A Skirmish of Siskins and other Garden Visitors

January 16th

We have a new garden visitor. I spied a lone pheasant (Phasianus colchicus) under one of the bird feeders as I was eating my breakfast. We’ve heard him calling for a few days, assuming he was a runaway from a local shoot, taking refuge in a neighbour’s garden. Today he is visiting us. Easy pickings here. He’s taking full advantage of seeds dropped by the goldfinches and sparrows, which don’t seem to mind his presence. We watch him strut about, before he finally squeezes through a gap in the fence and out into the fields.

The bird feeders are busy today, it’s cold and damp. A light drizzle that hasn’t put off the birds. I’m reluctant to step outside. I am bored of wrapping up in coat, hat, gloves and pulling on wellies for every garden chore. I long for spring and warm mornings spent drinking coffee on the garden bench. A few days ago, I made a new feeding station for the robins and blackbirds. I had noticed the blackbirds had been grubbing about in one of the hanging baskets left out over winter. I found an old plate in the greenhouse and put it on top of the soil, adding a few seeds and some raisins. On a whim I hung a seed feeder from the bracket (it had been languishing near the house, most of the birds too shy to feed there regularly). Today I count three great tits feeding greedily and a male robin pecking underneath. It seems that my haphazard arrangement is a success.

We now have three distinct feeding areas, and I’ve noticed a hierarchy among our regular visitors. The goldfinches prefer the feeder that hangs from the apple tree; they flap around noisily waiting their turn, balancing on thin stalks of the Verbena Bonariensis, hoping to find the last few seeds in the dried heads. THis is where the woodpecker feeds every morning. Beside this, a fat ball tower that is the domain of the starlings and beyond that a nut feeder that is beloved by great tits. On the other side of the garden, another fat ball feeder is where the sparrows gather. Mostly house sparrows, the dunnocks prefer to dance around the base of the conifers, hoovering scraps.  Further along the fence is my new addition, close to where the wren can often be spotted, darting out of the conifer hedge to forage amongst the kale and leeks.

The robins and blackbirds will dot around the garden, pulling worms from the damp grass, gobbling up scraps dropped by the other birds and watching me as I step outside to fill the feeders. The robins will often sit in the elder tree watching me. Last winter I started dropping a few seeds on the lid of the feed bin to encourage them down, but apart from one brave fella the others remain timid.

I look up from my laptop (I’m writing this at the dining table), a skirmish has caught my attention. The siskins have arrived and clearly think the goldfinches have been too greedy, their call is high pitched and they jab at the goldfinches with their beaks. The bird feeder is empty, so even if they could get their turn, nothing is left. I take pity on them and prepare to go outside.

I’m dressed like an arctic explorer. As soon as I step beyond the green house all the birds take flight. Two wood pigeons sit in the taller branches of the silver birch waiting. The skirmish has left scraps under the apple tree and they’re biding their time, they’ll fly down soon and have another feast. The squirrel is so hungry, he carries on hoovering up the sunflower hearts from the feeder next to the woodshed. He won’t stop until I pick up the rubber trug beside him to gather logs for the fire.

I walk around the garden, taking in any changes. There are a few snowdrops about to open and daffodils. I pick up silver birch twigs from the grass and wind them into bundles to use as fire lighters. The blue tits and blackbirds begin to call to each other, I am serenaded by a bird I cannot see in the tall branches of my neighbour’s damson. I could stand here watching and listening all morning. The chaffinches have ventured down to scavenge under the feeders, a group of about ten males and females. They swoop about, oblivious to the other birds and their garden politics. A blackbird is having a drink of water from the bowl under the hazel tree, the birds tolerate me, but they will be happier once I step inside.

Back indoors, I pull off the layers, stack wood by the fire, and take another look out of the window – yes – squirrel still there. She’s on top of the wood shed now, nibbling some treasure. I am off to town for a birthday lunch with a friend today, so I kick off my wellies, checking for mud on my jeans. Too lazy to change, I think I’ll do and go in search of a birthday card to write and her present to wrap.

Birds from the Train

Yesterday I took the train to Manchester. I chose to take the slow train from Mouldsworth, our local station. It’s a long, meandering journey through the Cheshire countryside, calling at Delamere Forest, Plumley and Knutsford before finally reaching the suburbs of Manchester. I like this route, you can always get a seat and there are plenty of opportunities for wildlife watching.

Soon after we passed Delamere, I spotted a heron flying over the mere. They have such a wide wingspan and long, long legs. I often wonder how they stay balanced in the water. During the rest of the journey I ticked off: jackdaws, a lone pheasant, the sudden blue flash of a jay as we passed through Mobberley and the usual assortment of crows, blackbirds and watched a pair of rabbits running through the allotments at Northwich.

But, it was the journey home where I really struck gold. It was just after four o’clock and we were approaching Northwich. I like this bit of the route, which passes the river Weaver and the Trent and Mersey canal. I spotted a large, inky black gathering of birds, forming and reforming in the grey black sky. Starlings. A few hundred – not a huge gathering – but the biggest I’ve seen for a while. A few other passengers had noticed too, and as the train slowed and then stopped to let a fast train pass by, we sat mesmerised as the starlings played out their formation dancing for us. A little girl asked her Mum what they were “I don’t know sweetie, blackbirds maybe”.

I couldn’t help myself, “They’re starlings”, I told her. “It’s called a Murmuration, we’re lucky to see it”. The mother replied that she’d never seen one before and reached for her phone to take a picture. The little girl sat, playing with her thumbs, repeating over and over to herself “Murmination, murmination”, enjoying the sound of the word and spellbound by the birds. I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

It may only have been a couple of minutes, maybe less before the train moved off again, but I tucked away the memory. It’s almost a year since I last saw a murmuration, I always think of them as precious gifts. Any grumbles about the wet weather, the crowds of Manchester were forgotten. Despite the fact that it rained all day, my jeans were wet and I needed of a strong mug of tea to revive me and take the edge off a busy day, the sight of the starlings, dancing and cavorting with such precision and grace was quite magical.

When I was home, I saw a couple of people had photographed the siting from near the canal and posted them on Twitter, apparently sightings are common there. I found this video on Youtube taken by a man called Ian Coventry in 2016 at Neumann’s Flash, which is close to where I spotted my starlings. Our sighting was much, much smaller.

These small glimpses of the natural world, of birds and animals oblivious to humans fill me with joy, whether it’s the chattering delight of the chaffinches in my garden or a lamb calling for its mother. They remind me there is beauty in the ordinary.

The Blackbird

blackbirdThe blackbird (Turdus Merula), is my favourite garden regular (I’m fickle, so that will change, I can easily fall for the charms of a cheeky squirrel, a bold robin or the delightful wren). In the grey half light I can see six today, five males and one bold female who has tired of fighting off their advances and has taken to sitting in my neighbour’s damson tree.

Two males sit like sentinels on the garden fence, facing each other. it’s just after 4pm and soon it will be dark. The garden is quiet, most of the birds have disappeared for the day, the other blackbirds sit in the tangled branches of the silver birch. They don’t call to each other or sing at this time of day, they seem content to sit and keep watch. Unlike other birds that seem to gather in flocks, the blackbirds sit together, but separate. They are aware of each other, but fly and feed independently. There have been skirmishes all day as they seem to be working out their territory. I wonder if any of these are the offspring of last year’s pair. The ones who  raised two clutches of eggs. I remember we watched helpless as the second clutch was attacked by magpies. The male and female doing their best to defend their nest, but the bigger birds won out, taking the bodies of the young up to the highest branches and gloating as the blackbird pair cried out and flew angrily at them, jabbing the magpies with their beaks. Nature is a cruel thing sometimes.

I have stepped out to fill the wood basket, which disturbs them a little. They soon settle though, not startled into the air like the smaller birds. The goldfinches and sparrows are skittish, these blackbirds seem calmer, happier to share the garden with us. These are the birds that will follow me as I weed and dig, happily grubbing for worms at my feet. Our neighbour has a “tame” blackbird who will feed from his hand. Ours seem content to follow us around the garden, occasionally coming close, but not too close.

The male blackbird is easily spotted, his dark plumage and yellow beak are easy to spot. The female is smaller, brown feathered and doesn’t have the yellow beak or ring around her eye. The females in our garden are more cautious. We often see more blackbirds in winter, I wonder if they are transient visitors or migrants. Or maybe our garden is just “neutral territory” because there is so much food here that they visit from other gardens and then return to roost or shelter in other gardens.

In autumn, these birds stripped the berries from the elder, then gorged themselves on the bright red jewels of the cotoneaster (the photo above was taken in autumn). Now they scavenge for worms and grubs. In spring, they are the first birds we hear in the dawn chorus, one likes to sit in our neighbours crab apple and serenade us at 5am. On those mornings, the blackbird is no longer my favourite and I wish he would stay silent until a more reasonable hour!

blackbird2

A larger birds swoops low and fast over the garden, a sparrowhawk perhaps or an owl maybe. Whatever it was, it has spooked the blackbirds. They fly away, each in a different direction. I lift a few more logs into the basket and find the dead body of a goldfinch. His body is intact, his plumage perfect, maybe he sheltered here and died of cold (last night was bitter). I pick him up and carry him to the end of the garden, tossing his light body into the fields. As I turn, I see the silhouette of a large bird in the silver birch, maybe the one that spooked the blackbirds. I think that maybe it is an owl. I carry the log basket inside, making a mental note to look up owls in the bird books and see if I can identify it. I pull off my coat, hat, gloves and scarf, kick off my wellies. I clasp my hands around the tea pot, wondering if the contents are warm enough for one last mug before I light the fire. Taking my tea into the living room, I’m drawn to the window. Yes, that’s definitely an owl in the apple tree. I reach for my camera, knowing that it’s too dark, that any photo won’t be worth keeping and as if knowing my plans, a graceful and not identified owl glides away over the fields. It’s properly dark now and another cold winter night begins.