Anyone with even a passing interest in our feathered friends cannot fail to have noticed that it’s the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend. Naturally there’s a lot of scientific data to be collected from the expected half million participants. But more than this I think this has become as much about people sharing their enthusiasm for the daily visits of Messrs goldfinch, greenfinch, blue tit and so on.
I’ve long thought that one of the most appealing things about birds is that they are both universal and the only wild creature we truly share our waking hours with. Have a look outside you right now. Chances are, it won’t be too long before a bird appears in view.
I love their company. Without getting too misty eyed, it’s just great to have them around. The blackbirds crowding our garden path at first light. The sparrows chirping away over the bowl of millet. The robins dropping in for mealworms. It really does brighten up even the dullest day.
And I know there’s thousands of other people who share this feeling. I joined the Radio Devon lunchtime phone in yesterday, taking questions on garden birds. Although there were some questions, most of the hour on air was more to do with people keen to share what they’d seen in their own gardens. We had a lot of calls about blackcaps, quite a speciality in winter in the south west. I heard about siskins. And sparrows. We could have filled the afternoon with talk about garden birds.
This year, I think were going to beat all the previous records for participation. There’s quite a buzz about the Birdwatch. And I’d suggest an hours break simply watching our garden birds is what we all need right now against a background of austerity and cuts and sell offs. It won’t solve any of these problems, but maybe, like gazing out to sea, it’ll put things in perspective.
For information on this years birdwatch, visit www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch
Images courtesy and copyright Laura Whitehead
We get a lot of calls from the public asking us to identify "odd" birds. Most are quite straightforward; young buzzards, green woodpeckers, jays, that sort of thing. Or of course escaped aviary birds and the odd albino. Frequently the callers claim what they are seeing must be rare, simply because they've never noticed, say, a fieldfare or redwing before. But occasionally we get calls that leave us completely puzzled. Which was what happened a couple of days ago.
The caller, a chap from near Tavistock, described what at first sounded not unlike a moorhen. He'd found the bird in his garden. What I didn't twig for a little while was that he wasn't describing the bird from memory - the poor bird was dead and in his hand. He described the feathering as bronze green above and purple blue below. He described white feathering on the tail. And long yellow legs. And no, the feet weren't webbed. He then said he had a few old bird books, one of American birds, and the nearest he could find was a purple gallinule! Now, in the normal course of things, if he was describing from memory, I'd have dismissed this as highly unlikely. People do have a way of seeing something and then actually describing what they are looking at in an ID guide. But this bird was being described to me from the corpse. At this point it was time to "ask a friend". I noted the callers phone number and went in search of Kev Rylands, our resident expert on all things rare.
We talked about moorhens and water rails. We entertained the possibility of Allen's gallinule. And then about the possibility of American purple gallinule. With no firm conclusions other than that this what more than a little interesting, we decided that someone needed to see this bird. With that I passed the enquirer on to Julia Harris, the Assistant Devon County Recorder, who lived nearby and left it at that.
It was with some surprise that, early the following day I got a call from a distinctly excited Kev saying that the bird had been identified and was indeed an American purple gallinule. If accepted by the Rare Birds Committee this would be only the third record of this creature in the UK, previous records being an exhausted bird picked up on the Isles of Scilly in 1958 and one found dead in Bedfordshire in 2008. There have been a couple of escaped gallinules, but we think this unlikely in this case as their are no bird collections within miles of where this bird was found, and it wasn't ringed.
Our Devon gallinule is now on its way to Tring and the Natural History Museum where it will join the two previous gallinules. Of course what's fascinating here is that it is possible that this bird has been in the UK for a little while, arriving from the states on Autumn storms. It could quite conceivably been strolling round unseen in the village in which it was found for a couple of months. Which is quite a thought. Makes you wonder what else is out there.
Photo courtesy and copyright of Julia Harris, DBWPS Assistant County Recorder
Great feature on BBC Countryfile last night about our Ham Wall nature reserve in Somerset (on iPlayer here for a six more days). Of course the highlight was footage of the starling roost, our "murmuration" of starlings. I was on site myself last week and as ever the spectacle is just wonderful. Seeing up to a million birds, or indeed any creature, at once is quite special, especially when they do such remarkable displays.
But, you don't have to travel all the way to Somerset to see this. Wherever you are there will probably be a flock of starlings that's as equally impressive. The RSPB lists here those nature reserves that have roosts. There's more information here on the BBC's Nature UK website about other sites as well.
In the south west, I know of roosts in Penzance, Bodmin Moor and Taunton. A couple of weeks ago there was also news of a pretty impressive roost in Poole here. So please don't think the only place you can see this is Ham Wall!