October, 2008

Wildlife

Wildlife
We're about more than just birds (though obviously we like them a lot).

Notes on nature

We love nature... from every little bug on a blade of grass to birds, butterflies, otters and oaks!
  • Mighty oaks...

    Sometimes, it feels like my neighbours get all the best things on their side of the garden boundary.

    Sparrowhawks sitting on the fence, preening for hours. A young brown hare taking refuge from pouring rain, under their plastic garden furniture. Green woodpeckers drilling into their turf for ants. Song thrushes nesting in their shrubbery. And now, something I've wanted to watch for a long time...

    Looking out of the upstairs window, there was a pink, white, black and blue blur before me. A jay landed on my neighbours' fencepost and flicked its tail. It had an acorn in its beak, which it placed carefully on top of the post, making sure it wouldn't roll off. Then it jumped down onto the lawn. Looking at its bulging throat, the next move was obvious.

    The jay selected a slightly longer patch of grass under an apple tree, its chosen spot for the acorns it was holding in its throat. Using its strong beak, it dug a little hole, brought up an acorn and placed it in the hiding place before pushing the grass back over it.

    It repeated this three more times, before performing what I consider to be the most impressive feat: going back to the fencepost to pick up the last acorn! I am absolutely certain I would have forgotten that one...

    The jay's final task was to inspect some more lawn. Hopping across the garden, it stopped and cocked its head to one side. Stop. Look. Listen. Hop. What was it doing? I know it's daft to give birds human thoughts, but the jay must have been thinking something. Could it have been...

    • 'Didn't I put some acorns here yesterday?'
    • 'This looks like a really good acorn hiding place!'
    • 'Who's nicked my acorns?'

    At the same time, I had to remember that, although crows are very intelligent creatures, the bird's brain was limited by the size of its head. The jay's grey matter couldn't have been much bigger than the acorn it was carrying in its beak. But when it flew off, my brain was full of questions I couldn't answer.

    What's going on in your garden now? Write a comment (you will need to register first - this is free - then log in).

  • Strangers in our midst

    Here at the RSPB, we often get enquiries from puzzled 'garden watchers' who have seen an odd bird in their garden.

    'It looks like a blackbird, but it's got a white head.' 'One of the starlings on my feeder is all white! Is it a different species?'

    Some people are a bit disappointed to be told they don't have an exotic visitor. These birds are 'common or garden' blackbirds and starlings – they just have unusual colours. A 'blackbird with a white head' is just that!

    They are still relatively uncommon though and you'd have to look at a lot of normal blackbirds to find one with white, instead of black, feathers. Many examples are beautiful birds that really stand out from the crowd.

    Albinistic male blackbird


    It's no wonder such birds cause people to scratch their heads. If you've ever seen one, you'll know how it makes your heart race at first glance!

    Blackbird. Image by Ray PurserHere's the science…

    Certain birds are quite prone to having unusual plumage, including garden favourites such as blackbirds, starlings and house sparrows.

    If you've seen one of the above with white feathers, it'll have partial albinism – an absence of dark pigment in some of its feathers.

    If you see a bird that looks as if its fallen down a chimney and become covered in soot, the cause is likely to be a condition called melanism. These birds have too much dark pigment in their feathers.

    Standing out

    I was amazed to see two unusually coloured birds on the same road this morning.

    First up, as I walked to the bus stop, was a carrion crow beating its way across a field. Both of its wings were pure white!

    The second stranger caught my eye as I glanced out of the bus window. A 'ghostly vision' was perched up among a group of four collared doves on a television aerial. A closer look showed it was a collared dove like the others, but was a washed out cream colour.

    A bird like this caused quite a discussion on my local birdwatching forum a few years ago. The conclusion was that it had 'schizochroism'. Birds like this lack one of the normal feather colour pigments, making their colours appear slightly odd.

    There's a crow at my local quarry that is called 'Sandy' because he is sandy coloured all over. He's a real head turner and an example of a bird that has a condition called leucism. This is caused by a reduction in all the types of pigment in the feathers.

    A happy ending

    The good news is that these 'oddballs' often survive quite happily alongside their 'normal' cousins. Most lead a relatively normal life. If you have an albino blackbird or starling in your garden, it could be around for years, so enjoy your special visitor!

    Seen something strange?

    Have you seen any strange looking birds in your garden? What species have you seen with albinism? Why not write a comment?
  • Falling into nature

    So our brief summer has been and gone (yes, sorry guys, that was it) and it's edging ever closer to that dreaded page in your diary that says 'British Summer Time Ends'. Great! But it's not all doom and glooLake Vyrwy reserves at dusk, sun settingm...

    Autumn is without a doubt my favourite time of year. Along with the change of season there are so many things to look forward to like the harvest festival, Halloween, bonfire night and of course the run up to Christmas (I know, I know, but it's getting closer as we speak!)

    And everything looks a bit more glamorous and mature this time of year whether it be the colours of this season's fashion, or the array of rusty reds, golden browns or bright yellows of the autumn leaves as they float to the ground. As we pile on more clothes with our snuggly jumpers and comfy boots, the trees will be losing theirs and will soon be stripped bare.

    It always feels cosier this time of year. It's nice to settle down, relax and put your feet up as the nights draw in. The natural world, however, will not be relaxing this season. At first glance, it looks a bit dull outside the kitchen window, but if you look closer you will see a whole display of activity from the minibeasts in your garden to the birds in the sky.

    Nature is making its preparations for the cold winter ahead. Small mammals such as squirrels and hedgehogs hibernate over the winter so they'll be spending the next few months feasting on all the food they can find. This is to fatten themselves up and keep warm in the chilly weather. Wow, don't you wish it was that simple?

    Look up to the sky and you're likely to see that familiar v-shape floating through the clouds. As wildfowl, gulls and waders such as golden plovers and lapwings will join us for the winter, birds like wheatears, redstarts, hobbies, swallows and ospreys will be flying south in search of warmer climates.

    If the food supply is good for garden birds in the autumn they may not visit your garden as they prefer natural food but keep your feeders fresh and stocked up so they know it's there when they return. Make sure your garden full of seeds, nuts a berries and you could spot a jay scouting around for food.

    If you haven't already, sign-up free to Homes for Wildlife which will give you information and advice on how to make your home and garden into a mini nature reserve and become a wonderful place for wildlife. It will also give you some great tips for autumn.

    With the nights drawing in the sunsets are fantastic to see, especially going on your favourite walk with your favourite people. Our nature reserves have some brilliant trails and many of them stay open until dusk so why not take a walk with the family and see if you can spot this seasons natural trends?

    So, I would like to wish you all a very merry autumn, wrap up warm, get out onto our nature reserves and see the best places to enjoy nature.

    • What are your favourite things about autumn? Write a comment (you will need to register first - this is free - then log in).