Tag Archives: birds

Bird Nerd Part 11: headlines from the last year

Another year has passed, so I have another stack of data about my garden birds to wade through. I started recording data about the number of birds I see back in June 2010, so I’ve now got 5 years of data. In this post I’ll just share some of the headlines for the last year (June 2014 – May 2015).


This post outlines how I collect the data. In brief, I record the maximum number of individuals of a bird species I see at the same time in my garden, while sitting in my study working from home for the day.  This year I have 23 days of observations, which is the lowest so far – I think I must have had more meetings at work. Darn this paid employment thing getting in the way of birdwatching! (I love my job really.)

Averages, minimums and maximums

On average, I saw 18 individual birds of 7 different species per observation day. This did vary quite a bit over the year – the lowest was 2 birds of 2 species (in September) and the highest was 39 individual birds (in October) and 12 species (in December). The total number of species I saw over the year was 17.

The species league table

Average numbers of birds seen per observation day, and proportion of observation days seen on
Average numbers of birds seen per observation day, and proportion of observation days seen on

Notable visitors…

We had one visit from each of the following birds (having had none the year before):

Male blackcap
Male blackcap
  • Chaffinch
  • Blackcap
  • Pied wagtail
  • Song thrush

…and noticeable absences


This year we had no visits from wrens, goldfinches or siskins on observation days. This is the first year with no wrens or goldfinches recorded.

Coming soon

I’ve got another post or two planned looking at changes over the last five years, and also seasonal patterns in my garden visitors. (I even have hopes of presenting some of data in a more visual way than usual).


Too darn hot (or how to help wildlife in a heatwave)

Firstly, an apology for my non-UK readers: this is a post about the weather, specifically, me moaning because it's a temperature that for many of you is perfectly normal. I can't help it, I'm English.

It’s too darn hot. I commute to London four days a week. It’s really not been fun lately – our train isn’t air conditioned, and there seems to be no air at all coming in through the windows. Everyone is sweaty – clothes cling, and everybody politely ignores the visible damp patches on shirts, as we’re all in the same position. But I get off lightly – I don’t have to enter the depths of hell that is the underground network at this time of year, nor wedge myself into a mobile greenhouse (otherwise known as a bus).

And night is little better. Yesterday evening it was 27 degrees C when I wanted to go to bed. I’m not made for extremes of heat or cold – give me 21 degrees C and sunshine, and I’m happy. Anything too far either side of that and I’m miserable.

But I am very lucky – I can carry a bottle of water with me, and my food supply is as easily accessible as ever. Spare a thought  for our wildlife, who aren’t as lucky. Here’s some easy things you can do to help your wild neighbours during a heatwave:

  • Keep a bird bath topped up with clean water
  • Don’t forget about creatures who can’t fly – if you don’t have an accessible pond with shallow sloping sides, put out a dish of fresh water on the ground each day and night
  • If you don’t have a pond, why not create one – it’s one of the best things you can do to encourage wildlife in your garden. It needn’t be big – our mini pond gets used by lots of wildlife
  • Don’t forget to feed the birds and hedgehogs – it can be particularly hard for hedgehogs and blackbirds to find food when it’s been hot and dry for a long while, so leave out some cat food or mealworms for them
  • Water your garden plants when it’s cool (preferably with water from a water butt) to keep your garden a green oasis for wildlife
  • Build a log pile – this will provide damp shady places for insects, amphibians and mammals to keep cool during the day
  • Plant a tree or two in your garden to create some shade, if you don’t have some already (although a heatwave isn’t a great time to start planting trees – you might want to wait until the autumn / winter for this one)

You can find loads of useful wildlife gardening advice and practical instructions from the RSPB Make a Home for Wildlife site.

Do you have any other tips for helping wildlife through a heatwave?

Dormouse (or rather bluetit) box check, May 2015

Saturday morning was glorious, so I was feeling pretty optimistic as I set out for the May dormouse box check. We hadn’t seen any dormice in April at my site, but a month can make a big difference to small mammals. And Dr C was joining me (along with four other volunteers) for the first time.

The woods looked like a bride, dressed for a wedding in the freshest foliage and bedecked with flowers. Spring was everywhere, and the contents of the boxes reflected that.

Sadly, we had no dormice (nor any other mammals). But many, many birds nests, with lots of chicks. About a third of the boxes contained bird nests, which limits the nesting sites for dormice. But we can’t (and wouldn’t want to) disturb the birds.

Anyway, most of the nests were bluetits, who only have one brood a year. By next month most of the chicks will have fledged,  the nests will be empty, and dormice can move in. While dormice are more fastidious housekeepers than other mice, they’re not above building their nest on top of a used bird nest. And, when the bird nesting season is well and truly over, we will clean the old bird nests from the boxes, to give the dormice a more hygienic option.

So, I was a little disappointed we didn’t get any dormice. Especially when other site leaders posted photos on Facebook of all the lovely dormice they had found. But I refuse to give up hope, as we know there are dormice in the wood, and they did use the boxes late last year.

Still, I think I may have to change what I call the box checks – not dormousing, but bluetiting.

Empty nest

This time last year the first brood of house sparrow chicks in our camera nest box were fledging. And the year before that, ill-fated bluetit chicks had just hatched. This year, for the first time since we put the box up, no birds have shown any inclination to nest in it.

I don’t know why. Our garden is still full of sparrows, emptying the feeders and chattering away. The box is well hidden by a rampant clematis, but it was last year as well. There’s no sign of nesting in our other bird boxes either. And I don’t think they are nesting in our gutter like they used to.

I miss watching them build the nest, brood the eggs, and wait expectantly for them to hatch. And I miss hearing the cheeps, and checking the camera footage to see the moment they fledge. (To cheer myself up, I’ve just rewatched the footage from last year).

Oh well, there’s always next year. And I should get to see plenty of bluetit chicks on my next dormouse box check.

Do you have any idea of why the sparrows aren’t nesting in the box this year?

Bird nerd part 9: finding a home for my data

I’ve been keeping records of the birds that come into my garden since 2010. By now, that’s quite a lot of data. Once a year I get round to entering it into a spreadsheet, and trying to analyse it a bit. But apart from a few posts on my blog, and my own personal interest, the data are not really achieving much. Now I’ve finally found a use for the data, as part of the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden BirdWatch survey.

I found out about Garden BirdWatch (which is different from the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch that takes place in January each year) at an event organised by the local BTO representative. Members of the BTO, and people like me, who have taken part in previous surveys (Nestbox Challenge, in my case) were invited to hear about the different surveys the BTO run, and a fascinating talk by Ed Drewitt on Urban Peregrines. I’m not a proper ornithologist (mammals are more my thing), so I felt a bit like an imposter at the event, but the Garden BirdWatch does sound like it’s designed to take the sort of data I collect each week.

Garden BirdWatch summary data
Garden BirdWatch summary data

So, I signed up, and have now entered my data back to July last year. I haven’t worked out how to enter my earlier data yet, but I hope this can also be uploaded somehow. Once the data is on the website you can look at summaries of it, although I’m not sure if they go into the level of detail I try to when I analyse my data. But at least it’s now helping researchers to monitor the health of our bird populations.


Choughed to see porpoises

Having learnt that choughs have returned to Cornwall, I wanted to see them for myself. I’m not generally the sort of person who sets off on trips specifically to see a rare bird. But it’s nice to see the Cornish ‘national’ bird return after decades of absence, plus I’m a bit of a corvid fan. So, on a recent trip to the far south west, Dr C, my parents and I set out for a chough watching expedition.

I don’t normally take a telephoto lens with me when walking the coast path – I focus on the scenery. But since this walk was specifically to see choughs, I dragged my mammoth new lens along, and Dr C kindly lugged the tripod.

We set off from Cadgwith (on the east of the Lizard), and walked along the coast to Lizard Point. (We later learnt – from the pasty shop –  that this was a mistake: the choughs spend the morning on the west of the Lizard, moving towards the Point a lunchtime, at which point we had headed onto the west of the Lizard…) We saw plenty of corvids: crows, magpies, rooks, jackdaws. But no choughs.

I’d have been quite disappointed about that, but luckily I was distracted by the sight of porpoises a few hundred metres from the cliff we were walking along. At least I think they were porpoises – they were small and had the gentle roll and triangular fin of harbour porpoises – they’re much shyer and quieter than the dolphins I’ve seen. This was the best view I’ve had of them – they hung around for quite a while, and there were several of them.

I was pleased with the performance of my new lens. I was too excited to set up the tripod, so this was taken at 500mm, handheld, in January light. The vibration reduction obviously works!

A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall
A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall

It’s always a wonderful treat to see our marine mammals. I’ll just have to try to see choughs another time…

January photography challenge

It’s not really news that January is probably the worst time of year to start a new resolution. In fact, I could shorten that sentence to “January is probably the worst time of year.” So it’s not a huge surprise that I didn’t do as much photography as I’d hoped in response to my first photo challenge: wildlife in winter.

On the plus side, I did treat myself to a new long lens with image stabilisation. On the down side, I managed to miss all the snow, so didn’t get to catch the frozen scenes I was hoping for.

I tried out the long lens with a tripod for some garden bird shots, and was reasonably pleased with the results.

This chaffinch is too fast for me!
This chaffinch is too fast for me!
Blue tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Great tit

I was even more impressed by the results handheld when I spotted porpoises(?) several hundred metres from the coast path – the image stabilisation makes a real difference. (I’m not 100% sure it’s a harbour porpoise – feel free to correct me if you think I’m wrong!)

A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall
A harbour porpoise(?) and gull off the Lizard peninsula in Cornwall

The final shot came as a bit of a surprise when I downloaded the photos, as I’d forgotten taking it. Little Egrets are such elegant birds, and it looks like this one has hit the jackpot.

Little egret with big fish
Little egret with big fish

Bird nerd part 8: Big Garden Birdwatch 2015

The last weekend in January was the annual Big Garden Birdwatch, when hundreds of thousands of people from across the UK record the numbers of birds they see in one hour. This year I was down in Cornwall that weekend, staying with my parents, so there were four pairs of eyes to keep watch.

The list of what we saw is a little different from what I’d expect if we were at home (see my report on last year’s birdwatch). Here’s what we saw down in Cornwall:

Great British Birdwatch results from my parents' garden
Great British Birdwatch results from my parents’ garden
  • 4 Blackbirds (we usually get a couple)
  • 2 Bluetits
  • 4 Chaffinches (we rarely get chaffinches)
  • 2 Dunnock
  • 2 Great tits
  • 3 House sparrows (we’d beat them on sparrows)
  • 2 Magpies
  • 3 Robins (we usually only get 1)
  • 30 Starlings (We rarely see more than 10 at home)
  • 1 Woodpigeon (we’d beath them on woodies as well – we usually get 2 or 3)
  • 1 Wren
  • 1 Greater spotted woodpecker (We’ve never seen a woodpecker in our garden)
  • 25 Rooks (there’s a rookery in the trees by their house)

No collared doves though – we usually get 2 or 3.

Blue tit
Blue tit
Great tit
Great tit
This chaffinch is too fast for me!
This chaffinch is too fast for me!

Later this year they’ll release the full results, which will give a useful snapshot of how the nation’s birds are doing.


Bird nerd part 7: blackcap’s back

I’m not a fan of winter, but it does make watching the birds in my garden a little more exciting. This week I was thrilled to see a blackcap for the first time since 2012. Blackcaps are a pretty type of warblers, with soft grey feathers and a striking black (if it’s male) or brown (if it’s female) cap.

Male blackcap
Male blackcap

Blackcaps aren’t the only unusual visitor I’ve seen in the garden recently. I saw a female chaffinch the other day. I’d only seen chaffinches in the garden twice before, both times back in 2013.

While few days go by without a visit from woodpigeons, feral pigeons are much rarer in my garden. But I have seen them twice in the last couple of weeks, having not seen them since 2013.

Obviously the food we put out is attracting more customers, despite the relatively mild and calm winter we’ve had so far. Better make sure I keep the feeders topped up!

Top posts from 2014

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good chance to look back over what’s happened. I’ve been going through the stats to see which posts have had the most views (per month) in 2014. Here are the top 10:

10) 10 more Christmas present ideas for wildlife enthusiasts: It seems lots of people are looking for inspiration for Christmas presents. I just hope Dr C is among them!

9) Looking for harvest mice at an airport: my (ultimately unsuccessful) attempts to see micromys minutus in the unusual setting of Gatwick Airport.

8) Fascinating wildlife fact #11: sharks don’t have bones: a short but interesting glimpse into the anatomy of sharks.

7) On the trail of wild beavers: an account of an expedition to find traces of the first beavers living wild in the UK for hundred of years, and the campaign to keep them that way.

6) Hope for the River Otter beavers: An update on the saga of whether the beavers who were discovered living wild on the River Otter will be allowed to stay free, or rehomed to a zoo. No doubt there will be more posts about this topic next year, as there’s still no definite plans.

5) Kingfishers: Another post from the River Otter (3 in the top 10!). This time it’s some of my better attempts at photographing kingfishers. Still room for improvement, but I’m getting better at it!

4) How to tell who’s been nibbling your nuts: This post outlines how to tell the difference between a nut nibbled by a squirrel, woodmouse, bank vole or dormouse. It contains close up photos to help with identification.

3) Dormouse license! I’ve finally received my dormouse license. This post reflects on what this means, and  the journey to get this far…

2) 5 more recent posts that have made me think: This post links to 5 posts by other bloggers that have made me think. It includes reintroduction of large carnivores in the UK, the hunting act, hedgehogs, flooding, and Christian’s relationship with nature.

1) Plan to cull badger cubs shows the cull’s not about bovine TB: Like the River Otter beavers, the badger cull has been a saga with many twists and turns. This post discusses the recent announcement that the timing of the culls next year will be moved forward to when cubs are first emerging from the sets.