Category Archives: Birds

And another 10 Christmas present ideas for wildlife lovers

It’s the first of December – advent calendar doors are being opened around the world. Tonight is Gala Night in the town I live in, where all the local shops put on a bit of an extravaganza for late night Christmas shopping and general jollity. If you’re in need of some inspiration for what to get the wildlife lover in your life, you might want to check out my previous posts on the subject:

and some new ideas below.

  1. Window feeder for birds: these trans
    Window bird feeder with mealworms
    Window bird feeder with live mealworms

    parent bird feeders stick to your window, giving good views of whatever’s taking the food. We’ve had one for years, but never really used it until this year, when we started feeding live meal worms during spring. The robins loved it, and we got plenty of good views from the comfort of our own dining room. You can get them from various places, including the RSPB. If the person you’re shopping for isn’t too squeamish, you could even get them some mealworms to go in it. They’re ugly, but just about every bird and mammal that visits our garden loves them.

  2. Wildlife-related clothing: this one’s probably found its way near to the top of the list today as it’s so darned cold. I’ve got my eye on a badger jumper to keep the chill away. PTES have some good designs, as do Sussex Wildlife Trust.

    Close-up of insect house
    Close-up of insect house
  3. Solitary bee house: bees of all sorts have had a tough time over the last few decades, but they’re essential pollinators, so we need to help them out. We were given one last Christmas and have really enjoyed seeing the leafcutter bees make use of it. The charity BugLife have a selection. As do NHBS.
  4. A wildlife calendar: I’m a bit biased, as I sell calendars of my wildlife photography to raise money for charity, but I think calendars make great presents (as long as the person you’re buying for doesn’t have too many already). Mine have pretty much sold out this year, but there’s plenty of thers out there. Wildlife Photographer of the Year always produce great ones. The RSPB has a good choice as do WWF and the Wildlife Trusts calendar looks super.
  5. A good thermos: I’ve come to hot drinks quite late in life – I still don’t like coffee or normal tea. But having a flask of steaming hot drink to warm you up on a cold walk or wildlife survey (or football match) can really make a difference. Some are better than others – look at the details on how long it will keep a drink warm for before you buy.
  6. Membership of a wildlife organisation: I’m a member of many wildlife organisations, from huge international charities to local species-specific groups. There are loads out there, and many offer gift memberships. The benefits of membership will vary between organisations, but might include a regular newsletter or magazine (some of these are really good), access to events for members, and opportunities to get into the wild to help nature. And of course, the membership fee supports the work the organisation does. Some of the bigger ones offer special memberships for children as well – I remember being given membership of the children’s wing of Devon Wildlife Trust when I was growing up, and enjoying the activities that were part of that. If the person you’re buying for is particularly keen on a specific species or type of wildlife, see if there’s a group that matches. (Some that spring to mind that offer gift memberships include the Barn Owl Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, WWF,  the Mammal Society, the National Trust, RSPB)
  7. Dormouse Christmas tree decorations
    Dormouse Christmas tree decorations

    Something beautiful and handmade: One of the members of the dormouse group I’m part of makes fantastic wildlife-related ornaments, jewelry and decorations. I fell in love with her dormouse Christmas tree decorations, but she does wonderful birds, butterflies and other mammals as well.

  8. Books: Books are always on my list. Check out what natural history books your local bookshop has to offer. I quite fancy ‘That Natural Navigator’ by Tristan Gooley, as I like the thought of being able to navigate without a smart phone or GPS.
  9. A sea safari: In Britain nowhere is that far from the sea, which holds some of our most exciting wildlife. A holiday is not complete for me if it doesn’t include a boat trip, and you can’t beat the thrill of seeing dolphins race and play, or the leisurely trawling of a basking shark. Look out for your local operator, but make sure they’re members of the WISE scheme (which means they’re accredited to run their trips in a way that’s safe for wildlife). Dr C still hasn’t booked me on a whale watching cruise of the Bay of Biscay yet (see 2014’s post), but maybe I can persuade him to let me go for a day trip at least.
  10. Wildlife Gardening Information Pack: This was part of my prize for winning the small private garden category of the 2015 Surrey Wildlife Garden Awards, and I’ve found it packed full of ideas – highly recommended!
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Bird Nerd part 15: 2015-2016 data – catastrophe

If you have followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that I keep records of the birds I see in my garden. I have finally got round to entering and analysing the data from June 2015 to May 2016. The results make gloomy reading.

I have data from 36 observation days, spread across the year. On average, I saw eight individual birds from 4.5 species per day. This is the lowest average number of birds and species in the six years I have been collecting data, by quite some way. It’s a fall by more than half on the previous year’s average number of birds.

Average number of individual birds and species, 2010-2016
Average number of individual birds and species, 2010-2016

This averages hide a range from no birds at all (one day in February) to 19 birds from 9 species in June. In total, I saw birds from 16 different species.

As the graph shows, I started off with high numbers, which declined steeply in the first couple of months (as is fairly usual for the time of year). But the numbers never really picked up again, and December, which is usually the busiest month, saw very few birds visiting the garden.

Total number of individual birds and species, 2016
Total number of individual birds and species, 2016

How did different species get on?

The most regular visitor to the garden was woodpigeon, being recorded on 81% of observation days, followed by the reliable robin, on 78% of observation days. House sparrows were on seen on 36% of observation days, but turned up in numbers, giving a mean average of 1.8 individuals per observation day.

As the next chart shows, it was a bad year for most of the common species. The house sparrow population seems to have dropped dramatically from last year. I saw fewer starlings, collared doves and blackbirds than any previous year. Numbers of woodpigeons, magpies, dunnocks and jackdaws also seemed to be down on the previous year. Two species had their best ever year in our garden: robins and feral pigeons.

Average number of birds from common species, 2010-2016
Average number of birds from common species, 2010-2016

How does this fit with the national picture?

According to the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Birdwatch survey (which my data feeds into), There were low average numbers during the second half 2015. But they report that many of the seed-eating and insectivorous species were seen in very high numbers toward the end of the year,  something my data doesn’t reflect. There were low winter migrant numbers, which could have been driven by relatively mild winter.

Looking at the individual species, the latter half of 2015 does seem to have been bad for house sparrows, collared doves, blackbirds and starlings nationally.

What caused this decline?

I don’t really know what caused the decline. I haven’t changed the food, water or shelter features in the garden for birds. A couple of possible factors spring to mind.

  1. Last winter was very mild, so maybe birds didn’t need to visit the garden so much for food
  2. Cats and kittens: our garden is now used by next door’s cat – he probably arrived during this period. And our backdoor neighbours have got a couple of naughty kittens. So perhaps these are scaring the birds away.

And of course there’s the bigger picture that’s affecting birds nationally: Jazz, Roja and Kiki are not responsible for low numbers of birds nationally. Climate change, habitat loss and farming intensification are part of the longer-term story.

What to do?

I can’t change the weather, so I guess if I want to see more birds, I may need to discourage the neighbourhood cats. I am not sure how best to achieve this, without making the garden unappealing to Fat Cat as well, which would be a shame (she’s not a hunter – she once got scared out of the garden by a baby bluetit). Maybe we could use some kind of cat repelling sound device that we could turn off when Fat Cat is taking her constitutional stroll.

What do you think?

  • Have you noticed any decline in the number of birds visiting your garden?
  • Do you have any alternative hypotheses for why the birds have disappeared?
  • Do you have any suggestions on how I can discourage the neighbours’ cats while not spoiling Fat Cat’s chance for fresh air and grass?

Belated nest discovery 

The mild weather of October has given way to a chilly November. Time to get ready for winter. So Dr C got the ladder out to take the camera out of the birdbox, which is hidden behind a tangle of clematis by our front door.

This year was disappointing for birdbox activity. We had a pair of bluetits who started building a nest, but they abandoned it before laying eggs.

So it was a little galling when he discovered a birds nest on top of the nest box. It looks like birds did nest this year, on rather than in the bird box. And all this time, it was easily watchable from our sitting room, if only we had known to look.

Bird nest on top of the camera nest box
Bird nest on top of the camera nest box

I am not sure what sort of birds nested there – it looks quite different from the many bluetit and wren nests I have seen, but they have usually been in a box, rather than freestanding. Any ideas? My best guess would be robins, given how frequently I saw them in the back garden this spring.

I’ve no idea what happened in this nest. Was it abandoned before any eggs were laid, like the one in the box? Did they lay eggs? Did the chicks fledge. I will never know. I would like to think they did, and that perhaps they will be back next year. I will certainly be keeping an eye out for them!

Do you have any ideas about what made the nest?

Abandoned by the bluetits

Sad news – the bluetits seem to have abandoned the nest they were building in the camera nest box. We haven’t seen a bluetit in the box for well over a week now.

Abandoned bluetit nest
Abandoned bluetit nest

It’s not the first time we’ve had bluetits build a nest, only to disappear before laying any eggs. I’m clinging onto the hope that they’re just having a break before getting down to laying eggs and incubating. But I think I may be deluding myself.

Maybe they’ve found somewhere more desirable to nest. Or maybe something untoward has happened to one of the pair. It’s a precarious life, being a bluetit, especially with the number of cats who are hanging round my garden these days.

Do you have any other theories to add to my list? Or have you seen examples where bluetits have avoided a built nest for a week or two, and then come back to use it?

Installing an insect house, and feeding birds live food

This month’s wildlife garden activities have focused on insects: installing a nice new home for some of them to live in, and feeding others to robins.

Installing an insect house

The credit for the first bit needs to go to Dr C, who did all the hard work. I was given a lovely insect house for Christmas. With spring well and truly here, and lots of blossom on the fruit trees, it was about time we installed it.

Our previous insect home (a bit of log with holes drilled into it) has started rotting away. To keep this one in good condition for longer, we decided to install it off the ground, on a post.

Insect house in border
Insect house in border

It looks to me like it’s designed for solitary bees (not all bees live in hives). We’ve put it in the border next to the buddleia, which provides plenty of food for pollinators.

Close-up of insect house
Close-up of insect house

Feeding live food to the birds

The second insect related wildlife garden activity is providing live mealworms for the robins, who must have a nest with chicks nearby.
I have been feeding birds dried mealworms for years (soaked first to rehydrate them). Everything seems to love them. But even with the soaking, I have been a bit concerned they may be a bit dry for chicks whose only moisture comes from their food.

When I first started feeding dried mealworms to the birds I was quite squeamish – I didn’t want to touch them.  But I had to admit they smelt surprisingly tasty. I got used to dried mealworms, but I was a bit concerned that, confronted with squirming, squishy live insects, my squeamishness would return. Luckily that hasn’t been the case.

Live mealworms are best put out in smooth sided containers, so they can’t escape. We put up a clear plastic feeder that attaches to our window with suckers, so we can see the birds feeding. I was concerned that it might take the robins a long time to pluck up the courage to feed from it, but they’re bold birds and soon got the hang of it. They certainly seem to appreciate the mealworms, and we’re getting through the supply quickly. I haven’t spotted any other birds using it yet.

Window bird feeder with mealworms
Window bird feeder with live mealworms

Hopefully providing live food will help to give the baby robins a good chance of surviving.

Photo special: robins

The robins have been very busy in our garden of late – I think they must have chicks nearby, but I’m not sure where they’re nesting. So last weekend I spent some time trying to get a good photo of one.

Here are my best attempts – not all perfect focus, and a little noisy in places, but I think some of them capture something of the character of these birds – bold and inquisitive.

RobinQuizzical Robin Very ruffled robin Robin and blossom Sideways robin Robin with worms Robin looking at food Ruffled robin Robin with worms Robin with worm Grumpy-looking robin

Hedgehogs are back!

The bluetits have started nesting. I saw my first dormouse of the year on Saturday. And the hedgehogs are out of hibernation, active and hungry. Spring is here!

image
I’m also feeling that urge to get outside and do stuff. Hopefully the long weekend will give me a chance to work on a couple of projects I have been planning.

Bluetits have started nesting!

After last year’s no-show for birds nesting in our camera bird-box, I was very excited earlier this week when I got home to find a bluetit roosting in it, who had clearly been bringing in nesting materials.

Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box
Fluffed-up bluetit roosting in our camera nest box

I’m trying not to count my chickens (bluetits) before they hatch, as I know that sometimes they’ll start building nests in several places, before settling on one. But it’s still a positive sign.

Of course, it was only once the bluetits had started using the box that I realised that I’ve misplaced the adapter that lets me plug the camera into my computer. So for now I’m having to make do with taking photos of the TV screen. But I’ll try to rectify that in the next few days so I can get some better images and some video.

There’s been a bluetit roosting in the box every night since that first evening, and they seem to have been particularly busy at bringing in nesting material this morning.

Progress with nest building
Progress with nest building

I’m glad it’s bluetits nesting in there this year. The year before last we had house sparrows, which was great, except their nest covered the camera, so we could only hear and not see what was going on until the chicks were big enough to have flattened the nest. Bluetits have more open-top nests, so hopefully we’ll have a better view.

The only time bluetit chicks hatched in that box previously one of the adults disappeared soon after they hatched, and we had to watch while another chick died each day, until there were none left. I’m hoping for a more successful outcome this year. I’ll keep you informed!