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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

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A day out with art, music, moths and birds

Posted on 15th September, 2019

I occasionally mention the work I do with birds at Mill Farm in Marden in this blog. Now is the chance for anyone interested to learn more about it at a two-day Art in the Garden event in the beautiful grounds of the old (medieval) Mill Farm House this coming weekend.

 

Twenty-five artists will be displaying their work. There will be live music, local beers, gin and cider, cakes and refreshments, as well as a farm shop for fresh local foods. The RSPB will have a stand showing their work for the Turtle Dove Project in Kent, and the Big Cat Sanctuary will be there - but without the cats! There will also be information about the conservation work being carried out by yours truly and a group of volunteers, and we will be running a live moth trap, identifying moths trapped overnight on the farm. So come along on Saturday or Sunday and have your eyes opened by these beautiful creatures that are as vital for pollination as the bees. And by the fantastic art of course!

 

Proceeds from the two days will all go to charity.

 

When does a dove become a pigeon?

Posted on 31st August, 2019

Usually when it becomes a pest; there is no scientific difference. If we like it, or it has positive connotations, we call it a dove. Doves are symbolic of good things in many religions – in Christianity it is a symbol of the Holy Spirit. The turtle dove is a symbol of love, to be given to one’s heart-throb on the second day of Christmas, and we persist in releasing Doves of Peace (or are they just white pigeons?) on special occasions or to commemorate the dead. Mediaeval manor houses had dovecotes in which they reared pigeons to provide fresh meat in the winter – a good thing before the days of the freezer, hence they were called doves. Most UK doves/pigeons will lay successive clutches of two eggs throughout the year, so our ancestors could fetch fresh squabs from the dovecote for a warming winter casserole.

 

An increasingly frequent visitor to our gardens is the woodpigeon, once called the ring dove until it became an agricultural pest after country people stopped catching them for the pot. Their numbers have gone up dramatically so that they are the fifth most-likely species to visit gardens according to the RSPB. I have a regular pair, plus their frequent offspring, in mine. 


The collared dove is another frequent (and, because of its repetitive call, some find irritating) visitor. As it is a relatively recent arrival in the UK (the early 1950s) and was much sought-after by birders it is still called a dove.


The feral, or town, pigeon (descended from the now scarce rock dove) needs no introduction. Unfortunately they are easily, and usually are, confused with the stock dove.

 

 



Stock doves are common in rural areas – I have a pair nesting in my garden – and they usually reveal their presence with a soft, deep “coo-roo”. Unlike their town cousins they don’t foul buildings as they nest in holes in trees (tree trunks were referred to as stocks in days gone by, hence the name). Although superficially similar to ‘town pigeons’, stock doves all resemble each other: a largely uniform soft grey back, pinkish underside, an iridescent patch on its neck and a black eye. It has a single pair of black, ‘wonky’ quotation marks (‘ ‘) towards the back of its closed wing. Like all their relatives, they feed their young on ‘pigeon milk’ secreted from glands in their throat until the young birds are able to cope with solid food.

 

Stock doves are on the amber list of conservation concern, but I’ve no doubt many are mistakenly killed by shooters targeting woodpigeons and feral pigeons; perhaps shotgun licences should only be granted to people who can tell the difference? Meanwhile, if you are lucky enough to have them in your garden, marvel in the symmetry of their mainly monochrome plumage, and admire their gentle, peaceful demeanour.

A Swift Exit

Posted on 30th July, 2019

For us, August is holiday time – the height of summer. But for many birds, it marks the beginning of autumn, or at least the start of their migration season. By the time you read this, cuckoos we heard in village orchards this year be well on their way back to central Africa. ‘Our’ cuckoos actually spend less than half the year with us. As I write, on July 30th, of the twelve cuckoos currently with satellite-tags fitted by British Trust for Ornithology scientists, seven are already in the Mediterranean area of France or Spain – one having crossed to Africa then returned to Spain – an eighth has taken a more easterly route via Italy and is now on the northern edge of the Sahara, while three are just completing their desert crossing! The twelfth cuckoo, ringed in Sherwood Forest in May 2018, was sadly found dead on July 3rd near Dungeness. It had apparently hit a window. Yet another man-made hazard that birds have to face.

 

 

Swifts are another species we associate with summer as they screech through the skies above us. They, too, leave us at the beginning of August, to winter soaring above tropical Africa and the Atlantic Ocean. Incidentally, if you are lucky enough to see telephone wires with rows and rows of birds on them, you’ll be looking at swallows and martins, as swifts are unable to perch. They spend their entire life aloft, only landing to lay eggs and raise young. Even then, the most they can do is cling to rough surfaces. They have impossibly short legs that won’t support their body, so in their nest cavity they have to lever themselves about with their wings.

 

Churchwarden George Moore came across a swift in East Farleigh church one evening recently. At first glance it looked like a starling, so he assumed it would exit the way it came in. When it was still there next morning he realised his mistake! We tried tempting it through the open door with a recording of swift calls, but eventually had to use a net to trap it (without harming it of course). What a privilege to have a swift in my hand - probably the closest this bird will ever come to any human. A brief examination suggested it was a young bird, but they are difficult to age and sex, even in the hand - and especially if it is your first encounter with the species. It was quickly measured, weighed and fitted with a uniquely numbered ring, and we sent it on its way, thinking that was that.

 

 

But it wasn’t.... Two weeks later the same bird was back in the church! So we think it must have a nest cavity somewhere in the fabric, with a rear exit into the interior. The performance was repeated, but by now I had consulted someone with a lot of experience of the species so, with the help of photographs and wing measurements, we concluded it was probably and adult bird. It was duly sent on its way again and by now it may already be above southern Europe or even the Sahara Desert. Swifts return to their natal area to breed so hopefully it will make the perilous journey to the tropics and back safely.

 

 

 

 

 

But it will struggle. I’ve seen just six swifts above my garden this summer, nothing compared to the hundred-plus flocks of not too many years ago. Do tell me if you know of them nesting in a building in the village. Lack of insects and, even more serious, lack of nest sites are problems for them. They nest almost exclusively in buildings – but access to nest cavities under the eaves are increasingly blocked. All is not lost though - many enlightened owners of tall buildings now install swift nest boxes, and plans are now in hand for boxes to be erected around East Farleigh church, as they are on many others across Europe. Perhaps our summer evenings may yet again ring to the joyous screaming of this incredible bird.

 

If you'd like to learn more, Edward Mayer of Swift Conservation, will be talking about these fascinating birds in Goudhurst on the 18th September.

 

The bird with the Coat of Many Colours

Posted on 12th July, 2019

 

Or Joe Starling, as I call him, wearing his ‘Technicolour Dreamcoat’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                                

In winter, Eastern European hordes (Joe Stalins?) swell our native population to create the magnificent murmurations captured on mobile phones across the country. But at this time of the year our garden feeders and lawns are filled with their noisy, squabbling offspring.

 

Not everyone though recognises the dull, uniformly brown youngsters as being the same species as the iridescent bluey-green, multicoloured-and-spotted adults. On the juvenile starling below, you can just make out the first adult feathers appearing on its back as it starts its moult. This process, in which it will shed every feather on its body and grow new, adult ones will take about a month. In the second picture, the young bird is close to finishing its transformation into adult plumage. The new set of feathers will be kept for a whole year, until after the bird has bred for the first time. Then, the old, worn feathers will be moulted yet again and replaced with a new set.

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                Like its Biblical namesake, Joe is resented by some because he attracts all the attention as he hogs the best food on the bird table, or a swarm of them overwhelms the blackbirds and thrushes probing the grass in fields or on hitherto quiet garden lawns.

But starlings don’t have it all their own way. Sparrowhawks are desperately hunting small birds to feed their own youngsters, and these birds are a favourite prey; not only are starlings a good sized catch for a male sparrowhawk (the larger females are busy brooding their own youngsters in the nest) they are often so busy squabbling they don’t spot the stealthy hunter until it’s too late to escape.

Like most other birds too, starlings have suffered from our regime of sanitising our gardens and countryside. Their insect prey is being sprayed out of existence, and war is waged on the leatherjackets (the larvae of daddy-longlegs, which starlings have evolved to depend on) by gardeners looking for the perfect lawn. Leatherjackets feed on the roots of grasses, making it difficult for us to achieve the impossibly uniform lawns promoted by garden chemical manufacturers. The Lord is certainly quoted as saying “Go forth and multiply” - hence all the starlings at this time of the year - but I’ve yet to find a reference to  “Go forth and spray”. Enjoy their clownish antics while you still can.

They’re out!  Erected a little too late in the year, we were lucky to attract a pair of blue tits so quickly to one of the boxes. On 24th April the female was incubating a clutch of eleven eggs. By 20th May, the brood of youngsters had been whittled down to five. Of that five, four were growing well, but the fifth was markedly smaller that its nest-mates. That’s not good news if there is a shortage of food, because its siblings will beg more vigorously for what is available and, as the weakest one, it will lose out. This is probably what happened to the other six chicks, assuming all eleven eggs hatched. It’s likely they didn’t beg hard enough for the caterpillars being brought and just starved. If they die at an early stage the adults simply remove the bodies.

 

I made my final check today (2nd June) and found that four of the five have fledged, but the fifth chick – the one that was much smaller – had not survived. As I feared, it was probably unable to beg vigorously enough to attract the adults’ attention, and starved as a result. I extracted the nest from the box – blue tits only have one brood, so it’s better to remove the nest and, importantly, the parasites it will contain, so next year a pair can start afresh. The nest was about 20cm deep but a search of the soft layers didn’t reveal any un-hatched eggs, so it is likely that the full clutch of eleven eggs hatched.

 

 


 

It’s mixed news then. Although not perfect, the weather hasn’t been particularly cold and wet – so it’s not that that has reduced their normal productivity. What, then, in a still-rural village, can have caused it? The answer is quite simple – lack of insects. They just aren’t around anymore in the numbers they used to be; numbers sufficient to require drivers having to scrape a layer of dead insects off their windscreen after a couple of hours driving in the summer!

 

It’s been calculated that a pair of insect-eating birds (spotted flycatchers), in order to feed themselves and raise two broods of five chicks between May and September, requires fifty-five thousand insects. When I moved to East Farleigh thirty-five years ago we always enjoyed watching several pairs of these summer visitors in our garden, but we haven’t seen one for nearly ten years, so steeply have they declined.

 

So the drive to make the village a riot of colour with flowers will not only improve life for us humans, but the insects the flowers will attract and sustain will actually make life possible for lots of small birds and a host of other animals. So keep planting – but also resist cutting down the wild flowers too quickly (the ones we usually call weeds). When I stopped to look at the verge on Lower Road it was a riot of cow parsley, buttercups and speedwell, as well as many magnificent flowering grasses. The dandelions had finished flowering, having provided nectar for early bees, and had huge ‘clocks’ – seed heads full of food for seed-eating birds like goldfinches.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just what they need until the sunflowers being planted in village gardens, like the one below, ripen and provide winter food for them.

 

 

And all because the lady loves ....

Posted on 1st May, 2019

... a juicy worm. (With apologies to the Cadbury’s Milk Tray Man)

 

This month, as female birds lay and incubate their clutch of anything up to fourteen eggs (a blue tit, for example) the males help by providing additional food to ensure their mates have sufficient nutrition for the task. If you see a robin carry food away from the birdtable this could be to feed his mate or to feed their young - young robins have already been seen locally and at least one pair in my garden already has chicks to feed. Male blue tits have to provide the female with miniscule snails to provide the calcium for eggshell production. It is estimated that the female uses the equivalent of up to fifty per cent of the calcium in her skeleton to produce her eggs, hence the need for the male’s help with extra, high calcium food.‚Äč This is sometimes referred to as 'courtship feeding' as it also helps to strengthen the pair bond.

 

As I write, one of the nestboxes erected behind ‘the triangle’ at Teston Lane has a pair of blue tits currently incubating eleven eggs. Being in woodland they have easy access to the kind of snails needed by the female as these are found in leaf litter on the woodland floor. Although this is only a small area of woodland, jammed between a cricket field and a busy road, it demonstrates the importance of these ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ areas for wildlife. Untidy parts of gardens and farmland are the most productive in terms of providing homes for the plants and insects that larger animals like birds depend on.

 

The picture on the left shows the 'triangle' blue tit's nest constructed and lined with grass and feathers on 8th April. The one on the right shows it with eight eggs on 17th April. The eggs were cold because the female lays one egg per day and only starts incubating when the clutch is complete. On 26th April there were eleven warm eggs - so she had started incubating on 20th.

 

 

 

Once the young are hatched, most species need feeding on insects for the first few days. House sparrows, for example, must be fed insects for their first ten or eleven days of life if they are to fledge successfully; seeds are only fed to them in their last few days in the nest. These are often nettle seeds – another good reason to leave a patch of nettles in the corner of the garden, or on the verge outside your house. It’s a simple rule, without flowering wild plants (or weeds as some people insist on calling them) allowed to grow and set seed, there will be no insects or seeds. No insects (including the ‘nice’ ones like butterflies and moths) and no seeds simply mean no birds. The choice is ours.

  

Sadly, whatever garden centres will have you believe, no amount of bird tables with peanuts and fatballs can compensate for the weed-free lawn, extensive paved patio and decked barbeque area they want you to buy. As the criteria for judging West Farleigh in Bloom have a section on biodiversity, if every village garden had an intentionally provided ‘wild’ area we would pick up points.

 

So why not leave a wild area in your garden for the wild plants and animals we all ultimately depend on. After all, points means prizes!!

 

Spot the difference

Posted on 25th March, 2019

If you feed the birds in your garden you may notice that the starlings busily barging other birds out of the way at the feeders are looking smarter than usual. This is because they are now in their breeding plumage and probably building a nest in your eaves, or a hole in a nearby tree. Although you may think they all look the same, take a closer look. In addition to the beautiful iridescent sheen in their feathers, the spots look a little clearer than usual – and the subtle difference in size and shape of these is one way of telling males from females. But you need to have the bird in your hand to see it! An easier way is to look at the area around the base of their bill. Nature has very conveniently colour-coded their gender: males are now pale blue, and females pale pink. 




 

By the end of the month their eggs will have hatched and the queue-jumping at your feeders will increase as they struggle to find sufficient food to fill the four gaping mouths waiting for them back at the nest. Your feeders, however, are only their convenient neighbourhood fast-food outlet. If the adults can find them, leatherjackets (the larvae of daddy-longlegs) extracted from untreated lawns and rough grass are preferred.

 

Although starlings are a species many people love to hate, Mozart kept one as a pet – it seems he was astounded to hear one, on sale in a shop, that could whistle one of his recently composed, but unpublished, works. Until recently wild birds were popular as pets – Queen Victoria kept a bullfinch, for example – so it wasn’t surprising that Mozart enjoyed the company of one, especially as the species is known to be a good mimic.

 

Starlings also have a good sense of smell. For a long time it has been known that they add scented plants to their nests – possibly to help sanitise what becomes quite a foul-smelling environment as the chicks grow and soil the nest. Not surprisingly then, they also have a well-developed sense of taste and can sense salt, citric acid, tannins and sugars. They can even discriminate between sucrose and other kinds of sugar, possibly because they cannot digest sucrose (table sugar).

 

Meanwhile, observant visitors to the village church will also spot the difference in the holly tree on the right as you approach the church door – there is now a nest box on the trunk, just above head height. A second box has been added to the cedar tree beyond the chancel. The churchyard already has myriad niches in which small birds can nest in its many magnificent old trees, but there may be a pair that prefers new-build!

 

There is certainly a variety of species there – it was good to note the greenfinches, a species that has seen its population tumble in recent years due to a parasite that makes their throat swell and stops them from eating. Goldfinches were there a-plenty, along with mistle thrush and nuthatch – the former already in full song and possibly sitting on eggs in a nest hidden in a tree canopy. An old country name for them is ‘storm-cock’ because of their habit of singing into the teeth of gale from a tree top – just what one was doing on a blustery mid-March morning when I was there!








 

 

 

 

 

A wildlife station for commuters?

Posted on 1st March, 2019

The (hoped for) improvements being carried out at the level crossing and bridge in East Farleigh  jogged my memory of a pleasant five minutes I once spent in my car at the front of the queue on the Barming side. My mild irritation and boredom turned to delight when I noticed a bird disappear into a tiny hole in an iron post supporting the crossing gate. The hole had been left by a no-longer-needed bolt, and provided access for a great tit. As the bird and its mate returned several times carrying food during my enforced stop it was clear they had a nest, and were raising young less than a metre away from passing traffic and hurtling trains.

 

 

No doubt once the current workmen disappear the traffic will start (or, more likely, stop-start) flowing again and traffic and birds will return to normal. And ‘normal’ is actually quite interesting if you have the time to stop and look. I have seen a mistle thrush nest with young about to fledge on the footbridge, directly above the Maidstone bound line; kestrels regularly use the mobile telephone mast as a hunting perch and scores of house sparrows inhabit the litter-filled brambles by the car park. From March onwards, even above the din of the traffic and the water flowing over the weir, you can hear a multitude of avian songsters selling their pitch to the ladies – blackcaps, wrens, blackbirds and song thrushes are particularly noticeable. Such is the profusion of small birds around it, the station also attracts smash-and-grab visits from the local sparrow hawk.

 

Those travellers doomed to travel to London can find solace on the Tonbridge bound platform as it affords a good view over the river where grey wagtails nest on the lock, cormorants are regularly seen diving for food and herons patiently stalk their breakfast. You may even be fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of a passing kingfisher.

 

So if you are one of the many villagers who make a daily commute by train, keeping your eyes and ears open will help remind you that nature carries on regardless, and it may even start your day on a positive note.

 

If you are one of the lucky villagers able to wander at will during the day, keep an eye on the two new nest boxes installed on trees at ‘the triangle’. Blue tits are enthusiastically inspecting boxes now in preparation for egg laying in April, so they could well be eyeing-up the boxes intended to enhance our Village in Bloom submission. Fingers crossed they do nest in one of the boxes – if they do I’ll keep the village updated on the number of eggs and their progress.

The first stirrings of spring?

Posted on 1st February, 2019

In February signs of spring may slip out from the iron grip of winter, confusing us and birds alike. Valentine’s Day is said to be when birds traditionally find a mate and some species are certainly thinking about it even if the weather isn’t always spring-like. As I write this in January, great tits and dunnocks are already laying a musical claim to their garden territories, and blue tits have started inspecting boxes for a potential nest site. For some species like mistle thrush and blackbird it’s not unheard of for them to start laying eggs towards the end of the month.

 

Although a February start to nesting is a risky business, for the species that do it’s not a total disaster if their brood falls victim to a late blast of winter. Thrushes and robins, for example, can routinely produce two or three clutches of four eggs in a season. Tits on the other hand, start later but put all their eggs into the same metaphorical basket with a large single clutch - up to fourteen eggs in the case of the diminutive blue tit. They too, of course, can fall victim to a cold wet spring, but their biggest challenge now is climate warming. They need to time the hatching of their eggs to coincide with the maximum caterpillar availability to feed the young. But climate change has brought this forward by up to two weeks and it is taking some bird species time to adapt. While resident birds can take their cue from local weather conditions and lay earlier, birds that have to time their migration from central Africa (nightingales, for example) can't know what local UK weather conditions are, so many risk mis-timing their arrival and missing out on the peak availability of the food their young need.

 

And while all this is going on, our winter visitors from Scandinavia, the noisy fieldfare and more reserved redwing, are still making the most of our (hopefully) snow-free countryside. Other winter visitors from the continent include blackbirds, robins and chaffinches - they also prefer the luxury of our supposedly warmer maritime climate, but will hang on here in our woods, and especially our gardens, until the urge to mate finally takes hold and they too return whence they came in a month or so.

 

The village now boasts two new nest boxes erected in the Triangle. They are designed for tits or sparrows so hopefully they will attract some attention and provide accommodation for a pair this year. They are easy to see from the footpath so when the adults are busy constructing a nest, or feeding young, it will be possible to stand and stare – and marvel at the hard work they have to do.

 

Tits' nests are built on a substantial foundation of moss – and there is plenty of that in the trees and undergrowth around the triangle – and then lined with softer material. Blue tits tend to use feathers for this while great tits use mammal fur, hair or wool. Horse-hair is popular and plentiful, but can be a death trap for nestlings as they easily become entangled in it (or even swallow it) and become trapped or strangled.

 

If you devote enough time to watching them build their nests, you’ll see that birds that use feathers to line the nest cup select white ones for the purpose. When examined more closely, it was found that white feathers carry a higher proportion of microbes that act as an anti-bacterial agent than black feathers do. Thus they help keep the nest sanitised.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Year - new species

Posted on 31st December, 2018

Villagers who feed birds in their gardens through the winter are increasingly likely to have a blackcap visiting them. This small (great tit size) insect-eating warbler has evolved as a summer visitor to Northern Europe over hundreds of thousands of years, spending its winters in the warmth of countries bordering the Mediterranean.

 

But as our climate has begun to warm over the last fifty years, and as feeding garden birds has become widespread in the UK, many blackcaps breeding in Germany are changing their migration habit. Instead of migrating to the warm south in the autumn, many fly west to winter here in southern England. Those that survive the winter - and many now do, thanks to our well-stocked garden feeders - have a shorter journey back to their breeding grounds in the spring than individuals who wintered in the Mediterranean sunshine. So they arrive there first, to claim the best breeding territories and raise the fittest young. Their young are then likely to be genetically programmed to spend winter here! So, in (a very long) time, it is possible the two populations will eventually split and the ‘English’ blackcap may become a new species.

 

So look out for a greyish-brown bird a little smaller than a sparrow. The males have an obvious black ‘cap’ and the females have an obvious brown one. 

 

 

Evolution is happening before your very eyes!