and break the ice so he can refuel and stave off the cold.

 

Winter garden visitors

Redwing and fieldfare have now made the journey south from Scandinavia to overwinter in the fields and hedgerows of the UK and the first frosts have happened over alot of the country. The weather has turned generally pretty cold so it’s time to spare a thought for the struggling wild creatures. I’ve now cleaned and replenished my feeders to help the birds survive the winter months. For example, a blue tit weighs between 10-12 grams so a night spent asleep in sub-zero conditions is an extremely challenging time and they need regular food supplies to keep warm. You’ll notice the photographs in this post weren’t all shot in the cold winter months but all the species shown are regular winter visitors to my garden.


Greenfinch waiting for a vacant space on the seed feeder

I hang bird feeders from the trees in my front garden with peanuts, mixed seed and fat balls in along with a ground station with peanuts, seed and sultanas. There are some good online suppliers out there including the RSPB, Soar Mill Seeds and the one I’ve now been using for a few years is Vine House Farm. This combination of feeds attracts a wide range of birds including starling, blackbird, blue tit, great tit, long tailed tit, robin, greenfinch, chaffinch, rook, jackdaw, carrion crow, collared dove and wood pigeon.


Wood pigeon perched in the cherry tree in my front garden


One of the Churchyard rooks sitting on a neighbours’ TV aerial contemplating a raid on the ground feeder

 


One of the blue tit pair in my crab apple tree checking for danger before disappearing into the nest box

 There are also infrequent visits from great spotted woodpecker, song thrush, wren, sparrowhawk and even a yellowhammer put in an appearance on one occasion.

In my back garden I also hang peanut and mixed seed feeders and a niger seed feeder for goldfinch. I have two suspended seed feeders above ground out of the way of marauding cats and squirrels which work well for ground feeders such as chaffinch and dunnock. A similar range of small birds appear in the back garden but the crows, woodpecker and sparrowhawk  don’t seem to venture in there, but dunnock and goldfinch are regular visitors all through the year.

Goldfinch – one of this years offspring. It still doesn’t have the black head markings and the face is pale orange rather than the deep red of the adults.

Adult goldfinch


Dunnock

Living on the edge of countryside surrounded by gardens with big old trees and an orchard is obviously a good place to be to see birds (and bats in the summer), but being in the middle of the village or even in the middle of a city like Cambridge, well away from countryside, doesn’t preclude seeing interesting birdlife. A friend in Histon has seen siskin and redpoll in his garden, neither of which are common garden birds, and another friend in the centre of Cambridge has regular visits from sparrowhawk and jay. So simply hanging up a couple of birdfeeders with nuts and mixed seed can turn an urban garden into a mini nature reserve, and you can sit in the warm with a cup of coffee and watch it all out the window. I’ve been amazed to see what has turned up in my garden in the last few years!