December, 2010

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South East

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  • Bearing gifts of random kindness

    Adrian Thomas's beautiful starlings on his bird tableI reckon I could power the national grid if Icould capture the energy from my constant shivering.

    Still. I can always turn-up the heating, chuck another log on the fire or pull on another of my Mum's knitted jumpers. Blue tits, sparrows, starlings (pictured) and robins don't share that luxury.

    Generally, birds need to maintain a body temperature of around 40 C. That's 3 degrees higher than us mere mortals. Bear in mind the size of their bodies and you can see why keeping warm is tough for a bird in the mildest of  winters.

    Feathers are great insulators, but they only retain as much heat as a bird can generate from the food it eats. You and I can nip out to the shops or order a curry. Birds have to expend much needed energy seeking natural food such as seeds, worms, berries or insects. The sad truth for them is that it's all buried in snow at times like this, or locked away in solid ice. This leaves birds desperate and more likely to venture into our gardens and open spaces for grub. Look out for unusual garden visitors like redwings or yellow hammers.

    Enter the festive season by committing a random act of kindness and put out a saucer of food scraps or invest in some bird feeding kit. A bowl of fresh water will be welcome too.

    Having commited this random act of kindness, get back indoors to warm-up and enjoy the spectacle of the wild birds that come to feed. Having been virtuous, you can reward yourself with a guilt free bar of RSPB chocolate.. because you're worth it.

  • Twice bittern, not too shy

    I've looked hard, very hard, but I've never seen a bittern, which is why I'm desperately trying to find time to get to our Rye Meads nature reserve just north of east London.

    Look right in the centre and that vague oval is the bittern, photo courtesy of Louise Moss at Rye Meads.I'm not one of those who'll bear discomfort to see a particular bird, but for a bittern, I might defy the cold snap. Especially as it's the cold weather that's forcing these shy and well camoflaged birds out into the open where they can be seen.

    They were once declared extinct in Britain and Ireland, but we now have some 75 breeding male bitterns. We know this not because we can see them, but because we can hear them. In the mating season the males make a distinctive and spooky booming noise, and that's how we keep track of them.

    So, Rye Meads volunteers and staff have been toiling to create a reedbed rich area, full of fish, that will act as a magnet for bittern... and guess what. It may have paid off, as two have been spotted on site. Much of the wetland habitat is frozen, so the bittern have to venture to the edges of the dense reedbeds to seek food, where there is free flowing water. 

    I was there recently, before the bittern were spotted. I'm unlikely to have another excuse to visit for a while. Instead, I'm staying in the warmth, presenting prizes for our Life Between the Lines competition winners. This is the second year London Underground have worked with us to highlight the great wildlife found in the Capital. I'll also be practicising my moves to celebrate Bird is the Word getting to the coveted Christmas number 1 spot, watch the video for top dance tips from my fellow RSPB staff... less 'strictly come dancing', more 'night out with your mates'!

  • Icing on the cake

    The finished Butt Hide, before the snow and freezing weatherYou may have noticed that it's unseasonably cold?

    This is the point where we traditionally urge everyone to put out extra food and fresh water for birds. I'm not one to break traditions so I'll urge you to do just that.

    I would also like to invite you to drink in the spectacle of winter wildlife from the classy new interior of the Butt Hide (pictured right) at our Rainham Marshes nature reserve. Sadly, the weather that has painted the scene a picture-postcard frosty white has also forced us to close the reserve to the public on Health & Safety grounds. Oh. It's called the Butt Hide by the way, not because it's got some comfy seats, but because it's built on the site of the old shooting butts when the MoD used Rainham as a firing range. Thankfully, the only shots there these days are fired by cameras.

    Ice and snow lock away frood and water, leaving wildlife, including birds, with little or nothing to eat or drink. Birds have a higher body temperature than us humans, so need to eat a lot to survive the cold winter nights. Dried fruit, cake crumbs, nuts or seeds (un-salted) and some cheese are all good kitchen scraps to share with the critters in your garden or nearby park. Yes, bread can be used but remember it generally doesn't have much nutritional value for birds compared with other scraps. Bread will fill birds stomachs, but not give much back by way of energy. So, give peas a chance to fill the gap in a birds stomach when clearing your plates. Rice, couscous and beans are good too.

    The other thing to consider that will benefit wildlife right now, is what you can grow. Plan spring plantings of nectar and seed rich plants, which will be great for the birds and bees, along with any fruit or berry bearing plants. Dense shrubs such as holly or wall clinging ivy both support a whole range of bugs and birds. Why not give a native shrub as a present to someone special this year? One of our bird feed trial kits makes a great pressie too and will get someone ready for January's Big Garden Birdwatch.. enticing a few more birds in to view ready for the survey. The Rolls Royce of gifts, would be RSPB Membership, when you give the lucky recipient twelve months of access to the natural world with great customer care and hours of awe-inspiring moments to cherish forever. You could also include a satsuma in a sock to make it more traditional.