Big Garden Birdwatch 2019

It’s that time of year again – the Big Garden Birdwatch. I think every year I write a similar post about that mixture of anticipation and frustration that this fantastic bit of Citizen Science brings. The usual feeling of “where have all my regular birds gone” followed by the joy a pair of blue tits bring when they appear in the nick of time to make the cut. The red kites last week were undoubtedly magnificent, but when you’ve been sitting freezing your proverbial off for an hour, the sight of a pair of blue tits can be just as rewarding.

I did our garden count on Sunday, an unfortunately blustery day, which I presume is what put a lot of our birds off; rather than just sheer wilfulness to avoid being counted. In the end I only recorded 27 birds of 7 species – way below our garden norm and less even than I can see just glancing out now.  But data is data, so I hope our paltry count will still be of use. So all I saw was:

  • 14 sparrows – there may actually have been double that but, they were in the bushes and impossible to count more for certain.
  • 2 collared doves
  • 1 wood pigeon
  • 2 magpies
  • 1 blackbird
  • 5 jackdaws
  • 2 blue tits

I did try to take photos of those that landed on the bird table, but our overgrown teasels were flapping about in the wind in my line of sight, so I only managed one of the jackdaws.

The blue tits were a bit easier as they were feeding in the apple tree closer to the house.

While, I watched a mainly empty garden, Chris took himself off to his workplace and did the Birdwatch there. Bird envy is a terrible thing, so I tried to be pleased for him when he came back with these photos of a Grey Wagtail and Chaffinch.

So that’s it over for another year. Apparently this year was the 40th anniversary of the Big Garden Birdwatch. It started as a survey just for children to do, but thankfully us adults are allowed to join in now too. Our garden birds often seem to make themselves scarce during this annual count, but it still gives me an enormous sense of satisfaction to know that we’re contributing to a really useful bit of science. And sitting just quietly watching the wildlife in your garden for an hour, with no interruptions or distractions is no bad thing either!

 

Nest Box No. 15

Way back in February, we took up Worcestershire Wildlife Trust’s Rent-a-Nest scheme. Having failed spectacularly to get anything to nest in our boxes at home, we figured we could at least support one at one of our favourite local nature reserves. So we chose a Knapp & Papermill nest box and were allocated Box No. 15. As part of the lease, we were to get a guided tour of “our” nest box in the spring. So skip forward a few months and a week or so ago, we met up with Garth from Worcestershire WT who led us on a very entertaining and informative walk to see Nest Box No. 15. Amazingly the sun shone down even though it was a bank holiday weekend and the public were out in force enjoying the nature reserve. It was great having Garth point out things on the walk that we would never have known were there – such as a Mandarin duck nesting quite high up in an old tree trunk!

We reached Nest Box No. 15, tucked away from sight and Garth cautiously peered in and confirmed that our box was occupied by a blue tit. I had a very quick look in and could just see a little blue head. Obviously we couldn’t take a photo of the blue tit inside the box as we didn’t want to terrify it with the flash, so all I can offer is a photo of the box itself. The entrance has been reinforced with metal to prevent larger birds getting in to predate the chicks.

We left Garth to carry on his walk and his butterfly count (part of a regular count he does for Butterfly Conservation) and pottered around the reserve on our own for a bit. We’d last been to Knapp & Papermill in the winter when everything was green and white with snow drops. Now, in spring, we had the same colour scheme, but it was wild garlic that carpeted the slopes amongst the trees. The scent was unmistakable, but fortunately we like garlic!

Butterflies were out in good numbers – lots of Orange Tips that were too fast to photograph, but also a few lovely fresh Green-Veined Whites who were a bit easier to track.

The reserve is one of the best sites we know of to see demoiselles, but it was still a bit early for these. But the pond near the reserve entrance provided our first damselfly of the year – a Large Red Damselfly.

So all in all a lovely way to spend a few hours on a bank holiday weekend. There are nest boxes (and bat boxes) all over the reserve, but apparently only about 25% are sponsored. Hopefully we can continue to sponsor a box in years to come. The money helps with the costs of maintaining the reserve and we get the pleasure of seeing a nest box that actually gets used – if only the Knapp blue tits could pass the word on to our own blue tits and get them to use our garden box too!

Spring Cleaning

There’s been a lot in the press and on social media lately about the importance of cleaning your bird feeders. This is something we all probably know we should do, but don’t get around to as often as we should – I know we are definitely guilty of this. So with the first day of spring last week, what better time to have a spring clean for our feathered friends. Armed with a bucket, rubber gloves, scrubbing and bottle brushes I set to work.

I hadn’t really noticed how many bird feeders we’d actually got, until I came to have to clean them! It seemed best to do them in 2 lots, not only because there were quite a few, but so that the birds still had something out there left to eat while I slaved over the bucket. All washed, the two batches got hung out to dry in a rare spot of sunshine.

The bird baths got a good scrub too, since the  birds seem to use them for all manner of bodily functions, not just drinking and washing! It might just be a coincidence, but having cleaned the birdbaths, I’ve seen goldfinches using them for the first time – they must be fussier than the other birds!

I was a bit concerned that the birds might have been put off by me interfering with their feeders, but I needn’t have worried. They were back on them in no time. I must have hung the suet balls in a slightly different position, as the starlings could now reach them from below rather than balancing from above.

The blue tits were equally happy with a nice fresh supply of peanuts.

There are plenty of vantage points to reach the suet logs, but for some reason our female blackcap preferred to contort at this odd angle to reach a particular bit.

The male blackcap took a much more standard approach.

The goldfinches have been regular visitors to the niger seeds for a few weeks now, but the siskins’ visits are much more intermittent. So it was great today when this male siskin turned up and stayed long enough for me to grab the camera and sneak out the patio doors to get some photos. I had hoped it would sit facing the goldfinch so I could get profile shots of them both, but you can’t have everything!

So the feeders are all clean and the birds seem happy with my efforts. I’ve made a note on the calendar to try and clean them a bit more regularly from now on.

Although I was happy with the bird feeder cleaning, last week was actually a very sad one for us. We had to say goodbye to our beautiful Norwegian Forest Cat, Puddle. She’d been with us for the last 13 years, since she was a kitten and we are devastated to lose her – far too soon. Although an indoor cat, she loved sitting watching the birds with me from the comfort of the sofa. She was the sweetest natured cat I think I’ve ever known, and I will miss her for ever.

 

Freezing February Birds

It’s February and it’s freezing and being a bit of a fair weather nature watcher I’ve not been out much – other than to constantly top up the bird feeders and defrost the bird baths of course! So it’s been a month mainly of bird watching through the window or via the cameras in the garden. Our array of camera gadgets is slowly growing. Trouble is with each one you get, you tend to want more; or at least that’s how it seems in our house. No matter where we’ve got cameras pointed, there always seems to be something more interesting happening elsewhere in the garden!

Anyway like much of the country we’ve had snow yesterday and today – not a huge amount, but it’s never really got above freezing here.  So it was a nice surprise to download the trail cam in the afternoon and find a pair of goldfinches had visited our new niger seed feeder. Sorry the video is a bit dark, but it was snowing!

Goldfinches in snow

Inspired by our intrepid goldfinches, I got round to sorting through some videos we’d taken in the garden in the last week or so, to see what else I could find.

We’ve got a new GoPro camera which can be remotely activated using a phone. Perfect on a cold day for sitting on the sofa hitting record whenever something interesting appears. I’ve been trying out different angles and distances to see what works best. This video was shot with the camera only about a foot away from the action.

Garden birds

This next video compilation was the GoPro again, but this time filmed from a greater distance looking down. The greater distance does of course give a wider field of view and I think  the GoPro lens may be a wide-angle one too. You can still see lumps of ice in the bird bath although I had already taken two kettle loads of warm water out to defrost it.  Lots of different species of birds have been using the bird bath in this cold weather though, so it’s well worth thawing it out.

Bird bath birds

This next little compilation was filmed with the GoPro strapped to a branch next to some of the feeders. The GoPro has the advantage here over the old trail camera in that it is much smaller, making it easier to position closer to things. You can strap it to twigs that would be too thin to support the trail cam.

Peanut feeder

But I have not abandoned my old faithful Bushnell trail cam. I had it pointed at the same feeders, but from a different angle. I was really chuffed that it filmed a couple of the siskins that we’d been so excited to see the previous week. It also picked  up the female blackcap, although the male still eludes us. It was nice too, that between the two cameras, there was footage of 3 of the 4 species of tit we get in our garden – blue, great and coal. The long tailed tits as usual refused to perform for either camera.

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One final surprise the cameras threw up was a visit from our squirrel – trying (but failing) to get into the peanut feeder.  I suspect he managed to get some of the other food out of shot.

Most of our regular bird species show up on one or other of the remote cameras but not all. So sometimes I just need to get off the sofa and sit in the garden with a “proper” camera. These jackdaws are regular visitors to the bird table and are particularly keen on the suet pellets. It does look slightly oddly like the one on the right is taking suet to the table rather than taking it away?

The wren of course seldom deigns to feature on the trail cam/GoPro videos. But this week he/she was more obliging than usual and did allow me to get a few shots. None perfect, but recognisable at least.

It even sat for a while preening itself, hence the next sequence of three “rumpled” looking photos.

So although it’s bloomin’ freezing, there’s plenty to watch in the garden. The bird feeders are busier than ever, so hopefully our garden birds will make it through this cold spell.

One final photo – a bullfinch, just because they are such gorgeous birds. Not actually taken in our garden but about a mile away near Chris’ work. He was feeding on wild cherry blossom buds at the weekend and he’s just too beautiful not to include in the blog (the male bullfinch I mean, not Chris!).

 

National Nest Box Week

Apparently it is National Nest Box Week, so it seemed only right to review our nest box endeavours in the garden and beyond. Not that our efforts to provide suitable des res’ in the garden have been entirely successful over the years, but we do try.  We had one old bird box on the garage wall for a few years and blue tits started nesting in it about 2014. Although we got photos and videos of the adults coming and going, we never managed to catch any of them fledging.

So last year we decided to replace the old bird box with a new one with integral camera. With hindsight perhaps we should have stuck with the old adage “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, because needless to say nothing nested in it.

We did get very excited when a blue tit roosted in it for a night within a week or putting the box up, but nothing else has used it since (apart from a spider which covered the camera with web!).

Anyway we’re living in hope that this year will be our year and we can have our very own Springwatch experience, but of course we may have to resort to just watching the real Springwatch again (no great hardship).

We also put up a wren/robin box last year, which also remained vacant. This open fronted box is on our fence, hidden by bushes and ivy. The ivy is starting to grow over the box, but we may well have to move this one anyway as the neighbours want to replace the fence this year.

So we may not have much luck on the home front when it comes to nest boxes, but we now have an interest slightly further afield. Worcestershire Wildlife Trust were advertising a “rent-a-nest” scheme to fund nest boxes on some of their reserves. So for Valentine’s Day last week, rather than muck about with flowers and chocolates, we sponsored a nest. You could choose between 4 of the local reserves, so we plumped for our nearest and one of our favourites – Knapp & Papermill.

Apparently we will get invited to view “our” nest box in the spring – fingers crossed something actually uses this one!

And finally, nothing really to do with nests, but we were thrilled to spot a small flock of siskins in the garden yesterday. We’ve only ever seen one in the garden once before (and then only on the trail camera, not actually “live”), so to see a whole flock was fantastic. There were at least 6 males, but we only saw one female – this could have been though because they are not as showy, so not as easy to spot. Unfortunately we were indoors and they were obviously outdoors, so photos had to be taken through our less than sparkling windows.  But a delight to see nonetheless.

Big Garden Birdwatch 2018

Last weekend was the annual Big Garden Birdwatch – one of my favourite bits of citizen science to participate in. Unfortunately it was one of those dull, grey January days where the sun just doesn’t come out – and nor did many of the birds. Coupled with that, my camera was in for repairs so I couldn’t even take photos of the ones that did appear. I persevered though as it would have been a shame to miss out on it this year, having done it for the last few years.

So I spent an hour crouched behind my camouflage netting hoping neither the birds nor the neighbours could see me (neighbours think we’re mad enough as it is without seeing the camouflage!). As always seems to be the case, the birds which moments before had seemed so plentiful, all disappeared as soon as I got my notepad out. But my masterplan worked as I’d topped up all the bird feeders just before and they couldn’t resist indefinitely.

The sparrows were abundant as usual. I’ve no idea how many we really have visiting the garden, but I’m sure it’s much more than the 13 I managed to count in one go. I suspect we have closer to 25 or even 30, but they’re impossible to count all together, so I stuck with the 13 definite that I could see at once.  Next largest presence was the jackdaws – 5 of whom put in an appearance on the bird table. These are at least big enough and obvious enough to be much easier to count.

The rest of the birds came in just ones and twos: blue tits, robin, blackbird, goldfinches, starlings, woodpigeons, crow, dunnock, blackcap (female) and magpie. A total of 32 birds of 12 species. As usual I had several no shows – birds that have graced our garden in the days before and days after the count. These include the wren, great tits, coal tits, long-tailed tits and chaffinch – all of whom I’ve seen today.

The RSPB give you a nice little pie chart when you upload your results. It only shows 10 species, so misses out the crow and the blackcap, but at least represents 30 out of the 32 birds I saw.

You can also get a similar representation of the national results so far. So as of this afternoon, sparrows were leading the way nationally, as they were in our garden. But there was no sign of our second most abundant bird, the jackdaw, in the nation’s top 10. Perhaps we are just in a hotspot for jackdaws, or they particularly like the selection of bird food we put out here?

This year’s results for our garden were very similar to last year’s (https://toolazytoweed.uk/2017/01/28/big-garden-birdwatch-2017/). So it’s good to know there are no dreadful declines here at least – keep putting out the bird food and they will come!

While I was skulking around the garden, Chris went for a walk near his work in Malvern. He didn’t do a bird count as he was moving around too much, but he did see a few more interesting birds than I did.

Jackdaws we do of course have in the garden, but I liked this fluffed up one.

Although Chris did at least have a working camera, unlike me, he was still plagued by the same dull grey light that made taking decent photos a bit difficult. So apologies that these next 3 photos aren’t exactly fabulous, but the birds themselves were. A great spotted woodpecker, a kestrel and a tiny goldcrest. Not a bad trio to spot on one walk.

And as if seeing all of those wasn’t good enough, he even managed to come home with some decent photos of a wren. It’s obviously not the same wren that torments me daily in our garden (I swear it danced in front of the window today knowing I still have no camera), but it’s great to get any decent wren photos. I couldn’t decide which one I liked best, so here are my favourite 4 photos.

So a bit of birdy citizen science for one of us and a bit of bird photography for the other. A weekend well spent I reckon.

A Bird in the Box

As the old saying goes (with just a minor adjustment) a bird in the box is worth two in the hand (although I’d be delighted if one landed on my hand too). So after blogging last Saturday about how excited I was that something had pooped in our new bird box, things got even better. I kept checking the box camera for more evidence of use, but didn’t really expect any more excitement. But at about 5pm, just as it got dark, the blue tit returned. I thought he or she was just going to check out the box again then leave, but it settled down in the corner and basically went to sleep!

I didn’t realise until I watched it just how much they fluff themselves up when they sleep. It looked like a totally different bird – just a small ball of fluff – it almost looked like a small mammal rather than a bird.

blue-tit-in-box

blue-tit-fluffed-up

It was still there when I went to bed, so I made a point of getting up early (on a Sunday!) the next day to check on our new lodger. It was still there so I sat with my finger poised over the record button ready to get a shot of it leaving. At about 07:30 as it was starting to get light, the blue tit started fidgeting and stretching its wings and then with little further ado, it was off.

I would have blogged about this sooner, but I’ve been hoping the blue tit would honour us with his presence again, so have been checking the camera as it got dark each night. No sign though of any return visits, so I’ve decided to blog with what I’ve got so far. After a bit of practice I’ve more or less mastered the new software enough to cut and splice assorted short clips together into one film. The Oscar candidates for editing have nothing to worry about though!

Since all the footage was shot after dark the camera had switched to infrared and the video is black and white. Hopefully if we can get a blue tit in during daylight we might actually get some colour footage, which would be nice. But in the meantime, here is the star of our show.

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New Nest Box

With the Big Garden Birdwatch just around the corner, we’ve been reviewing what we could do to attract more birds into the garden. We already get quite a lot, but the more the merrier!  So I’ve added a few more bird feeders and have been keeping the existing ones well topped up. Spring will hopefully be here before too long, so we’ve also been looking at the nest boxes.

It may just be that we’ve been watching too much Spring/Autumn/Winterwatch, but we (well mainly I) have been longing to get footage from inside a nest box. Last year we were delighted to get shots like this of our blue tits using the old nest box.

Blue Tit on Bird Box

Of course as soon as we have a bit of success with one thing, we want more. Last year we could only film the adults coming and going, so this year we’re hoping to get the action from inside the box. So we’ve gone wild and bought a new bird box complete with fitted camera. We’ve only a limited number of places where we can put a bird box, so decided to take the old one down and replace it with the new one. We may of course regret this if the blue tits reject the new one and we get no nesting activity at all! So first job was to take down the old box. On opening it up we found last year’s nest still pretty much intact inside. It’s the first time I’ve ever really had the chance to look at a nest up close like this. It was very well made and still held together firmly. We were intrigued by the bright green stuff, which looks remarkably like the green fluff you get off a tennis ball – they certainly didn’t get that from our garden. The rest was made up of bits of grass, moss and possibly wool.

blue-tit-nest

There was still one tiny perfect intact egg inside – not even the size of a 5 pence coin.

blue-tit-egg

Slightly less attractive was a couple of tiny skeletons – presumably chicks that didn’t make it to fledging. Blue tits can lay large clutches of eggs, so we just hope that these skeletons and unhatched egg, were just the unlucky ones and most made it to adulthood last year.

blue-tit-skeleton

The new nest box is now up (still complete with wire netting to prevent next door’s cat getting an easy meal) and all ready to go. The new box has Perspex panels each side to increase the amount of light getting in for the camera. The transmitter is the black box to the right.

birdbox-system

The whole thing came pretty much set up and was all very easy to install. So we can in theory now watch all the action – assuming there is any – from the comfort of our living room. This is the current view of the empty box. Hopefully we won’t still be looking at an empty box in a few months time!

tv-view-of-birdbox

We’ve got plenty of blue tits (as well as great, coal and long-tailed tits) using the garden at the moment, so hopefully some of them are from last year’s brood and will remember what a great place our garage wall was to grow up!!

blue-tits

While searching for information on nest boxes, I discovered that the British Trust for Ornithology runs a survey called the Nest Box Challenge. They want people to submit observations on nests/nest boxes in their gardens. Since I can never resist filling in a form and a bit of citizen science, I have registered our new nest box. Fingers crossed it gets occupied and I don’t end up just submitting “empty” as my observation each time – although even that would apparently be useful data. Anyone interested in registering their own nests can find all the info at: https://www.bto.org/volunteer-surveys/nbc