Here we are, on the threshold of a brand new year, and that means Big Garden Birdwatch is zooming up. Four weeks to go and counting until half a million people all play their part in the biggest bird survey in the world…
I’m sure many of you feed birds throughout the winter and probably year-round – and good on you if that is the case. Nevertheless, now seems a great time to check if you’re ready for the big weekend. After all, it takes time for birds to learn where the best food supplies are, so adding a new meal option the night before Big Garden Birdwatch won’t give time for word to go around.
In fact, as with all gardening for wildlife, I find it helpful to remember that your guests come not because you magically lured them in from afar, but because every day, one or two might pass by accidentally. If they like what they see in your shop window, then they may decide to stick around.
It means that bird feeding is all about building up a clientele; it’s about earning a reputation rather than overnight success. The counts you get on Big Garden Birdwatch depend on what you're doing now.
So, with this in mind, I popped out into my garden to check whether I’ve got some staring gaps on my Menu.
Here is what I'm currently offering:
1) Sunflower hearts. I do like these – it means no sunflower husks scattered everywhere to clear up. Bits do get scattered but underneath my feeders there is always a parade of Blackbirds, Robins, Dunnocks and Wood Pigeons to mop up the oment the spillage lands on the ground, so there's never any left for overnight visitors.
2) Buggy nibbles. As with sunflower hearts, it seems to be the ease with which birdscan hold and swallow these morsels that makes them such a hit, rather than having to stab little bits off a solid fat ball
3) Windfall apples. The Blackbirds do like these, and if it is cold on the Birdwatch weekend, I stand a chance of seeing Fieldfares and a return of my Redwings.
4) Clean water. Many of the birds use the pond, but they still like the birdbath, I suspect because it is elevated and so gives them a good, all-round view.
So what am I missing?
With horror, I realised my peanut feeder was empty (above). Peanuts aren't as popular as they used to be, I find, but the Great Spotted Woodpeckers still like them.
I don't have niger seed for the Goldfinches, as my birds seem perfectly happy with sunflower hearts. But maybe, where you are, niger is still the number one choice for them.
I also realised that I could do with getting some up my apples up off the ground for the Blackcaps, which is a simple matter of impaling them on pointed twigs.
And the one big thing I'm missing is mealworms. They are in the buggy nibbles, but they're not very accessible for my Robins. Note to self: buy a pot of mealworms.
Time for a wash and scrub
The other thing that I realised in doing my pre-Birdwatch Check-up was how much some of my feeders were in need of a clean.
How shocking is this one? I hold my hands up and apologise to every bird in my garden having to eat off the equivalent of a dirty plate.
I suspect I'm like many people in that feeder cleaning doesn't get done as often as it should, but Big Garden Birdwatch is as good a prompt as any. After all, it only takes a bucket of water with a weak solution of disinfectant and about 10 minutes (plus drying time for the feeders) to get them hygienic. (Those special cleaning brushes are indispensible for the task, I find.)
Our Greenfinches and Chaffinches are so struggling with this nasty disease, Trichomonosis, that I owe it to them to keep the feeding area hygienic.
So, 30 minutes later, and bar the arrival of the meaworms, here are my cleaned and filled feeders. Of course, I'll need to top them up before the end of January, but I'm ready for what I hope will be a bumper count on 27-29 January, and I hope you're feeling inspired to be ready, too
Over the past few weeks, I have been spending just a few minutes every week raking up the leaves as they drop.
It's not essential to do it, but if the leaves lie about on the grass, they can create bald patches, and I don't want them clogging the pond when they can get a bit stinky and turn the water brown with their tanins.
So I just pop them in a big collecting bucket and then tip them into my leaf bin.
But I wanted to show you the leaves that I put in last year:
Those of you who make your own leaf mould will know what glorious stuff it is. It doesn't smell, and it feels rather lovely - all flaky and crumbly, and wriggling with worms.
Some books recommend that you use it as a mulch on flower beds, which is fine.
But I think it is too precious for that. It has such a wonderful consistency, and isn't stuffed with nutrients, which makes it perfect when sieved to mix with peat free compost and a bit of sharp sand to make a better-balanced seed and potting compost. What a natural way to sow some seeds of wildlife-friendly plants.
And of course the beauty of making leaf mould is that, once you've tipped those leaves into the bin (or into a large porous builder's sack, or even into a large black binbag spiked with a few holes), that's it. That ball of leaf mould I'm clutching in the photo? I hadn't done a single thing to it since last year; it had made itself. Magic!
I know that Christmas is coming because, this week, my garden has been playing host to some birds that come from Santa's homeland. (I know there's some dispute about where Santa lives, but as far as I'm concerned it is northern Scandinavia).
They arrived on a grizzly dark winter's day, perching up high in my myrtle tree. I wouldn't normally post rubbish photos, but the reality is that this is how we often see birds in winter, half silhouetted in the murk. But even so, you can probably make out their big pale eyebrow and strongly streaked breast.
Many of you will already have spotted that they are Redwings,and I admit to having an incredibly soft spot for them, these slender, rather nervous wanderers from Iceland, Scandinavia and Siberia.
They can appear rather misnamed - they look like they should be called the 'Redside', but the red, as well as being along the flanks, also extends across the front half of the underwing.
The dark feathers are a deeper chocolate colour than Song Thrush, and the breast streaking is also bolder on a paler ground colour. They really are rather handsome.
And what gives an excellent extra clue are their calls: they give a drawn-out, thin 'tseeeee', and a soft 'huc....huc'.
In my garden, they have been eagerly stripping a large Holly tree of berries, but today a few came down to the grass, and even headed to bathe in the pond.
With the forecast for cold weather and wintry showers for several days and maybe for the next few weeks, I'm predicting more and more of these, and their cousins the Fieldfare, will descend on gardens looking for berries and fruit. The Redwings in my garden may be ignoring the windfall apples I've put out on the lawn at the moment, but I think they'll be ever so glad of them soon.