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Garden Bird Feeding – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

December 26th, 2016

We hope you had a wonderful Christmas! Today, Ray gives us insight into the birds he sees in his garden, with bird feeders contributing to the variety of birds he sees. If you would like to see more birds in your garden, why not provide them with a feeder? Over the winter months small birds need a great deal of food that is increasingly hard to come by just to survive, so you’ll be giving nature a hand as well as seeing more garden activity.

If you would like to see some highland birdlife first hand, many of our holiday cottages have feeders and all are situated near forests or other habitats that are abundant with wildlife, often just being quiet and waiting is all that’s required. We look forward to seeing you in 2017.

Last week was a good time to be looking at those bird feeders in the garden as various uncommon birds  species have been on the move.  In contrast some common birds have been absent and others have been only occasional visitors to the various feeders.   The bird that has been noted by its absence is the siskin as normally at this  time of the year it is normally one of the commonest, after the chaffinches and titmice.  Yet I have not seen any siskins for a few weeks, not even a single bird.  I can only think that there is still a great deal of natural food around. They particularly like the  seed of spruce and pine trees but will also freely take seed from alders and birch trees.  They will also feed on the seeds of a range of plants such as dandelions, docks, thistles and meadowsweet.   They will freely go for peanuts in garden feeders but will also go for  seed mix and their beaks can tackle the niger feeders.  They seem to be one of the very few birds that will not tackle the suet balls.

In contrast the long-tailed tits seem to be only occasional visitors to the garden these days.  If you are outside you can hear their call notes that are high pitched and sound like ”see,see,see”.  Unfortunately, they are one of several birds that I cannot hear any more, the goldcrest is another,  which happens with age.  As for the feeders, suddenly they are there at my feeders and there is a party of twelve that suddenly descend.   They seem to favour the suet ball feeder more  than  any other but they will also go for the mixed seed.     For the photographer  they are a nightmare as they are so active it is difficult  for the autofocus on the camera to work successfully.   It really is a case of hit or miss as most of the time  only a few of the birds are in focus at any one time.   Seeing them on the suet or mixed seed or even peanuts is a surprise as for the summer months they feed on flies, beetles, spiders and the eggs, caterpillars, pupa and adults of moth and butterflies.  The change to solid food, which means they can visit  garden feeders, is a recent change.

One of the other uncommon visitors to garden feeders is the brambling  as in most years I only get one or two.  However, they are easily overlooked when they are feeding with chaffinches as the male of these two birds are, in the winter months, easy to confuse.   Last week I was looking at the various birds  on the feeders and suddenly there was something different  and it was  a male brambling at the mixed seed.  Apart for the brambling there were three chaffinches at the  same feeder and I had to look twice to make sure my identification was  correct.  Fortunately  the camera  was at hand although the bird was so active it took some time to get the attached photograph.   The orange on the breast and the blackish head may look conspicuous  but it is easy to confuse with a male chaffinch.

The other surprise was at the mixed seed feeder and it was a tree sparrow which is one of my favourite garden birds for some reason.   We normally just get one a year so to see  a pair together was indeed a treat.    For some reason this bird is increasing as a garden visitor and it would be great if a pair took over one of the nestboxes put up for house sparrows.  Watch this space.

Nest Boxes – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

December 19th, 2016

Nest boxes for birds vary from the small design aimed at birds varying from great tits to redstarts to the much larger ones known as a chimney box.  The latter is designed mainly for tawny owls although  other bird will take advantage of such a ready made hole.   Nest boxes of any size are aimed at replacing natural holes  in trees that have become much rarer as older tree are felled or fall down.   In many woodlands or tall, thick hedges the food and shelter may be there for birds but if  nest holes are  not available then the birds have to look elsewhere when the breeding season comes around.   The standard nest box for tawny owls is very basic as there are four planks of wood, twenty inches long and ten inches wide and two small pieces for the top and bottom.  The entrance hole to be about  150 mm diameter.

One interesting aspect about tawny owls is their pattern of behaviour, especially at this time of the year.  They are now calling to pair up and to set up territory despite the fact that the eggs will not be laid until late February or March.   The call that can now be heard, some people call it a hoot,  is a male that will go “hooo-hoo-hooo”.  This claims his territory and is used extensively during courtship.   It tells other males to clear off and entices females into his area and the nest site.    Another  commonly heard call is “kee-wick” which is a contact call made by both male and female.     The female alone incubates the two to three eggs  and, unlike other birds, the incubation starts as soon as the first egg is laid.  This means that the eggs do not hatch together  and that the owlets vary in age and size.  This means that if there is a shortage of food the older chicks survive whilst the others will die from starvation.   Older chicks eating younger siblings is not unknown.    Owlets will leave their nest around 37 days and will hang around on nearby branches for another few days.   However, they are dependent on their parents for another three months.

During the day tawny owls roost in hollow trees but they will also seek other shelter such as in ivy or will just sit on a branch tight against the trunk of the tree where they are well camouflaged and difficult to see.   They may hunt from a perch or hover.  They are also renowned for defending their nest site and have been known to attack humans.  The famous bird photographer, Eric Hosking,  lost an eye to a tawny owl that he was photographing  the nest from a hide.   The commonest prey of this owl are small mammals, especially voles, mice and shrews.  It also takes a range of birds such as starlings, finches, thrushes and sparrows.  However, it also takes a range of other food from amphibians to earthworms and insects.  They have been known to eat fish although it is not clear how it gets them although one suggestion is that it snatches  them from the surface of the water.

If one of these nest boxes is not taken up by these owls  then later it attracts ducks such as mandarins, the photograph shows a drake peering out, goldeneye and another owl, the barn owl.  Starlings  and jackdaws will also take over such boxes.  The latest trend, and nobody knows the significance of this, is the pine marten that will rear their  kits in such boxes

Bird Baths & Garden Birds – Ray Collier – Wildlife in the North

December 8th, 2016

treecreeperIf you go into any garden centre these days you will see a wide range of food, feeders and nest boxes for a  wide range of not only birds but also mammals such as hedgehogs and red squirrels.      However, one aspect that is often overlooked is the bird bath and yet, particularly in the winter months, this is essential for  birds.     We tend to think that bird baths are just for drinking such as the wren I watched in the  garden today.  The bird had been foraging at the base of a fruit tree and then, suddenly, it  darted to the bird bath.  It perched on the edge  and then leant over and it was  almost comical as it nearly overbalanced and fell in.    A few sips and it was off foraging again.    In contrast the next bird to drink was  a large, fat looking woodpigeon and it leant forward just like the wren.  However, the woodpigeon is very unusual  as they do not have to throw their heads back but can scoop  the water up like a siphon.   However, whilst drinking is important, the real purpose of the bird bath is, as the name rightly  suggests,   for the birds to bathe.   This enables them to keep their feathers, and plumage in general, in good condition  and this is essential to combat the frost and ice in the  winter months.     Some garden centres do stock bird baths but these are often of a fancy design and expensive.  Mine is large  black perspex tray about three inched deep and I put this on the ground rather than raised up.  What is essential with bird baths is that they vary in water depth so that different  sized birds can bathe.  I achieve this by putting two large flat stones in the water so varying the depth.

Cold winter nights can mean that, with a small bird such as a goldcrest that only weighs 5 gms,  it can lose a fifth of its body weight in just one night.  Such birds still persist in roosting alone as does the tree creeper illustrated here and the latter seeks out a crevice in bark and squeezes in for the hours of darkness.   Another bird that is normally solitary may adopt a different method if the nights are really cold and that is the wren.   Against all their normal behaviour of living alone they will gather and form a  roost to keep each other warm for the night.   The roosting site can vary from a hole in a tree to nest boxes and such communal roosts have been recorded  as containing 60 wrens or more although most  are much smaller.  The record  is 61 wrens in a nest box followed closely by 30 in a hole in  a tree.    In Strathnairn,  a few miles south of Inverness,   there is a regular winter roost of up to eight  wrens in an artificial nest box designed for  house martins.  Sadly if the cold persist the whole roost may die overnight and it a sad experience to see such a sight.

There is another way of combating the cold nights and that is chosen by long-tailed tits.   As many readers   will know by these delightful birds coming into the garden to feed they go around in flocks, sometimes up to a dozen birds or more.  At night they will huddle together  on a branch side by side.  Research has shown that the dominant birds are in the centre as by huddling up to the birds on either side they  extract warmth.  It must be a remarkable sight to see such a line of these tiny birds.