The Chaffinch in winter– Chaffinches, which were on the rise, suffered set-backs in 2006, due to the prevalence of Finch trichomonosis, but they are still a widespread bird, with backs patterned to help their camouflage as they feed, mainly hopping along on the ground. In winter our numbers are swelled by migration, but Chaffinches are on of the species which practice “differential migration”, the females and juveniles travelling further south, probably showing males fare better in harsher conditions, and meaning you are likely to see either more males or more females in your patch in winter. The head markings on the males, as you can see, are dull grey-brown in winter, and though you might assume they get their blue, breeding colouring by moulting, they don’t- the feather-tips gradually wear away to reveal the bright caps. Conditions: A dry spell with gentle breezes and sunny intervals. Temperature: Max 11 Min 7 C.
A single male adult Siskin has been visiting our feeders for the past few days. While these lovely, small finches breed in the UK, especially in Scotland and Wales and have done well since the planting of extensive conifer plantations, they seldom come into urban gardens to feed until after New Year’s day. In winter, numbers are swelled from continental Europe. These lively birds with a very forked tail and bright plumage, and which mainly feed on birch, conifer and alder seeds, together with a few insects, sometimes fly in mixed flocks, like this one which comes in with the slightly larger (see photo) Goldfinches. You are more likely to see them in your gardens when there has been a poor crop of Sitka Spruce seeds in the wild, and more likely on wet than dry days. The males, as this is, have stronger colours than the female, and the adults males have a black crown. Look out for them- they are a delight.
The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is on us– we have had to do ours today but please try to do your hour, either in your garden, park or local wildlife area over the weekend. Wherever you do it, there is a simple guide on the RSPB site, with bird guides and easy to enter forms. Whatever you see- however much or little, it is worth recording. Early morning and late afternoon are often best, as birds replenish after the night or build up before dusk. This, one of the biggest ‘citizen science’ projects in the UK, helps discover trends in bird populations over the country, and they are particularly interested this year to
Here are a few we saw. Conditions: Grey and still. Temperature: Max 11 Min 4 C.
Waxwings– on Wednesday afternoon, after standing in the freezing but sunny conditions on Cemetery Avenue, Sheffield, just before the light went, and after the Sparrowhawk that had scared them away just before I arrived flew away to hunt elsewhere, a flock of about 30 Waxwings started to come to the tree which still had berries. Named from the markings which resemble drops of wax on their wing feathers (see photo), the males have slightly broader tails and larger, darker throat markings. Always such a treat, this starling-sized and silky, beautifully marked, crested migrant from Scandinavia and Russia comes over in varying numbers, often to our amenity-planted urban trees, to feed from late berries. Good berry-yields in their native lands one year produces high numbers of Waxwings and are often followed by poor berry-yielding years, when we may get an “irruption” of many thousands of these great birds to feed on
our rowan, hawthorn, cotoneaster and decorative trees. So far this year they are over in fairly small numbers but this may change. Conditions: Grey and calm after a snow flurry late last night. Temperature: Max 3 Min 1C
All birds need to wash to keep their feathers in good condition and Mute Swans are a dramatic and accessible (being on many lakes in local parks) way to observe just how vigorous and thorough this process needs to be. A family of five Mute Swans were washing recently (alongside some synchronised swimming Mallards, as you will see) and the photo’s show how they separate their feathers so that water gets to every part. Surprisingly little research has been done into this process but when birds are deprived of water, they have been shown to be much clumsier in flight. Regular washing is essential to condition the feathers and helps reduce damage from mites, lice and bacteria. This is why it is worth having even a little bird bath in your garden if you don’t have open water nearby. Conditions: Alternating grey and bright days. Temperature: Max 5 Min 0C.
House Sparrows, the RSPB has announced, were the most frequent bird in last January’s 420,489 garden bird surveys, but these once ubiquitous, gregarious birds which have a varied diet, have nevertheless not recovered from their 71% decline between 1977 and 2008. We hardly see them in our Pitsmoor (North Sheffield) garden,
though a recent piece of research by the BTO found that suburban and urban gardens and allotment areas really help House Sparrows survive in numbers, while farmland is still a place of population loss. I was glad to be able to watch and listen to these noisy birds, fluffed up against the cold, recently. If you have a job telling House Sparrows from others, winter plumage isn’t the easiest time but the males have a grey cap and black bib, which becomes more pronounced in spring. I always thought of them as having a grey ‘roof’ which helped! Conditions: A beautiful frosty and bright day. Temperature: Max 6 Min 2c.
Listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme last Sunday, ‘Ash to Ash’ (available on catch-up) reminded me how devastating Ash die-back is going to be to the British countryside and ecology. Ash is the third most common tree in Britain, and valuable to at least 1,000 species, many of them specific to Ash trees. Its’ sparser foliage and early leaf-loss also enables light to penetrate woodland, enhancing wild flower species. The tough, shock absorbent wood has been here since the ice-age, with myriad uses, from Roman chariots to tool handles, hockey sticks to furniture construction. Ash can live for 400 years, or longer when coppiced, and yet it is dying over many parts of the country already and the only hope known to date is that some individual trees may
be resistant. Open Country suggested we should be planting similarly ecologically-rich trees now, as the disease has so far proved unstoppable. The arrival and speed of Ash die-back is also a reminder that many species are likely to be threatened by the increasing globalisation of plant diseases. Conditions: Grey, drizzly days. Temperature: Max 14 Min 8C.