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.