Well the snow has arrived in good time for Big Garden Birdwatch next weekend. It's been driving good numbers of birds into people's gardens - and some unusual visitors too. Reed buntings, redwings and fieldfares, pheasants, bramblings and blackcaps have all been found by people I know in my home county of Cambridgeshire over the weekend.
I went to town keeping my birds well fed over the weekend, with a whole range of food from the RSPB birdfood range (sorry for the shameless plug, but 100% of profits go to our conservation work), including Buggy Nibbles, fat balls, feeder mix, suet pellets with raisins and bugs and more all helping out the birds. Many people have been reporting fieldfares in their gardens with fallen apples doing the job (I spiked mine on a branch and the blackbirds loved them). Redwings and fieldfares (below) have been suffering that's for sure and I've come across several redwings that allowed approach to a few inches - clearly exhausted and very hungry and tired.
I went for a long walk out from home on saturday and found a superb flock of 600 skylarks in the field next to my garden - I was surprised they'd stuck around with snow covering the ground, but a row of stubble left by the farmer had provided them with plenty of food. I'm not sure I've ever seen such a big flock actually.
So this week I'd recommend stocking up your feeders and getting the birds warmed up for Big Garden Birdwatch next weekend. It could be a great birdwatch with some good counts, so please make sure that you take part and tell the RSPB about your garden birds. There are some more tips for the Birdwatch in the current issue of Birds
Thanks for all your positive comments about the latest issue of the magazine by the way. Glad so many of you are enjoying it. We're on course for the most e-mails ever received in a single month for Birds magazine, so keep them coming. It was good to have a few complaints about me not posting a blog as usual on Friday - glad some of you are reading and sorry!
With snow covering everything and temperatures still low come Saturday morning, the scene was set for a great Birdwatch. I opted out of a morning session because I know that there is a good flurry of feeding activity in my garden mid afternoon - a wise decision.
When we went to view our house and I saw that we backed onto a big field which is managed sympathetically for wildlife, overlooked the local river and gravel pits (a major migration flyway) and had an old scrubby reservoir bank just one hundred yards away, any problems with the interior just weren't an issue anymore - I wanted that house (and luckily we got it).
The reason I mention this is because there is so much habitat for birds that it feels as if they don't really need my garden and the offerings in it - my birds are spoiled for choice which meant Big Garden Birdwatch might not be as good as I thought. On Friday night, I went all out, pulling out all my big guns of half a dozen different foodstuffs and putting them in every feeder and position possible. This really did the trick.
Long-tailed tit - on my fruity nibbles and on my Big Garden Birdwatch list (photo by Nigel Blake)
Early highlights were a sparrowhawk pausing briefly and a goldcrest making a fleeting visit. A song thrush was a top "in the garden" bird - again, I can hear three different males from my garden in spring, but because of that abundance of habitat, they rarely have to drop in. The usuals of one pair of blue tits, one of great tits, one of dunnock and one of robin showed up and three magpies paid a visit. The best was saved until late on when four long-tailed tits came in to my fruity suet pellets and the fat cake I'd hung up on Friday. and five starlings couldn't resist either Then a great spotted woodpecker came to have a look and while I was eating lunch, a slightly odd looking small bird at the fat cake kept catching my eye until I excused myself to get the binoculars on it - a female blackcap! It had a good nibble on the cake before disappearing (but returned the next day). This is another bird that can be heard easily in spring from the garden, but this was a first at the feeders. Interesting to think this is a German blackcap rather than part of our breeding population that migrates south in autumn.
I was really pleased with my watch and although not countable on the Birdwatch, a half an hour session watching from the garden at dusk produced a short-eared owl flying over the field, viewed from my bottom hedge (completeing my set of five owls seen from the garden), a little owl flying past, two woodcocks flying out at dusk (one flew right over my head) and a covey of seven grey partridges just over the hedge right next to a covey of nine red-legged partridges completed a great day literally on my doorstep. Finally, hundreds of wigeon flew up the river valley - a sure sign that the thaw was setting in (which it did - by Sunday all the snow had gone).
So that's how it was for me. Let me know how you got on and don't forget to send in your results please!
Thanks for all your comments so far on the latest issue of Birds, plus all your photos letters and e-mails. I'd love to have the space to feature more of them in the mag, but the good news is that I can share more of your stories and photos on this blog.
I was hoping to feature some readers' waxwing photographs in the Big Garden Birdwatch feature on page 14, but we had to go without because we didn't have any. Today, I've received some absolute stunners from three different readers - thank you so much! I knew you wouldn't let me down after what has been another cracking waxwing winter.
This lovely composition above is from Geoff Howard in Staffs who wrote: "Attached photo of a waxwing which graced our garden for two days over christmas.This is the first ever sighting of this bird in our area or garden."
The above is one of a superb set from Peter Last. "Thought you might be interested in photos of 4 Waxwings that visited my garden in Cumbria on the afternoon of New Year 2012. They spent about an hour feeding on Hawthorn berries and generally loafing and preening, also coming down to my pond to drink. They also took water from a gutter at the back of my garage. Easy to approach with a little care I was able to take many photos. There had been as many as c200 taking mostly local Yew berries but most had departed when the weather became mild. This remnant group seemed to be visiting gardens. Although they seemed relaxed and happy to have me nearby, a sudden squeal and a rapid departure showed alertness as a sparrowhawk flew in over my head and through the bushes into the wood. All survived."
This one came in from John Schluter in Guildford who reports:
"Just recently there was a flock of Waxwings that visited the area. I took the attached at Northcamp railway station near Farnborough, Hampshire. Apparently these Scandinavian visitors are venturing further south in search of their preferred diet, berries. They were approximately 40 to 50 in number and made regular raids on the berry laden bushes. After a few hours they flew off, presumably of to their next dinner appointment. All in all a stunning sight."
Have you caught up with waxwings this winter?
They're still here in their thousands, so let us know if you have scored. It's about time I saw a few more, so with my girlfriend away for the weekend, I may well be on the hunt myself tomorrow. I'm very envious of those of you who are getting garden sightings though. My berries have all gone!