On Christmas morning two of our friends went for a walk on Hampstead Heath. Suddenly they were confronted with a crowd of camera and binocular-waving people – no, not comparing iheir gifts from Santa, but assembled to enjoy sightings of a rare bird, a ridiculously appropriate white robin. And there it was unconcernedly flitting and foraging among the cherry trees. Not actually completely white; it looked as though its head, shoulders and upper back were draped in a white shawl, the rest of its body, including its red breast, was blotched with white as though it had been engaged in a snowball fight. These pure white patches identified it as hypomelanic and reminded me of a jackdaw which frequently visited our garden last year. It had several pure white feathers on its wings and a lovely marbling effect on its breast.
Readers with long memories might recall the case of the Addingham white squirrel – actually more of a very pale coffee colour than white, an example of leuchism. By the way, this animal or one of its relatives was seen alive and well just before Christmas. Whereas the robin was easy to identify as a robin, albeit a strange one, leucistic birds can prove tricky. Last year a regular visitor at the Otley Wetlands Nature Reserve puzzled WNS volunteers there -with its elegant creamy pale plumage, it looked rather like a snow bunting but this seemed unlikely. Eventually it was recognised as a leucistic brambling, one of our winter visiting finches often seen feeding with chaffinches but usually distinguished from them by, in the males, a dark head and warm orange breast and shoulder patches. Like many other winter visitors, brarnblings come to us from Scandinavia. When their favourite winter food, beech mast, runs out they fly by night across the North Sea and begin foraging the British crop. They can come in great numbers – a roost in Merseyside recorded over 150,00 birds – it all depends on beech mast.
Once the available supplies in woodland has been used up, they start moving into gardens and, if you’re vigilant, you may pick them out pecking at fallen seed with groups of chaffinches. Certainly, the recent freezing weather has already brought interesting birds into our gardens. At least two lucky WNS members in Addingham have had waxwings in their gardens, and we’re also getting reports of overwintering blackcaps. These warblers used to leave for Africa at the summer’s end but gradually, with milder winters, more and more have chosen to limit their migration – our birds will have moved to us from summering in central Europe. This would normally enable them to be back at their nest sites early.
Not such a good strategy his year, alas! Meanwhile, let’s not forget our more common garden birds – all are needing our help, provision of food and accessible water.
We have a regular reminder of this – a cock blackbird who appears each morning as the curtains are drawn back, ready for his breakfast handful of raisins!
The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is scheduled for January 24 and 25 – keep watch and count for an hour and submit your records. Details on the website rspb.org.uk/birdwatch.