Big Garden Birdwatch 2019

Every year in January I take part in the RSPB’s ‘Big Garden Birdwatch’, the world’s largest wildlife survey. Now in it’s 40th year, the Big Garden Birdwatch was originally meant to be a one-off event run by the RSPB to get children more engaged in wildlife watching during the Winter months, and so that they could work out what the ten most common garden birds were. Expecting only a few hundred forms to be returned, the RSPB were astonished to receive 34,000 back through the post and so the Big Garden Birdwatch has since been an annual event, with adults able to join in since 2001.

I’ve taken part each year since we moved here, and it’s been a great way to see how more and more visitors have arrived as the years have gone on and I’ve made the garden more wildlife friendly. The first year I took part we’d only been in the house for 3 months, I was in the midst of working full time and studying and so I’d done little but put up a feeder. I think only a couple of birds made an appearance that year, but it’s increased every year since and now most years I’m able to count at least our regular visitors. Of course our more special visitors such as Siskins and Long Tailed Tits always become shy during the hour I’m counting and never make an appearance!

It does make me think though about the garden I remember as a child, and how things have changed. Our garden used to be full of Sparrows and Starlings. I rarely see a Starling here – though last year the parent Starlings seemed to bring their babies to the garden when teaching them how to forage for food themselves! I figured it was probably a safer environment for learning than the supermarket car park in our local town centre where they seem to live now.

So what did I see?

We’re lucky though in that we have a large flock of House Sparrows in and around the garden. They have seen massive declines since the Big Garden Birdwatch started so I feel lucky to have them, and they are such little characters that they are always a treat to watch. A project for this year is to get some nestboxes up to encourage them to nest here too!

Both male and female Blackbirds put in an appearance. There is also a youngster that appears from time to time – there were two fledglings this year but sadly one was taken by a cat.

After disappearing in late Autumn the Dunnocks have returned with a vengeance, and spend their days in the hedging and patrolling the base of the feeders for fallen seeds. Also known as Hedge Sparrows from a distance they seem like a drab brown bird, but close up they have incredibly beautiful eyes and I find the mix of grey and brown colouring very striking.

No bird watch is complete without the Robin – they are in and around the garden a lot of the time, and have been spotted investigating a Robin nest box I put up last Autumn, so I am quietly hopeful that they may choose to nest here. Their song always cheers me in the dark Winter months, and it always gives me a lift seeing the flash of red alight on a perch in the garden.

Blue Tits visited frequently through the hour – including one particularly noisy individual who seemed to be on a one-bird mission to be a complete noise nuisance, only stopping calling to grab a mouthful of food.

Along with the Blue Tits came the Coal Tits. We had three in the garden at once, which is a record and I’m so pleased! I’ve only recently managed to get some decent photos of these tiny birds, more on this in a later blog post!

And just on cue as the hour was up came the Bullfinches. I love seeing these birds – they’ve been a regular visitor for the last couple of years and only seem to disappear during the early nesting period in the Spring and again for a few weeks during late Autumn, when food is easily available elsewhere. They are reasonably uncommon in gardens – I only saw my first one on a nature reserve in 2015 – so I’m very pleased to have them. We have two pairs visiting this Winter, I always hope that one day a pair will bring their fledglings along.

Project – Chair Hide

Just before Christmas – when I was convinced that my break would be filled with lots of cold, bright days ideal for photography – I bought myself a chair hide. I’ve wanted to try to be able to get nearer to our garden birds for a while now in order to get some close up shots, but no matter how still I sit they are very hesitant to come close.

The chair hide looks like this – it comprises a camping chair with a cover that you pull up and over yourself and various windows which can be unzipped to stick your camera lens through. After use it folds down and comes in a bag for storage, making it compact enough to store in the garage.

My dream one day would be to have a garden big enough to have a permanent hide set up, but until then this seemed like a good compromise.

As it turned out, the weather over the holidays was awful for photography. For most of the fortnight the UK was blanketed with a thick layer of cloud making the days very dull and the light levels too low to capture any good images. We had one bright day at the beginning of January so as soon as possible I headed out to the garden to try out the hide.

I set up the hide a couple of metres away from a feeder hook that the Robin uses to perch on. To try to see if I could encourage some other species to come and perch I used masking tape and electrical tape to fix a small box of suet pellets and mealworms to the end of the hook. Not very pretty, but this session was more about seeing if the hide worked.

And work it did! I’d sited the hide almost directly underneath one of our hanging feeders, and within minutes I heard the flapping of wings and realised that there was a bird using the feeder right above my head!

Before long the birds caught sight of the box of treats and I had quite a few visitors, both on the feeder hook and perching in the Cotoneaster bush behind.

Getting this close allowed me to notice that this Coal Tit has a deformed beak – the upper mandible is overgrown and curved over, and the lower one seems to be longer than normal too.

The beak should look more like the Blue Tit’s beak above. I posted this picture on Twitter and a follower let me know that the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) ask for records of birds sighted with this type of deformity as part of their Big Garden Beakwatch Project. They say that birds with this type of deformity are reasonably rare, with about 1 in 200 birds being affected, but they are keen to discover more about the causes.

I’ve since submitted my record and the photos and if you see a similar bird you can submit yours HERE

I was out in the garden for about an hour, and this was enough to realise that there is great potential for using this little hide.  I’m now working on creating a better feeding platform to use with it and am looking forward to being able to take some really close photos of our smaller garden birds.

A visit to Burtonwood Nature Park

A while ago I stumbled across a page for a place called Burtonwood Nature Park on Facebook.  The photos on the page looked amazing, with loads of different bird species present on site.  I bookmarked it sometime earlier this year and resolved to visit.

I finally made it during the last week in November.  The site is a small nature reserve, looked after by volunteers who have set up feeding stations and hides from which to photograph the birds.

I made my way to a hide within the woodland and settled in.  Before long the first birds appeared, as well as the perches set up around the hides there are plenty of trees for the birds to perch in.

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I was particularly happy to see Chaffinches and to be able to photograph them close up for the first time – they aren’t a visitor to our garden, sadly.

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And also Coal Tits.  These tiny birds are a frequent visitor to the garden, but they are so fast I am never able to photograph them there.  One moment they are on the feeder, and within an instant they are gone – normally before I even get a chance to focus my camera!  Here I was able to capture them perching on the surrounding branches before and after visiting the feeder.

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I’ve always been intrigued by this behaviour which I’ve seen being performed by both Coal Tits and Blue Tits, where they retreat to nearby branches to eat a seed plucked from the feeder rather than swallowing it down straight away.  They often seem to hold the food between their feet and eat it in small bits.

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I was also thrilled to see Tree Sparrows for the first time.  Their House Sparrow cousins are frequent visitors to the garden and are one of my favourite birds.

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While I was concentrating mainly on the bird activity in the trees around the hide, there was plenty of activity on the feeding station itself and on the woodland floor.

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But the biggest treat was still to come – a Greater Spotted Woodpecker made multiple visits.

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All in all I had a wonderful couple of hours here and will definitely be visiting again.

For more details about Burtonwood Nature Park, visit their Facebook page here.

I also follow two local photographers who are regular visitors (and I think volunteers) to the park.  Their pages are well worth a visit too – Allan Mason  and Iain Lenton

Red Squirrels at Hawes – December 2018

Once again time has flown by and it’s over a month since my last entry! I have a few queued up to write and meant to do these through December, however my plans were somewhat derailed by work being completely crazy in the run up to finishing for the Christmas break.

In early December I did manage to get away for the day to Yorkshire for a day photographing Red Squirrels. I’ve always wanted to try taking photographs by a reflection pool – a large but shallow pool of water that allows for wonderful reflections. They can be set up at home, but unfortunately my garden is far too small to set one up here – although that plus a hide would definitely be my dream scenario!

Luckily, dotted around the country are several hides available to hire which already have pools set up. Even more luckily, the one nearest to me in North Yorkshire also happens to be in a woodland which is home to one of my favourite species – Red Squirrels!

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My day in the hide duly booked, I left the house at what seemed like the middle of the night – actually 6 in the morning – to embark on the 2 hour drive over to the meeting point in Hawes. The omens didn’t look too promising for the day ahead – as I drove across the Pennines thick fog came down and as soon as that cleared it was quickly followed by drizzly but persistent rain. All the same, the drive was really enjoyable with the dawn breaking over some beautiful scenery as I made my way through Yorkshire. Even better was the sight of two hunting Barn Owls, a Little Owl and a Stoat running across the road!

The weather brightened as I met up with Paul who owns the site, and we made our way over to the hides. They are ideally located just a few minutes drive outside Hawes, and within no time I was settled into the reflection pool hide.

Before long the squirrels arrived – but unfortunately so did the rain, meaning that I was only able to get a couple of shots with reflections as there was just too much disturbance on the top of the water.

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It continued to rain torrentially for much of the rest of the day. Even though I wasn’t able to take the shots I went for, I love some of the photos that I took on the day. They certainly reflect the conditions and tell a story.

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Some of the squirrels looked seriously bedraggled at points.

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And I was treated to a couple of instances of something that I never thought I’d see – swimming squirrels! On several occasions squirrels managed to knock hazelnuts into the pool and went chasing into the water to retrieve them. They had no hesitation in chasing right into the water – until roughly halfway across the pool where they seemed to lose their nerve and beat a hasty retreat back to shore. At which point they had to wait until the nut floated back to the side of the pool before finally claiming their prize!

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There were usually 4 or 5 squirrels around the hide at any one time and they came so close – even running across the front of the hide on several occasions and stopping to have a closer look at me!

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As well as the squirrels, a variety of woodland birds were also frequent visitors to the pool giving me the chance to photograph them too.

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As the afternoon rolled on and the light started to drop, sadly it was time to leave. A sign of just how much it had rained came when we passed what had been a small stream in the morning, which was now a raging torrent as water flowed down from the hills. All the same, I’d had a brilliant time and will definitely be visiting the hides again in pursuit of some better weather and those ever elusive reflection shots!

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The hide I used can be booked here through Paul Fowlie Photography.

Garden Sparrowhawk

We’ve had the first hard frost of the season overnight – Winter is most definitely on it’s way!  I’m off work this week, and when I blearily glanced out of the kitchen window this morning while refilling my coffee cup, I was in for a bit of a surprise.  There on the lawn was a beautiful female Sparrowhawk, tucking into her breakfast.

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Terrible photo I know, but it was quickly taken through the patio doors so that I could ID the bird!!

I have such mixed feelings about this one – after all, I feed these small birds and love seeing them visit the garden, so I think naturally I am quite protective of them.  It’s hard to see them die.  However, the Sparrowhawk needs a meal too and has no other option.  Also, it gives me confidence that the garden is becoming a good little eco-system in it’s own right – once predators start arriving it shows that there is a sustainable population of the prey species.

I’m not familiar with birds of prey, so once I’d grabbed this picture I booted up my laptop to try and identify it.  I quickly learned that ‘it’ was in fact a she, a Sparrowhawk – and a youngster, signified by the white patches on her back.

She’s definitely not something I expected to see this morning, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for her as the Winter draws in.