Away With the Birds

Although Lockdown has allowed many of us to reconnect with nature, I’ve always thought of myself as pretty connected already – being a gardener and having a degree in Environmental Biology. But I hold up my hand to being pretty rubbish at bird identification.

I mean, I can tell a robin from a swan even if our Health Minster has tried to confuse me on that score (being called Robin Swan!) I’d know an ostrich from a chicken too, I guess, but the finer nuances of the tiny birds in the back garden and hedgerows often have me stumped… But with being pretty much confined to barracks, I like everyone else, have had to sit it out and let nature come to me.

This year I invested in a feeding station for my feather garden, and it’s been such a joy. We’ve quite the parade most days, so much so that I have tried to photograph every visitor at least once. The birds seem to know when I lift the camera, and they scarper! My Husband thinks that it’s because the camera sends out some kind of light for focusing that scares them. I think they’re just being mean! So it was harder to get good, clear shots in sharp focus that you might think – so apologies for the blurred ones. My dreams of working as a wildlife photographer will never be realized at this rate! However, I was rewarded with being better at identifying the birds and discovering a few new (to me) species and a few very special visitors too.

There are plenty of starlings, of course. These guys mob the feeding station at times and remind me of unruly teenagers. We’ve nicknamed them “The Hooligans” of the garden. But they need to be fed too so I don’t mind – there’s plenty to go around, and they can’t access all the feeders I use, so there’s some left for the wee birds too. They are quite fashionable really with their speckles and what looks like white piping on their wings. I’ve grown kind of fond of their bad-mannered presence. They do make me laugh and add a bit of drama to proceedings.

We have two robins in our garden, and even though I’ve seen them both at the same time, I’ve not had the camera handy. These guys don’t tend to feed directly from the feeders but vie with the blackbirds and finches for the food that falls below.

The blackbird hops about below and seems to follow the robins around. I wonder if he is confused about his identity?

The song thrush is very shy and seems to look on from the edge of the feeding area.

The blue tit is one of my personal favourites – he’s so vibrant and tiny, yet holds his own with his big cousins the great tit.

We have great tits in abundance. I’ve read that for every one you see at your feeder there are five in the hedge. I’ve seen as many as five at a time, translating into a significant population of great tits here.

We also have coal tits. Before I looked closely at them, I assumed they were great tits, but you can see the difference when you have them side by side at a feeder. The coal tit is smaller, its feathers on its chest dull grey compared to the great tits vibrant yellow chest bisected by a black line from chin to belly that resembles a tie! Coal tits also have a white stripe up the back of its head.

The great tit has a solid black head and greenish wings/black.

My Husband was confused by the chaffinches and kept referring to them as robins until I explained that the chaffinches are more pink while the robins are more orange-red. The chaffinches’ pinkness covers their belly, but robins only have a red breast and not a red belly.

We also get woodpigeons, but they gave up on the feeder, not being agile enough to take advantage of it.

Their cousins, the collared doves, are in the same pickle. I’ve witnessed these guys falling off the feeding station trying – they’re so dopey! But I did get this lovely shot of a collared dove (see his black collar?)

We have sparrows, male and female. (I think – like, none of this is gospel… there’s no swans nor ostriches!)

And pied wagtails – I often see these guys on the main road where it crosses the river but not usually in the garden. Still, I think the cold snap left them a little desperate. There are fewer insects, and worms burrow deeper when the birds need more energy from their food than ever to stay warm.

Could the one below be a greenfinch? It a poor shot and somewhat drab but a female greenfinch perhaps?

There was one that I couldn’t identify even with the RSPB charts – it didn’t seem to match anything, but I’ll come back to this…

But it was a day of big excitement when the goldfinches arrived! There are two of them, maybe male and female but I can’t tell them apart despite pouring over photos and articles. My birds just will not cooperate and pose so I can determine if there is enough red and in the correct shape on the faces.

Here’s a closer look at one goldfinch.

In this shot I’d be inclined to say is a different bird but different sex?

And then this week, I saw a new bird in among the starlings, one with a distinct black cap and a grey body.

The one I hadn’t been able to identify earlier in the week also has a cap – but it was a dull reddish-brown.

I looked it up on the RSBP bird chart, but the blackcap drawing has too much white on it, and the illustration of the female blackcap had a red cap! But when I searched google images, the photos for blackcaps matched mine! I have a male and a female blackcap in my winter garden, which is considered unusual because they are supposed to migrate for the winter. However, in recent years this has been changing (climate change undoubtedly), and now many are overwintering here. Finding them my garden and identifying them made me ridiculously happy! You gotta take the win these days I suppose!

Then there are the unwelcome visitors too – this cheeky monster showed up. We had to chase him. It sounds cruel but grey squirrels push out our native red squirrels, and they wreck the vegetable garden. I don’t want to be feeding them during the winter so they have even more babies come spring.

Even with the odd squirrel insurrection, I’d really recommend setting up some kind of feeding station in your garden to watch the birds. The RSPB website has lots of useful information (if you can forgive their unhelpful drawing of blackcaps!) A set of binoculars comes in handy too. It can be as expensive an endeavour as you choose it to be. I spent about £40 on the feeding station – it’s supplying the seeds that gets expensive. The market at the Shambles in Armagh is excellent for seeds, especially when your mother buys them for you by the carrier bag load!

On the weekend of the 29th January  2021, the RSPB is having the Big Garden Birdwatch . You record which birds visit your garden for an hour on a given day. You only count what shows up on that day, so I hope my rockstars – the blackcaps and goldfinches turn up otherwise I can’t count them. (It’s a science thing!) (Oh and the female blackcap is visiting as I type!)

Finally, I have this shot of these two look somewhat grumpy – the picture isn’t good enough to accurately tell what they are and they are all puffed up against the cold…but they are cute, don’t ya think? And so good at social distancing!

Toggling between these two pictures is fun – the birds are looking out for one another!

Even the cute blue tit can be intimidating when he’s staring straight at you!

Here are some wonderful ideas for connecting to nature.

I hope you find some solace in the simple things during these difficult times. Stay safe and be well.

Byddi Lee