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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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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seasonal changes for The Farleighs’ birds

Posted on 1st September, 2018

The warm moist weather we have been experiencing (enjoying?) since the heat wave finished can bring mixed blessings for our garden birds. Ground feeders like blackbirds and thrushes benefit from soft soil from which to extract worms. The soil is easier to probe and much sought-after insects aren’t buried too deep to avoid drying up in the heat.

 

 

Wild fruits such as blackberries and elderberries are swollen and ripe, and are an excellent, sugar-rich food to help migrant birds like blackcaps lay down layers of fat ready for a long migratory flight to the Mediterranean or Africa. And, even if they are staying here, if you look carefully at young starlings the brown faces of many are stained purple with juice, such is the fruits’ attraction. Hence, the multi-purpled-spotted car bonnets to be seen at this time of the year too - bad news for owners of white cars!

 

 

With its orchards and marshy coastline, Kent in general is a good stop-off place for birds from as far north as Greenland and the Arctic tundra on their southbound migration, so almost any species could turn up along the Medway valley.

 

Across the northern hemisphere the numbers of birds will be at their peak, as many of the summer visitors and their young are still here to add to the myriad offspring of our resident species. A very rough estimate of Britain’s blue tit numbers, for example, based on various long-term breeding and nesting surveys conducted by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) suggests they peak at this time of year at an astounding 20 million birds. But half the adults and nearly two-thirds of the juveniles will not survive the winter to breed next year due, mainly, to starvation and disease. So now really is the time that you have the greatest chance of seeing unfamiliar birds!

 

Sadly it’s not necessarily all good news for garden birds; the warm, damp conditions are ideal for the spread of disease. So make sure feeding areas and containers are kept clear of old, rotting food and bird droppings. If possible, move the feeders around the garden to prevent parasites and bacteria building up in the soil beneath them. If you suspect you have a sick bird – it might appear lethargic and not fly away as you approach, or it may be fluffed up and have food stuck around its bill – stop feeding completely for a couple of weeks so the birds disperse. At this time of year there is plenty of natural food around so they won’t miss the free handout you are providing – even though you may miss the pleasure of seeing them in your garden.

 

It’s worth bearing in mind that while you may be picking blackberries in the hedgerows, or just taking a leisurely stroll to the local pub for Sunday lunch, some of these millions of birds may be overhead and easily visible. It could be a flock of swallows and house martins en route to South Africa, possibly followed by a hobby – a beautiful falcon that specialises in catching dragonflies, swallows and even swifts on the wing.

 

It’s worth bearing in mind that while you may be picking blackberries in the hedgerows, or just taking a leisurely stroll to the local pub for Sunday lunch, some of these millions of birds may be overhead and easily visible. It could be a flock of swallows and house martins en route to South Africa, possibly followed by a hobby – a beautiful falcon that specialises in catching dragonflies, swallows and even swifts on the wing.

 

 

And on a riverside stroll you might just see a common sandpiper skulking along the water’s edge topping up its reserves from the Medway mud before continuing its Arctic-to-Africa migration.

 

Some you see and some you don't.

Posted on 30th July, 2018

This is the time of year when some bird species can appear unexpectedly in gardens while others seem to disappear completely. Young birds have increased by large numbers, although only about a quarter will survive long enough to breed next spring. Many young leave the area in which they were hatched to find new and suitable habitat elsewhere, while both adults and young of migrant species start to head south for their wintering areas. So almost anything could turn up in The Farleighs.

 

Your garden could be home to gangs of juvenile starlings foraging for leatherjackets (the larvae of daddy longlegs) on the lawn. The starlings may be noisy and unruly, but they are good for your lawn as the leatherjackets eat the grass roots and damage it. Meanwhile gatherings of sparrows could be enjoying communal dustbaths in your parched vegetable plots. Native thrushes and finches abound in the countryside, while migrant warblers and wheatears from the north pass through, and can be seen in local fields and hedgerows. As small birds migrate at night, migrants are often seen resting and feeding up in the early mornings. Meanwhile, most adults of resident species are silent and hiding themselves away as they go through their annual moult. Replacing flight feathers means their flying is less effective, so they keep a low profile to avoid predators. For a short period too it makes them look a total mess, with feathers missing and others looking totally ragged, until their new plumage is complete. Feather replacement creates a huge energy demand so moulting birds exercise as little as possible to divert valuable food resources to feather production.

 

This moulting female blackcap needs lots of calories to grow her new

feathers - you can see them emerging from the waxy shaft at their base.

The gap created in her wing while a new feather grows will adversely affect

her flying capability.

 

Keep an eye on your local speckly brown young robins and blackbirds as they gradually change from (the not so) ‘ugly ducklings’ into ‘swans’. And dull brown young starlings are slowly morphing into the iridescent, sparkling birds that mass in winter murmurations.

 

 

While all this is going on, if you are lucky enough to have a tawny owl or a little owl breeding nearby, you may catch a glimpse of an immature youngster parked on a post to await its next feed. This is a good time of year to see owls because the young are often stationary and visible for long periods, while the adults are active in the early mornings and late afternoons hunting for, and supplying, additional food for them. Little owls are diurnal as well as nocturnal and it’s always a good idea to look out for them on fence posts, or atop old barns and farm buildings. Even in winter, they can be seen soaking up the warmth on a sunny day. Barn owls (the white ones) prefer to hunt around dawn and dusk and have regular circuits they fly around each day, so if you are lucky you may see them floating silently and butterfly-like along a grassy field margin or over tussocky grass. Another, less conspicuous, owl you may see - but most likely hear its brief "hoo-hoo" call - is the long-eared owl. The long 'ears' are actually for display purposes and aren't ears at all, but they add some 'aahhh' factor and make them look even more human. Their young are also out and about now, like this one ringed for conservation purposes at Conyer, near Sittingbourne, in July.

 

 

A word of warning though: if you come across a young owl seemingly abandoned, it won’t be! Adults will know where it is and be visiting to feed it, so best to leave it be. This is especially the case if it happens to be a tawny owl chick, as the parents can be very protective and will attack an intruder. A pioneering, but unwary, bird photographer famously lost an eye at a tawny owl’s nest!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blue tits in the three occupied nestboxes we monitor in East Farleigh churchyard have had a struggle this year. Clutches of six or seven eggs were laid in each. The pair in the box by the lychgate successfully fledged the full clutch; each time I visited, the female was sitting tight on the nest while the male was close by aggressively intimidating me with his calls. Such an attentive male was almost certainly making sure his mate, and eventually their chicks, were well-provisioned with food. It was a different story at the other two boxes, where only two chicks survived in each. In both cases it is likely one of the pair was missing and the remaining bird was unable to find enough food for the whole brood.

 

The same species has also been up against it in my own garden – three nests were predated, probably by a weasel, great spotted woodpecker or magpie. Blackbirds and thrushes have also failed to fledge young so far, but I saw my first young robin today. Nesting in hedges and shrubbery, they are not only prone to predation but also human disturbance – albeit usually inadvertently.

 

With the impact of the Beast from the East, it seems at the moment that birds have had a tough time this year, with numbers of summer visitors like swifts also low. With luck, a benign summer and long autumn, along with a mild winter, will provide the wild food and overwintering conditions necessary to keep their populations up until next year.

 

Let’s hope Ted Hughes’ words about the return of our summer swifts continue to hold true:

 

‘Look! They’re back! Look!’ .....

... They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed   [for now.... my words]

 

from Swifts by Ted Hughes

 

However, my garden feeders are now attracting reasonable numbers of blue and great tit fledglings, with a sprinkling of young house sparrows, goldfinches and chaffinches too, so all is not lost. Given the lack of insects around now (even in the countryside) garden feeders are a lifeline for some small birds – and if you attract birds to your garden they will also tuck into the aphids and other pests on your flowers and vegetables. So it’s worth keeping the bird table clean and replenished.

 

And just as the last of our summer visitors – the swifts – arrive, the first cuckoos are starting to leave us for their African wintering grounds. One of the birds newly satellite-tagged by scientists this year left his summer patch in Thetford Forest on 14th May, and by 15th June was in the south of France, at one point flying 528 miles in just two days. Find out more about our tagged cuckoos here

 

Scientists are working hard to understand more about the migration routes and wintering areas of our fast declining summer visitors. Satellite tracking devices have been fitted to cuckoos for some years now, and even smaller species like swifts can have data-loggers fitted, which track the birds’ movements but each bird has to be retrapped (usually at its nest – they use the same one each year) and the data-logger removed in order to recover the data.

 

 

 

To find out how you can help swifts visit the Swift Conservation website - they are giving a talk at Scotney Castle on 19th July.

Village churches are now a popular choice for artificial nest sites - just a thought!

 

As some of our other summer visitors start to depart in July, the young of some of our resident species are also on the move as many disperse from the area where they were hatched to find new territories for themselves. This is nature’s way of helping to ensure the gene pool is stirred each year to avoid groups of birds becoming interbred. Two Farleigh gardens have already been pleasantly surprised by the arrival of dispersing youngsters, in this case a nuthatch. Nuthatches are scarce in east Kent, but relatively widespread in west Kent and elsewhere in the country up as far as Scotland, and one of only a few native species whose numbers are increasing.

 

These beautifully coloured birds specialise in a life in the trees – finding insects in the bark and using their strong pointed bills to hammer open hazel nuts that they have wedged into larger crevices. They are also the only birds in the UK that can walk, headfirst, down a tree-trunk thanks to their opposing pairs of toes on each foot. They are likely to be found breeding in areas where great-spotted woodpeckers live: the woodpeckers excavate a new nest hole each year, and the nuthatches frequently move in to the old one. However, a bit of DIY is often necessary to reduce the size of the entrance hole, which the new residents achieve by plastering mud around it.

 

The next best thing to having one in your own garden is to make yourself a cuppa, put your feet up and watch an hour of this beautiful bird here - enjoy!

 

 

 

 

“Look at the birds of the air"

Posted on 30th May, 2018

 ... they do not sow or reap ... and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” Matthew 6:25.

 

And for the next couple of months He will also do His best to ensure the newly-fledged birds you find on the ground are fed – apart from those a sparrowhawk may take to feed its own young!

 

It’s that time of year again when small birds are often found, apparently abandoned by their parents, and people have a natural urge to rescue them. But there is no need, as their parents will almost certainly find them when they arrive with food. The youngsters may not stay where they were left, but they don’t travel far and their contact calls are quickly located by their returning parent.

 

It is not usually hunger that kills baby birds but cars and, especially, cats, so only pick them up and move them to a safe place (preferably in a bush or tree) if they are in danger of either of these. If a fledgling is genuinely abandoned and starving – and this could be because its parents have been killed, it is sickly, or the parents simply can’t find enough food for such a large brood, a natural predator will take it – part of the natural order of things.

 

Five of the three nestboxes in East Farleigh churchyard have blue tits in them. It hasn’t been possible to count the eggs and chicks in all of them yet because the female in one has been sitting tight when I’ve inspected the boxes to check progress, but in the next two weeks the first youngsters will emerge and park themselves around the trees and gravestones. If they stay in the churchyard it won’t be cars they have to worry about: it could be the local moggie. If you have a cat, keeping it indoors early in the morning could save quite a few baby birds as they generally leave the nest at this time.

 

But our heavenly Father feeds natural predators too, and most of these produce their young to coincide with peak food availability, ie when there are plenty of young of other species about. Even the blue tits in their nestboxes are vulnerable, as these photos taken by my colleague Jac Turner-Moss (who is Assistant Warden at Dungeness Bird Observatory) illustrate only too well:

 

 

Jac had been monitoring the nest and knew that thirteen healthy chicks were growing steadily. But while he stood watching, this stoat took seven of them to feed its own young. Which prompts the question ‘If our heavenly Father is providing for the stoat in the same way he provides for the birds, are humans right to label stoats as vermin? Or crows and magpies?’ Answers on a postcard please (or use the comment box below).

 

Elsewhere, turtle doves have returned from Central Africa to breed in the area.

 

 

This beautiful dove (or pigeon – the names are interchangeable, depending on whether or not we humans like them) has declined by 91% since 1995. The stretch of Kent from Marden to Ashford has been declared a Turtle Dove Friendly Zone where farmers are being encouraged to leave weedy patches, or even provide additional seeds for them, in May and June. This will help them raise the maximum six young they are capable of producing to keep their numbers up. They only produce a clutch of two eggs, so they need three successful broods before they return to Africa. If you see one of these gentle doves or hear one purring, please let me know.

Visitors to the Medway valley

Posted on 27th April, 2018

Spring has finally arrived and the breeding season is under way. In mid-April, blue tits were already building nests in the five recently-erected nestboxes in East Farleigh churchyard – and I expect to find clutches of up to fourteen eggs when I check the nests at the start of May. At the same time, the great tits using the nest boxes in my garden were a little more advanced. When I checked them, the nests were complete, but looked empty. However, a probing finger revealed that each contained three cold eggs (half the full clutch of 6 – 8) buried deep in the animal-hair lining of the nest cup.

 

Male Great Tit feeding his mate as she incubates.

Note the animal hair lining of the nest - Blue Tits use feathers instead.

 

Virtually all small birds lay one egg a day, first thing in the morning after the shell has been added to the egg overnight as it descends the oviduct. The parents (usually, but not always, the female) only start incubating them when the clutch is complete. Great tits, however, have evolved the practice of concealing the eggs, out of sight of potential predators that might just happen upon the nest, until the last egg is laid and the female starts sitting on them. Watch this space for regular progress reports.

 

The explosive sound of a singing wren can be heard in just about every month of the year. But it is now finally getting down to mating, and raising young in a tiny domed nest in a crevice in a tree trunk, or tucked away in an untidy outbuilding. I’m currently watching one in an inaccessible corner of a girder under a tiny bridge. The male wren constructs several nests then, when he has attracted a mate, he allows her to choose the one she wants to breed in, and she furnishes her chosen nest with moss, feathers and lichen. Before you think “Ah, how sweet”, you need to know that while she is busy at the avian equivalent of Ikea, he is looking for another female to install in one of the other nests. Being so small, wrens are very vulnerable to long spells of freezing weather so having multiple mates and breeding attempts is an effective strategy for maintaining the species’ numbers.

 

Just when you need the rope!

 

If you happened to miss David Attenborough’s fascinating programme about eggs a few weeks ago it’s worth seeking it out on iPlayer.

 

A cuckoo was reported in the village on 11th April and has been heard almost daily since, and the explosive song of the blackcap (like a robin on steroids) is a daily feature in most gardens with a reasonable size tree. The swans on the river at East Farleigh almost certainly have eggs? Some village swan-watchers were concerned about one that often seems simply to be floating with its head tucked under a wing. Although many UK mute swans have been affected by avian flu this winter, there have been no signs in Kent’s swans, so it is unlikely to be ill. In this case it is probably a male who has little to do while his mate incubates the eggs. So he is just loafing: no comment needed ladies!

 

Another exciting visitor seen in the valley (perched on the pylon near Barnjet Priory on the other side of the river) is a peregrine falcon. Peregrines like nothing better than a plump pigeon, so they are now doing well in the South East where tall buildings and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of pigeons are to their liking. You can watch live video of the pair nesting on a specially constructed platform here. Norwich Cathedral Peregrines

 

Unfortunately these wonderful creatures are still relentlessly illegally persecuted, along with other birds of prey, in parts of northern England and Scotland where grouse are intensively reared for shooting for sport. So keep your eyes peeled for the fastest animal on earth, above us here in The Farleighs!

Does the early bird get the worm?

Posted on 24th March, 2018

Possibly. But as I wrote this for the Lifeline print version on 15th March, I’d just heard that the first chiffchaffs had arrived in Kent – as predicted in last month’s 'Feathers. Tiny, 7g scraps of flesh and feather that have flown from central Africa to make the most of our spring and summer. This one, that was ringed near Luddesdown, had a ‘pollen horn’!

 

This is the name given to the sticky accumulation of pollen and nectar above the bird’s bill. It gets this after repeatedly searching flowers for nectar to drink and any insects to eat. By analysing the pollen, scientists have identified nineteen different plants, dominated by eucalyptus, prunus and citrus, that the birds are relying on to fuel their migration journeys. With this information, conservation at their migration stopover sites can be helped by encouraging their favoured species of wild, and garden, plants

 

These birds are taking a gamble though, as we had a further two days of snow just a few days after they had arrived, when they would have been hard pressed to find the tiny insects they feed on, let alone a worm. But it must be worth their while as chiffchaff numbers have been increasing in recent years along with just a few other small birds – blackcaps and long-tailed tits included. But as the latter don’t winter in Africa or around the Mediterranean, it is likely that their numbers will have suffered in the recent weeks of freezing snow. Although you may have daffodils and crocuses already blossoming, warm weather is still some time away, during which all birds will struggle to find enough to eat in our food-impoverished countryside.

 

Sadly, as I’m writing this blog post, news has just emerged of a 30% drop in populations of farmland birds in France in the last ten years. Not entirely dissimilar to what has happened in the UK. As I’ve written before, enlightened farmers now plant special crops that are left through the winter specifically to support wildlife. Sunflowers often form part of, or even all, the crop. The large, oil-rich seeds are nutritious for both us and birds, and are a favourite of chaffinches and greenfinches in particular, two species that are declining in the UK. They also attract bramblings, close relatives of chaffinches that come here to avoid harsh Scandinavian winters.

 

This field of sunflowers in nearby Marden has attracted up to a thousand birds at a time this winter – a wonderful spectacle, especially when the local sparrowhawk skips over the hedge and they all take to the air in panic.

 

It would be an interesting activity for children (or older villagers enjoying an extended childhood) to select some sunflower seeds from their bird feeders and plant them up for the sunflower display this summer. As well as brightening up the village, the giant blooms would attract beneficial insects and the ripe seed heads could be left for the birds.

 

Meanwhile, especially as yet more snow and cold is forecast for Easter weekend, please keep your garden feeders topped-up while listening out for the first cuckoo. In recent years I have heard my first in East Farleigh round about April 17th. At the moment, cuckoos being satellite-tracked by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) are just preparing to cross the Sahara, so they still have a lot of flying to do! You can follow their progress here:

 https://www.bto.org/science/migration/tracking-studies/cuckoo-tracking

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Bird for All Seasons?

Posted on 25th February, 2018

East Farleigh has links with Sir Thomas More’s family – More was Henry VIII’s Chancellor and the subject of the film ‘A Man for All Seasons’ - and March is the month when we can hear ‘Birds for All Seasons’, as well as single-season visitors, around his daughter’s former home at Gallants Manor in Gallants Lane.

 

Our resident birds, like blackbirds and great tits, are all noisily advertising their readiness to breed. Females are being invited to share the males’ territory and help raise his young.

 

 

But it’s not all one-sided: like humans, the female is looking beyond a flashy-sounding song. She is searching for signs of health (the bright yellows of the male blackbird is an indication he has a good immune system) and a territory with secure nest sites and plentiful food (how many safe nest holes and potential caterpillars are on offer for the female great tit?). Scientists think, for example, that the colour of the male blue tit’s crown indicates the quality of the territory he controls: blue tits’ vision extends into the ultra-violet range so females really can spot the difference.

 

 

At the same time, on your walk through the village orchards, you’ll hear noisy winter visitors like fieldfares (a larger relative of blackbirds and thrushes) still ‘chak-chaking’ among the remaining apples. They are fattening-up in preparation for their return flight to Scandinavia – running out of energy halfway across the North Sea will put an end to their chances of raising a family.

 

As they leave, our first summer songbirds begin to arrive. In fact, as I write this on the last weekend of February, swallows and house martins have already been recorded in southern Europe, so they are well on their way back from their winter quarters in South Africa.

 

 

 

One of the first birds to arrive in the village is usually the chiffchaff. Males will start returning before the end of the month to lay claim to the best territories and advertise the fact with their incessant “chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff” song. They also need to feed voraciously on still-scarce insects to replace their reserves after the long flight from Africa. Like the blackbirds and great tits, they too need to look their best to impress the females who arrive a week or two later. 

 

But as I remarked in last month’s Farleigh Feathers, winter isn’t yet over; in the coming week we can expect really cold weather, with probably snow, blowing in from the north-east. This will restrict the early migrants to southern Europe for a while longer, but spells potential disaster for our small resident birds. They have just about exhausted the natural larder of seeds and insects, without which they will struggle to lay down enough fat to see them through the freezing nights. So they will depend more than ever on your garden feeders being kept topped-up with high calorie food (bread just won’t ‘cut the mustard’). If you run out of sunflower hearts or fatballs, a handful of porridge oats is always a good standby. They will also find unfrozen water difficult to come by; they need it just as much as we do, so keeping the birdbath free of ice could be a life-saver.

 

February: Not homeless, but in need of shelter

Posted on 28th January, 2018

In February, with the worst of winter possibly yet to come, birds are faced with a dual pressure. The first stirrings of mating behaviour are being felt; if you look at the male house sparrow’s bill it is turning black again as his testosterone starts to build up, and his black bib is getting more noticeable to help him attract a mate. By the end of the month tawny owls could already be sitting on eggs.

 

 

A second pressure is still the need for a sheltered roosting site to survive the long nights. So in a giant, industrial-scale glasshouse somewhere in Kent, where strawberries are grown all year round, hundreds of pied wagtails slip through the vents each night to roost together among the plants. That little bobbing, black and white bird hunting scarce insects in your garden during the day could just be one of them!

 

 Like the wagtails, many birds are still gathering in flocks to roost or find food, and are easily trapped. So it is a good opportunity to gather scientific data about their lives by collecting body measurements to gauge their health and fitness, and fitting a tiny ring with a unique number that will identify them as an individual if they are caught again, or found dead. They are then released unharmed. The pied wagtail in the picture was trapped at roost in the glasshouse, measured and ringed, then kept in a safe place overnight to be released at the greenhouses the next morning none the worse for his experience.

 

 

Enlightened arablle farmers ensure some stubble fields are left unploughed through the winter for the birds to forage in when natural resources are used up. As the populations of most of our farmland birds have declined, in some cases up to 90 per cent, in the last fifty years, some farmers are now paid extra to grow a special crop like sunflowers to leave as overwinter food for them.

 

One such farmer is Peter Hall in Marden, where huge numbers of birds are drawn to his fields for food. Flocks of more than five hundred chaffinches and bramblings (a winter visitor from Scandinavia) are common. Recent ringing sessions there, for example, have demonstrated the way in which many birds fly long distances to find food. A reed bunting trapped and ringed in West Sussex only a few days before, was recently re-trapped in Marden. This shows that bird populations will continue to decline unless there are resources for them across the landscape, not just on tiny pockets of land in a few scattered nature reserves.

 

 

So keep your eyes open on your next winter walk: who’s doing their bit for the birds around the Farleighs?