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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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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!

Under the Mistletoe

Posted on 1st December, 2018

The Farleighs boasts at least one splendid display of mistletoe – high up in a tree at the junction of Priory Close and Lower Road in East Farleigh. At that height it must be frustrating for villagers wishing to harvest a sprig for a Christmas kiss. The position of this particular plant indicates the sprigs weren’t ‘planted’ by man, as cultivated mistletoe is found, often in apple trees, at a pickable height. Mistletoe is a partial parasite, it can produce its own chlorophyll, but relies on a host plant to provide minerals necessary for growth. A pre-Christian symbol of fertility, it is presumably this reason it is still associated with Christmas.

 

The Farleigh plant will almost certainly have been seeded in the crown of the tree by a mistle thrush – a more heavily spotted, greyer version of our familiar song thrush. If you are lucky enough to see both species in a local field you will instantly see the difference. It is the larger, more heavily spotted and more aggressive mistle thrush that eats the mistletoe berries – it will often ‘defend’ a tree with mistletoe, or indeed, a tree or bush heavily laden with berries of any kind, from other hungry birds. Mistle thrushes also gather in family groups in the autumn and winter; I’ve frequently seen a dozen or more foraging together in fields around the villages.


                                         Mistle thrush (above) & song thrush (below)

 

The white mistletoe seeds are nutritious and the flesh of the berry is high in protein. The flesh, though, is very sticky and viscous (hence the plant’s scientific name is Viscum album, and that of the mistle thrush Turdus viscivorus), so the bird continually wipes its bill on a nearby twig to get it off. As it does so, it may leave the seed in a crevice where it can germinate and so start another sprig growing.

 

Another berry-eating bird that turns up in southern England in most winters is the waxwing – handsome Scandinavian birds that flock to cotoneaster and rowans in gardens and, particularly, supermarket car parks! As they breed in the far north they do not encounter humans often so have little fear, hence the likelihood of you seeing them on your trip to Tesco or Tunbridge Wells. Their name stems from the sealing wax-red tips of their flight feathers, and these contribute to their colourful appearance – almost like a seasonal pantomime character.

Although we use the term ‘gannet’ to describe a person who scoffs food to excess, we might equally use the term ‘waxwing’. Like many birds waxwings store food in their crop where it can be broken up to start digestion at a later date – having no teeth, birds can’t chew or cut up food like mammals. But a waxwing’s crop is something to behold – literally, as this video shows.                     

 

Returning to mistle thrushes, their relationship with mistletoe really is close up and personal as mistletoe seeds are also spread through the thrush’s droppings. But, as the festive sprig hovers inches above you, try not to think about that during your passionate Christmas kiss!



 

Ray Morris

Winter Wandering

Posted on 27th October, 2018

November signals the coming of colder weather as redwings and fieldfares arrive to avoid the harsh Scandinavian winter. The fieldfares’ ‘chak-chak’ resounds across recently ploughed fields while the high-pitched ‘seep’ of redwings is often heard as they pass overhead at night. These close relations of blackbirds and song thrushes, like most small birds, migrate under the cover of darkness to avoid avian predators, using the position of stars and the earth’s magnetic field to guide them. 




 

If you come across a flock while you are out on a country walk around the village, take a moment to check for any blackbirds or thrushes amongst them as it is likely that some of them too will be seasonal visitors from mainland Europe. A song thrush that we ringed at Marden in January this year was later trapped again twice - in May and June - in Holland, where it was breeding. So it could return to winter in Kent again this year. Continental blackbirds often seem to have slightly silvery edges to their feathers which can stand out quite clearly if they are next to our native birds, so you may be able to spot them through binoculars.

 

More importantly, just pause and reflect on the wonder that they are there at all: unlike we humans, increasingly isolating ourselves and our children from the natural world, birds and other animals are still in tune with it. Every year, billions of birds, insects, fish and mammals move around the globe, navigating in ways that scarcely seem possible to us, and we are only just beginning to understand the secrets of how they do this.

 

Like birds, we too need to be in tune with a healthy natural world if we are to survive as a species. We don’t just need the planet’s natural resources to provide us with food and shelter either; many  modern drugs were originally derived from wild plants (eg. the contraceptive pill and digitalis for heart conditions) and animals (eg. horseshoe crab blood is used to create safe vaccines and the venom of a tropical wasp can be used to attack cancer cells). But we are destroying the (our) natural world at a faster rate than has ever happened before - apart from the collision with that damned asteroid 66 million years ago! – so we are losing the source of a myriad medical, technological and industrial benefits before we have even discovered them!

 

Studying how young zebra finches, for example, learn to sing is providing us with new insights into autism. Investigating the chaffinch’s ability to regenerate brain cells in the spring for its territorial song, combined with developments in stem-cell biology, promises potential treatments for Parkinson’s and Altzeimer’s. The recent discovery from satellite-tracking technology that the bar-tailed godwit migrates from Alaska to New Zealand in one continuous 11,700 km flight lasting 9 days has also led us to discover the birds’ ability to shrink all their digestive organs for the flight - they’re ‘not needed on the flight’ as it were. They are regenerated when they land ready to digest food again. 

 

 

If we can identify the gene that switches the process on and off it could lead to treatment for human obesity. But if the bird becomes extinct we lose the potential resource – and this particular species' population is predicted to halve in the next ten years due to habitat loss.

 

So appreciate, and look out for, The Farleighs’ birds. They are part of a precious, but fast-disappearing, resource. We destroy it at our peril.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

       

 

Wise Up On Owls

Posted on 1st October, 2018

As the nights draw in and there is a nip in the evening air, now is the time we start to notice tawny owls around the The Farleighs. This year’s youngsters are dispersing from their natal territory to find mates of their own, while their parents begin the process of re-establishing pairings for the coming breeding season – tawny owls start early, with eggs from February, even January, onwards. We are fortunate that the villages still retain mature trees to provide the cavities for their nests, although they will use a nestbox if no cavity is available. They have a catholic diet: small birds, rodents, frogs, even large insects and worms – so don’t be surprised if you see one on your lawn on a damp night. Although famed for being able to see in the dark (their eyesight is not that much better than ours and they certainly can’t see in total darkness) they need to get to know the layout of their territory to find their way around, hence they tend to ‘stay put’. Owls hunt mainly by sound, so rain and wind can make it difficult for them. Although we can’t see their ears, they are situated asymmetrically – horizontally and vertically - on the bird’s head, enabling it to pinpoint tiny sounds with amazing accuracy. 

The well known ‘tuwit – tuwoo’ call is two owls duetting. The female calls ‘keewik’ and the male responds with the lower hoot. From my garden I can often hear two competing males hooting at each other; one is resident in the gardens along the lane, with another in a belt of trees across the adjoining fields. A walk outside soon after dusk could reveal quite a few more territories in and around the villages.

 

Like most of our birds, owl populations are in decline, so why not take part in a national scheme aimed at helping them. The British Trust for Ornithology is running a simple survey to establish where the owls are calling. Just stand in your garden and listen! Find out more at   by clicking here . The site has recordings of the calls of all the owls likely to be heard locally – tawny, barn, little and long-eared. Have a listen – and next time your insomnia has you lying awake, you may be pleasantly surprised to find you have an unexpected garden visitor.

 

Daytime predators are also more likely to be seen at this time of year too. Obviously, there are more of them at the moment – they have just produced their new families too, and adults are busily hunting the young of other species to feed them. Female sparrowhawks spend the first part of their breeding season sitting tight on their eggs and small chicks, while the smaller male does the hunting for both of them. But now the females are hunting again too. I’ve seen one swoop into the hedge around my garden to snatch a sparrow, although it all happened so quickly I’m not sure if she was successful, but remains of a woodpigeon lying in an explosion of plucked feathers in the corner of my garden on a another day suggests that was a successful foray.


 

 It happens in public too, as Terry Standage was lucky to witness recently in Charlton Lane. On this occasion the female hawk had brought down a pigeon in the parking spaces outside the houses. Unfortunately her efforts were thwarted by the arrival of car being parked! The hawk flew off, leaving a surprised, and very fortunate, potential meal to flutter off to the nearby hedgerow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ospreys have also been seen in Kent – there have been individuals in Marden and Bough Beech reservoir recently. They are on their way south on migration to central Africa, so keep your eyes open.

 

Ray