Thursday, 15 January 2015

A little bit sticky

With the storms we have been experiencing and nights of minus temperatures on the forecast, the birds are going to be feeling the brunt of the winter weather. 

Although the days are slowly lengthening, there are still only a few limited hours of daylight for birds to feed, whilst simply surviving the long nights of freezing or storm-buffeting requires a huge amount of energy. This means that high energy foods, for little effort, are top of the birds' wish-lists and the search for this often pushes birds to be bolder, and even range outside of their usual habitats or territory. This is why we often see larger numbers of birds or more unusual birds in our gardens in winter, as our lovingly cared for and sheltered gardens offer a sanctuary for these hungry birds. 

So what is on the menu? 
Well most invertebrates have spent out their life-cycles before the cold weather struck, and the rest are tucked away hibernating, so picking out the spiders and bugs from their crevices is a tricky game of hide-and-seek. There are berries too, and weed seeds, although these were dwindling; either eaten already or rotting and washed away by the rain. 

People have been feeding garden birds for decades, enjoying not only the close views and companionship of the wildlife, but also the satisfaction of knowing they are helping the little creatures through a time that has historically been as hard for us as it is for them. 

Although a traditional food, bread is actually bad for birds, as it fills them up with bulk but almost no nutrition. Seed mixes, peanuts, suet balls and fat cakes, live or dried mealworms/insects are all available to buy from a variety of shops or suppliers to suit most budgets, or you can put out kitchen scraps such as cheese, fruit, bacon and other fats, pastry and even left over cooked potato.  (Don't forget that fresh water is vital to birds too, for both drinking and bathing in all weathers.)

In my own garden I feed sunflower hearts in hanging feeders which are popular with the tits, finches, and even a nuthatch. The robin has learnt to cling on to the perches to steal a few seeds too! 
For birds such as the dunnock and blackbird, I offer a mix of seeds, suet nibbles and dried mealworms on open trays, often supplemented with raisins, grated cheese or a very occasional treat of a handful of fruit-cake crumbs. The starlings gobble most offerings quite happily, however they are most fond of the fat-filled half-coconut-shells that I hang up. 

Today I added a new addition to this banquet. A few weeks ago, knowing my passion for wildlife, my parents gave me an unusual present. It was a chunky log with a number of holes drilled into it and a hook screwed into one end. This was my new bird feeder. 

This afternoon I decided to put it into action and make some 'bird cake'. 

My ingredients were:

- a block of lard, 
- dried mealworms,
- a small amount of mixed seed,
- some berries/fruit (I used the holly and ivy berries and rosehips off our christmas wreath, that had been abandoned outside the back door)

I put the lard in a hot place in the house for a few minuets, to soften just enough to be 'squishable' and allow me to mix in my other ingredients. I then simply crammed this delightfully sticky mixture into the holes in the log. I had some left over mixture, so strung an old little terracotta pot with strong string to enable me to hang it up, and filled it with the remaining mixture. Both feeders were hung in the garden to await the morning's hungry visitors. 

Monday, 12 January 2015

Bird Day

Sunday 11th January was the only fine sunny, dry day in a week of rain. Which was fortunate, as Sunday 11th January was also the day of the Midhurst Martlet's Bird Race! 
For those unfamiliar with the term 'Bird Race', the aim is to see as many species of bird in one day as possible, usually within set geographical parameters, often either competing against a previous tally, or other teams. The Sussex Ornithological Society run a sponsored 'New Year Bird Race' each year, with teams taking part during the first two weeks of January, across the county of Sussex. This year was the third occasion the Midhurst Martlets team, of which I am a member, has taken part. 

The core team of Hugh H, Peter P, Peter D, and myself met up for our usual 7.20am start, and we headed south from Midhurst, towards Selsey Bill and the sunrise, where we hoped to meet our additional team member 'honorary Martlet' Gary T. By the time we arrived at 8am, we had collected 10 common species - Robin, Blackbird, Carrion Crow for example, including our first raptor of the day, Kestrel, and had a very brief debate about whether or not we could count the Partridge pub as a species. 

Next came the tricky part of the day - extracting identifications of birds between the waves with a spot of sea-watching, the joy of which divided opinion on the team. Never-the-less, as Great Northern Diver, Red Throated Diver and Red Breasted Merganser, along with beach-loitering Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Great Black Backed Gull joined the list, our running total was rising well into double figures. 
But with a Bird race, time is everything and we had a long way to go! 
Church Norton was next, scrunching over the shingle at a low tide, the winter wind scouring the air clean of even the sea-mud smell. A Moorhen was skulking around the moat that circles the historic mound, a Jay called and a Raven answered with two of these large corvids flying back the way we had come. Waders were rapidly counted and ticked off the list, an obliging Spoonbill slept soundly on the far side of the channels, accompanied by a Little Egret. The shoreline produced a Common Gull, whist a couple of Song Thrushes were the sole occupants of the churchyard, (bar a friendly tortoiseshell cat who's eyes were full of imaginary mice). 

On the beach I also spotted a couple of shark or ray egg cases, known as 'mermaids purses', and quickly snapped some photos of (beside my notebook for scale) for later identification and reporting to The Shark Trust's Great Eggcase Hunt ( 

The second raptor of the day was a Sparrowhawk, attracted perhaps by the same Great Tit that attracted us to the feeders outside Sidlesham Visitor Centre. Ferry Pool was busy - a mass of Shelduck and Brent Geese, and (when our view was not blocked by passing lorries) we picked out a number of other ducks and waders, and a Buzzard. Three wintering Chiffchaff made it onto the list as we returned to our cars bound for Apuldram Church and Fishbourne Creek. Stonechats flittered from bramble bush to bramble bush, Yellowhammer fed around the straw pile by the stables, and the flickering dart of a Jack Snipe brought our total to the mid 50's. 

Time to head inland... but maybe a stop at Chichester Gravel Pits on the way is worth a try... after superb views of Kingfisher, and additional ticks of Pochard, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Red Crested Pochard and Long Tailed Tit, that would seem to be true!

At last we were bound for the Downs. 

It was in the fields below Burpham that we found the congregation of Bewick Swans, whilst above them an airport style stack of circling Red Kites populated the skies. Grey Partridge inspected us from the longer grass of a field at The Burgh (we decided we couldn't count Turkey!), whilst more Red Kites momentarily distracted us from what was turning into increasingly wintery weather. 

Pulborough Brooks provided our last few species, sadly not the hoped for Marsh Tit, Treecreeper and Nuthatch, but as dusk claimed the land, we were rewarded with a pair of Mandarin that whirred past, and the bat-like dash of Woodcock
In total we tallied up 88 species, plus a possible heard only Whimbrel at Church Norton and Fishbourne Creek which would nudge our score over to 89...

Having parted company with Gary T. at Waltham Brooks where we failed to persuade a water rail to drag our score up to 90, it was long after dark when the original team meandered back into Midhurst, to our respective houses, dinners and well deserved beds!

I must say thank you to Tina Pettifer and her friend, who we met over the view of the Bewick Swans, and who kindly donated £5 to our sponsorship. 

The award for best views of the day has to go to the Kestrels, not just spotted over the road on the first journey south, but hanging above our heads at Ferry Pool, and The Burgh also. With eyes pinned on the ground below them, each feather shifting and adjusting, they certainly lived up to their alternative name of Wind-Hover.