Rural Dorset vs. Urban Manchester: Exploring Winter’s Wild Birds

Series in collaboration with guest writer Emma Rogan

Winter is a time when a stillness grips the landscape, activity slows, and nature slumbers. This said, if you know where to look at this time of year, life can still be found. Barn Owls hunting along rough edges at first light, chattering Starlings feeding in flocks in open spaces, or Robins fighting to defend their small territories. For birds, winter is a time when migrant visitors, such as Redwings and Fieldfare, mix with resident species, such as Greenfinches and Great-Spotted Woodpeckers. Side-by-side through cold spells and stormy showers, in cities and the countryside, these birds are staying busy to try to survive.

Last time in Rural vs. Urban, we explored the wildlife that live close to home and delved into their hidden lives, all through using simple camera traps. For Dorset-born naturalist Laura, camera trapping has allowed her to record and explore the species that live on her family’s 250 acre farm, opening up a world that would otherwise be overlooked. For Manchester-born wildlife enthusiast Emma, her highlights included seeing a Badger, a Hedgehog, and getting to know the frequent visitors to her garden, such as a lovely Blackbird couple. For both, camera trapping has been a great way to connect with nature, whilst acting as a form of escapism!

For this last instalment of the current Rural vs. Urban series, we are now in winter, with days of sparkling frosts, stormy skies, and low-hanging mist. Last weekend was the RSPB’s annual Big Garden Birdwatch, so for this week we explore the bird species that call our local patches home during winter. As bird species try to survive, what may differ between the challenges of a city and of a countryside landscape? Are there differences or similarities in the species seen or in their behaviour? Lets explore winter on the wing to find out!

Laura’s Rural Garden Bird Survey

Over the last few years, I have taken part each year in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and the BTO’s Garden BirdWatch in 2020, and have enjoyed gaining a deeper knowledge of the species that visit our garden all year round. Winter is one of the best times of year for a variety and abundance of species to be experienced in our garden, and at this time of year my parents and I often enjoy a lunchtime accompanied with birdwatching from our living room window.

So on the 12th December we did just that, spending 30 minutes recording the diversity and abundance of bird species we saw in half an hour. For such a short period of time, the bird feeders in our garden delivered, with 17 species, varying from Greenfinches and Robins to a Great-Spotted Woodpecker and Starlings! By far the most abundant species though was the Goldfinch, with 14 spotted at one time, closely followed by 12 Chaffinches and 9 Blue Tits. A very good representation of our garden’s winter visitors, just missing Long-Tailed Tits and Coal Tits, the latter being amiss this year!

Emma’s Urban Garden Bird Survey

I combined my bird count with the event of the year, the Great Garden Birdwatch! We sat down with cups of tea and my dad’s iPad to record our garden visitors and contribute to this important monitoring exercise.

Expecting our birds to use their sixth sense and avoid our garden for an hour, we were pleasantly surprised to see a lot of our regulars! The Robin stopped by, as did Mr and Mrs Blackbird, who come every day for their plate of mealworms. Our bird feeders are also popular with Coal Tits, Blue Tits and Great Tits, and of course the neighbourhood Squirrels! We also have a Nuthatch who visits frequently, nibbling at our bird feeders in his distinctive upside-down stance.

My absolute favourite though are the Long-Tailed Tits, they’re so round and fluffy! Although, I will always have a soft spot for our Dunnock, who we recognise by his extra-fluffy head feathers. Even a bird can have a bad hair day! Sadly though, our Woodpecker didn’t make an appearance.

Laura’s Countryside Bird Walk

Today (Sunday 9th January) was the first beautiful day of a new month and new year. Though the air was cold, it was calm and the sun was shining, a soft golden glow. Stepping out from my back door, I was immediately hit by an abundance of avian activity. Two Carrion Crows flew over my head, cawing as they went. Goldfinches chattered from the garden, hinting at a visit from a good sized flock. A Blue Tit sung its distinctive song, a Robin ‘ticked’ in alarm, and a Blackbird watched me from a nearby fence post. I could not miss this perfect opportunity to explore the bird life that could be found on my family’s land at this time of year.

First, I headed down to our farm buildings, joined by the chattering of Starlings feeding out in the nearby fields. As usual at this time of year, the still hulking forms of the barns were being brought to life by busy birds living alongside our wintering animals. House Sparrows could be heard singing in the eaves of the barn, complimented by Great Tits calling from a lone Hawthorn tree, Collared Doves flapping here and there, and a flash of a yellow rump as one of our resident Grey Wagtails was disturbed from where it was feeding. The only thing that could add to the scene would be a Barn Owl floating by, a common sighting at dawn on the farm.

Satisfied with my sightings on the farm, I then headed away from my home hub, following the tracks out into the wider expanse of our land. Here I could find birds flitting along the hedgerows, such as feeding Redwings and wary Wrens. and fields busy with bird feeding activity, including Gulls, Rooks, and Pheasants.

As Fieldfare flew over head, I finished my wintery walk with a meander along one of the larger rivers on the farm. Here I could see the first Snowdrops beginning to push green shoots up from the river bank, marking the start of changes to come. This was joined by the calls of Dunnocks and the twittering of Meadow Pipits out in the fields across the river. With a count of at least 22 bird species, I felt this was a good end to my adventure.

Emma’s City Bird Walk

Manchester is home to a huge variety of urban birds. From Herons and Cormorants fishing under motorway bridges along the River Mersey, to hardy Woodpigeons in the city centre, to garden birds drawn in by feeding stations, there is always something new to see! I always love to see how many birds I can spot when I’m out for a walk, and I find that watching the birds in my garden brings me a moment of peace in the middle of busy days.

For my bird walk, I decided to head to a different park for a change! I’m lucky to live in a part of Manchester with a lot of nearby green spaces, and one of these is Didsbury Park, one of the first municipal planned parks in the city, and redesigned in the 1920’s to include recreational features which still exist today. There is also thought to be an old air-raid shelter under the football pitch! The impact of both World Wars One and Two on the local area, just a small village when WW1 began, is commemorated by a beautiful poppy field mural in the park created by graffiti artist Russell Meeham, also known as Quebek.

Suffice to say, I’ve spent many happy hours in Didsbury Park, and my bird walk was no exception! Although, I didn’t have a lot of success at spotting birds. The highlight of the walk was wondering why a group of people were gathered around a particular bush and wandering over there, to find a flock of House Sparrows singing away! My Mum and Dad remember House Sparrows as the most common bird about when they were growing up, but we’ve never actually seen one in our garden. Sadly, their populations have declined substantially in the UK in both rural and urban populations.

It’s All About The Birds!

If you open your eyes, wherever you go during winter you will see life and activity. Though from Laura’s and Emma’s adventures, Laura experienced more bird activity out and about in the countryside, both currently have vibrant gardens. This is testament to how everyone’s gardens right now are a lifeline for our wildlife, whether you live in a bustling city or a quieter piece of the countryside. They provide a valuable home in a changing landscape and prove that we can all do our bit for nature. Why not put out a bird feeder and see what you can see today?

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