Passing an old Ash tree along Broomham Lane, Catsfield (Sussex) today I heard some nestling birds calling for food so I waited and watched this pair of Great Tits carrying insects at frequent intervals into the hole in the trunk (and poo sacs out!.) Both male and female feed the young on protein-rich caterpillars, beetles, aphids and spiders. Later, when they have grown more, they will be able to introduce seeds to their diet as well. Great Tits are the most studied birds in the world, and will use nest-boxes in your garden. May and June are their busiest months, having an
Pair of Great Tits, one leaving and one approaching their tree-hole nest full of noisy babies.
Great Tit calling its mate from the nest
Great Tit leaving nest with faecal sac
Great Tit leaving tree-hole nest
Great Tit male with insect-food for young
often large clutch of eggs to lay and hatchlings to feed up. The worry for this pair, and for other tree-nesting birds is that most of the mature Ash in these parts, including this one, are succumbing to Ash die-back. Though the tree will last a few years yet, where will future nest sites for Woodpeckers, Nuthatches and Tits come from when these valuable trees fall- unless we all put up more nest boxes, in gardens and woods. Conditions: Blue sky and gentle breeze. Temperature: Max 16 Min 5C.
Waking up each morning to the beautiful song of the Willow Warbler again, and having heard both this and the Chiffchaff singing on nearby Parkwood Springs I thought it was time to revisit these beautiful, elusive and similar-looking spring migrants. Chiffchaff arrive mid-March and Willow Warbler, migrating further, arrive in April. This difference in migration journeys also explains one of the visual differences, with Chiffchaffs having shorter wings and Willow Warblers, flying further, having longer primary feathers/wing length. Chiffchaff have dark legs while Willow Warblers have pale pinkish legs and a brighter eye-stripe. Since they are hard to see, the easiest way to tell them apart is by song- Chiffchaff singing a two note eponymous song, and Willow Warblers have a lovely long song ending with a downward trill. The BTO have a great little on-line video on telling them apart. (The photo’s of the Willow Warbler are from our garden, the Chiffchaff from Spurn).
Conditions: Milder with sun and showers. Temperature: Max 13 Min 4C.
Greenfinch, Goldfinch, typically squabbling at the feeders
My male and female Greenfinch drawing
We are lucky to still have Greenfinches regularly visiting our feeders, because their populations have declined dramatically in the ’70’s, increased in the ’80’s and have declined again since, affected by the parasitic-linked Trichomonosis disease, which hampers their ability to feed and can be caught from feeders that aren’t cleaned well enough. Greenfinches, once woodland birds, have become more regular users of garden bird-feeders, especially favouring black sunflower seeds which they can easily crack with their stocky beaks. Sometimes confused with Goldfinches, because they have a yellow flash on their wings, Greenfinches are bulkier and the males are olive-green. I hope the photo’s which include a Goldfinch, and drawing will help you separate male and the paler-coloured female Greenfinch, and Goldfinch. Conditions: Sunny intervals and showers. Temperature: Max 14 Min 5 c
Happy Primrose Day. Primroses are such wonderful harbingers of spring that they deserve their own day of recognition and, flowering so early, they benefit many insects. Only the long-tongued (proboscis) ones like Bee Fly, Brimstone Butterfly, Peacock, and Buff-tailed Bumblebee (see photo’s) can take advantage as the nectar is at the bottom of a long tube (corolla). Look closely and you can see that Primroses are either Pin-eyed (having a single pin-head female style visible at the top of the corolla/ tube,) or Thrum-eyed (having a ring of pollen-laden anthers at the top of the tube). If you carefully opened one up you would see that half-way down the tube sits the opposite reproductive part. This is called being heterostylous, and avoids self-pollination and ensures cross-pollination. An insect picking pollen up from the Thrum-eyed would only pollinate a Pin-eyed and vice versa because of where the pollen is situated. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the primula family for this reason. He wrote in his autobiography “I do not think that anything has given me so much satisfaction as making out the meaning of the structure of
Primrose with Bee Fly feeding
Primrose, with Brimstone Butterfly feeding
Primrose, with Bufftailed Bumblebee feeding
heterostylous flowers”. You don’t need to know or care about this to enjoy the Primrose. As children, we would pick bunch after bunch for our relatives who had moved away from the country to town, posting them in damp paper in a shoe-box! It was interesting to hear the nature-writer Richard Maybe saying this morning that Primroses have recovered so well and are now so prolific in many areas that he thought children should once again be allowed the joy that we experienced, of picking small bunches. Conditions: Unseasonably warm with blue skies. Temperature: Max 21 Min 7 C.
We are very lucky to have a pair of Nuthatches regularly coming to our feeders near the window at present, though seldom together. Though they eat insects, foraged with their dagger-like bills from under tree bark (they are our only native species to be able to move up and down a tree) they are omnivorous and come to us for sunflower seeds and fat. Their name apparently comes from their habit of taking seeds with a hard outer case, such as sunflowers, to a tree and wedging it into the bark, hacking (“hatching”) at it to get at the seed inside, a hbehaviour we often watch as they carry seeds off to our nearby trees. Nuthatches nest in tree holes, plastering mud round any holes that are too big until the right snug, safe size. They will also occasionally nest in bird-boxes but they need bigger
Nuthatch- able to travel down and up a rough surface
than the usual boxes come in (Blue Tits- 25mm, Great Tits- 28mm.) Conditions: Nippy, grey and rain on the way. Temperature: Max 5 Min 3C.
Is there any more beautiful flower in early Spring than the Lesser Celandine? Wordsworth didn’t think so, noting their habit of closing in dull weather– “that shrinks, like many more, from cold and rain, And, the first moment that the sun may shine, Bright as the sun himself, ’tis out again”. Also known as ‘Pilewort’ from the ancient “doctrine of signatures”, where, if a part of a plant resembled a disease or condition it was believed to be a cure for that condition: in this case, the nodular roots resembling piles! The 17th century Herbalist, Culpepper claimed it cured his daughter of the so-called “king’s evil” or scrofula within a week. The Celandine is very useful for early insects but the native plant is very invasive so you are better trying the beautiful cultivated varieties like the two I have in my garden photographed here- the bronze-leafed Brazen Hussy and one of the many white-flowered ‘alba’s’ which are easy to grow and split but don’t go too wild. Conditions: Stormy winds and rain for several days. Temperature: Max 11 Min 4C.
Two garden varieties of Celandine
Ring-necked Parakeet: I still find it astonishing to look up from working as I did today, here in Pitsmoor, to see such this bird a few feet away from the window. They are getting bolder and their numbers in Sheffield are increasing, as in many places. Stories of how they became established as breeding pairs in the UK are numerous– did they escape from the Ealing Film Studio’s in the 1950’s, during the filming of The African Queen, or were they deliberately set free by Jimmy Hendrix in the 1960’s? Did they escape from an aviary during the Hurricane of 1987? Whatever the truth, the milder winters have led to an estimated number in the wild in 2012 of 32,000, greater now. Because they start pair-bonding and occupying nest sites in autumn, earlier than our native tree-hole nesting species like Woodpeckers and Starlings, they may prove a threat to native populations, (not to mention to a good night’s sleep)
Male Ring-necked Parakeet in bright breeding plumage
so the jury is out as to whether they will be culled in future. Conditions: rainy and grey. Temperature: Max 7 Min 1C.