29 May 2016

Garden birds and daft squirrels

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance that I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.    Henry David Thoreau (1817 – 1862)

I think this time of year may well be my favourite – long days, warm sunshine without humidity and excess heat and with pristine new foliage and plants emerging with all the summer ahead of us. I love that point, usually in mid-May, when the natural world just explodes into life.  There’s often a period of warm sunshine and spring showers and that combination of light and water seems to conjure up some magic in the things that grow and we go from the hint of things about to develop to being surrounded by lush bright green foliage and an increase in bird song and insects buzzing.

I have several bird feeders in the garden and when I fill them and the clean the bird bath (just what do birds do to get the bottom of it full of grit every time I top it up?!) I make a point of standing still nearby until the birds return to them, so that they’re used to me being there and associate me with the supply of food.  I decided to put this to the test by taking my camera outside one day when the area was in sunshine and hoping that they’d tolerate me taking some photos and many of the frames below are as a result.

One particular supposed ‘squirrel proof’ feeder has been in use for many years and the lid long since became dis-attached –  a combination of rust and persistent efforts by the squirrels to remove it.  I’d had it wired on and this necessitated unraveling the wire and replacing it tightly each time I filled it.  On a couple of recent occasions, the lid was either loose or had been completely removed and I wasn’t sure how a squirrel could get it unwrapped so easily.  Until I saw him in action – his technique comprised getting his nose under one edge of the lid and using brute force to lever the lid back, away from the opening.

I walked past the kitchen window the other morning and something moving outside caught my eye, but took several seconds before my brain could compute what I was seeing.  This supposed ‘squirrel proof’ feeder was swinging violently and there was a mass of grey fur protruding from the top.  The silly squirrel had only entered it nose first to get at the seed, which was quite low in the feeder and had seemingly got stuck.  He extracted himself after a struggle and as he stayed put on the adjacent branch, I grabbed the camera, hoping that he’d find the proximity of the seeds too tempting, which he did.

He just shimmied into it until his mouth met seeds and proceeded to eat until I took pity on him and took him some seed of his own out.  He again had a heck of a job backing out of it and then sat on the branch above, not three feet from me, looking at me as though everyone tackled their breakfast in the same way, so what was I laughing at.  I love how squished his ears are and I wonder where his front legs are, as he’s only seemingly hanging on by his back legs.  I’ll need to wire the lid on especially tight, as I don’t want to be responsible for him getting stuck in there.


You can click on any of the photographs to see a larger version and then run through them in sequence.  There are captions to accompany each photograph.

6 Jan 2011

Where are my sultanas Boo?

I have two gardens – no actually, I have three really – on account of the garden wrapping round the house on three sides and each one being somewhat different and separate.

That sounds rather grand, but in reality, they’re each very small (each has an area approximately the same footprint as the house itself) and even their combined area wouldn’t qualify as a ‘small garden’ by landscape gardening and TV garden show standards.

Please click on any of the photographs to see a larger view.

We currently have a pair of nuthatches – their MO is to grab food and take it off to hide in a crack or crevice in bark or old branches – I assume they go back to it some time later – the pair work as a team, hiding their food in locations adjacent to each other. Nuthatches are the only birds that descend tree trunks – and can feed – head first, as shown.

On the kitchen side of the house is what we call the ‘railway garden’ on account of it being adjacent to a local railway line running a tourist steam railway. A rather grand name for a rather scrubby patch of land that we can’t do very much with. When we bought the house, in the late 80s, there were a few bushes and scrub outside the perimeter of this garden at the very end triangular tip of an area of woodland behind the row of houses and we got a lot of morning sunshine.

We have daily visits from all the common garden tits – this one being a blue tit.

As the years passed, the scrub became trees and the light levels diminished and things consequently didn’t grow quite so well. The garden area was badly damaged in a freak flood that deposited tons of rubble on the lawn a few years ago and the buildings insurance covered it being re-landscaped.

We always have a posse of goldfinches in the garden, squabbling noisily in their little face masks.

We decided that it’s position under trees that we couldn’t trim (and didn’t necessarily want to) was best served by doing away with the lawned area and to landscape it as a bird garden. We’d always kept feeders in that area due to the surrounding trees, so covering the original lawn area with coarse gravel, with large stone slabs to take feeders and tables, surrounded by some potted planting and seats, suited us well.

One of our handsome male bullfinches – we are currently blessed with 2 pairs. Each pair is monogamous and they are never more than a few feet from each other – if you see one, their partner will be within the same field of view.

We rarely occupied that garden, as the adjacent woodland made it a bug fest on summer evenings and it is actually open around the house, so not very private, so keeping it as one for viewing from the three large windows on that side of the house, rather than being out in, was the best use of the space.

We did return home one day and find that our garden visitors had somewhat increased in size. Another time we returned to find a cockerel, but I didn’t manage a photo of him.

I keep the hanging bird feeders filled (largely with sunflower hearts, all birds seem to like them) and take out loose food for the tables, as required, along with warm water in winter. I make up my own mix of sunflower hearts, sultanas, chopped peanuts and supplemented with occasional stale biscuits, crushed fat balls and grated cheese. I obviously have a reputation for putting out good stuff as some of the cheekier visitors will remind me at the window if there isn’t much left – or what remains doesn’t contain their favourite morsels.

Some of the visitors are quite small – there’s often a mouse to be seen scurrying from under the wall to pinch food off the ground table. I don’t mind the mice, but I’m not keen on their larger cousins.

I have a very good selection of feathered visitors, from regular and widespread garden birds like robins, great tits, blue tits, coal tits, blackbirds, gold finches, dunnocks and sparrows to slightly more rural visitors like nuthatches, bullfinches, collared doves, wood pigeons, wrens, long tailed tits, jackdaws, crows and woodpeckers. I occasionally see a tree creeper and tawny owl too.

The tawny owl is certainly the most elusive and difficult to photograph visitor and this is the best I’ve so far managed, despite setting up a laptop and remote capture system when he was active in the garden one autumn and spending a lot of time waiting for him to visit. I gradually increased the lights and left them on for him to get used to them. Most often, we only get a fleeting glimpse as he lands to catch something to eat and triggers the security light.

The long tailed tits tend to arrive as a noisy, chattering gang to feed in a group – they have such cheeky and cheerful little faces, that they always brighten your day.

Sometimes there’s a deadly quiet descends on the garden and I know that a sparrowhawk is nearby. In fact, just as I’m typing that, some instinct made me go to my office window and there was a tree creeper not ten feet from me. That’s a particular thrill I never tire of.

I’ve only once got a proper look at the sparrowhawk – on this occasion he took his captured lunch just into the scrub outside the garden perimeter and I was only able to find him by following where all the other birds were looking and avoiding.

I think if I had to choose only one, the wren would certainly be up there as a my favourite garden bird. I just wish they didn’t move quite so fast, I might have a better collection of proper photos and not quite so many of disappearing tails, if they were a tad slower.

At present I have at least three thrushes – in that I’ve seen three at once on several occasions – and they, like the blackbirds, are especially partial to some fruit. I put out a plentiful supply of sultanas in cold weather and they’re always the first thing to go – crows and magpies will also come down to the furthest table at the fence-line if they spot sultanas on there – but they’re more timid about venturing onto the tables closer to the house.

I was very excited indeed when I first spotted a tree creeper in the garden. Having spent a lot of time trying to get a photograph in the wild, I finally got one of my best photographs from my own utility room window – on a filthy wet and stormy day – which was very dark indeed! This small rowan tree has since died, but I leave it there as it is one of his favourite spots to feed and I often spot one circling up the trunk and dead branches.

Between the 6 or 7 blackbirds I have, with the three thrushes and a selection of other occasional visitors, the sultanas are picked from the mix in a matter of minutes and then those that feel they have missed out will tell me so.
The thrush above is one such feathered friend. She stands on the front-most corner of the table near the kitchen window until she catches my eye and gestures with her head that there is a lack of dried fruit. If I take some out, she’ll return to feed and bob her head in acknowledgment from the same spot. I took the photograph above yesterday morning when we had a few moments of weak, wintry sunshine and she arrived for her elevenses. It amazes me how quickly thrushes and blackbirds can stuff their beaks with whole fruits and swallow them in the blink of an eye. Makes me wonder how they can become so partial to them when they don’t appear to even taste them.

So despite the diminutive scale of my bird garden, in which little grows, the very trees that make it dark also bring me these lovely visitors, so how could I possibly mind.