Thursday, 7 December 2017

Nature Post: Bramblings, Siskin, Long Tailed Tits and a Sparrowhawk

female brambling

male brambling

female siskin

moorhen

male siskin & goldfinch

goldfinches and a blue tit's bottom

long tailed tits and a coal tit

male blackbird

It's raining here, proper, heavy, soak-you-in-seconds rain. I had neglected to top up the sunflower seeds at dawn and by the time I got back from the college run and doing the food shop there was a good deal of crossness in the garden. I refilled everything and within minutes the whole place was alive with the whirl of wings as everyone descended to refuel after the night. 

It's not particularly cold here at the moment, but as small birds store very little in the way of fat to keep them warm, after even mildish winter nights it's a case of life or death if they don't refuel quickly enough. When the temperature is close to freezing it's crucial. 

Insect feeders, such as the Goldcrest (our smallest bird), are reliant on the protection evergreen trees afford to keep them warm through winter nights. If you've got evergreens in your garden it's worth keeping an ear and eye out for these wonderful little birds. If you google goldcrest the RSPB has a video of them singing. It's a distinctive song and easy to learn, although it's high, so sadly older ears often can't hear it. At this time of the year you're less likely to hear them singing than in spring when they're marking territory. My mother found one she thought was on its last legs a week or so ago, kept it warm in her hands for a while and then suddenly it perked up and flew off up into the trees. Sometimes, it's as simple as warming little birds up and making sure there's a food supply they can then access.

I've been thrilled to have two brambling in the garden for the past fortnight. The female is much bolder than the male (I've only seen him two or three times). She arrived first, in the company of a small flock of chaffinches. I texted her photo with one word: BRAMBLING!!! to  Uncle B and got back an equally excited reply within seconds and the instruction to keep my eyes peeled for her mate. The very next morning he arrived (the male brambling, not uncle B :o)). I think they've both moved on now, but as I'd never seen a Brambling in the flesh before I've been thrilled to have them here, even if only for a few days.

Yesterday afternoon I realised the Siskin gang was back in the alder trees around the lake. They move in enormous flocks, seeking seeds inside cones, and usually turn up here at some point in the winter. In spring they disappear back up the lane into the conifer forest where they nest (and where the Sparrowhawks live). I hear them before I see them: they make a good deal of noise, all popping and whistling. Sure enough, this morning there were three on the feeders. I always admire their lime-green flecked and speckled markings. Handsome little birds.

Another sign that winter is here is the daily morning visit of the moorhen. She pops over the hedge from the lake and comes to eat the seed the other birds have spilt on the floor. I admire her elegant long green toes. She's very nervous of people so I have to creep around to get her photo :o). In springtime, she brings her children with her. Small, brown balls of unruly fluff.

We've an enormous amount of goldfinches, blue tits and sparrows here. I counted 20 blue tits yesterday, and at one point in early autumn, 50 sparrows. Not bad going when you think that eight years ago, there were no sparrows at all. It's obviously been a good breeding season.

It's tawny owl courtship season at the moment, a short burst of wooing before winter proper settles over the land and thoughts turn more to survival. Have a listen around dusk for the males who, who, whooing. They call for about an hour as it gets dark whilst the ladies keewick replies can be heard once it's fully dark. They'll fall silent quite soon, having sorted out their partnerships, and then will start up again in the spring, making sure other owls know whose territory is whose. Likewise, dog foxes are barking the bounds of their territory by day and night at present. Listen out for any rhythmic single barks repeated every few seconds. And badgers are busy digging holes for worms who go deeper in colder weather. Look out for small, conical shaped holes, often with fine threads of roots at the bottom.

The dogs and I were thrilled to find a Sparrowhawk's plucking post whilst out walking the other day. It was a fallen tree across a path in the green lane, so it was well sheltered. And covered in feathers. A pigeon, I think, which makes me think it was the female who caught it as the males usually hunt nothing bigger than blackbirds, being quite small themselves and adapted to hunt through trees, whereas the females who are bigger hunt in the open. This plucking post was also next to a field. 

Sparrowhawks will take prey to specific places where they pluck the feathers before eating. If they can't find a suitable place (called a plucking post), they'll tent their wings over the prey and pluck it on the spot instead. I once saw a female sparrowhawk hunt a pigeon, bring it down, tent her wings over it and begin to tear the feathers out. An amazing sight. Gosh, they have such fierce eyes. If you come across small, sad piles of feathers beside hedgerows in all likelihood you're looking at a sparrowhawk's supper. Foxes tend to carry their prey away to their dens or larders.


sparrowhawk plucking post

I was amused and exasperated in equal measure last week by a letter in our local paper talking about the RSPB's obsession with raptors (?) and the damage inflicted on small bird populations as a result. This person was warning people not to put food out for the birds because it would only encourage raptors and the decimation of your garden bird population and your own heartache as a result.

I found myself sighing as I read it. Food chains and trophic levels being what they are, it's impossible for nature to sustain apex predators in greater numbers than their prey, no matter how hard the RSPB or anyone else might try. It's called a Carrying Capacity. Smaller birds are adapted through years of evolution to cope with being predated. It's why many of them raise two or three broods a year of five or more chicks, and why raptors only raise one nest often with only one baby in it. It's like saying we should exterminate all small birds because they'll eat all the worms. I feed the birds here and we have a resident sparrowhawk population up the road, and sometimes one of them will come into the garden and take a bird. It happens maybe three times a year. I watch my garden bird populations very closely and record them regularly. Over the ten years that we've been here numbers of both small birds and raptors have increased. It's a healthy population balance: the sparrowhawks have not decimated it. However, the three non-native, feral and un-neutered cats who have moved in next door might very well do.

The truth is that many of our raptors were poisoned and hunted into near extermination during the last century, and until very recently have been in dire straits. Indeed, several of them are still on the red and amber lists (this means severe declines or low numbers breeding): including merlin, kestrel, osprey, honey buzzard, marsh harrier and montagu's harrier.

The same paper printed a similar letter last year complaining about the numbers of red kites and buzzards who would "clear the area for miles around of any small bird or mammal within days." Red kites and buzzards are primarily scavengers. They will occasionally take live prey but it's not what they're adapted to eat. As evidenced by the fact that when the buzzard flies over the garden here, no one dives for cover. If the sparrowhawk does they're gone in seconds. It's the same hysterical response that greeted the escaped lynx last week. They ended up shooting her because she'd moved near a residential area and people were worried about humans being attacked.The inevitability of this was depressing. Lynx don't hunt people and they don't stalk or chase prey in the way wolves, for example, do. They are ambush hunters, which means they wait for their prey to pass beneath them (they are adapted to live in forests) before dropping down onto them. They take deer, not sheep, not people. I once watched a programme on lynx conservation in Sweden. In the week or so that the British ecologist was there looking for them they didn't see one, because the lynx are scared of people and keep out of their way.

I get very frustrated with the ignorance with which so much of the natural world is greeted. Almost all of it is fear not fact based. I think most of it is because we are becoming increasingly removed from nature and have lost the knowledge, familiarity and regular observance that once allowed us to understand it. The single biggest threat to our wildlife is not other wildlife; it is us. And the biggest threat to us long-term is the loss of our wildlife, which keeps our planet in balance and alive, creates the soil we grow our food in, the water we drink, the climate we rely on, the temperature regulation we need to survive, the crops we need to be pollinated in order to produce food and so on and so on. I think the old adage about only saving what you love is probably pertinent here. So it's really a question of engaging people. We shouldn't fear our wildlife: we should look after it.

Incidentally, while looking through the red list of UK birds whose numbers are dropping and who therefore are in danger, it struck me how many of them we get here. The danger when you see something regularly is of course to assume everyone else must do too, and therefore the species is doing well. Some of these red list cause-for-concern species might shock you, too: lapwing, woodcock, curlew, marsh tit, skylark, fieldfare, starling, song thrush, redwing, mistle thrush, house sparrow, grey wagtail, yellow wagtail, linnet, yellowhammer. Thirteen of those fifteen species I see every year, some of them everyday.

We need to keep looking after them and one simple way to do that is to put food out year-round. I've heard the argument that that creates a dependancy. My reply to that is that we've removed so much of their natural habitat and intensified farming so greatly that surplus food once left out in the fields that saw them through winters just isn't there any more. So we need to replace it, and feeding them in your garden is one way to do that. In your garden, you have control over the plants you grow, the vegetation cutting regimes you employ, the chemicals you use and whether you put out water and food and provide shelter.
Sometimes, just being aware that things need our help is enough to make us shift our behaviours in subtle ways that carry big impacts. It's something that's worth thinking about.

Wishing you all a good weekend,

CT.

23 comments:

  1. It's lovely to hear about the creatures visiting other folks' gardens and to read of your obvious passion for wildlife and its long term survival. I can recommend 'Tracks and Signs of the Birds of Britain and Europe' by Brown, Ferguson, Lawrence and Lees. It's a useful guide to identifying the odd stray feather found on walks, as well as the jigsaw puzzle of a raptor meal.

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    1. Thank you very much for the book recommendation I’ll look that up.

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  2. Lovely to see all your beautiful visitors, we used to have a sparrowhawk in the old house regularly come and take our garden birds, but what can you do, that's nature xx

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    1. And there are far fewer hawks than little birds xx

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  3. Brilliant informative post as ever. Lots to take in and mull over. We too have had quite a few Bramblings sited recently. Non in the garden yet but I keep looking. Fighting a bit of a battle with magpies at the moment as they seem to hog the bird feeders, particularly fatty balls:(. Enjoying my resident robins along with plenty of coal tits. Just heard there are quite a few sitings of kingfishers near our local reservoir. I know where I’ll be heading on my return. B x

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    1. It is hard when the bigger birds keep the smaller ones off the feeders. I have that dilemma over the starlings. I usually try and shoo them off once they’ve had something to eat. Kingfishers- beautiful. Good luck with seeing them. They are magic birds xx

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  4. Look up at the sky around here and you can usually spot a Red Kite - I've never seen them attack anything and now I know why - thank you. Drinking my breakfast smoothie whilst watching the activity around our 7 bird feeders is one of the highlights of my day. Life would be much greyer without my feathered friends - even if I can't identify them all! xx

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    1. The corridor around Newbury/ Oxford is a great place to see them. We get them here from time to time but otherwise it’s mainly buzzards. Xx

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  5. A very good post! I'm always hoping to see a brambling or even a waxwing on my travels

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  6. I do agree with your comments on raptors and our small bird population. Nature has a way of controlling things and to suggest not putting out food in Winter is ridiculous and would result in the death of small birds in a cold spell of weather when they need to eat every minute of the day in order to stay alive.

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  7. Hey CT,
    Loved this post. We've had lots of long tails feeding in the garden, and also a mistle thrush which was a thrill. I spotted a goldcrest in Long Rock MacDonald's car park last week, of all places!
    Leanne xx

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    1. I’ve been hearing the mistle thrush recently. A mournful but beautiful song. Amazing where nature can be found sometimes x

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  8. A great post CT, I hope you've written a couple of stiff replies to the paper. Maybe you should offer to write an article explaining it all. Infuriating how hysterical the media can be. We've really been enjoying all of the small birds here at the moment, suddenly they seem far more visible, maybe because of fewer leaves, maybe because they've grouped together more. Anyway, lovely to see. Long-tailed tits are one of my favourites, and I know they're quite vulnerable to cold weather. Plenty around here at the moment, I hope they do well over winter. CJ xx

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    1. I think the colder weather brings them closer to houses for warmth and in search of food. It’s such a joy to have birds in the garden xx

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    2. Yes, I think you're right. At Slimbridge they take their feeders down in spring to encourage the birds to spread back out again for breeding. CJ xx

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  9. Really good post, I agree with so much, as the urbanisation of our countryside keeps going, people move in without understanding country life, and the balance is changed, wildlife suffer, especially species who are not so pretty or popular. Our feeders are earning thier keep now, we do feed the whole year, I have changed how I garden to help local wildlife, small steps, but if every back garden followed, it would impact on our wild life

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  10. Well said CT. I was excited and thrilled beyond measure to see a sparrowhawk in my garden using the pergola as a plucking post. As soon as he/she sensed I was watching (I was 40 feet away indoors with the window closed and motionless but their eyesight is phenomenal) he hopped into the cover of the pear tree with his prey dangling from his beak and continued plucking. The day before while in the garden I had spotted two patches of sad feathers so I knew something was happening. But for my small garden (60 x 40 feet albeit with a wildlife pond, two mature trees and and plenty of cover) to support enough birds to attract returning visits from a sparrowhawk - a top predator - wow!!! I agree with everything you've said about the food chain. I compost everything and my delicious wormy compost is keeping a family of badgers fed. I've given up on aesthetics - I've got badgers coming to dinner every night.

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  11. Birds are hammering the sunflower seeds like there's no tomorrow. We have plenty in stock though. A heron flapped gently over us a couple of days ago. I think they like to viisit the zoo. I've seen in the pelican enclosure.

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  12. After the devastating fire in Knysna, various people are working hard to provide appropriate food for wildlife. Encouraging the creatures to make best use of surviving pockets of green. So encouraging to see the survivors, the fed and the feeders both!

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  13. Another interesting post, I have never seen a Goldcrest. Which seeds do you find to be the most popular. I bought a mixed bag last year and the birds weren't impressed! Sarah x

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  14. Wonderful blog - and I learned a bit too!

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x