Birding at home
Birding at home
January 25th found me seated at a window overlooking my garden with pencil, paper and binoculars at the ready. Like thousands of others across the UK I was giving up an hour of my weekend to the RSPB Great Garden Birdwatch.
For the past few years, the GGBW has been, for me, a time of frustration and disappointment. A good week in January can record 20 species visiting my garden. Do they turn up during this vital hour? They do not – a measly six or seven at best. Of course, negative returns are also important but one has one’s pride! This year – perhaps owing to a milder lull in the worst winter for two decades – things were different: as well as the usual greenfinches, chaffinches, blackbirds and tits, the siskins which have spent most of the winter on my nyger seed feeder were there in good numbers and the pair of bullfinches which have only just returned after months of absence showed up on cue. There were some pleasant surprises too: a pair of starlings which return each spring to nest in a neighbour’s chimney chose that day to arrive; a song thrush, the first of the year, appeared briefly before being harried away by the dominant cock blackbird, its larger much bolder cousin; a mistle thrush completely ignored the bully and calmly went on feeding from the scraps on the lawn.
When you sit still and watch for an hour, you don’t just see species, you see individual behaviours and indications that, whatever the weather, the lengthening daylight has already triggered change for many birds. Some finches may still be in flocks but the bullfinches, robins, starlings and blackbirds were clearly paired up. A couple of dunnocks was already engrossed in courtship display, with much flirting of tails and flicking of wings, and the collared doves, which have been an inseparable pair for weeks, actually mated on the trellis and then perched close together enjoying the sunshine.
The RSPB annual watch has now been happening for 30 years and collects important evidence. If you enjoy watching your garden birds and are willing to take on a longer term commitment, you might like to enrol in the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch which asks for weekly records returned quarterly. I’ve been involved for fifteen years now. The longer you participate, the more interesting it becomes as you amass comparative data for your own patch. We’ve lived in our present house for eleven years, yet in all that time I’ve never seen a house sparrow in the garden. A little lower down the hill I see and hear them regularly. Initially starlings were regular visitors; now we only see them for ten weeks or so in the spring. On the credit side, siskins have increased in number and, although once winter visitors, now occasionally turn up – with juveniles – in the summer. And there’s always the chance of a rarity. Waxwings are still being seen in good numbers in gardens to the west of Ilkley – so perhaps I might be lucky!