Sunday 31st January turned out to be warmer than forecast reaching a heady 5.0C in the afternoon when we planned to do the Big Garden Bird Watch. Sadly, no group watch was possible this year, so Pete and I put on as many layers as we could manage and headed to the community garden with binoculars, telescope pens and paper for what should have been our 5th community bird watch (you can read about past watches here). We were intrigued about what we might see as there hadn’t been much bird food put out during lockdown but then there wouldn’t have been much disturbance either.
There were not many birds to see when we first arrived but as we sat quietly and tuned in to the sounds around we could hear songs and calls of many birds . Wood pigeons were most obvious at the start, then the twittering of bluetits in the pine trees and the busy sound of house sparrows in the bushes outside the garden (none spotted in the garden though). A robin struck up from one of the end trees and a pair of chaffinches calling “chink, chink” could be heard from the tennis court end of the garden.
In the distance we could hear the sound of curlews. We spotted them feeding in the field on the left as you drive out of Tayport to St Michaels, a big flock feeding in the grassy field with oyster catchers scattered among them.
Curlews are the largest wader in Britain, their long beaks are perfect for picking shellfish out of mud and you will see plenty of them on the mudflats near the caravan park. However those beaks are also very good at picking out worms from wet fields, exactly what they were doing near the garden. Their numbers have fallen by two thirds since 1970 and since the UK hosts around 25% of the world’s population, this bird has become a high priority for nature conservation.
Back to the bird watch, Pete spotted a few starlings in the cypress trees, and their numbers eventually swelled to become the most numerous birds we saw. That’s great news because Starling numbers are still declining across the UK, they rely on rough grassland to feed and probe for leather jackets (the pupae of crane flies) , worms and other soil insects. They often feed together in flocks and can head to roosts in huge numbers called murmurations. If any of you were watching Winter Watch this year you will have seen the amazing footage of Starlings roosting under Aberystwyth pier.
A heron flew slowly over the garden but didn’t land by the stream so we could not include it. Similarly, a skein of pink footed geese flew overhead, honking as they flew towards the fields. We couldn’t include these in our count but enjoyed watching them through the telescope.
The number of species slowly crept up over the hour that we were watching and we saw a great tit, a goldfinch and 3 blackbirds. Although the numbers of all of these were lower than last year, we could still see a good range of species relying on the different habitats that the garden provides. We were just about to finish up having spotted a couple of carrion crows in the tall trees when we heard a very high pitched twittering coming from the pine trees. After much hunting with two pairs of eyes we finally spotted a Goldcrest. What a delight!
Goldcrests are the smallest British birds, they are very beautiful with a bright black and yellow stripe down their head (with an orange centre in males) and an olive green and black body with a paler chest. They weigh in at just 6 g and in the winter large numbers arrive here from Scandinavia, quite amazing to think something so tiny can fly that far. There is a lovely Goldcrest identification video at the British Ornithological Trust (BTO) here.
Something I learned this year was how to identify other Scandinavian birds that swell the Scottish population of blackbirds. The Scandinavian male birds are black, just the same as our local males but the visitors have darker beaks and our local birds have bright yellow beaks. We think we may have seen a Scandinavian visitor in the garden but the light wasn’t good enough to be absolutely sure. That’s when we missed the many pairs of eyes that we usually have for our bird watch! We are all looking forward to being able to do more together outdoors soon and get back into the community garden again. Until then, watch out for those visiting blackbirds and keep looking out for new and interesting bird visitors. More birds come into gardens looking for food at this time of year when the natural hedgerow berries and seeds are eaten up and the fields ploughed so it is very important to feed the birds if you can.
If you need more information to identify birds check out the RSPB website “birdfinder” or visit the BTO website that I have shown above.
The really heartening news is that so many people participated in the Big Garden Bird Watch this year that the RSPB website couldn’t cope with the numbers and we couldn’t submit our results straight away. That has now been rectified so please go back and submit your results if you had problems earlier and be part of the biggest citizen science project in the world!
Watching wildlife has been one of the things that has got me through the last few weeks of lockdown, I hope that I have been able to pass on a little bit of that joy to you and encourage you all to give it a go.