It is winter – if you hadn’t noticed – and sometimes a whole day can go by when not a bird stirs in the garden except the eternal Robin, which is so rarely not in the garden you would think it was kept there with a string tied to a stake. Yet, there are often days when quite a few of our avian friends use the garden: some pass through; some pass over; some don’t enter the garden at all but use the trees and bushes just outside of it. Being located in the suburbs of a large town the suite of species that I see is probably much the same as that in any other town, although the occasional unusual species does appear. A Red Kite once glided over, a Little Egret flapped past one evening, a pair of Egyptian Geese blundered by and a Ring-necked Parakeet made his home in a nearby tree for a few days. But it is the more common birds that provide the regular entertainment.
An evergreen camellia in one corner is attractive to small insectivorous birds as it’s dense, glossy leaves provide good shelter for them and their prey during the winter. A male Blackcap spent last winter almost entirely within the bush, this year a tiny Goldcrest has been frequenting it. It hops, hovers, pecks and rummages through the tight branches with great efficiency, speed and focus; after all, it’s life depends on it. It somehow spots the hidden invertebrates, with those sharp eyes like polished jet, and with a lightning jab of that needle-fine bill the tiny morsel is relieved of its existence.
A more sedate feeding method is seen in the Blackbirds that sit in the crab-apple tree. This young plant has branches drooping to the ground, so laden are they with clusters of the lipstick-red, cherry-sized fruits. Bitter to humans, but sweet to the wild things, these miniature apples soften further with each frost and so attract Turdus merula to this bounty. The Blackbirds must think that their meat tastes delicious though, as they are far more wary of predators than most other birds their size. They sit in the tree nibbling at an apple like a vicar with a scone – taking a bite then sitting back again to let it go down – as they scan around them to check that a falcon or a cat hasn’t crept up on them since they last looked two seconds ago.
A less regular occurrence, but much appreciated when it does appear, is the passing through of a Long-tailed Tit caravan. Many birds gather in flocks for the winter months, yet most seem to do so purely for safety or to find food more easily; few band together with the appearance of being a comfortable family unit as the Long-tailed Tits do. As a flock of five, six, seven, eight of them bounces through the trees at the back of the garden with constant twittering (sounding much like a conversation) you’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s an invisible string tying them all together.
Even less regular is the much dreaded (by the other birds) appearance of a Sparrowhawk. Almost always, the first sign that one is approaching is a huge upset amongst the local Woodpigeons – which scatter wildly in all directions as though shot out of a cannon. Realising something’s up, the tits, Robins and thrushes start crying out in alarm with high-pitched but loud warning calls and insane shrieking from the Blackbirds. Then, like a shark gliding smoothly over a coral reef, the hawk comes into view. It’s usually not in hunting mode (there’d be no warning then) but moves with casual flaps of it’s wings as it heads in a direct line to wherever it’s going, without a care at the disarray left in it’s wake.
A significant feature of the local landscape is a mature Ash tree that stands proud of the surrounding houses, it is one of the tallest trees in the neighbourhood and there is a wide gap around it devoid of other large trees, so that it is isolated. This acts as a meeting place for the larger birds in the area. Each day there are gatherings of Magpies, sometimes up to 30, in the gently curving branches – they seem to hold a parliament there outside of the breeding season and make quite a spectacle as they are lit up by the low afternoon sun. Small squadrons of Starlings regularly alight on the uppermost branches, perhaps to simply survey their surroundings or have a gossip. This winter the Ash has also been host to roving parties of Redwings, which perch in a typically alert and nervous posture among the Starlings, maybe scanning for berry-laden trees on which to gorge.
The area, though sadly not my garden, has also been graced recently by small charms of Goldfinch which seem to spend more time in the air than perched or feeding. Their golden wings and peachy plumage, in poetry with their twinkling calls and skipping flight, does bring splashes of warmth and delight when all around is cold and grey. I’m not quite sure how I’d survive without the small daily joys that birds bring, so let’s hope it never comes to that.
The Magpie illustration is by Charles F Tunnicliffe.