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 Things We Overlook

dandelion.jpgOn Easter Sunday I spotted the first dandelion flower of the year. We’ve been picking the leaves for salads for a couple of weeks ; along with  sorrel and the early chives they have supplemented the shop bought salad I’ve been buying since we cut the last of our home grown lettuces. Looking at Instagram I often feel that the commonplace and the ordinary are overlooked in favour of more exciting, glamorous gardening achievements. I see photos of gardeners showing off the first blossom from their almond trees or the luscious fruits of lemons in their enormous heated greenhouses, of course I’m a little jealous, if only finances would stretch to a new greenhouse or a larger plant buying budget! My own precious garden moments are more mundane, but they are still thrilling to me. Even the first dandelion flower, knowing it is one of many wild plants  that I can pick and eat for free gives me joy and a sense of achievement – much more than buying expensive plants from glossy catalogues or plant fairs – and then posting photos of them online!

Other mundane moments of the pas week include spotting a buzzard sitting high in the branches of the silver birch as I chopped veg for tea. Over the next few evenings I found myself watching for him, discovering  ragged piles of pigeon and magpie feathers just outside the garden gate. We ate our first nettle risotto of the year, picked leeks (only the smallest are left now, but oh so sweet after the frosts and snow) and unwrapped the fig tree from its winter fleece to discover new shoots and small fruits that have survived the winter.

Garden Robin.jpg

The robin is growing bolder, sitting still long enough for me to take a few photos of him on the fence. He still won’t come and sit beside me, but he will hop down and take food from the ground beside me. The pigeons are courting, one of them is sitting on a nest, a ragged affair in next door’s damson tree and the female blackbird is busy pulling up worms. A flock ( is there a collective noun I’m not aware of) of siskins descended on the garden, the females  gorging on the sunflower seeds in the bird feeder, happy to jostle the goldfinches away (collective noun – a “charm”, or my favourite “a troubling” of goldfinches – thank you google).

I’m reading “The Wood”, by John Lewis – Stemple, the story of a year in the life of the flora and fauna that live in the small wood near his home in Herefodshire. Like his earlier books (“The Running Hare” and “Meadowland”), this is a beautiful imagining* of life in the English countryside. The wood he writes about covers just three and a bit acres, but is filled with birds, ancient trees, wild flowers and creatures that many of us know exist, but seldom see, He spots badgers, a vixen carrying food home to her cubs, migrating birds and insects, describing them in simple language and making me want to walk in the woods at dusk!

Much of my life is ordinary, mundane and lacking excitement. But, the sudden joy of spotting that buzzard in the tree, the siskins, or last year’s early dusk encounter with a couple of boxing hares  spark feelings of joy and gratitude. Reading The Wood I feel lucky and blessed to live here, to be able to find time to just sit, look out of my window and see all that my small Cheshire garden has to offer. I feel I am part of a wider community of nature lovers and people who appreciate the ordinary and the every day. Look out of your window, look up as you walk along the pavements and find moments of joy in the world around you.

I share photos of the things I spot from my garden, walks in the wood or snatched moments of excitement in an otherwise dull day in my Instagram stories – check out the “highlights” on my profile to see them.

 

  • In an author statement from the The Running Hare, the book is  described as a “substantially non fictional account based on the life, experiences and recollections of the author … except in minor respects .. the contents of this book are true”.

Notes From a Small Garden

My new garden robin.jpgWe have a new Robin, I spotted him on Tuesday. He’s much more cautious than our “old friend” who has kept us company all winter. This new visitor is smaller and as I approached the bird feeder he pressed his back against the fence-  wanting to edge away –  but  also hopeful that I was bringing snacks. I sprinkled a few sunflower seeds on the ground at my feet, he waited until my back was turned before hopping down to seize the plumpest and flying into the apple tree’s branches. I wonder how long it will be before he grows as bold as his friend (pictured above), who would hop down and follow me from the back door to the bin where I store bird food,  then scold me if I didn’t throw a few treats his way before making my way to the hazel tree where I hang the feeders.

I feel sad that we have lost our “old friend”, all winter there have been three robins visiting the garden, but only one has become bold enough to sit beside me as I drink my early morning cuppa on the garden bench. The others kept their distance. I wonder if this is a sign that spring really is here and soon they will start competing for territory, no longer keeping the winter truce which has allowed them all equal access to the food we put out for them every morning. I wonder what happened to my friendly robin? Maybe he failed to spot the sparrow hawk that visits each lunch time, or came off worse in a scuffle with another male. Perhaps (and I hope not), he was caught by the pesky cat “no tail”, who prowls around looking for  birds to toy with –  but not eat – he’s too well fed to make a proper meal of them. He often left them, shocked (or worse, needing to be put out of their misery) on the back step, but as he has learnt he’s not welcome here, he prefers the hidden space behind the shed where he can bask in the sunshine unseen from the house and lick his lips as he hopes for easy prey.

This new robin is quite tiny, his plumage bright red and his eyes beady black. Today he sat and watched me as I added some veg peelings to the compost bin, edging closer as I searched through the top layers, hoping to see signs of the brandling worms that have been buried deep over winter. Soon they will make their way to the top layers, their bodies entwined as they respond to the warmer weather, a writhing mass of breeding worms that turn my garden waste into rich, black gold to mulch the veg patch. This robin hasn’t learnt what a rich source of food can be found in the compost yet, it won’t be long before he’s hopping in and out. The wooden lid doesn’t fit properly and the older, wiser birds know that it’s full of meaty morsels, slugs, beetles and grubs that have made their home in the warm, moist compost.

male blackbird

As I walk back to the house, the blackbird calls to me and as I turn to listen, the tiny pink flower of the hazel catches my eye. It’s the first time this year I’ve spotted them in our garden. I’ve been too busy rushing in and out of the house, avoiding the cold blasts, the rain and even snow this winter. I have photographed them on my walks, but this is the first from my own garden.

Female hazel catkin.jpg

Standing at the door, I watch out new robin squabble with the hedge sparrows and scuffle under the feeders for dropped seed with a couple of gold finches and a  thrush that turns over leaves looking for snails. We may only have a small garden, but on mornings like these it has as much to offer as any nature reserve and I head back indoors grateful to be home from my London trip , and not even grumpy any more that I was woken by these same birds singing their  dawn chorus at 5.30am!

If you want to know more about the robin, or the rest of our common garden birds, a good place to start is the RSPB website.