The possibility of taking the day off was slim, as the commute to work involves a less than perilous four-yard dash across the landing to the office. For those of us lucky enough (or unlucky, depending on your point of view) to work from home, the snow earlier in January represented a mild annoyance, and not the total bedlam that seems to have befallen the rest of the country. In such cataclysmic times we find ourselves ill-equipped to cope with even a few days of below-freezing temperatures, as unnecessary journeys are curtailed, pipes cement themselves together, and snowball fights become an essential part of the national curriculum.
Having scoured the back of the cupboards for the last of anything edible, I finally ventured north in search of provisions, and found myself staring at empty shelves where once there was bread. Fresh fruit and vegetables were in short supply, and the last of the milk was whisked away before my eyes. This ‘every man for himself’ mentality seemed like some kind of primeval urge, and I had to resist the urge to yell, “Run for your lives!”, and start a stampede. Yet it mirrored the natural order, or lack of it, that I was seeing in my garden at the same time. We provide a veritable hamper of snacks and treats for our more common birds, but suddenly the numbers swelled as more and more of our feathered friends arrived to seek out sustenance uncomfortably alongside one another.
Blue tits hit double figures, and dared each other to steal in between the larger great tits and chaffinches. Coal tits zipped back and forth from the tree like flies, and parties of long-tailed tits arrived with increasing frequency, ignoring their usual rigid timetables. These tiny birds remind me of a flock of teaspoons, chattering as they leapfrog each other through the trees. Our magnetic peanut feeder saw ten stuck to it at one point. Periodically, one member of our greater-spotted woodpecker family would arrive and usurp the feeder, driving the other birds away; only the bravest or stupidest blue tit risked a swipe from the powerful bird. Even our resident robins found the neighbours muscling their way across the border in search of the rich pickings. The four redbreasts spent longer chasing each other around than feeding, despite the plentiful supply of food on offer. I call them ‘aggropansies’ – a word that I invented to describe someone or something that is unnecessarily aggressive! (Incidentally, the term was first developed after hearing Sir Alex Ferguson moaning incessantly about refereeing decisions that went against Manchester United!).
Many of our less familiar birds arrived on mass in the surrounding fields and hedgerows, and even in urban parks and gardens. Winter thrushes were more common than pedestrians on the pavements in Truro, as well as on the Roseland’s fields. Fieldfare and redwing are winter visitors, but blackbird and song thrush accompany them on their crossing, adding to our resident population. Squadrons of other northern visitors had us craning upwards as they called overhead, with numbers of lapwing and golden plover well up. As Ian Bennett mentioned earlier in January, these waders are not common on the Roseland, only appearing during very cold spells. They added to the cocktail of wading activity that we have seen on the beaches, in the creeks, and off Portscatho in the last few weeks.
The cold period will undoubtedly be having a bad affect on many bird populations. Insectivores like chiffchaff will have had a tough time, and waders like snipe that probe the soil with their specialist bills will have struggled to break through the rock hard ground. Seed-eaters like cirl bunting should fare better so long as there is not a continual blanket of snow burying their lunch. Many species will end up in people’s gardens, where they can take advantage of the more accessible and varied food source. The desperation of these birds also brings out their tolerant side. Cold periods are great for bird watching, as the continual battle to find enough resources forces the birds to spend more time indulging their appetite than worrying about ending up on the menu themselves. Our robin appeared in the house when the back door was left open, seeking out crumbs on the kitchen floor. He has previously made it as far as the lounge, where he saw his reflection in some glass and started singing to warn himself off!
With so many birds struggling through their own nutritional recession, it is crucial not to disturb them, as taking flight will use up more of their limited energy, and reduce the time available to feed or rest. The best thing you can do is make sure there is a continual supply of food and water available for them, and to provide a range of food if possible. Many of the smaller birds will go for high protein peanuts instead of seed during hard times. Kitchen scraps can be good, including fat, which can be collected from the grill pan or oven trays and left to solidify into a block; life-affirming stuff if you’re a small bird! I usually mix nuts and seed into it to tempt them into taste testing this unappealing mushy blob. Some fruit and vegetables will be popular, especially apples for the thrushes. Fresh water is not just for drinking, but so the birds can bathe and keep their feathers in good condition – all the more important to keep them toasty during the big freeze. Small birds will use nest boxes to roost in, sometimes in large numbers, so keep these up and available as overnight hostels. It is worth taking care of the birds in your garden during these harshest of times. After all, if you are stuck at home you may find yourself spending an increasing amount of time watching them!
With that in mind, the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch is coming up on the weekend of 30th/31st January. All you have to do is spend one hour over the weekend counting the birds in your garden. You have to tot up the highest number of each species you see at any one time and send in your results. Last year more than 6000 people in Cornwall took part, and house sparrow was the commonest garden bird in the county, with an average of 4.2 per garden. For more information go to www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch, where you will find resources for the event, and there will be a results form available from 30th January. Alternatively, call 0300 456 8330 to request a form in the post (calls charged at standard rate).
Pictures (Top to bottom): Golden Plover, Redwing, Robin, Long-tailed Tit, Great Tit and Blue Tit.
More of Nick’s photography can be seen on his own photos page in our images section.