January was a testing time – ice, snow, gales, floods, hail and thunder. How can our wildlife possibly survive? Some, of course, will not: the scarcity of garden birds, even in the snow, testifies to the twin disasters of a poor breeding season last year and to the toll taken by disease, notably Avian Pox. We shall have a clearer overview of the situation when the results of the RSPB’s Great Garden Birdwatch are published.
I approached this year’s count – on the weekend of 26th/27th January – with low expectations. The hour spent on watch is usually, even in good years, a mortifying experience as time ticks on and many of your regulars and, of course, your cherished ‘specials’ fail to show up. But this year was different. I chose to do my stint on Saturday – the day of the Great Thaw. Bird feeders filled up and binoculars at the ready, I looked out on a dripping, sparkling scene with hungry birds ready to take advantage of my bounty. Brilliant! I recorded 13 species including a trio of randy dunnocks, tail-flicking and flirting along the fence-top, a pair of bullfinches and a single jay glowing rosy-pink against the snow. My best visitor was a mistle thrush gobbling up seeds and crumbs and facing off the resident blackbirds. The mistle, our largest, most aggressive thrush, taller and more upright in stance than the song thrush, sings loudly even in the dead of winter, as Thomas Hardy described so beautifully in his poem The Darkling Thrush. My last garden record was of one that took possession of our neighbour’s holly tree as its private winter larder, seeing off all comers.
I gleefully compared notes with my sister who lives in NW Scotland. The 2012 weather was much kinder there, so her garden bird numbers had held up well. However, her star-turn didn’t show up. For the preceding week she had been thrilled by several visits from a bird you would hardly expect to see in your garden – a snipe. Small waders with long probing bills, snipe are generally found in damp areas of moorland or coastal marshes, skulking along the edges of things and relying for safety on their camouflage – streaky brown plumage. This one, however, seemed thoroughly at home, pottering round the garden, probing the damp area by the frozen pond and even venturing out onto the ice.