The Big Garden Birdwatch has been running for nearly 40 years. It was started in 1979 as a fun winter activity for junior RSPB members and was picked up and promoted on Blue Peter (a children’s TV magazine programme). As a consequence, it was a runaway success with an amazing 34,000 forms returned that first year. It wasn’t until much later (2001) that adults were invited to participate and last year more than half a million people took part. I’ve being contributing, on and off, for the last 20 years, starting with the kids, but gradually it has become just me.
This year’s survey was pretty routine. There were no surprise visitors, but a reasonable range of species and a good total number of birds seen within the hour.
The biggest percentage representation was from the Tit family. Unfortunately for me, tits are sufficiently restless and fast that their numbers in snapshot views are pretty hard to assess. The task is made more difficult by the fact that most birds hop around in the tangled wisteria over the pergola before dropping down to the feeders. It is a bit like watching ants mill around.
It was interesting to observe that tits never eat sunflower hearts at the feeder, seeds are always retrieved for nibbling in private in the wisteria or surrounding bushes.
The Birdwatch rule is that the total number of each particular species recorded must be seen simultaneously, to rule out sneaky returners. The only exceptions I’ve allowed to this rule is if sightings are of clearly different birds e.g. a female blackbird followed later by a male or an individual with particular markings (e.g. one of the chaffinches has a distinctive pecked head) etc.
In contrast to all the movement from the tits, when goldfinches arrive to dine they tend to set up residence on the feeders. They only leave when they are chased off by other birds or when that elusive ‘Move out’ signal goes up.
One of the main competitors for space on the seed feeders are the greenfinches. Greenfinches tend to win in dominance battles, but they also seem to be more sporadic visitors to the garden, so it all works out fairly in the end.
As normal, there is a different crowd of birds underneath the feeders taking the opportunity to gather the fallen nuts/seeds. Look at ground level and you will typically see blackbirds, robins, pigeons, dunnocks and chaffinches jumping around. In fact this year I didn’t see any dunnocks in the allocated time and that is perhaps a first during a count.
Chaffinches are becoming bolder about taking seed from the feeders, particularly the round sunflower feeder with the larger base. They have an interesting approach style. It is a bit like a cross between a harrier jump jet and humming bird. They tend to fly straight up from the ground and hover at the bottom edge of the feeder:
I tried to capture this, but their wings move so quickly during the hover manoeuver that the pictures are all fairly blurry. Hopefully you get the idea though.
Away from the feeders there are still some berries and crab apples to eat. The mistle thrushes have become seasonal regulars this winter and are ardent defenders of the crab apple crop. It is a good job they shake more than they need from the tree, as it gives the blackbirds and chaffinches plenty to eat on the ground. The crab apples are clearly on their last legs though.
When you submit your Birdwatch results there are a number of additional questions asked about the location and facilities, but I’ve noticed a couple of other factors that definitely affect the number of bird seen during the count. One is the weather, but more crucial is the time of day. For instance, if I look at the feeders at mid-morning I am likely to see far fewer birds than I would see around lunch-time, when round after round of arrivals takes place.
Another of the Birdwatch rules is that birds must land in the studied area to be counted. That ruled out these two buzzards, but they are regulars overhead and I often hear them when I am gardening.
So to summarise my birdwatch, there were no unusual visitors this year, but plenty of birds to count and I would say that the numbers of great tits and chaffinches were up comparatively in our garden. I wonder if these are trends elsewhere too. We shall see. The results should be out in March.
This is my contribution to Tina’s (mygardenersays) monthly Wildlife meme. I see that my last photo links nicely with Tina’s report!