While there are still a few trees without obscuring leaves, and ground cover has yet to reach its full height, it is still a good time of the year to see some of the small birds that live in, or pass through our woodlands and, if we are lucky, visit our gardens. Many are still in good voice as the males sing to show how strong and fit they are in the hope of attracting a mate or, having done so, declaring ownership of their territory as nesting gets underway. This makes for a wonderful soundscape while taking exercise walking along the woodland paths, or just being in your garden if you are lucky enough to have one.
This will not be a complete guide to all the birds that are around at the moment, just a quick snapshot of some that are visiting the feeders in the garden or coming to the pond for a drink and a bath. There are much better guides than this in the many books and internet sites featuring British birds. Many of you will already be quite expert on birds, or have taken part in one of the garden bird surveys and already know what you are seeing, but this might help others to put names to those “small brown birds” or others that flit around.
At this time of worry about so much that remains uncertain it may also help to be distracted for a little time just watching the different birds in their often frantically busy lives as they prepare to care for another generation to arrive. It may also give some insight into the richness of bird life that we have in Dalgety Bay - in the woodlands; gardens; and around the town’s other green spaces. This will be the first of a few blogs that deal with different aspects of what you might be able to see and appreciate as you take a little time out to contemplate these feathered companions.
Firstly: Birds visiting feeders
I know from giving talks to some local groups that when I ask “who feeds the birds in their gardens?” a forest of hands are raised, so, as elsewhere, there is a strong interest in attracting birds to the garden, and some species have become regular visitors to hanging bird feeders. Most of what we enjoy as visitors to the garden are birds of the woodland edge. This typically is the richest habitat for a wide range of wildlife with its variety of shrubby trees and an edging of wildflowers and grasses making the most of the light away from the dense woodland canopy of mature trees. Many will use gardens as a substitute, especially if they have hedges of beech or hawthorn. Unlike the ubiquitous leylandii these have a good three-dimensional internal structure to offer protection and are hosts to a wide range of insects that can provide useful live food for the birds.
One of the birds that was quick to exploit the free food on offer in the early years of bird feeders in gardens was the Blue tit and it must be one of the most easily recognised.
Of the same family is the Great tit, but they often dash in, seize a seed and fly off to eat in the safety of a nearby bush, so they can be harder to see more clearly. In addition to the black head with white cheeks, they also have a black stripe running down the chest. Both these birds are really insect feeders and can often be seen working along tree branches looking for caterpillars or other small invertebrates. The lighter and more acrobatic Blue tit can hang onto thinner branches than the Great tit and so can exploit slightly different food sources. Great tits are one of the birds you will hear on any walk through the woodlands with their phrase of “Tee cher” repeated 5 or 6 times followed by silence before the sequence is repeated.
The most common birds to be seen that are normally seed feeders in the wild are the Finches. You can see from the photos they all have the heavier beaks of birds that are adapted for cracking open plant seeds, though they vary in strength and hence the toughness of the seeds they can tackle. Chaffinch, Greenfinch and Goldfinch may all visit feeders, though Chaffinch often feed on the ground beneath the feeders as well.
In the woodlands, Chaffinch will often be seen in bushes close to ground level, but Greenfinch and Goldfinch are more often in the tops of trees where their characteristic songs and contact calls accompany any walk. The tzeee of Greenfinches is unmistakable and if you hear a tinkling bell of a call and a small flock of birds with a bouncy flight, those are likely to be a “charm” of Goldfinches - the very appropriate collective noun for these delightful birds.
Greenfinches became very frequent at feeders in the 1990s but suffered a population crash linked to a protozoan parasite which found easy transmission at feeding stations. They have in recent years started to increase in numbers again.
Goldfinches have adapted more recently to garden feeding. To begin with they were taking the tiny Nyger seed, but have lately moved on to sunflower hearts and abandoned Nyger altogether. They are in gardens at the moment, but once the thistles start to produce seed in the summer they disperse to feed on those and can often be seen on the big Welted Thistle that grows around our woodland edges.
Sparrows, with their heavy beaks are also natural seed eaters that make good use of garden feeders and there are two groups of House Sparrows that chirp cheerily from bushes alongside parts of our Coastal Path. These groups can be found - either beside the steps on the path as it leaves Bathing House Wood heading west, or in the Hawthorns beside the Friendship Board. While there are good populations there, they hardly ever appear in my garden, I guess there are other garden feeders closer at hand.
In the last few years however there have been increasing sightings of a closely related species, the Tree Sparrow. These are quite distinct in appearance and while male and female House Sparrows look very different, Tree Sparrow males and females are, to our eyes identical, and the spots on the cheek, chestnut brown cap on the head and white neck collar allow them to be easily distinguished from House Sparrows. This too is a species that is showing signs of recovery after a population crash, this time in the 1970s. They remain Red Listed in UK Concervation Status, meaning they are of conservation corncern.
On the continent of Europe they will nest communally in the base of the big stick nests of White Storks. Here they seem happy to use nest boxes put up for Blue and Great tits and certainly for the boxes on our house will successfully challenge Blue tits for possession.
Two others that will take food from feeders are Robin and Dunnock. Like the Tits they are really adapted to mostly eating insects and other invertebrates and have thinner more pointed beaks. They however find food of this kind while foraging on the ground and around the bases of bushes. Robins must be our most familiar bird and their identity is unmistakeable. They are well known for waiting close by when gardens are being dug over to pounce on anything edible that is uncovered. They do the same in the woodland when there is a work party clearing vegetation. This behaviour is a characteristic of Robins in woodlands on mainland Europe where there are Wild Boar and they follow the soil uprooting pigs to pick up the smaller invertebrates. Here, gardeners and P7 children clearing Ivy take the place of Wild Boar. At other times, as in this photo, they find a perch where they can watch over a patch of ground and will then dart out to grab any small insect that appears. Their large eyes mean they can spot tiny insects and also to continue feeding in dim light which allows them to exploit the periods of dawn and dusk when more insects will be about. They are one of the last birds to be singing before the dark of night brings silence for the daytime birds.
Dunnocks are the archetypal “little brown bird” but a closer look reveals a blend of browns and greys in their plumage - excellent camouflage as they scurry about in the leaves in a hedge bottom.
Where feeders don’t have guards, Starlings will also take advantage of a free meal, especially if there are fatty nibbles included in the mix. These birds too are primarily adapted to feeding on insects, but this time in grassland and they can often be seen following sheep and cattle to pick up any insects they disturb. On lawns they move around in small flocks with a characteristic feeding method. They dig their long stabbing beak into the matted grass and then open the beak wide to pull the grass apart to expose any insects or other invertebrates. When the young have fledged they take part in these feeding flocks, but can still be seen begging and being given food by the adults.
There are more birds to be seen benefiting from the feeders even if they may not feed directly from the feeders themselves if there are guards to restrict access just to small birds, but those will be covered in another blog. The guards on the feeders shown in these photos were removed to get clearer pictures of the birds