A nice bowl of country vegetable soup was perfect accompaniment to another year's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch count. So my Blackcap didn't show, but I was pleased with 12 species, and particularly with a Song Thrush and six House Sparrows. The interesting thing will be will to see if my encouraging results are reflected in the county and national results when they come out.
With so many people inputting their records online these days, the data experts at RSPB HQ who analyse the results can turn around the results in just a few weeks, which is excellent. Here's is your link to fill in your results.
With the skies blue this afternoon (although the wind keen), I put in an hour's walk from the house into the lanes on the edge of the downs. Lords and Ladies (Cuckoo Pint) were unfurling in the hedgebanks and a Fox lazed in the sunshine on a south-facing bank (left), but what caught my wildlife gardening eye most was the antics of some Blackbirds in my tiny local park.
Now I only get one or two Blackbirds in my garden, and they make a bee-line for the spillage under the feeders. And yet here in the park, just over the back fence from a line of back gardens, were at least eight Blackbirds within a few feet of each other, acting much more naturally (right).
It was fantastic to watch them in action. They were in the thick of the leaf litter, flicking the leaves aside to find what might be lurking underneath. This was no gentle probing and poking, but a real whip-crack toss of the head to uncover little surprises. Here clearly was a wonderful food supply, probably full of creepy-crawly nutrients.
It reminded me that although supplementary feeding at our bird tables is really valuable - and I would never denounce it (at least when done hygienically) - we also need to look to nature for our wildlife gardening inspiration to the home-grown foods that creatures seek out. A sight like 'my' Blackbirds today makes you groan for the loss of all those leaves that are sucked up like litter each autumn by those energy-guzzling garden 'vacuum cleaners', when if they were spread into shrubberies and borders they might provide feeding grounds for legions of Blackbirds through the winter, and natural compost too.
I'm sure I don't need to tell any of you that this weekend is the biggie - half a million of you counting the birds in your gardens and giving us a brilliant snapshot of what hot and what's not this year. Will the Starling continue its seemingly inexorable demise? Will December's cold mean more birds regularly using gardens than normally? It will be fascinating to find out.
If you're still unsure exactly what to do or how to input your results online, everything you need is here. See it as your most productive hour of legitimate idleness this year.
I've got very high hopes for my garden. I've been recording the birds every week in the garden for over 10 years now as part of my data gathering to learn first-hand what works and what doesn't, and last week set a NEW RECORD. I recorded 18 different species in the seven days. I quickly remind everyone that I have but a tiny garden in suburbia, so imagine my delight!
My previous record was 17 species, in early January 2009. And I have previously had two weeks with 16 species. So as you can imagine it felt like my garden was heaving.
The highlights were seven Long-tailed Tits darting around the feeding station and a Goldcrest coming down to fat balls on two separate days.
And these - both a male and a female Blackcap coming regularly to the fatballs .
Now normally I pride myself that all photos on this blog are mine. But in the gloom this week, even a record shot of these neatly coiffured warblers wasn't possible. So please excuse me raiding the RSPB's illustrations to bring you a flavour of what has been an exciting 'practice run' for the big count ahead.
I'm typing rather gingerly today. I had the rare treat of a spare weekend, so I was able to spend almost all of it in the garden (hoorah!), but I have the pulled muscles to show for it. Gardening is such brilliant exercise, but ever so painful occasionally!
One of the benefits of such quality time in the garden is the chance to see and hear everything, such as spotting the first tiny points of the Wild Daffodils poking up through the grass, or being 'serenaded' by an over-enthusiastic band of Starlings trying out their spring voices (keep practicing, lads).
Unfortunately, it was also time to take stock of the winter losses. Geoff Wakeling's reply to a recent blog talked about the loss of his beloved Echium; I lost both of mine too. They were Echium pininana from the Canaries, which had grown well last season to be 18 inches or so high and thick in the stem. This year was to be their time, when they would rocket skywards into the biggest plant-pyramid of a million blue flowers and hopefully the same number of bees too. But their crowns were so frosted as to have turned to yucky mush (left).
In a normal winter, I would expect it to survive here on the south coast. But no such luck this time - their fate was the compost heap.
It was very sad too to find a dead male Blackbird under the shrubbery at the front. I couldn't work out the cause of death, but then there are so many possibilities. It is easy to imagine that predators, cars, glass windows and starvation are their only enemies, but they can contract a wide range of viruses and bacterial diseases too.
As I always say, it is a jungle out there beyond our front doors, where survival is a daily challenge. Even small ailments make creatures extremely vulnerable. And that's why nature has equipped most species to churn out loads of youngsters during the rich times of spring and summer to give just a few the chance to see it through to the next season to start again.
Interestingly, I have only recorded one male and one female Blackbird at any one time in the garden for over eight weeks now, so it was encouraging to see that a very-much-alive male and female were still visiting my bird table today. Had a new male quickly moved in? Was the dead male a newcomer himself? Or have two males been around but never on view at the same time? The latter is probably most likely, for ringing studies have shown that usually our gardens are visited by far more birds than we realise.
I guess the good news is that I still have a pair (at the very least) as we head towards spring. It's just a shame that they won't have my Echiums to admire.
PS Watch out for Geoff Wakeling appearing soon on Sky's new Horticultural Channel, which opens on 11 March. I'll remind everyone nearer the time, but it's great to know that we will have someone wildlife-friendly presenting :-)