Back Garden Birdwatching
by Chris Alder
The purpose of this note is to show that, while many of the Society’s activities are currently curtailed, ornithology continues. I have provided some of the highlights of what various members of our Ornithology Special Interest Group have seen in their gardens or when out and about during their daily allowance of exercise during the latter part of March. Since when members have been exchanging the occasional email on what they have seen. Many birds have been of what might be considered in the normal range of a dozen or so common or garden (naturally) birds. Thus, we have on the 29th March in an Embsay garden; ‘Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Siskins, House Sparrows, Robins, Blue, Great, and Coal Tits, Dunnocks, Blackbirds, Wood Pigeons, Collared Doves, a Wren, and Starlings… Long-tailed Tits had been passing through frequently’. Noticeably absent from this list is Chaffinch, yet another previously common bird that has undergone significant declines in recent years.
The Starlings were of particular note as they were nest building and this will be quite early for Starlings[i]. Noting this observation can be of interest to the phenologically inclined and shows how even simple observations can be recruited to help with studying the bigger picture of bird behaviour. The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) run a project for those interested in contributing to the increased knowledge of bird nesting behaviour called Nesting Neighbours. This information can contribute to studies of major impact such as the way in which climate change is affecting the environment in, for example, potentially disconnecting bird breeding dates from the peak availability of brood food and other less obvious impacts[ii]. Another bird with an early nest was a Kilnsey Wren, our commonest bird, on the 19th March. Wren populations are very volatile, numbers rapidly reducing in harsh weather, but returning quickly in milder conditions[iii]. Consequently, careful monitoring of the population of this common bird is important for understanding its current conservation status.
Other first dates are also of interest in monitoring the success or otherwise of bird populations. On Threshfield Moor two members heard their first singing Skylark of the year on 16th March. This is well before the first broods are likely to be laid and was probably influenced by the balmy weather at that time. On the same date Curlews, Meadow Pipits, and Lapwing were all to be seen, but not yet displaying territory holding behaviour. Further indications of the nature of late March as a transitional time of year come from the sightings of both winter visitors, e.g. a small flock of Fieldfares flying over Grassington on 19th March, a Brambling in an Embsay garden on the 26th March and more Fieldfares near Embsay on the 29th March, and summer migrants. Chiffchaff was recorded in Embsay on 26th March. The Chiffchaff is primarily an early summer migrant, although a small number over-winter[iv].
Other noticeable late March garden sightings, noticeable because of the intrinsic attraction of the birds, their behaviour, or scarcity, included:
- Great Spotted Woodpeckers in Kilnsey on 19th, Gargrave on the 25th, and Grassington on the 28th demonstrating the behaviour, use of garden feeders, that may be accounting for some of the increase in their numbers in recent years.
- Reed Bunting, Goldcrest, Tree Sparrow in Gargrave on the 22nd – all uncommon as garden birds, and a Red Kite over Grassington. It is to be hoped that the latter does not succumb to the raptor persecution which is too common in North Yorkshire.
- Siskins in Embsay (29th) – another bird responding to the presence of bird feeders.
Whilst on their daily dose of exercise members have seen:
- Near Kilnsey on the 19th; a Kestrel, Pied Wagtails, returned from winter migration further south, Mallard, and a Little Egret. The latter is of particular interest as one has been seen on the Wharfe at different places across the winter. The presence of a previously continental bird so far north at this time of year is an obvious sign of climate change
- A Short-eared Owl near Kilnsey on the 25th. This could be a Scandinavian winter migrant, if a resident British bird it was one of an endangered population which is subject to intensive study[v].
- Canada, Greylag geese, and a pair of Buzzards, now the commonest largish bird of prey to be seen, near Grassington on the 28th.
- Finally, two Shelduck were seen near Embsay on the 29th. Whilst familiar birds on the coast by muddy shores, they are far less common inland by freshwater.
All these observations can contribute to the larger understanding of our changing bird populations if they are suitably reported, e.g. through the Wharfedale Naturalists Society Bird Reporter (contact me for details) and thence to the county report, or via BirdTrack –‘ BirdTrack is a free and convenient way of storing your bird records online. BirdTrack lets you keep up to date with what others are seeing, view the latest trends, and contribute your data to BTO science’.
Text and Images by Chris Alder
Based on observations by Joan and Chris Alder, Christine Bell, Win Clements, Josephine Drake, Clare Dunn, Ann Shaw, and Marg Smith.
[iii] Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Birds and Wildlife: Wren. (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/wren/, accessed on 14 April 2020)
[iv] Stancliffe, P. & Sterry, P. 2015. Collins / BTO, Collins BTO Guide to British Birds. London.
[v] BTO. Short-eared Owls: Mysteries revealed. (https://www.bto.org/about-bto/national-offices/scotland/short-eared-owls-mysteries-revealed, accessed on 14 April 2020)