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A monthly commentary on birds in and around The Farleighs.


I have lived in East Farleigh for more than thirty years. As well as witnessing the steep country-wide decline in bird life over that period, I've become closely involved in monitoring the changes and in finding ways to conserve what we still have.


And there are good things happening too, so I hope this contribution presents a mixture of what makes the study of birds so interesting, especially of those still seen around The Farleighs.


Ray Morris


Latest Posts

Starlings sense of smell

Posted on 31st May, 2024

My dog’s got no nose!

Really? How does it smell? I’m sure you know the punchline...


But Mozart, who kept a pet starling that scholars claim may have influenced some of his compositions, could have substituted ‘my starling’ in the joke. He kept one as a pet after buying it from a shop when he heard it singing – note perfect apparently - one of his compositions and made use of the bird’s remarkable vocal output to inspire some of his work. Given so close an interest in the bird, he would no doubt have revelled in what we now know about starlings’ vocal agility and, also, their noses. It’s the olfactory part of the brain that’s the key, of course, not a large appendage on the face.


By the time you read this, your gardens and bird feeders may well be overwhelmed by crowds of raucously begging fledgling starlings. My apparently bizarre musings are not unconnected! They were prompted when I saw two adult starlings plucking bits of leaf from a trough of wildflowers outside my kitchen window. It’s been known for a long time that starlings (and some other hole nesters) select certain scented plants to add to their nests. The assumption was that their nests need all the help the adults can provide to keep them sweet-smelling; five starling youngsters leave quite an unsanitary mess behind them.

But is it the sweeter smell of the herbs that drives this behaviour? Without a nose as such, nobody could conclusively claim until now that starlings (or any bird) got information by sniffing. But modern techniques (MRI scanning for example) have identified and can 'read’ the olfactory centre of the brain, demonstrating that starlings can indeed smell. It seems, though, this only occurs during the breeding season, so this temporary capacity to smell must have evolved to benefit reproduction – hence all those starlings clamouring for food on your lawn. It was no surprise, therefore, when it was found that volatile substances in the plants the birds select may have anti-microbial properties that help reduce pathogens likely to damage the chicks.

Studies have shown that young starlings raised in nests containing the additional scented herbs carry fewer bacteria and have a higher fledging weight than those reared in nests without them. The incubation temperature is also higher in those nests too. It has also been suggested that the scented plants don’t reduce the number of fleas and mites etc. that parasitise the nest, rather, they stimulate the chicks’ immune system, so they are better protected. So, do the sweet-smelling deodorants and wipes we humans spend a small fortune on work better because they smell nice? No doubt the manufacturers would like us to think so.

Not surprisingly, a herb frequently selected by starlings is yarrow - Achillea millefolium - so named because Achilles is said to have used it to heal wounded soldiers. It’s unlikely to be coincidence, therefore, that this plant has a long history of use in folklore cures for various ailments.


A smart male starling. But is he smart enough to offer the right herb?

What scientists have also observed is that the female starling may make choices depending on the scented plant on offer by the male. Were the two starlings I watched in my garden a male selecting a plant and offering it to a female for scrutiny? Unfortunately, it happened so quickly I couldn’t tell. But we do know female birds, just like humans, make mate choices based on how they think a male may be able to care for her and help raise healthy offspring.

A final thought then for any young Farleigh male planning to woo a fair Farleigh female: if the box of Milk Tray doesn’t work, you could try a bottle of Harpic – it’s available in four plant-scented varieties.


Ray Morris


Starlings can smell

Posted on 31st May, 2024

Enter the Mistle Thrush!

Posted on 4th March, 2024

It’s perfectly normal at this time of year for my thought processes to assume a mental clarity akin to the picture of this, er, ... well, you know, ... bird (I think). 


The kinder readers among you will say it’s not a symptom of the passing years, more a question of me having so much knowledge stored in my brain, that it just takes longer to find the precise bit of information I need. 


My confusion is usually brought on by a snatch of familiar birdsong, but one that I last heard and identified nearly a year ago and has since been mixed in with the thousands of other snippets of information casually stored away but not labelled clearly enough for instant retrieval. A few moments head scratching, though, usually does the trick.





March is the time of year when our resident birds get into full swing with their singing. As most trees and shrubs have yet to acquire their full complement of leaves, it’s usually quite straightforward to spot the bird doing the singing and identify it by sight if we haven’t already recognised the song. Doing so from a high perch helps make the male more conspicuous to rivals and potential mates of course but does have the drawback of making him more obvious to the local sparrowhawk too. Nature’s way, I suppose, of ensuring birds don’t go grow old enough to experience some of the difficulties I have. 


The level of challenge increases once our summer migrants return. Many are typical little brown jobs (LBJs) with barely more than a subtly different shade of brown to distinguish them from each other – always assuming, of course, I can see them amongst the foliage. Field guides just add to my confusion when they describe closely related species as one being greyish-brown while t’other is brownish-grey. Suggestions for identifying calls and songs may offer more assistance depending on the species. Song and mistle thrushes look superficially similar but can be told apart by their songs: the song thrush helpfully repeats each phrase several times, while the mistle thrush doesn't and sounds to me as though it’s slightly sad and singing in a minor key. Its habit of singing from the very top of a tree into the teeth of a gale early in the year (hence its country name Stormcock) helps of course.  


Modern technology is on hand to assist though, whether you are a forgetful oldie or someone new to birdsong. I make good use of a free, downloadable app called Merlin Bird ID to identify the more obscure calls and songs, as well as the common ones I’ve simply just forgotten. Having it on your phone is a good way to get to know which species are using your garden. If you are burdened with a daily train commute, try it while you’re waiting on the platform first thing in the morning - I can guarantee a far more uplifting experience than listening to the news! 

In case you’re wondering, here is another pic of our bathing bird, identifiable now as a thrush. But which one - song or mistle? 



Photo: Darren Nicholls 


It’s the one the ID guide will tell you has heart-shaped spots, is greyish brown (especially its head), is the larger of the two and often sings from an exposed treetop in windy weather. Oh, and it sounds to me like it’s singing in a minor key! 


Ray Morris 

A tale of two Swifts

Posted on 18th May, 2023

They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, (Swifts by Ted Hughes 1976)




Imagine summer evenings without swifts. At the current rate of decline (sixty percent of swifts lost between 1995 and 20201) we could soon be experiencing swift-less evenings first hand. Why? Loss of nesting sites, as old buildings are refurbished, and new estates of seemingly hole-free houses are eating up the countryside is one main reason. Why is it developers that bestow countrified names like ‘Meadowlands’ or ‘The Orchard Quarter’ on their new estates (it adds a few grand more to the selling price than ‘Motorway View’ I suppose) are too mean to add a swift nestbox brick or two (a few pounds each) to every house?


The second is loss of flying insects (also sixty percent lost in just twenty years2). The relentless increase in intensive agriculture continues to add more and more insecticides and herbicides to the environment to kill both insects and the plants they depend on. I’m not criticising farmers – we are all to blame for demanding endless cheap(!?) food, of which we then throw away an estimated forty percent.3


A recent visit to a large local garden centre also offered a clue to why our gardens are swiftly (how ironic is that) becoming no-go zones for wildlife. I was relieved to find they were selling real turf and not plastic grass, but in thirty minutes on a warm, sunny May day in the Garden of England, next door to a small woodland, and surrounded by rack-upon-rack of brightly-coloured flowering plants and shrubs, I saw just one insect – an orange-tip butterfly. Was the explanation to be found in the shelf-upon-shelf of chemical pest and weed killers that we are constantly told are essential to a beautiful garden? Big profits for big chemical companies; even bigger losses for our environment.


Strangely, my relationship with The Farleighs’ swifts, and their confirmation that the globe is still working, is now regulated by the annual phone call Sheila makes to me from East Farleigh’s church to say they’re back - inside it! This year’s call came on 10th May to say one was flying around the vestry – not the nave where she usually finds one. Our efforts to trap and release it were unfortunately thwarted when it disappeared in a gap behind the coving between the ceiling and wall. It had scrambled down a cavity out of sight, and certainly out of reach.


A few days later came the call I was dreading – Sheila had found the vestry swift dead on the floor. Having emerged from its bolt hole it had obviously continued its endless circling of the room and, as it was found to be thirty percent lighter than a normal bird, had probably succumbed to starvation.




But there was now a second bird circling the nave.


Several years of practice means we now net these birds in flight quite easily. They are examined – both these birds were females attempting to nest – measured and weighed, and then a ring is added to one of their tiny legs with a unique ID, to trace their origin should they be retrapped. Our live bird was close to the average weight so hadn’t been trapped for long. As swifts spend their first four years of life on the wing before attempting to breed, it’s likely our two birds were at least that old, so we can only guess how many hundreds of thousands of non-stop miles they had flown before entering the church roof via a gap in the tiles, and then a gap in the ceiling into the inside. Having been declared fit and healthy, our lucky intruder was taken outside and returned to the sky.



Farleigh swifts are lucky in that four nest boxes have been put high up on the external wall of the church (but not adopted yet) and they can still take advantage of holes in the ancient fabric for nesting. What they still face, though, is the seemingly relentless – but entirely preventable – decline of flying insects.


So, why not do your bit? Bin the chemical control and start to enjoy the wildlife in your garden while it’s still there. Ted Hughes could have finished his poem by pointing out that if no swifts means the globe has stopped working, it will mean no people too.


Ray Morris

1  Swift | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology

2 UK's flying insects have declined by 60% in 20 years | Natural History Museum (nhm.ac.uk)

3 Food waste trends survey 2021 | WRAP

"Bird Brain!"

Posted on 15th November, 2022

An expression commonly used as a sneering insult. Incorrectly however, because, despite knowing the answers to everything, we ‘highly intelligent’ humans are only just beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to what animals instinctively know and can do.


This is a time of year when ornithologists are most reminded of this. What prompted me to reflect on it was the sighting locally of a Ring Ouzel this last week in October. No, it isn’t an imaginary creature from Winnie the Pooh it’s a bird also called the Mountain Blackbird

because it looks pretty much like our garden visitor and is very closely related to it, it being one of the six thrush species native to the UK. It was seen within a few hundred metres of the other five species: blackbird, song thrush and mistle thrush, plus redwing and fieldfare. The latter two species are only here in the winter (they breed across Scandinavia) and the ring ouzel is only here in the summer, spending its winter months in North Africa’s Atlas Mountains.


The puzzle is not so much why birds migrate around the globe twice a year: they do it because their summer location provides a better chance of having young that will survive and pass on their genes i.e. they reproduce where there is enough food available and enough daylight for them to catch it and feed it to their offspring. But how do they know when, where and how to get there? Length of day tells them when. How are the positions of the sun and stars in the sky and the earth’s magnetic field? Simple. Or perhaps not quite so simple, as birds are now thought to use quantum particles, which the Robin, for example, does with its right eye (not, note, with its left). I’ll stop here because much of this science is beyond most of the human population’s understanding – certainly mine!


But for the next few months you will certainly see the impact of this when you’re walking around the local farmland and orchards, and even in your garden if you are lucky. The fieldfares and redwings have all managed to fly here from northern Europe – usually at night, using senses that we don’t possess or even understand!


Just enjoy them while you can, but bear in mind that, although we share the same planet, we live in different worlds.






Rifling Raspberries

Posted on 15th November, 2022

As a birdwatcher, one of the most frequently asked questions directed at me at this time of the year is “Where have all the birds gone? My garden’s empty!”. The standard response is always twofold: there is plenty of food for birds in the wider countryside, so they aren’t so dependent on gardens, and many of them are moulting all their feathers so they make themselves scarce – and safe from sparrowhawks – by skulking out of sight in the shrubbery.


Just to prove the accuracy of my wise words, data from more than 22,000 garden birdwatchers who participate in the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) Garden Birdwatch survey for one of our commonest garden birds, the blackbird, is shown in this graph.




As I’m writing this in the middle of September, it appears this year’s sightings have been consistently below the average for the previous twenty-six years. This could be explained by two things. The most obvious reason this year is the extreme heat we’ve experienced which has baked the ground and made it harder for blackbirds to find the worms they need to feed their young, so many fewer chicks survived.


Could the second reason be that gardens are becoming less nature-friendly? There are many reasons this might be the case: understandably, the average size is possibly getting smaller to accommodate more new houses per hectare and more front gardens are disappearing under concrete for cars. Another could be the perverse proliferation of plastic lawns. Why move to the country and cover your tiny part of it with plastic, then be persuaded to pay a small fortune for chemicals to clean it of dog, cat and fox (but sadly not many bird) droppings?


Back to blackbirds. The graph suggests I might have just one in my garden. But I am regularly counting four or five, some mornings. Again, the explanation for this could be twofold. The heat that probably contributed to fewer chicks fledging also ripened wild berries earlier – there certainly appear fewer than usual about in my neck of the woods. And, if they do need to turn to my garden for an easy meal, they have my crop of autumn-fruiting raspberries awaiting them. All the hard work carting bowls of dirty washing-up water out to the vegetable garden paid a handsome dividend in tomatoes, courgettes, and French beans – and now in raspberries. And in their egalitarian world the blackbirds are making off with their share!


I should be pleased. And yet? I know. I’ll put in plastic raspberries.



It was a devil to catch

Posted on 15th November, 2022

So I told my wife on arriving home at 7pm. Earlier, on my way home from a ringing session (that had started at 4am), I had received a call to rescue, what seems now to be, the annual swift trapped in East Farleigh church! Previously, it’s been quickly done and dusted with a net held aloft in the nave.


On this occasion, however, the bird stubbornly remained within a few feet of the nave ceiling throughout. After a break for lunch and a much needed shower from 4 to 5pm - half time score: Morris 0 - Swift 3 (times in the net and escaped) - the combination of the bird’s inexperience and Gary’s practised use of gaffer tape to extend the net poles resolved the stand-off at just after 6pm.


This year’s bird was newly fledged, probably hatched in the roof of the church itself. It was duly measured, weighed and fitted with a numbered ring so it can be registered on an international swift database and digitally preserved for posterity.


As swifts have never been accused of being harmful in any way to humans, their old name of Devil Bird seems inappropriate, especially for species so closely associated with churches. Perhaps devil was used in the sense of an impish child refusing to behave? This one certainly was a little devil - evading three humans trying to catch it! The third was Sheila, who cleans the church. Was it devilish behaviour when the bird let loose a well-aimed dropping at her from the rafters? The fact it missed her by a whisker must surely have been Divine intervention!


We have long celebrated the sheer enjoyment of their summer presence and marvelled at their aerial displays. Their breath-taking acrobatic manoeuvres above the hayfields were aptly described by poet Edward Thomas: ‘As if the bow had flown off with the arrow’.

Most of us still experience a spiritual uplift at the sight of soaring swifts - something we three weary swift-rescuers remarked upon as we stood in the graveyard and watched this thirty-five-gram scrap of life take off to spend its life flying (almost) totally non-stop between East Farleigh and Southern Africa!


One can understand how those who worship in this church might link the departure of a loved one with the swift rising to the heavens. The much-needed comfort of religious – or simply human – spirit to be found in nature, perhaps?


The Noisy Garden

Posted on 15th November, 2022

As I write this, sitting in a Marden garden at seven on a warm, sunny morning, I’m struck by two things: the noise of commuting traffic on nearby Howland Road and the birdsong competing with it.


There are now plenty of studies that show that birds either sing more loudly, or raise the pitch of their song, to make themselves heard in an increasingly noisy world. The increase is due mainly to the ever-present background sound of rubber on tarmac, and engine noise.


There is a tiny hope, I suppose, that the gradual change to electric power will eventually make a difference, but I'm not holding my breath. Perhaps it’s my modern hearing aids are so effective at amplifying all the surrounding sound that it’s difficult to discriminate between the birds and the traffic.


But I’m actually impressed with the number of species I can hear – twenty-five and counting. No doubt there are one or two more whose song is too high-pitched for a man whose ears are past their prime!


The most noticeable are two of our most hard to see species - wren and blackcap. It's no coincidence, perhaps, that they feel the need to advertise their presence at top volume, often from a high point in the garden to make themselves even more noticeable to females or rival males. But they adopt that tactic at their peril. The most effective garden predator (apart from the owner’s moggie) is the sparrowhawk – that generally only advertises its presence by the pile of plucked feathers left on the lawn.


It’s fair to say that, for me, the garden wouldn't be the same without the blackbird, song thrush, robin and dunnock, our resident songsters. Their normally loud song adds a degree of challenge if I am trying to isolate the calls of other species, but that just adds to the fun and helps to stop me focussing on the ever-present scourge of traffic noise – oh, and a passing rush-hour train on a rail strike day!


In fact, at times like this I’m more of a bird listener than a bird watcher.



Turtle Dove Update - they're here again

Posted on 15th November, 2022

As Ted Hughes wrote about the return of the swift

‘They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working,’


I wrote last month about an ambitious project by Kent Wildlife Trust scientist Dr Kirsty Swinnerton, and Marden Wildlife enthusiasts to track the movements and breeding success of Turtle Doves in this part of Kent. Just to remind you, the species is classed as Globally Threatened by the International Union for the Convention of Nature (IUCN), and Kent holds most of the UK’s breeding population. So that we can tell individual birds apart – they look identical – to get an accurate number of breeding pairs, and to follow their movements to find out how they utilise their breeding territory, we need to be able to ring them.


It's an extremely secretive, small dove, whose presence is usually only given away by its gentle purring song from a tall, thick, thorny hedgerow. It must come down to the ground (often in gardens below a bird feeder) to feed on tiny seeds and to drink. This is when they can be carefully trapped, measured (to age and sex them), and ringed with a uniquely numbered metal ring and coloured plastic ones for easy future identification. We are also taking samples of their droppings for laboratory analysis for disease, and any dropped feathers that will be analysed for heavy metals in the environment.


Because they are so wary, the first dove we trapped required an eight-hour wait by a ringer sitting in a camouflaged car – not the most comfortable activity on the hottest day so far this year!


The next challenge is to record sightings of this bird, although conventional wisdom tells us it won’t be seen far from its breeding territory in Marden until it starts its migration journey to sub-Saharan Africa in September.


Our scientists would love to find other Turtle Doves in The Farleighs area. So, if you hear one purring, see one in a field, or are lucky enough to have one visiting your garden PLEASE LET US KNOW. You can do this by email: turtledove@kentwildlife.org.uk or mardenwildlife@gmail.com

Just let us know where you saw it/them – a postcode will be helpful (or drop a pin on Google Maps) – and it can be added to our database to further this important work.

Seeing the real thing in the summer has to be better than just singing about it at Christmas!



Turning Turtle

Posted on 15th November, 2022

A report just published of a study, carried out by ecologists, states that our protected National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (28% of our ‘green and pleasant land’) are failing to protect the natural world, with only 5% of it effectively managed for wildlife. Farmland, on the other hand, which accounts for 70% of countryside, is generally considered to be wildlife-poor too as a result of post-war intensive, industrial agriculture.

Warning: this is NOT a criticism of farmers, but a reflection of our desire for cheap food and big profits for industrial food producers – we are all responsible.


But, as usual, not all is as straightforward as it seems. Some farmers have always managed their land with an eye for nature, and many more are now taking huge strides in making sure that wildlife retains its place on their land before it is too late. But it’s a huge challenge.

Which is why local farmers, particularly in this part of Kent, are joining the call to save the Turtle Dove – a diminutive dove (our only one that migrates in the winter to West Africa) with soothing turr-turr call. Once common, it has now declined by 95% in just a few years – habitat change on its wintering grounds, hunting in the Mediterranean and the almost total loss of agricultural weeds across Europe being the cause.


Dr Kirsty Swinnerton, a scientist with Kent Wildlife Trust, is working with the RSPB, local farmers, Lincoln University and Marden Wildlife (a local group of knowledgeable enthusiasts) to study the birds’ behaviour in this part of the Low Weald – a Kent stronghold for the species. Although breeding doves were identified in a reassuring number of territories last year, we know there must be more right across this part of the Garden of England – and they are very happy to feed in gardens!


So, if one of these pretty, tortoise-shell-coloured doves appears in your garden or is purring in a nearby copse (they love untidy, thorny hedges and scrubby bits of woodland) please let us know at mardenwildife@gmail.com. Part of the study will be to put coloured leg rings on the birds so they can be individually identified as they move around the area so look out for those especially. Any photographs (whatever the quality) of a dove in your garden will be especially valuable.You can find out more about these delightful birds and hear their call at RSPB Turtle Dove


With the help of people around the Farleighs and the Low Weald, we’ll have more chance of reversing this bird’s fortunes.