Birdwatching

I don’t get a great variety of birds in my garden.

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Plenty of herring gulls,

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and a family of charismatic crows.  Hardly exciting stuff, though we do get …

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… green woodpeckers too.  They are regular visitors, feeding mostly on the ants that live in our dry, chalky soil.

But in comparison to the Priory, our garden is a bird wasteland.

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A Priory great spotted woodpecker keeps a wary eye on me

I’m not really a birdwatcher.  Not really.  I mean you wouldn’t call me a twitcher or even a birder – I don’t even take binoculars to work.  (At least not yet).

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A female mallard over-reacts to my approach on the east pond

Sure, I’ve always been interested in birds just not … erm, evangelical if you know what I mean.

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A male does the same – certainly breaks the quiet of the place

Not like a friend of mine, who is a little fizzy, shall we say, when it comes to birds.  It is simply impossible to go on a country walk with him.

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And in tandem

Every ten yards, he’ll stop, shush me (!), raise his ‘bins’ (binoculars to you and I) and spend several minutes trying to identify a tiny, brown speck fifty yards away.  Meanwhile, I’ll be sighing loudly, gazing immobile at the sky, kicking leaves about, lusting after a pint, curling my tongue into a tube or petulantly flicking acorns at his head.

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A chaffinch coming into land on a feeder

But since I started work at the Priory I’ve become much more aware of the birds that visit the gardens.  One might almost say I’ve become a bird anorak.  Almost.

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It started on my first day: a hot, still and sunny July morning – spent weeding.  I immediately noticed just how much wildlife there was.  I was already in love with the place but all that ‘life’ added an extra depth of interest, a further layer of beauty that I was instantly drawn to and wanted to explore and encourage.

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And so, during my first winter, I built several nest-boxes.  Using left-over timber from compost bin construction and old roofing tiles, they were quick and easy to make.

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An old blue tit egg – I left it out on the grass. I’m sure it made a tasty (if rancid) snack for something or other

At this time of year, I clear them all out (removing the odd dead baby bird, unhatched eggs and any nesting material) and make a tally of those used during the previous season.  Out of eleven boxes, seven were used last year – a take up rate that matched last year and one I’m pretty happy with.  (Though my tawny owl box was a tawny owl no-no; looks like mandarin ducks used it again).

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Father Christmas was kind to me; as well as a robin/pied flycatcher ‘box, I was given two bat boxes.  There are bats at the Priory – I’ve seen both pipistrelles and a (dead) brown long-eared bat but these will be the first roosting boxes to go up.

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Within an hour of fixing one to an oak it was investigated – though not by its intended tenant.

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The robin/flycatcher box is now up on one of the large oaks.  Looks like a perfect grey squirrel (damn and blast them) baby-bird-chomping-station to me but we’ll see.

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Goldfinches visiting a few weeks ago.

As well as building nest boxes, I also started feeding the birds.  We have six feeders (all protected against grey squirrels – damn and blast them).  And we get a good selection of visiting species.

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All the usual suspects of course; blue tits and …

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… their larger cousins, great tits.  (There goes another big spike in my viewing figures; thanks to Google searches by teenage boys.  Sorry lads).

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And my favourite of the three; the shyer, less ostentatious coal tit.

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More common and less retiring than I thought, long-tailed tits flit in and out of view regularly.  I generally hear their high-pitched, repetitive call before I see them.  I never see a single bird; they always appear in small flocks and this insistent calling helps keep the group together.

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During recent snow,  a dunnock pauses before dropping to the ground to feed on the spill beneath the feeders.

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I’d always supposed nuthatches were fairly rare but I see them daily.

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A male blackbird in a hurry.

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And a female heading for the apples I’ve put out.  But these apples always disappear way too fast.  I suspect crows carry them off.  Either crows or grey squirrels (damn and blast them).

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A song thrush flits away towards shrub cover.  Tempting to use words like frolicking in a scene like this but finding enough food in snow doesn’t leave much time for frolicking, I fear.

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I’m a bit obsessed with robins.  They are constant companions and so darn photogenic.  But I make no apology – it is my blog after all.  Anyway, it’s probably an infatuation I’ll grow out of … but I suspect not.

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They are robust characters, battling with one another for the rich territory that is the feeding area.  And this one is an adept master of millet-seed-balancing.

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The other day, I was photographing goldfinches …

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… when I noticed two yellow finch-like birds.  And quite honestly, I am not entirely sure what they are.  I think (after lots of page flipping and internet clicking) that they are siskins.  The top one a juvenile male and the lower …

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… a female.  But I would welcome confirmation (or correction) from all you birdy types out there.  Needless to say, I’ve never seen a siskin before (and perhaps I still haven’t).

Shortly after I took this photo, I heard one shrill blackbird alarm call and all the birds disappeared!  Just like that.  The garden had been full of birds and their tweets and trills but suddenly there was just total silence.  What on earth?

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I turned round and looked up into the large greengage tree and, for the space of five seconds, a sparrowhawk glared down at me.  I fumbled with my camera, frantically trying to focus on the eyes rather than on all the intervening branches and managed to click twice.  Then he vanished. My first sparrowhawk shot!  Not quite the one I hoped for but it’s a start.  And I know he’ll be back.  Because once I started feeding and encouraging small birds into the garden, I also created a target rich environment for a sparrowhawk.  I also started feeding and encouraging them.

Yep, he’ll definitely be back.

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49 thoughts on “Birdwatching

  1. Hi Dave, Yup, those are Siskins. It’s interesting to see what birds you have that I don’t & vice versa. Do you not have yellowhammers? I have dozens that sit in the bushes looking like escaped budgies. But not a single goldfinch. I do get the occasional brambling, in from Scandinavia though, and that’s quite a thrill. I read somewhere that long-tailed tits won’t come to feeders but only to hanging fat balls. Flocks of them pass through the garden here in November, but never stay for the winter. Lovely birds. Every time I see your wildlife pics, I say to myself that I must get a proper camera….one day!

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    • Hi Mr K, I don’t think I’ve seen yellowhammers at the Priory nor indeed escaped budgies – I live in hope. Haven’t seen a brambling either – which is galling. But I can reassure you re long-tailed’s. They feed on the peanut feeders and seed feeders as well as fatballs (though yes – they do seem to prefer the latter). D

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  2. I’d say you ARE a bird watcher! When the bird feeder becomes silent, I know the hawks are about! But sometimes they are stealth, and that is when it is like a horror show out there – I can’t watch! Not since I watched one take a duck off the frozen pond and proceed to have lunch!

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  3. Such brilliant photos, especially of the robin, but my favourite the long-tailed tit, normally so giddy that must be hard to photograph and ending in that great photo of the sparrowhawk that silences them all. Wonderful.

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  4. great images! you certainly have a good eye for photography! how are you attracting those siskins and finches? For smaller beaked birds I have had great success using nyjer seed feeders!

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  5. Lovely pictures. We’ve got very little in the way of birdy visitations at the moment as both of the feeders have been destroyed by something large. I suspect pigeons… We do have house sparrows nesting in the eaves again this year though. Always amusing to be shouted at by them when you’re gardening.

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  6. I loved the bird photographs, a great variety. I think your success rate with the bird boxes is very high. I have a couple , never used, in the garden and I am thinking of changing them into bumble-bee nest boxes. Birds have to be an integral part of the garden and a major pleasure of having a garden. I have never seen a siskin so I was interested in what they looked like, you must have them breeding nearby. I loved the Mallards – you don’t get many action shots of Mallards!

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    • Hi Amelia, the mallards are remarkably shy here and not at all like the ones you might see in a park. They always fly off at my approach, always. Wonder why your nestboxes haven’t been used. Have you tried moving them? Might do the trick. Dave

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      • I think after having them in the same place for several years I should take that as a definite “No, thank you”. It requires recourse to a ladder and action on my part but your comment has galvanised me into action. They shall be moved.

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  7. Oh, great photos, Dave! The mallards have been working on their choreography, I see. I’m with you re: bird-watching. If birds are so kind as to come and present themselves, I will gladly oblige by looking at them appreciatively, but that whole thing with staring up into tall trees (with leaves on them, no less!) with binoculars, looking for a 4″ speck of branch-brown bird… When my sister and I were teenagers we used to annoy our parents by imitating birdwatcher-speak — we would admire the “random spotting on the breast” (more spikes in your stats) whenever we saw a raven and the “distinctive eye-ring on the juvenile.” We had other ways of annoying them (our parents), too, of course. I was going to say how nice it was to know that birds do actually eat millet — when I had mixed feeders it always seemed to be the last thing to go — but maybe that robin of yours is really just playing with it after all.

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    • I spoke too soon, Stacy. A pair of binoculars have taken up residence in my backpack. It’s only a matter of time before I’ll be seen standing stock still and muttering to myself as I peer at a tiny, distant speck. Sigh. Was bound to happen. I hadn’t thought that the robin was just showing off for my benefit and had no taste for millet. I feel cheated. D

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  8. Hi Dave, you posted some beautiful pics here! The one with the ducks splashing in the duckweed made me say ‘Ooooh!’ and the ones with the walking and jumping robin made me smile.
    You really have a lot of birds in there, you talked about the differences between your own garden and the Priory, do you think that the environment has a so strong influence on birds visiting our gardens?
    Sparrowhawks (or maybe are they kestrels?) are very common around here, the sit on the top of a pole of some kind and watch evilish around. I always spot them while driving (me, I don’t think they have a license…) and they sit on some street sign. I guess they like this kind of ‘street life’.

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    • Hey Alberto, certainly the environment influences which birds we get. My house is on the coast, quite high up and very different from the sheltered, almost wooded landscape of the Priory. Hence the gulls and crows which are a lot less common at the Priory. Sounds like you’ve got lots of kestrels. I see them daily too – usually perched on telegraph wires or, like you say, on top of a post. (Always a bonus to get you to say Ooooh). Dave

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  9. For someone who claims not to know much about birds you seem pretty well informed to me! I’ve just bought new bird feeders and am obsessively checking who comes to visit them. Not sure the word has got out yet though, not seen many.

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    • Hi, it is funny how long it takes the little critters to get used to a new feeder – several days in my experience. And, I’m hopefully getting a little more informed day by day. I am certainly fascinated by them. Dave

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  10. Oh you can’t beat a whole heap for fabulous bird snaps on a cold Monday morning to warm your cockles…and warm my cockles you have…Bravo! I too have become a bit obsessive about our feathered visitors to the Tidy Garden & have got to the sad stage of naming them…I know…oh the humiliation but I can trust you not to tell anyone…can’t I?! That’s what happens when you garden alone I guess…much the same with the washing machine when I’m alone in the kitchen…sheesh…’he’ has isssues 🙂

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    • Hi Jane, yes indeed – the perils of gardening alone. Though you are frankly out on your own with naming washing machines (issues or no). Still. It’s company for you, I suppose and I envy you the conversation. Dave

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  11. How you manage to get good shots like that beats me – do you sit in a hide that you haven’t told us about yet. Shame about the squirrels though (damn and blast them)!

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  12. Wow. I knew the Priory had to be a great place to work, but the bird life certainly adds another, feathered and colourful, dimension. That is an impressive collection – love the siskins, beautiful birds. I am useless at photographing anything that moves – birds, animals, children, forget it – so I am impressed at how many great photos you have. Hope the bats take up residence, I am a big fan of bats, ever since I went caving and was allowed to handle one.

    PS I think that anorak of yours might have a deep pocket perfect for a pair of bins… But its OK, some of my best friends are twitchers!

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    • Binoculars, Janet! Not bins. Tsk. I love bats too. My last house had the 3rd largest serotine bat maternity roost in England – pleased me no end (though it made our loft very, very stinky). Dave

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  13. Loving the snowy scene as your header. I’m like you. I’m no twitcher, although I do visit RSPB places and have some binoculars, but we call them binoculars. I enjoy birds but I’m not fanatical about them. Much to the disgust of the twitchers in the hides we spend our time saying things like “what’s that brown bird over there?” and getting excited when we see a wren. We were in a hide once surrounded by a twitching group on holiday together, it was amusing and annoying in equal measures. It is a pleasure to share a space with birds. I can’t wait to hear the sound of birdsong again, although maybe not the one that sits outside my bedroom window and sings at 4.30am throughout spring and summer. I’m no expert but they look like siskins to me. I saw them for the first and only time a few years ago when we were on holiday in Scotland.

    Last summer I was buzzed by a sparrowhawk on the way back from the allotment. I was about 20 metres from my house with my wheelbarrow and this big bird whizzed past me landed on the neighbour’s fence eyed me up and then flew off leaving me gawping. I have never seen one up close before and never expected that to happen.

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    • Well WW, I have to admit that since writing this post, I have started to carry a pair of binoculars about with me. It is a slippery slope, I know. Though it paid off almost immediately as I saw a little owl; my first since seeing one in the castle walls of Molyvos, Greece 12 years ago. I love encounters like yours with the sparrowhawk. Kind of leave you breathless don’t they? Dave

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  14. What a super post David, such a variety of birds. Yes, you definitely have siskins, they nest high up in conifer trees & love alder seeds as well as peanuts! I think that maybe your crow is a rook, they are so similar, but the rook has a bare patch behind the beak and if you have a lot of them the chances are that they will be rooks. Like you, we have farmland on one side of us and our little strip of woodland on the other, so have a good variety of birds visiting, which means of course that the sparrow hawk also visits!

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    • Hi Pauline, thanks for the siskin verification. I think the light on the crow photo might make it look a little like a rook though it is indeed a crow. We have a family of them that first started visiting when we had chickens and would hoover up any left-over chicken-food. Since the chickens have gone – we have continued to feed them. I know some people can’t abide crows but we rather like them; they have such strong, entertaining characters and make us laugh. Dave

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  15. I love watching the birds in my garden but not in an anoraky way. Those are siskins and we get them along with the goldfinches. I attracted the goldfinches with niger seed but it now turns out they actually prefer sunflower hearts.

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  16. Lovely photos. You clearly have a decent camera handy at work. Either it’s got a pretty decent zoom or you have lots of bushes to hide behind so you don’t scare the birds away. I can’t often get close enough for a decent photo.

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    • Hi Karin, well I have a pretty decent lens so I don’t tend to have to sulk about in the bushes. Though the more time one spends hanging about the feeders the more unconcerned the birds become – or so I have found. Dave

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  17. Great images, The birds are always to fast for me. We were watching a kestrel yesterday sitting in one of the walnut trees. But the camera was in the house so no chance of an image. Christina

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    • Thanks, Christina. Ah, the ol’ camera not to hand when you need it most story, huh? I hate that and it happens to me daily. I’ve seen some stunning sparrowhawk situations but never when I have had my camera with me. Sadly, it is too big and heavy for me to work with it hanging round my neck all the time. Dave

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