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Bird feeder news – a feathery ménage à trois.

Well I was planning to bring you some stunning photos of the ever-widening range of birds that have been visiting the feeders lately. Sadly, like most plans, this one hasn’t really gone the way it was supposed to and it’s been a very frustrating weekend.

To be fair we are probably getting a bit over excited about the two new species that have turned up lately because that still only brings our total tally to less than ten but it is progress of sorts I suppose. We can now boast fifty percent of the resident British tit family which I admit does sound slightly disturbing when taken out of context but in practice means that coal tits have joined the other varieties of blue, great and long-tailed. That only leaves willow, marsh, crested and bearded to give us the full set but as they have fairly specialized habitats we aren’t holding our breath. The crested and bearded ones are probably just blue tits in disguise anyway. The other new addition is a dunnock. This small brown/grey bird is often mistaken for a sparrow and even has the common name hedge sparrow but it isn’t actually related to them at all. It hasn’t made it to the feeding station yet but has been singing it’s heart out on top of the hedge behind the house. What it lacks in spectacular plumage it makes up for with a song to melt your heart.

The elusive long tailed tit

The elusive long-tailed tits

And talking of blue tits, it’s been like watching a feathery version of East Enders over the last fortnight. It’s hard to tell the ladies from the gents in the blue tit world so I have no idea whether we are talking gay, bi or heterosexual but for a while we were definitely witnessing a ménage à trois as three of the little blighters pushed in front of each other to check out our neighbour’s nesting box. After a fair bit of argy-bargy and some serious sulking it seems to have settled down into something that has all the hallmarks of a beautiful romance. One of the pair spends most of its time in the box while the other one, when it isn’t perched high on top of the hedge gloating over the loser that didn’t quite cut it, visits its mate with flowers and the occasional bottle of wine.

The winner

The victorious suitor

Well I may have imagined the flowers and wine but it definitely visits and we are sure it won’t be long now before it stays the night; if you know what I mean.

Loser

The sad loser

So, we have all this entertaining activity going on and I thought it would be nice to try to get a few better photos for you. (Those of you whose minds just turned to lurid sex scenes from the nest box well shame on you.) I have tried sitting in the bedroom partially obscured by the curtains waiting patiently with the camera, but it hasn’t been very successful and most of the time I just feel like a sneaky press photographer at a private garden party. So I have turned to technology.

We bought a reasonable quality compact digital camera in preparation for our trip around Britain and two years later I’m still trying to work out how to use it. Amongst other things I recalled from my initial exploration is that it is supposed to be possible to link it up to our Nexus tablet computer and operate it remotely. This sounded like the perfect set up for candid bird photography, so out came the manual and in just a matter of hours, well OK days, I had it cracked. With the camera mounted on a railing opposite the feeders I can now sit discretely in the lounge or bedroom monitoring activity on the tablet and taking photos of our unsuspecting visitors.

Remotely controlled camera

Remotely controlled camera

Armchair wildlife photography

Armchair wildlife photography

It’s absolutely brilliant and all I have to do is sit with my finger over the shutter icon and pounce whenever something comes into shot. In theory I should have got a whole collection of stunning action shots and close-ups to show you by now. But I haven’t. The first reason for this is the fact that the birds that have visited have tended to do so just as I have been taking a sip from a scalding hot drink or while I have been unavoidably detained in the loo. The second is that there haven’t been any birds.

I have never spent such a lot of time actually bird watching, albeit remotely, and I have learned something about bird behaviour which is fascinating. It seems that, just like humans, birds go away for the weekend. Well ours certainly seem to. Either that or they have found somewhere where they can watch the rugby through somebody else’s window with a ready supply of crisps and beer and no sleazy photographers to bother them. Our garden has been like the aftermath of bird apocalypse all weekend. At one point I resorted to taking candid photographs of a neighbour as he rooted through next door’s recycling bin, looking for an old copy of the local paper. He said there was an advert in it that he wanted to look at which struck me as a dubious explanation but who am I to pry. Or speculate.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that the few shots that I did get were quite disappointing apart from the very blurry one of our super-fast robin as he made yet another commando raid on the sunflower hearts. Fortunately he appeared moments after I had put my tea down otherwise I may well have been typing this from my hospital bed and nursing a red breast of my own. Such are the trials of a dedicated wildlife photographer I suppose. Don’t worry, I’ll keep trying.

That's a robin. Honestly

That’s a robin. Honestly

Bird feeder news

Bird Feeder News sounds like the kind of obscure publication that might feature on ‘Have I Got News for You’. If there isn’t such a magazine already well there certainly should be but in the meantime I will do my best to fill the cultural void.

The end of this month, January 30th and 31st to be precise, sees the 2016 Big Garden Birdwatch organised by the RSPB. They run what amounts to the biggest wildlife survey in the world every year and this year over half a million people are set to take part. I won’t be one of them I’m afraid. Well, not unless things improve considerably between now and then.

The last time I reported on the birds that had been attracted to our new feed station the species count was a fairly disappointing two. Things haven’t improved very much. I wasn’t expecting to see a ruby throated humming bird or flocks of parakeets on a weekend break from London. I don’t long for a glimpse of something rare and exotic or a windblown migrant from the arctic. I would settle for a blue tit blown from the blackthorn bush thank you very much, but alas no. Up until this morning our variety of birdlife still consisted of the beautiful male blackbird and the Exocet robin. The blackbird has definitely relaxed a bit and now he will sit for a minute or two on the food tray stuffing his face with garish red and yellow pellets. How he knows they are not poisonous is a mystery to me; I certainly wouldn’t eat them. The robin still makes lightning raids on the seed hanger but I think I caught him looking at me in the kitchen the other day. It was only a split second glance as he took another seed on the wing but perhaps his curiosity will outweigh his nervousness eventually.

Speaking of nervous birds, there has been one exciting development in the last week. I’m not one for too much anthropomorphising but indulge me for a moment. You see our Mr. Blackbird is a handsome fellow. He is always immaculately dressed all in black with a bill that looks like it has been freshly dipped in a pot of Dulux Sunshine Yellow each morning. It was only a matter of time before he attracted the attention of the local ladies and sure enough he turned up last week with a date. She was a bit drab in her plain, chocolate brown onesie but maybe what she lacked in dress sense she made up for with potential egg bearing capacity. I don’t know I’m not a blackbird am I?

Anyway, it wasn’t the greatest success as far as dinner dates go. He spent most of the time sitting on the feed tray stuffing his face while she, presumably due to first date nerves, hardly ate a thing. In fact she spent the whole time hopping around on the ground under the feed station occasionally picking up the odd crumb that Mr. Greedy Guts had dropped. It wasn’t the most romantic love scene I have ever witnessed and the robin popping in from time to time like a laser guided gooseberry probably didn’t help. I haven’t seen the blackbirds together since so maybe things didn’t work out but I am sure our regular visitor will find a mate soon. Blimey, if an 84 year old bloke with an extended paper round can attract a stunning 59 year old super model, I’m sure our dashing blackbird can find himself a girlfriend eventually.

There has been an exciting development since I wrote the above. To my great delight a wood pigeon landed in the garden just now and briefly eyed up the feed station. He didn’t stay long but if I can entice him back at the end of the month our species count could rocket by 50%. I might enter the Big Garden Birdwatch after all.

birdwatch

Life on the park, the bird watching experiment

We don’t have much in the way of a garden around our new home. Just a space occupied mainly by gravel, flagstones and a few pots that we haven’t yet planted up. It’s a bit barren. We do however back on to a large field and a thick hedge between us and the field provides a potential home for all manor of wildlife. Gill is keen to attract birds to entertain us and with this in mind she has set up a bird feeding station consisting of a tray with pellets of food and meal worms on it. A dish of water serves the dual purpose of thirst quencher and bathing facility and a hanging seed container and half a coconut shell full of fat provide for the more agile of our feathered friends. So far it hasn’t been a great success.

Dinner is now served

Quiet day on the feeder

We have seen a timid male blackbird taking food from the tray once or twice but the only other visitor has been a robin. The robin has targeted the seed feeder but not in the way that provides a lot of entertainment. His technique is to sit in the hedge protected from predators (he probably doesn’t realise that one of the park rules is ‘no cats’ or he might be more relaxed) and from there he launches his attack. I say attack because it’s more of a raid than a visit. He appears out of the hedge like a small heat seeking missile. Without missing a wingbeat he manages to grab a sunflower seed and is back in the hedge in about five nano seconds. It’s very impressive but it doesn’t really provide us with much in the way of bird watching. It’s more a kind of bird glimpsing, which isn’t really what we had in mind.

We have also glimpsed a kestrel and a hobby which was very exciting but doesn’t bode well for the prospect of exotic songbirds lounging around on the feed station and performing entertaining acrobatics for us while we are doing the washing up. I have noticed a profusion of small birds and animals around the park but they are entirely made of stone or resin and tend to be not to scale. (Some of the butterflies are terrifying!) We really don’t want to go down that road.

I suppose if the birdwatching experiment isn’t successful we could always join the majority of the other residents and just resort to watching each other. It seems to be quite a popular pastime.

Dawn chorus

Usually when people set their alarm clock for 3am it’s because they have a flight to catch. More often than not the flight will be taking them to some warm and possibly exotic place to start their annual holiday so the pain of the alarm is quickly replaced by excitement. The cruel interruption to our sleep had an altogether different purpose. No sun soaked beach or lazing by the pool with a G & T for us. Our destination was a stretch of the Lancaster Canal and the dawn chorus.

Sunrise was at 5am and the first birds usually begin to sing an hour earlier so I was worried we might have cut it a bit fine as we made our way down to the tow path. I was also disappointed to hear the steady drone of traffic from the distant M55 motorway. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get away from road noise these days, even pre-dawn. The motorists were probably all heading for Manchester airport and a flight to some …. oh hang on, we’ve done that already haven’t we?

As we descended to the water’s edge the noise faded as this part of the canal is deep in a cutting and we were blessed with near silence. It was cool but perfectly still, not a breath of wind to disturb the atmosphere. The rich smell of damp earth rose to meet us, so much more distinctive this early in the day. We’d made it just in time because the silence was broken at that moment by the beautiful and distinctive sound of a robin announcing the start of what we had come to hear. It was still dark enough to require care as we walked slowly along the path listening to those first few notes. Robins are often the first to sing and this one was soon joined by others and the silence was gradually filled with their cheery song. These soloists were quickly accompanied by the blackbird and its flute like mellifluous tune cutting clearly through the crisp morning air. We startled, and in turn were startled by, a moorhen which skittered across the water calling in alarm, its cries of panic momentarily drowning out the early song birds.

Creeping past the live-aboard narrow boats so as not to wake the occupants we reached a bench where the canal passes through dense woodland and settled down to listen to the performance. By now it was possible to make out the outlines of the trees against the lightening sky and the mist that was forming at the edge of the woodland. A heron took flight just fifty yards down the tow path and settled under the arched stone bridge to patiently watch for its first catch of the day. By now the bird song was unbroken and first the wood pigeons and then the fabulous wren joined the orchestra. A bat was patrolling on a regular patterned circuit making the most of the final cover of darkness. It would soon be replaced by the swallows. There would be no respite for the flying insects today.

Heron's fishing spot

Heron’s fishing spot

We strolled on, passing under the bridge, forcing the heron to relocate temporarily and as we left the woods behind a spectacle of pure magic unfolded. Patches of dense mist clung to hollows and along stretches of the water creating a mystical feel to the scene. In places the water provided crystal clear mirror images of the trees on the canal bank but then the mist would swallow the image in its cold silky veil. The tranquil scene was broken as a male swan chased away a family of Canadian geese that were getting too close to his mates nest.  He flared his wings in a threatening gesture, swimming fast at the goose and letting him know who was boss. The female swan looked on anxiously then settled down again on the nest, fussing to ensure she had her eggs perfectly protected. Calm was restored.

Two trees for the price of one

Two trees for the price of one

Shhh, they may be asleep

Shhh, they may be asleep

The hedgerow was full of the song of wrens and the remarkably loud call of a warbler scolding us roundly for threatening her unseen nest. As the sun finally broke the horizon we turned tail and headed back towards home. The mist was clearing and the cacophony of song had now been replaced by the more familiar individual calls of pheasant, crow and wood pigeon. The performance was over for today and soon it would be over for this summer. For many of these early morning choristers the focus now will turn to raising their young and then preparing for another hard winter or a long flight home.

Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins

Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins

Our experience was well worth the pain of that early awakening and we had the advantage of heading home now to tea and bacon sandwiches before climbing back into bed to catch up on the lost sleep. I couldn’t help but think about those early morning travellers, no doubt waiting nervously in their boarding queues checking and rechecking their passports and tickets. I had to admit to a tinge of envy when I thought of them soaking up the sun but then I reflected on the last two hours and remembered that sometimes the magic is right on your doorstep if you just go and look for it.

Tranquility

Tranquility