RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

Every year towards the end of January the RSPB ask members of the public in the UK to spend an hour counting the birds in their garden.  Every year I have stood at my window for an hour in the morning, often before Mr Enviro-Mentalist gets up, to count my feathered friends.  This year I nearly gave it a miss due to laziness as much as anything, nothing to do with cancelling my RSPB membership.

But, this afternoon I thought I would make the effort and watch the birds whilst I pottered about and caught up on a few things on the internet.  But, once in front of the window I was hooked and I abandoned all thoughts of doing something else multitasking.  I had to watch the birds so I could count them, otherwise I might miss one.  It suddenly occurred to me that I couldn’t remember the last time I had spent more than 5 minutes just watching my back garden birds.  They are usually just a distraction when making breakfast or washing up – particularly in the winter when it is dark for the majority of the time I’m at home.

So, I stood and waited and watched.  Would the usual suspects turn up.  Would I see more goldfinches than anything else?  Not quite; the house sparrows won 6-5, but it was a close run thing and might be skewed by the fact that I could distinguish between male and female sparrows so didn’t need to see them all at once.


I found myself wondering why there was only one dunnock in the garden – usually there are two or three.  Did I usually only see a male chaffinch in the garden in winter, would there normally be a female with him, or did she usually show up later in the year when he was in his spring finery.  Were the two robins paired, is that why they tolerated each other?   During some of the lulls in garden activity I found myself watching the jackdaws fly over, as well as the wood pigeons (I was hoping these didn’t land in the garden as I’d already had a pair in during the first half hour and they often stop other birds from coming in).

Other questions kept popping up – where were  the greenfinches?  In fact, when was the last time I saw a greenfinch in the garden?  Did I usually ask myself this during the Big Garden Birdwatch?  Perhaps I did or was it deja vu?  I think maybe they turn up in the spring unless it’s a really cold winter.  Why are there so few starlings?  Do the goldfinches send scouts out to look for food then zoom in when one calls, or do they tend to have a particular path they fly round?  Is it the same goldfinches that squabble, or is it one in particular that starts the fights.  Is it an age/hierarchy or gender thing?

I noticed the startling that did appear made use of the pond for bathing, as did the blackbirds, but the sparrows had all discovered a seed tray that had filled with water that they preferred as a bath and for drinking.  The robin has now learned to cling on to the fat ball feeder as have the sparrows, and the blackbirds continue to throw compost around the patio.

In the end, all the usual suspects put in an appearance except the blue tits.  As I got towards the end of the hour, I debated whether they would show.  It was unusual for them not to be in the garden.   Sure enough, they turned up, but not until 30 minutes after I finished, so they don’t count for this year’s birdwatch.

With hindsight I realised that I should do this more often, call myself a naturalist?  How am I going to check whether the new cats that appear have had a detrimental effect, whether the goldfinches are going up or down in number or the time of year when the greenfinches appear if I don’t keep a regular check?  How am I going to answer any of the questions I thought of today?  I feel like I’ve been missing out on my back garden entertainment.  I might not have a garden that attracts red kites or woodpeckers like some garden birdwatchers do, but once you start looking even the sparrows become worth watching.


Big Garden Birdwatch

One hour’s birdwatching duly completed.  I decided to go for the Saturday morning as soon as I had finished getting dressed.  For the first 15 minutes or so, there really weren’t many birds around.  I saw two blue tits as  I opened the blind and there was a male blackbird that turned up after about 10 minutes.  I was starting to get worried.

However, slowly they started to arrive, with a couple of house sparrows and a pair of great tits being the next guests.  Then pandemonium – more house sparrows, only this time there were about 10 (I definitely counted this number, but it could have been more).  They were hurtling about the garden , making lots of noise, then they careened into next door’s conifer and then they were gone.

Most of the usual suspects were about; a couple of dunnocks and two robins as well as another couple of blue tits (all there at once which is unusual as they usually chase each other off).  But, no finches for quite some time until a couple of goldfinches turned up.  Then some more and finally I counted 8 at once. I love these, they are so bright and noisy, they enliven any garden.

So, total species count was only 7 this year.  I was not surprised by the lack of starlings as they don’t often come into the garden, they just make lots of noise in the roof, and the cage I have put round the bird feeder has deterred the wood pigeons and collared doves this winter.  The greenfinches didn’t arrive until late morning and I have no idea what happened to the chaffinches on Saturday.  However, the thing I am a little concerned about is that I only saw the one male blackbird, no others, male or female.  I haven’t seen more than one since either, so I am not sure what has happened to his mate as they were often in the garden together.

Volunteers wanted to join World’s largest wildlife survey from the comfort of their own home.

This weekend (28th and 29th January) sees the next instalment of the world’s largest wildlife survey. The RSPB has been running the annual check on the state of garden birds each year for 33 years. It started life as a survey done by members of its Young Ornithologists Club before being made open to all. Last year the Big Garden Birdwatch had 609,177 participants who saw a grand total of 10,262,501 birds.

So, why is the Big Garden Birdwatch important? Each year it provides a snapshot of the status of the more common birds that we see every day (and some not so common birds) and, because so many people take part it gives a good average for the UK as a whole. Over the years it has highlighted the reduction in common birds such as house sparrows and starlings, which, although spotted by a large proportion of the public are not around in the same numbers as they used to be.
Male BlackcapIt also highlights when different bird species start visiting gardens in bigger numbers. One year may be an anomaly, several years establishes a trend. Recent increases have been seen from long-tailed tits, bullfinches and goldfinches, mainly due to the increase in bird food types offered by those feeding the birds.
A third reason that the birdwatch is important is that it has highlighted changes in migration patterns such as blackcaps which rarely overwintered a few years ago, but are now regularly spotted in gardens in Winter (in fact I have had one visiting my birdfeeders every year for three years).

The top five birds seen last year were House Sparrow, Starling, Blackbird, Blue Tit and Chaffinch, although there were some unusual sightings including ravens, buzzards and red kites. Not unexpectedly the top five were similar in Northamptonshire, but with Woodpigeons pipping the Chaffinches for fifth spot. What I find interesting about the results is that there are some birds such as robins and blackbirds which were spotted in high percentages of gardens, even if the average number per garden was not very high (also possibly hindered in some cases by an inability to tell the males and females apart).

So, how do you take part? Simple. Choose one hour this weekend (28th / 29th January), I find mornings are normally better for bird activity, write a list of the birds that you are likely to see (include a line for male and females if you can tell them apart) settle back and count the birds that come into your garden. Be careful not to count them twice, only count the maximum number that you can see at any one time. Then, submit your sightings online at . You can also find a useful guide to help you identify birds on their website.

So, happy birdwatching and thank you for taking part in a wildlife survey.

Big Garden Birdwatch

So, it was the time of year when all garden birds traditionally do a bunk to the hedgerows and rooftops so that they cannot be counted in the RSPB’s big garden birdwatch statistics.  Well, that is often the way that it feels.  Still, every year I sit by the window for an hour and try to count all of my little feathered friends.

There seems to have been extra publicity this year due to the concern that the recent cold weather may have done for half of the little birds that we would commonly find in the garden.  Is it the case – we will have to wait and see, but, for once, my garden was brimming with life – I struggled to keep up as birds flitted from one side to the other.  It appears that my tactic of early morning (9am) nature watching, when it was still cold, paid off.

I managed to see a total of 13 different species this year, more than the 10 that @naturesvoice for the RSPB tweeted.  The count started with the ever reliable pair of blue tits, so it should because I think one of them roosts in the pipe from the boiler.  They were sooned joined by blackbirds (I counted 5 at one point – not bad for a garden that is only 20’x30′) and chaffinches.  The male chaffinches are certainly starting to get some more colour as we move towards Spring, but they are still hard to keep track of as they zoom from one side of the garden to the other, one minute on a feeder, the next foraging around in the undergrowth.

I was particularly pleased that the bullfinches turned up within the allotted hour – they tie with long-tailed tits as my favourite bird – they have been visiting the garden all Winter.  I was worried that they would not show today, but, 3 turned up and stayed for a while.  (Looking on Twitter it appears that these lovely birds are becoming more common in gardens and, indeed, have recently been removed from the BTO’s Red List).  I was also particularly pleased when I saw some sparrows in the garden.  I am sure that you have all read the reports about the disappearance of house sparrows, and I definitely haven’t seen very many since the Summer, but, I got a maximum of four, including a couple that turned up just before the end of the hour and stared pitifully at the saucer of frozen water (don’t worry, we went out with fresh water just after the hour).

Song ThrushThe best surprise of the hour came from the song thrushes though.  Before the Winter we had only rarely seen one young song thrush in the garden in the entire 10+ years that we have lived here, although we can usually hear them singing from the old railway track.  However, this Winter one has started putting in an appearance, although he (or she) is usually chased away by a very territorial blackbird (as if there is any other type).  But today I was delighted to see two song thrushes in my garden at the same time – partly because they are another bird not doing well, and partly because I am a keen organic gardener and they will certainly help my war against snails.

The total species count as mentioned before was 13 and consisted of blue tit, great tit, greenfinch, bullfinch, chaffinch, robin, dunncock, blackbird, song thrush, starling, house sparrow, wood pigeon, collared dove.

The only regular that did not put in an appearance was the goldfinch.  Throughout the year we have up to 8 of these noisy, colourful characters in the garden, but, it appears that they are not very fond of the cold.  Throughout the 2 weeks of snow they did not put in any appearance as far as we can tell, but reappeared once the snow had gone.  Similarly, they appeared later on today, once the air had warmed up a little.  I am not sure where they go, but they are still welcome when they come back.

Other Wildlife News

I saw a couple of interesting articles on the internet this morning that are almost related to each other.

As part of a scheme to repopulate Scotland with some of its native fauna (following on from the reintroduction of beavers) a number of White Tailed Sea Eagle chicks have been released in the last few years in the east of Scotland.  These are chicks that have been brought over from Norway and kept in aviaries in the Fife area prior to being released.  The next batch of chicks is going to be tagged in order to check their progress and look at their movements. More information about this bird can be found in the article on the RSPB website.

At the other end of the scale British Waterways has released a list of the twelve non-native species most likely to harm our native river dwelling wildlife.  Not surprisingly the list includes the much publicised mink and Signal Crayfish, but also Red-Eared Terrapin (apparently released following the ninja turtles craze), a number of plants such as Japanese Knotweed and Zebra Mussels, the latter already causing problems in the rivers and lakes of, amongst others, Spain and Canada.  The problem common with most of these invaders is that they tend to grow bigger, faster and are more aggressive than our peaceful native species.

Big Garden Birdwatch Results

The results of the big garden birdwatch were released this week and seem to reflect a lot of my own observations this Winter. Although the average number of birds counted has dropped since the first survey in 1979, there are some success stories. The most noticeable of these has been the rise of the goldfinch which sits in tenth position (replacing the greenfinch which drops down to eleventh – reflecting the low numbers that I was seeing earlier in the year). This is not surprising as I regularly have 4 of these(and up to 7) at any one time fighting over the sunflower hearts. Also of note was the increase in the numbers of other finches such as siskins (which enter the Top 20 for the first time) and bramblings seen in gardens. Although I didn’t see any on the actual day, this year marks my first ever sighting of a brambling (a female came in with some chaffinches for a couple of weeks) and the first time I had siskins in my garden (a male and female were there sporadically over a couple of months). This increase this year is thought to be due to a low yield of conifer seed in Scandinavia which has driven birds over here and into gardens. They apparently are attracted by the niger seed which more bird lovers are putting out in their gardens. I can safely say that this is not the case in my garden where sunflower hearts are the finches food of choice with the niger seed feeder being visited only when the goldfinches are chased off the other feeders (by almost anything else as they appear to be way down the pecking order!).

For those that are interested the top bird was the starling, followed by the house sparrow with blackbirds overtaking blue tits to take third place. More information can be found on the RSPB website where they also have the top ten listed for all the counties. The Northants list is as follows:

1. Starling

2. House Sparrow

3. Blackbird

4. Blue Tit

5. Chaffinch

6. Collared Dove

7. Woodpigeon

8. Robin

9. Goldfinch

10. Great Tit

I have to say that the numbers of sparrows in my garden has reduced this Winter, I am not sure though if this is because they are less keen on the sunflower hearts than they used to be on the mixed seed that I used to put out. I think I will get a better estimate when they start breeding and I put the mealworms out. As far as my list goes this Winter has definitely seen the rise of the chaffinch and the goldfinch which have by far outnumbered all the other species.

The return of Ravens

According to the RSPB website Ravens are believed to be nesting at two sites in Northamptonshire for the first time since the 19th Century. One of the pairs is at an undisclosed location in the south of the county, the other at the RSPB reserve at Fineshade Woods. There have been more numerous sightings in the area that have been reported on the Northamptonshire Bird Club Yahoo Forum and in their bird sightings pages many of which are around the Daventry / Badby area – so who knows, maybe they will one day become a common sight around Borough Hill.

For the full story see the RSPB website