The Best of February 2021

This was meant to be a remote control close up of frogs spawning. Instead I found an extraordinary image. It was one of several surprises buried inside larger pictures that helped me keep sane during an otherwise dreary February.I took a landscape shot of the Towy on a cold morning, and discovered an ice spear! (see above) Here is the original:

Just a few days ago the crocuses were at their best, and there was this tiny fly in one of them.

The early part of the month saw my feeders project hit the jackpot with some nice shots of our local buzzard and some of the local kites. Unfortunately by mid February they had lost interest and after a week or so of feeding crows, I gave up.

I bought some animal food peanut butter (unsalted) and once the starlings discovered it dozens of them piled in with some spectacular aerial squabbles. Late winter brought more siskins, a bird I only got to know a few years ago, and now find irresistible:A completely unexpected visitor was a Redwing. I photographed them quite easily in their breeding grounds in Iceland, but here,  as winter visitors, they are shy and usually stay in flocks.

Another bird I was able to get close to in Iceland was the Golden Plover – this is a male in his spectacular breeding plumage:Coming back from a hospital appointment in Carmarthen, I spotted a small flock of them, part obscured  by bushes in a distant field at Dryslwyn:There were plenty of Chaffinches in the garden, and I find their expression in close up particularly appealing.Among the regulars, one pair of Collared Doves have clearly adopted the garden and went round collecting sticks and chasing off any intruders.The Robins, too show fierce territorial aggression, and this one was shouting his message from way up in the tree tops.I’ve got pictures of daffodils and snowdrops, but I prefer to end the month with more crocuses and another unexpected fly!

 

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A Close Family

“I’m walking to my car thinking of when a bird-bander told me what happens if you mist-net long-tailed tits. Because they forage in family flocks, these mouse-sized birds get trapped in mist-nets all at once. Freed one by one from the mesh they’re hung in individual bags from hooks in the ringing shed, ready to be weighed and measure and ringed. And in that awful solitude they call to one another ceaselessly, urgently, reassuring each other that they are still together, all one thing. And once the rings are closed about their legs they’re released, all together, to resume their lives, carrying their tiny numbers with them as they fly.”

This is a passage from  Helen Macdonald’s latest book, which is a collection of essays called “Vesper Flights”. It’s a fascinating medley of oddities, and has moved her yet further up the list of people in the public eye I would love to meet. She had me with “H is for Hawk”, her re-telling and re-living of TH White’s “The Goshawk”, a book I had devoured in my youth. Her writing is heady mix of erudite vocabulary, lyrical description and ferociously personal emotion.

During these two dreary months of winter lockdown, I’ve been partly kept sane by my garden feeder project. One of the delights has been the visits by Long Tailed Tits, as I described in “Embracing the Familiar”:

Current population: 120 thousand pairs

A recent addition to the feeder crew, this is the only one that always comes mob handed. Of course in the spring they split into nesting pairs, but I’ve yet to see a solo bird in the winter. Our gang seems to be 11 strong.

Since then I’ve taken more pictures and been delighted by how trusting  they are. You can easily walk to within a couple of  metres before they stop feeding and unhurriedly flit to the nearest bush. I have occasionally since seen a solo bird, but I think what makes them so special to us is the combination of dainty beauty, small size, and the expression, when seen up close, of an adorable baby about to lose its temper. Most inspiring though is their sheer friendliness. Unlike most of the other garden birds they never seem to fight amongst themselves, and never push themselves forwards at the feeders. They wait for their chance and then all pile in together, taking up every available surface and for a few minutes baffling the other birds.

With just three gaps I kept records over a 20 day period in January from the 11th to the 31st. There were just two sightings of LTTs, one of 10 and the other of 11 together. Although I have seen them at the feeders more often this month, with so far only two days missed, I have just 4 records, two of which were for a solo bird. The other two were each of 8, but there are various complicating factors. When they are on passage, moving from one tree to another or from bushes to the feeders, they are very hard to count. They love the fat ball feeders and if the column is full they can all crowd in and feed together, but if it, or the peanut feeder, is only half full, only some of them can feed and the rest mill around.

The whole business of counting wildlife is a big topic which could have as its motto “Keep still can’t  you?”. Having frequently tested my intuitive counts against photographs I’m now fairly confident about my guesses, and my estimate is that this family group is 12 strong and that it moves in what seems like a random way through the trees and hedges and from one garden to another throughout the day. As for the solo bird – an old lion cast out of the pride? a scout? a rugged individualist? There is so much to learn.

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Apology to subscribers re “Bomb Run” post

Somehow this post reverted to draft so I had to re-publish it. 

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Catching the Bomb Run

Last month I wrote about my plan to attract and study the familiar birds of the garden and its surrounds. I decided to offer a variety of food in several places at the same time each day and then retire to the shed, watch, record and photograph what turned up. In this I was partly following the methodology of the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch in recording the largest number of each species which I could see at the same time. I also made a rule to record  only those which alighted in the garden or which took food from the small area of field the other side of the fence.

By the end of January I had 20 species. By far the most numerous were the House Sparrows with up to 10 appearing at the same time. Next came the Blue tit, and there seem to be two pairs resident in the garden, with records of 2 and 3 being the most common. Surprisingly the Coal Tit gained third place. Although I seldom saw more than one at a time it was a very regular visitor, rushing in, grabbing a peanut and rushing off to stash it away somewhere. Fourth was the Starling. There is a medium sized flock of them which roosts by the farm buildings a field away. During January, although the flock was active in the area, I only saw a group of 4 or 5 as regular visitors. My assumption was that these were residents and the others were winter visitors. This pattern changed during February, and they now turn up in bickering crowds. Does this mean that the visitors have seen the locals getting easy pickings and decided to crash the party? From the number of fights this seems likely (pic)

By the end of January there was a single record of the species  I most hoped to attract: the Red Kite. Understanding why, when and how this species will take food was to me the most important part of the exercise. I first saw a Red Kite just up the road from here in the seventies, when the upper Towy valley was still one of the few places you could see them. When, 25 years ago we moved to this are I became an official Kite Watcher. Now, of course they are common in England and much of the rest of Wales, but they still fascinate me, and for several years I have been photographing one of the local nest sites.

Having said that, who needs an excuse? They are simply fantastic looking birds and capturing them doing anything other than circling and flapping overhead is quite a challenge. The challenge is much reduced by visiting one of the registered Kite feeding stations, and my aim was to learn from them how to attract the birds to my lens only during late winter, and without using bucketfuls of prime meat. One of the puzzles is to understand when they are out looking for food. They can perch for  hours in a tree doing very little.  I have often seen one of our local pairs active in the early morning, but am beginning to think that they are less inclined to active hunting in mid-morning.

Now in mid-February I can report some success. Even Thelma shows a restrained interest in putting out the food and seeing which species turn up – as long as there is no football on TV to watch. I have been able to record three more species: Red Kite , Buzzard and Song Thrush. Here they are:

The Thrush is dubious because, although there are resident Song Thrushes in the garden, they do not take food at the feeders.

I knew that to attract Buzzards and Kites I would have to feed the Crows too, but I thought that if I persisted in throwing out a few scraps of meat at the same time, the others would follow. Carrion Crows, being Corvids, are much more intelligent than Kites and Buzzards and it didn’t take them long to catch on. They too are quite a challenge to photograph, not because of how they move, but because every bit of them is an intense, light absorbing black. Autofocus looks for small areas of contrast to latch on to but crows and ravens offer almost none.

I had a short period of success at attracting all three of the newcomers – crows, a buzzard and two kites, but then the kites decided not to bother coming over at 11am and the crows hoovered up all the scraps, picking up 3 or four pieces in one beak-full. I got a few decent shots of the kites overhead, but had missed the few occasions when they had done their characteristic “bomb run”, circling for a while, then dropping lower and finally dashing in to grab a piece of meat in their claws and flying off with it. I longed to get a good picture of this.

Until yesterday I was on the point of giving up, and had decided to scale back the general feeding, and perhaps  try feeding meat scraps in the afternoon. It was a fine, cold sunny day, and walking round the house in the early afternoon I saw a pair of kites circling near. On an impulse I decided to throw out a few scraps while they were watching. It worked! All I need now is the talons extended picking up the meat. 

 

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Embracing the Familiar

I know I’m not the only one gazing out of the window at the rain, or slowly pacing the kitchen trying to think of something, anything, which feels worth doing; anything which might engage the soul, or even bring the satisfaction of a job completed.  To save my sanity and get me away from my screens, I set myself a challenge: to see being at home every day as an opportunity. What could I do now that I couldn’t when I was off on trips every couple of weeks? 

Partial solution: set up bird feeding stations where I can watch and photograph, feed every day AT THE SAME TIME and record what I see. Discover the beauty in common birds; log their behaviour; learn about them.

So, now I have three feeder sites, all within sight of the window in the shed where I can watch and photograph whatever turns up. I will also, over a 45 minute period, record all the species that turn up and the maximum number per species at any one time. This will tie in with the RSPB Big Garden Bird Watch next week. Timetable: 

10:00 Put out food:  peanuts, seeds, fat balls, meat scraps.

10:15 set up camera in shed and begin records

11:00 return to house with cold feet. 

At the end of the first month I had recorded 19 species. Here they all are in roughly the order in which they usually appear. For anyone interested, I’ve written about them in more detail below the last picture. 

Blue Tit

House Sparrow

Coal Tit

Starling

Marsh Tit

Chaffinch

Robin

Long Tailed Tit

Blackbird

SiskinGreat Tit

Jackdaw

Jay

Greater Spotted Woodpecker

Collared Dove

Dunnock

Nuthatch

Pied Wagtail

Carrion Crow

Blue Tit.

Current population: 3.3 million pairs

This year there are less of them, but they are a constant presence and can exploit seeds, fat balls and peanuts. Like the other small tits they will pick up whole peanuts and take them away to eat. They don’t seem to cache them though.

House Sparrow

Current population: 6 million pairs

In this garden they have taken over the top spot from the Blue Tits.  I’m trying to love these characterful birds. They are so like us: resourceful, greedy, aggressive colonisers. They have pushed out the swallows which used to nest here and instantly took over a swift nest box which I carefully crafted and installed last year. I’ve blocked all their nest holes I can find, but they still see us as a useful resource and keep coming back.

Coal Tit

Current population:600 thousand pairs

Numbers seem to be rising, but it’s hard to tell because they are aggressive towards interlopers of their own species, so I usually only see two at a time. They dash in, pick up a peanut and dash off to cache it. One favourite place was just below the window of the shed, and a few days after watching one of them hide the peanut in the grass, I watched it search around until the nut was found and taken off to be eaten. Without some means of identifying individuals I can’t tell whether I’m seeing a procession of different birds or the same ones returning.

Starling

Current population: 2 million pairs rising to 8.5 million pairs in winter

Winter numbers have increased greatly in the last few years, and even Cilycwm has its murmuration. What is interesting though is that this year we seldom get more than 4 at the feeders. The big flocks are out in the fields. I’m tempted to think that these are native birds.

 Marsh Tit

Current population: 53 thousand pairs

This is the rarest of our feeder regulars, but seen as often as the Coal Tit, and it behaves in a similar way – darting in to collect seeds or peanuts and flying off with them. I’ve not yet seen any caching behaviour though.

Chaffinch 

Current population: 5 million pairs

Although they find it difficult to perch at the feeders, Chaffinches are good at hoovering up anything cast aside by the tits and sparrows. Numbers here seem to be increasing with two pairs active at the feeders

Robin

Current population: 5.5 million pairs

These garden favourites are so aggressive to other Robins that you seldom see more than one at a time. They can perch at the feeders with difficulty but usually stay on the ground.

Long Tailed Tit

Current population: 120 thousand pairs

A recent addition to the feeder crew, this is the only one that always comes mob handed. Of course in the spring they split into nesting pairs, but I’ve yet to see a solo bird in the winter. Our gang seems to be 11 strong. 

Blackbird

Current population: 5 million pairs

Characteristic behaviour is the short run along the ground, walk around a bit and then run somewhere else.

Siskin

Current population: 750 thousand pairs

They do apparently nest in Wales, but I have only seen them in late winter. 

Great Tit

Current population: 2 million pairs

Less dominant than they used to be. They feed in the same way as the small tits, but they are not a constant presence at the feeders.

Jackdaw

Current population:500 thousand pairs

A very common bird round here they used to be very regular at our feeders, but this year have seldom turned up. Why? One to watch I think.

Jay

Current population: 160 thousand pairs

Another fairly recent visitor to the feeders. They like scraps of meat but will also take peanuts and maize. Shy of humans they sneak in and dash off with the prise.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Current population: 41 thousand pairs

Very common visitor to peanut feeders

Collared Dove

Current population: 285 thousand pairs

These lovely birds began colonising Britain in the fifties, exploiting open sources of grain,  and are now very common.

Dunnock

Current population: 2 million pairs

Ground feeders: they don’t take food directly from the feeders but help clean up the ground below. Never more than two at a time.

Nuthatch

Current population: 140 thousand pairs

One of the species that has benefited greatly from peanut feeders, they are now regular visitors and take nuts away to cache them in cracks in tree bark.

Pied Wagtail

Current population:290 thousand pairs

There is at least one resident pair in the garden, but I’ve only recently seen them together at the feeders. 

Carrion Crow

Current population: 800 thousand pairs

Although the much hated crow is common, here they are shy and do not normally come to feeders. I put out scraps of meat to encourage the larger carrion eating birds, and was quite pleased when this pair arrived.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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