Birds like Blue Tits will have been trying to pair up for a few weeks now and in this mild winter they are very active round the garden this week, exploring possible nesting sites, like one of our nest-boxes, chasing off rival males and flicking their wings and tails in display-mode. They particularly like displaying around the Privet hedge, which is in the shade all day and so makes photographs hard on these dull days. Males will sometimes peck at the wood on the bird-box and their fast actions and pecking are thought to be a way to show their health and fitness to a potential mate. Conditions: Sunny interval followed by rain. Temperature: Max 8 Min 2C.
Messy Finches- there’s no getting away Finches are messy eaters, throwing seeds they aren’t interested in out from the feeders, and rapidly ‘shelling’ the outer cases of hard seeds, spilling them anywhere, in order to get to the nutritious, soft kernels. (See both habits in the photos). However all four regular species- Green-, Gold-, Bull-, and Chaffinch, and occasional winter Brambling, we get are well worth it for the beauty and fascination of watching them. I rigged up a special feeder arrangement by the window, which has a large plant-container saucer, hole drilled through the
middle, lodged on the pole, and that catches most of the discarded seeds. This saves them landing on the ground, which may attract rats, and means Robins etc can land on the saucer and feed on the bits. Conditions: Grey and still. Temperature: Max 11 Min 4C.
Goldfinches: In winter our Goldfinches gather together in large groups of up to 100 and they nowadays they increasingly feed in small ‘charms’ on garden feeders. In cold conditions they will sometimes migrate as far South as Spain but in this mid winter most stay around, and we have been enjoying them on our feeders. Winter is the best time to tell males from females, as only the males bill is long enough to feed on teasel seeds. During the Renaissance, Goldfinches were associated with the Passion of Christ, as illustrated in the Raphael painting ‘Madonna of the Goldfinch’, where John the Baptist is painted holding a Goldfinch. Christians believed at the time that the Goldfinch, while picking thorns from the Crown of Thorns, pricked itself and the blood of Christ fell on its head, rendering it red. Conditions: Grey and cloudy. Temperature: Max 5 Min 2C.
Goldeneye Duck– Though the light was poor and so the beautiful amber eyes of this pair of Goldeneye didn’t shine through, and they were rather far away, it was a delight to watch them at Old Moor yesterday. Apart from a very small number nesting in the Highlands, Goldeneye come here to overwinter on our lakes and reservoirs in winter, from Northern Europe. Goldeneye are tree-nesting birds, medium-sized, with large heads. The female is smaller than the male and has a chocolate-coloured head but the similaritly bright amber-gold eyes. The male is a gorgeous black and white with a greenish-black head. They feed in a very characteristic way, fanning their tails and raising the front of their bodies from the water-surface, before diving in shallow water for small fish and invertebrates. (Old Moor is going through a lot of changes at present, adding more scrapes and wetlands, and more features for children to explore nature). Conditions: Mild, cloud and wind gathering for rain. Temperature: Max 11 Min 8C.
I’ve just been down the garden to prune the fruit trees, an essential job at this time of year, and spotted our first tot of native Primroses, showing this to have been a mild winter. One of my favourite flowers, I am not alone. They were also the favourite flowers of our Victorian Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli and he received a posie from Queen Victoria each year. Every year, on April 19th, the date of his death, bunches are still laid at his grave at Westminster Abbey. We used to post shoe-boxes of them to our Aunts in London, who missed being back in Sussex walking the lanes. Now, picking not sanctioned for decades, they are reappearing in good quantities in those same lanes. Conditions: Mild, cloud and sun. Temperature: Max 8 Min 2C.
Grey Heron- On a still, grey New Year’s Day at Rye Nature Reserve we watched this statuesque mature Heron stalking the shallow waters, among diminutive Redshank. Last autumn I featured an immature Heron and the colouring, size and length of crest and chest feathers are all more striking in adults like this. They have an ancient appearance and sure enough, 7 million year-old fossils bearing a close resemblance to today’s Heron’s have been excavated. They also have an aloof bearing which may account for the ancient Romans believing Heron’s to be birds of divination. They
Oaks in winter- mum loved the ‘black lace’ of our Sussex Wealden Oaks in winter but it is fascinating to think how they prepare for and survive our cold, dark months. Having gathered nutrients from the breakdown of their leaves in autumn, and shed those leaves, (not triggered by cold but by a chemical pigment which detects the lowering
of infra-red light levels), they still have to survive freezing temperatures which could destroy their trunks and branches. The bark acts as a blanket, while the Oak withdraws fluid from the trunk, thus dehydrating itself and leaving only highly concentrated sugars which act as an anti-freeze. It stores much of its nutrients in its roots, which also draw in minerals from the miles of mycorrhizal filaments of fungi in the soil. The Oak slows its use of energy right down until light levels increase, and it can restore itself ready for spring. Conditions: Very grey buy welcome dry days in Sussex. Temperature: Max 10 Min 7C.