• Charlie Moores

Big Garden Birdwatch

While I have said I was doing my best not to turn this site into a personal bird blog (Jo’s writing is far too good for anyone to want that to happen anyway), I can’t not make an exception for a quick post about the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch (BGBW), which takes place between the 29th and 31st of January (this weekend in other words).

For anyone living under a rock, off-grid, or - of course – not in the UK who may not have heard of the BGBW before, all the information you could ever need is on the RSPB’s website . Essentially though it’s a citizen science project, where us citizens spend an hour collecting a ‘snapshot’ of the birds coming into our gardens (or to our balconies or whatever patch we can monitor). This is the 42nd year it’s taken place and thousands upon thousands of sightings have been collated now, allowing for trends in so-called ‘common birds’ to be tracked. So-called because even some of our supposedly most resilient and abundant species have been showing some alarming population declines. While they still lead the ‘Top Ten’, according to RSPB figures, since 1979 when counting began “House Sparrows are down 53%, while Starlings are down 80%”. There have been falls in other garden favourites, too, with Blackbirds and Robins down 46% and 32% respectively.

What we do about declines like that is a more difficult question to answer, but a good start would be to end our national obsession with tidying the life out of our gardens, allow wildflowers to grow in our lawns, and let invertebrates survive rather than pumping money into the coffers of the pesticide manufacturers. Besides, forewarned is at least forearmed…

Anyway, I filled up our feeders, sucked up the cold, sat for an hour on the bench where (hint, hint) Jo and I record our podcasts (now that we’ve got your attention please have a look at Voices) and made the chronological notes below of what was in, over (the Redwings, corvids and pigeons), or heard (the Wren) from our garden on what was a typically grey, miserable sort of a January day.

I know, my handwriting is awful, so I’ll translate them into legible.

  • Robin: 2

  • Blue Tit: 10+

  • Great Tit 10+

  • Jackdaw 10+

  • Chaffinch: 5

  • Nuthatch: 2

  • Greenfinch: 8

  • Rook: 2

  • Wood Pigeon 10+

  • Marsh Tit: 1

  • Long-tailed Tit: 5

  • Dunnock: 1

  • Goldfinch: 4

  • Great-spotted Woodpecker: 2

  • Blackbird: 1 (female)

  • Redwing: 2

  • Wren: 1 (heard only)

  • Herring Gull (probably superfluous to add it was flying over and not on the feeder...)

Not an especially inspiring list, but that’s partly the point. The BGBW isn’t about finding rare birds, as I said it’s about seeing how our ‘common’ birds are doing. Having said that, Marsh Tits, which we see most days, are quite unusual (they were Red Listed in 2002 following large declines), but I hadn’t realised quite how unusual in local terms until a random tweet was answered just 45 minutes later by the RSPB (for which I’m very grateful)

Now data is data and lists have their use, but perhaps more interesting are the (*cough*) astute and remarkably insightful notes below which I scrawled when I should have been looking for Coal Tits, because focussing for an hour on anything appears to be increasingly difficult …

So, it seems that as I’ve got older I’m finding it harder to tell the difference between the orangey-red of a Robin and the more pinky-red of a male Chaffinch on an almost dark day (an admittance which I guess might sink my chances of ever having a briefly-seen vagrant Scarlet Rosefinch waved through the Records

Committees, but it is what it is…)

What was unmissable were the plumage variations between the same species at this time of year. Male and female Blue and Great Tits are subtly different anyway (males are generally brighter and more well-marked), but older, experienced males come into full breeding plumage earlier than younger, less experienced birds and there were some absolute bobby-dazzlers in the bushes this morning. I’m guessing that a bit of sexual excitement is beginning to mount in the avian world as the days lengthen…

‘Goldfinches are bullies’? Ah, yes. Goldfinches really do seem to be the most truculent of all the species visiting our little patch. They flex their little shoulders, hiss and jab their pointy bills across the sunflower seeds like saloon bar drunks defending their pints – but like most bird bullies when they’re faced by something with a serious dagger for a bill (like a Nuthatch) they scarper quick time. Still, they are really pretty birds with lovely songs, which is why a group of them is called a ‘charm’ (rather than ‘gang of little thugs’ which is how I tend to think of them when I’m over-anthropomorphising).

And that was my hour. It’s quite striking how different things seemed just a week ago when I stood in the sun and recorded some twenty species on call alone, but that was an anomaly really. Thousands and thousands of records taken year after year smooths out the lumps and bumps and produces really useful data, so if you’ve an hour to spare why not contribute. We might think that individually we’re not really adding anything useful but when all those sighting are added together we’re actually doing something incredibly important. After all, if we don’t know that thing’s are going wrong, we won’t know that we need to put them right again.

Common Ground

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© 2021  Jo Hanlon-Moores & Charlie Moores