Has Spring Sprung?

It’s been unseasonably warm for the past week or so – reaching 20 degrees Celsius and a record Winter temperature for the UK yesterday.

As a result, there have been reports from across the country that wildlife is starting to exhibit some distinctly Spring-like behaviour, with early species of solitary bee starting to emerge, birds nesting and frogspawn appearing in ponds and rivers. I’ve seen a little bit of this in the garden – I put some nesting wool out on one of the bird feeders and within ten minutes or so a Blue Tit had appeared out of the hedge to grab some.

Even the Woodpigeon was enjoying the warmth, basking on the fence for most of the afternoon on Sunday.

I also saw my first Bumblebees of the year this weekend flying around in the garden. While doing some painting in the garage I was really pleased to see a Queen Tree Bumblebee climb into the Bumblebee nest box I set up last year. I waited with baited breath – would she decide to use it? She emerged after a couple of minutes and appeared to start doing orientation flights around the garden – doing short, circular flights and mapping out in her mind all the local landmarks to ensure she could navigate back to the box. I hoped this meant she saw it as a serious possibility for a home, and she made several more trips in and out of it all afternoon so I’ve got my fingers firmly crossed that she is able to establish a nest here.

I’m quite concerned about this weather though – it feels like we are having more and more unusual weather conditions each year across the planet, and I feel like this is a worrying sign of what is happening to the climate. Locally, I’m also concerned that we’ll have another cold snap which will kill off all the early-emerging creatures.

I did spend the weekend taking advantage of the fine weather though, spending some time out in the hide and photographing the garden birds. My new photography feeding platform is under construction and I’ll write about it once finished, but for now the birds are enjoying the old one.

I’ve had one of the trail cams out for the past week or so and was treated to footage of our first fox visitor since last Summer! I hope he becomes a regular!

I also heard a male Tawny Owl calling at the front of the house last week! We saw one on a neighbours roof last year, but since then there have been no more sightings. I’m very glad they are still around.

An Evening Performance

I got home from work last night just as dusk was falling, and for the first time in ages the garden was full of birdsong.

For a while now the Robin has been holding the fort as a solo artist, tonight he was joined by the Blackbird, Sparrows and Blue Tits for the Dusk Chorus.

I know there’s still the chance of some cold weather before Spring really starts, but the birds certainly think that it’s on its way…

Garden Photo Studio

Now that I’ve got my chair hide, I thought I would have a go at creating a small set up for bird photography in the garden (partly inspired by my visit to Burtonwood Nature Park, where they have the photography set-up of my dreams)!

I wanted to bait an area to encourage birds to come down and feed at eye level when I am sitting in the hide. Our bird table is far too high for this purpose, even though I use the hide on a raised patio near to the house. So I bought a 3 section feeder pole, thinking that I could then add or remove sections as necessary to adjust the height.

I wanted to fix some kind of platform to the top of it, and the bottom half of a mealworm feeder fixed to the threaded adaptor which came with the pole looked like it might work well. I tried to disguise the edges a bit with some sticks and ivy, stocked it with some tasty treats and left it out in the garden for a few days for the birds to get used to this new food source!

I’ve now had a couple of sessions using the platform and so far it’s working well! I’ve been delighted that the Coal Tits were the first to try it out and have been the most regular visitors so far. I fell in love with these fiesty little birds when they started visiting the garden three or four years ago, often accompanied by the Blue Tits. Unfortunately they are very shy and incredibly fast – I’ve never had much luck photographing them around the feeders as they grab a morsel of food and are gone in an instant. They usually retreat deep into the hedging to eat their prize, or cache it – they are one of the few birds that caches food in multiple places to see them through the harsh days of Winter. Though it looks like I will have more luck with the hide and feeding platform set up – this is only a start but I’m already over the moon with these images!

The Blue Tits have been following the example of the Coal Tits and are using the platform too –

And there’s even been a few visits from our male Blackbird –

Surprisingly, the Robin has taken a few days to start using the platform – I would have been willing to bet that he’d be one of the first! He’s making up for lost time though and is now becoming a regular visitor.

I’m now thinking of ways that I can improve the look of the platform. This feeder base is quite deep, ideally I’d like one a little shallower. I’m already looking at options to see how I can put something together more suitable and easier to make more natural looking. Watch this space!

I’ve also done some work to the chair hide. I’ve started using a gimbal head and tripod to cut down on how much I need to move once I’m inside the hide, as well as saving the load on my arms. I’ve also started to drape a scrim net over the gap left open for my camera, to hide me even more. I think it’s worked, too – the birds seem much more confident in coming close and the Robin has even started landing on top of the hide on occasion!

I’m really happy with the way this experiment is turning out – I’m loving being able to get such close up photos of the feathered visitors to our garden!

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.

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.

Formby Red Squirrels

As it’s Red Squirrel Awareness Week, it struck me that now would be a very appropriate time to talk about one of my favourite places to visit further afield, especially during the Autumn and Winter months – National Trust Formby. It’s become such a favourite place to visit that at least one or two mornings spent in the reserve watching and photographing the resident Red Squirrels has now become a firm tradition over the Christmas and New Year holidays!

The reserve consists of pine woods leading out onto the beach. It’s a very special place because it’s one of the few spots in the North West where Red Squirrels can still be found. The Red Squirrel is the UK’s only native Squirrel species. They were widespread across most of the country until the 1870’s – when the non-native Grey Squirrel was introduced from America. Quickly, the larger Grey Squirrel started to out-compete the Red Squirrel for both food and habitat. And with them, they brought the Squirrelpox Virus, which they have developed immunity to but which is lethal to Red Squirrels.

Red Squirrels are very susceptible to environmental changes – if they feel stressed, they will not breed. And of course, they struggled too due to the ever present reduction of available territory as woodlands are lost to development. These factors combined mean that Red Squirrel numbers in the UK have fallen from an estimated 3.5 million at their peak, to just 160,000 individuals now – with as few of 15,000 of these being in England.

So Formby’s Red Squirrels are incredibly precious. In 2007 tragedy struck the reserve when there was a bad outbreak of Squirrelpox immediately followed by an unseasonably harsh Winter – the National Trust estimated that these two events combined led to the loss of 85% of the Red Squirrel population at Formby. It’s recovering now, and although numbers are still not back to their pre-Squirrelpox numbers there are still plenty to see, especially if you visit the reserve at the right time of day. There is still the odd isolated case of Squirrelpox on the reserve, and for that reason Grey Squirrels are strictly controlled in and around the reserve.

The squirrels are most active in the early mornings and evenings, so during the Winter months when I visit the most often I time my visit to arrive when the reserve opens. Not only does this give you a greater chance at getting a parking space (the reserve is incredibly popular and the car park is often full by mid-morning) but it also coincides nicely with the rangers feeding the squirrels, so there are always lots out and about seeking breakfast. During the middle of the day the squirrels retreat into the trees and their dreys – if you want to see them there’s no chance of a lie in, the earlier really is the better.

There’s a network of paths around the reserve, with the body of the woodlands behind fencing to allow the squirrels to remain undisturbed by people and dogs. Squirrels being squirrels though they pay no mind to the fences and frequently venture close to or onto the paths – a zoo-like experience this is not. Being woodland the light levels are quite low, but on a crisp and bright Winter’s day the light is good enough for photography.

In Winter you’d be forgiven for thinking that Red Squirrels have been misnamed – they grow a thick Winter coat and the colour of this can vary enormously, from red to grey and every shade in between. They also grow their distinctive ear tufts which moult during the Summer and grow back during the Winter.

The squirrels do look strikingly different in the Summer, they’ve lost their ear tufts and their lighter Summer coats are a really vivid shade of orange. I’ve found there are fewer to be seen during the Summer months though, as with the longer days by the time the reserve opens they’ve mostly retreated into the trees.

After a couple of hours exploring the reserve I tend to leave in late-morning, as the reserve gets busier and the squirrels head for the treetops. It really is a wonderful place to visit.