The great British weather. Yesterday it was awful, wet, cold, grey and desolate. Today, blue skies, sunshine, singing house sparrows in the hedgerows and a field full of fieldfare. On the drab winter days, even the birds hunker down and you could be forgiven for asking, ‘where are they all?’ Sometimes on these days I’ll haul my camera around for a couple of hours and not take a shot – until I get back into the garden. Despite the weather, here are most of the birds I was looking for, all in one place around the feeders.
We’ve been feeding our birds here 365 days a year for 18 years and, even when we are away, a kind friend comes every day to make sure they’re fed and watered. We like to provide a wide variety of food because, just like we humans, birds don’t all enjoy the same diet, and the greater variety of food, the greater variety of birds. Their table manners are fascinating to watch. The big fat wood pigeon dominates the seed tray while the stock doves clean up around the outskirts. The tits have a pecking order with the feisty great tit usually coming out on top. The nuthatch flies in concord-like and scatters the smaller birds, grabs his seed and then runs up the tree to find a suitable place to tear it apart. Long-tailed tits arrive in numbers, singing their chorus while making short work of the fat balls. A charm of goldfinches sits quietly on the sunflower feeder and if there isn’t sufficient room for them all, the remainder head for the niger seed (or nyjer – don’t ask!) or the teasels.
Goldfinch on teasel
From time to time, an unexpected drama enfolds. A sparrowhawk swoops in, scattering the throng. All the birds flee to the relative safety of the bushes except, that is, for the great spotted woodpecker who knows better than to try and escape. They will stay deadly still. Not a movement of foot, body or bill until they are sure they are safe. They know that if they freeze, the likelihood is they will not be noticed by this dangerous, avian predator and they will live to feed another day.
But it isn’t just during the day that there is activity in the garden. Like me, a number of friends in the village now have trail cams, relatively inexpensive cameras that they can leave in the garden and which activate when they detect movement, even in the dark. While we are tucked up in bed, these cameras are picking up stills or video clips of badgers, foxes and hedgehogs. Some leave out a few peanuts or dog biscuits to supplement the animals’ feeding in the winter and to attract them to the camera. I have trail cam images of badgers climbing the garden wall and standing on their hind legs to reach plums on my tree and even a stoat sniffing the tree stump where I leave my tawny owl’s supper. The owl features regularly on my camera as he returns during the night to see if, by chance, I’ve left him something extra.
So, here we are in February. It’s no longer turning dark at 4pm. Buds are breaking out on the trees and bushes. The owls are calling as they hold their territories ready to start nesting. Daily, around the top of the cemetery and down near the beck I can hear the yaffle of a green woodpecker. A great spotted woodpecker is drumming up the Scrog. These are all signs that spring is in the air. Birds which had escaped the cold for warmer climes will soon be starting their long return journey and those that settled down to wait out the winter will be looking forward to a new beginning. And so am I.