11:00AM, Friday 22 January 2021
Fill up your bird feeders and dust off your binoculars for this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch (January 29-31). The idea is, you spend just an hour recording how many birds you can spot in your garden, or even from a window or balcony, and then let the RSPB know what you’ve seen.
“I hope that because of lockdown, taking part will be something that people feel they have time to do,” says Martin Fowlie, RSPB spokesman. “People have really reconnected with wildlife and what’s in their gardens and their green spaces in the past year, and as lockdown progresses it will become more important.”
As well as the more common sparrows, robins, goldfinches, starlings and tits, Fowlie says you might also see these less well-known species…
“This is the one every birdwatcher wants to see in their garden. It’s our biggest finch, almost the size of a starling, with a huge, powerful bill that can crack cherry seeds, [has] a black mask around the eyes and the chin, and a peachy-orange marking around the rest of its head. Males have amazing deep purple feathers on their wing tips,” says Fowlie.
“In the winter they can turn up anywhere and a couple of years ago some people spotted them on their bird tables. They are shy but they can appear in urban areas where there is food. They are seed feeders, so sunflower seeds and peanuts on a table may attract them.”
“These are thrushes – from the same family as blackbirds and song thrushes – [and arrive] in their thousands in the autumn from Scandinavia, to feed on all the berries in our hedgerows, parks and gardens through winter.
“You tend to find them more in the countryside, in groups feeding on berries in hawthorn hedges, but when the weather’s really cold or food has been depleted, you sometimes see them moving into large gardens for leftover fallen apples or other dropped fruit. They go around in groups of 10-20.”
“A close relative of the chaffinch, brambling can turn up anywhere at this time of year on feeders in gardens. They are very distinctive, with a flush of peachy-orange winter plumage across their chest and shoulders, and black and white markings on the wing and back.”
“These are beautiful and are more likely to turn up in urban and suburban areas than rural areas, partly because they like winter berries and particularly cotoneaster.
“Plants you normally find in business parks or around shopping centres are ideal, such as rowan or hawthorn. I see a lot in cotoneaster bushes around supermarkets. When they are feeding you can get really close to them, just five or six metres away. They have this crest, little mask and tips to their wings. They look amazing.”
“These shy birds have increased in numbers over the years and you may well find them in urban gardens. They are a type of warbler. The males are gold-browny-grey birds with a dapper little black top to their head, while females have a red cap.
“They are normally summer migrants, migrating to Spain and North Africa in the winter, but in the last few decades an increasing number spend the winter here, landing in suburban and urban gardens, feeding on food that people have put out.
“They will eat a mix of dried mealworms or fruit left out on tables. I’ve seen them take bits of fat balls. They are starting to adapt to garden foods. And you usually only see them singly.”
“These small finches have been appearing in reasonable numbers this year. They have tiny bills, have a pale front with brown streaking and a little red forehead. Some have a pink-red marking on their chin. They again come from northern Europe for the winter and are a seed-feeder, so you do see them on people’s feeders.
“If you have a tree like a silver birch with catkins still on, or other trees with seeds, you quite often see them feeding on those in groups.”
“This is another warbler, like the blackcap, which usually goes to southern Spain and sub-Saharan Africa during our winter, but with our warmer, wetter winters, some of them are staying over and are nesting here.
“They have a very distinctive, onomatopoeic call, which is how they get their ‘chiff’ ‘chaff’ name. They nest on the ground, often in parks, rural areas and edges of woodland.
“Put out a mix of food to attract them to your garden, such as fat balls, old fruit and dried mealworms. They are mainly insect feeders.”
What about food?
“Having a mix of different foods in different places will increase the variety of birds which arrive in your garden,” Fowlie advises. “You could have sunflower hearts in a hanging feeder which are good for great tits and blue tits, chaffinches and greenfinches.
“Nyjer seed is loved by goldfinches and when it’s really cold, birds will want to put on fat each afternoon so they can get through the night, so having fat balls, a high energy food that birds can snack on and build up their reserves each night, are really good for a wide variety of species.
“Dunnocks and robins are more happy to feed on the ground, so put dried mealworms and a few seeds on the ground around any edges of bushes that you might have.
“For blackbirds, song thrushes and, if you’re lucky, fieldfares and redwings, cut up bruised apples you’re not going to eat into small bits and put them on the ground or on a bird table.”
“Always have your bird feeder or table reasonably close to bushes and trees. Small birds are aware of potential predators and if they know they have somewhere to dive back into if they get nervous, that makes the feeding spot more attractive,” he concludes.
W Big Garden Birdwatch runs from January 29-31. visit rspb.org.uk
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