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?

How spring happened 2017-2019

Over the last few years, I have taken part in recording how spring has unfurled at my home in Dorset, for a citizen science scheme. As at the end of each spring I upload my results to an online site, in 2017 I decided that I should be writing my observations down for myself in my wildlife journal, making it easy to look back on them in the future.

Now I have recorded dates for many different wildlife spring events, from trees coming into leaf to the return of migrants, for 2017, 2018, and 2019. So here, I want to take a moment to look back at these and reflect on what they may show about spring and its current emergence, and if there is anything interesting we can take from this.

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Trees

In my local area, you can find a large variety of native and non-native tree species. Over the last 3 years, I have consistently made observations for 5 tree species: ash, sycamore, horse chestnut, pedunculate oak and silver birch.

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For the 5 tree species, some similar patterns can be observed from my recorded spring dates for the last 3 years. In 2018, a colder winter was experienced, with heavy snowfalls taking place in January, February and March. Evidently this had an effect on the timing of budburst, first leaf and first flowering for tree species, in comparison to the year before.

Budburst was 36 days later for ash trees (27/04/18), 10 days later for sycamore trees (08/04/18), 19 days later for horse chestnut trees (20/03/18), 21 days later for oak trees (18/04/18), and 26 days later for silver birch trees (12/04/18). The same amount of lateness was also seen with the first leaf and first flowering for these tree species in 2018.

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Due to the weather of spring 2018, this meant that when looking at how this year’s spring unfurled (2019) in comparison to last year, predictably budburst, first leaf and first flowering took place 4-53 days earlier than 2018. When comparing 2019 with 2017 though, I am able to get an idea of the average trend for the three years. For example, ash and silver birch events are getting later, as are horse chestnut flowering and sycamore first leaf. Sycamore, horse chestnut and oak generally show a trend though of spring events getting earlier, from a couple of days to a month.

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Shrubs

For shrubs, the selection I have been observing during spring each year are: blackthorn, dog rose, elder, hawthorn and lilac. From 2017-2019, a similar trend was predominantly observed in these species as with tree species.

In comparison to 2017, blackthorn first flowering was 14 days later in 2018 (30/03/18), elder budburst was 9 days later (13/03/18), elder first leaf was 23 days later (30/03/18) , hawthorn budburst was 33 days later (02/04/18), hawthorn first leaf was 6 days later (08/04/18), and lilac first flowering was 27 days later (07/05/18).

Then when looking at 2019, spring dates were earlier in comparison to 2018, with blackthorn budburst, first leaf and first flowering being 20, 9 and 29 days earlier, dog rose budburst, first leaf and first flowering being 22 and 29 days earlier, elder budburst, first leaf and first flowering being 9, 24 and 8 days earlier, hawthorn budburst and first flowering being 36 and 13 days earlier, and lilac first flowering being 14 days earlier.

Also, similarly to tree species, blackthorn and elder both showed that from 2017 to 2019 spring events have become earlier on average. Hawthorn and lilac showed the opposite trend though, with hawthorn first leaf and first flowering becoming later over the 3 years on average, if only by 7-13 days.

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Flowers 

In comparing spring between 2017, 2018 and 2019, it is evident that for many plant species the same trends have been shown from year to year. This is not true for all though, as between bluebells, cuckooflowers, lesser celandines, oxeye daisies, snowdrops and wood anemones, flowering times varied from being later in 2018 and earlier in 2019, to being earlier overall, or being similar overall.

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  • Bluebells flowered 17 days later in 2018 (13/04/18) than 2017, and then 10 days earlier in 2019 compared to 2018. From 2017 to 2019, this was 7 days later overall.

  • Cuckooflowers flowered 16 days later in 2018 (20/04/18) than 2017, and then 12 days earlier in 2019 compared to 2018. From 2017 to 2019, this was 4 days later overall.
  • Lesser celandines flowered 5 days earlier from 2017 to 2018 (24/02/18), followed by another 13 days earlier in 2019.

  • Snowdrops flowered 10 days earlier from 2017 to 2018 (10/01/18), followed by another 7 days earlier in 2019.
  • Wood anemones flowered around a similar date at the beginning of March each year.

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  • Oxeye daisies flowered around a similar date at the end of May each year.

Grasses

Grass species also showed a differing trend to tree and shrub species for 2017-2019, with a united pattern of flowering later each year. When observing spring events with grasses, I observe from year to year 4 species: cocksfoot, meadow foxtail, timothy, and yorkshire fog.

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Only timothy had observations made for 2017, and so in comparing with 2018, it was found to have flowered 18 days later (18/05/18). This is in line with comparisons between 2018 and 2019, where it was found that cocksfoot flowered 4 days later (30/05/19), meadow foxtail flowered 14 days later (15/05/19), timothy flowered 23 days later (10/06/19), and yorkshire fog flowered 14 days later (12/06/19).

Birds

Though I have started increasing my recordings of different bird species during spring, I only have records for 2+ years for rooks, blackcaps, chiffchaffs, house martins, song thrushes, cuckoos, and swallows.

  • Following the first snowfall of the year, rooks were first seen to be nest building 16 days earlier in 2018 (04/02/18) than 2017, but with no snow, this was 11 days later in 2019.
  • Blackcaps returned to my local area 12 days later in 2018 (11/04/18) than 2017.
  • Chiffchaffs returned 13 days later in 2018 (26/03/18) than 2017, following the last of the snow and cold weather. Consequently, in 2019 they returned 8 days earlier than 2019 (15/02/19), closer to the 2017 date.
  • House martins returned 12 days later in 2018 (25/05/18) than 2017, whilst being 31 days earlier in 2019 than 2018.
  • Male song thrushes were first heard singing in 2018 on 28/01/18, 8 days earlier than 2017. In 2019, this occurred a lot earlier though, 30 days earlier, falling on 29/12/18.
  • Male cuckoo heard calling at a similar time at the end of May in 2018 and 2019.
  • Swallows returned to my local area at a similar time at the end of March/beginning of April in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Insects

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In line with tree and shrub species, the first sightings recorded each spring of insects followed a general pattern of emerging later in 2018 than 2017, and earlier in 2019 than 2018. This was true for:

  • Brimstone butterflies – 13 days later on 14th April 2018 and 47 days earlier on 26th February 2019
  • Peacock butterflies – 14 days later on 20th April 2018 and 26 days earlier on 25th March 2019
  • Small tortoiseshell butterflies – 31 days later on 26th April 2018 and 25 days earlier on 1st April 2019
  • Speckled wood butterflies – 20 days later on 26th April 2018 and 4 days earlier on 22nd April 2019
  • Orange tip butterflies – 28 days later on 4th May 2018 and 33 days earlier on 1st April 2019
  • Red admiral butterflies – 27 days earlier on 22nd April 2019 
  • 7-spot ladybirds – 19 days later on 25th April 2018
  • Queen wasps – 47 days earlier on 31st March 2019
  • Red-tailed bumblebees – 13 days earlier on 21st April 2019

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Summary

With my love of spring, each year I have enjoyed recording the dates of when things happen during spring, such as the first swallow, first leaf or first elder flower. It has been satisfying now to be able to take a moment to put a few of my records together and take a look at how spring has unfurled over the last few years and what this could mean.

For some species, events are getting earlier, probably due to warmer temperatures earlier on in the year and during the winter before. For others, they are in fact getting later, which will be related to other weather and environmental factors here and further afield. Either way, the ‘norm’ is changing and it will be interesting to see how this could progress over the next few years to come.

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40 years of the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch: How can you get involved?

Next weekend the RSPB is holding its annual Big Garden Birdwatch. Many people may have heard of this event before and may have even participated in it (if so thank you), but many people may have never heard of it before though. Either way, with the event celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, I wanted to take a moment to look back at the Birdwatch’s interesting history, wide-ranging impact and more importantly how you could get involved this year to help make it the biggest year yet!

For those of you who may not know, the RSPB (standing for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) was founded in 1889 by ornithologist Emily Williamson with the aim of stopping birds being exploited for fashion. Over the following 130 years, the RSPB has grown in size and popularity, and among other things, has acquired at least 209 nature reserves, raised lots of money for conservation projects and created many popular events such as the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. Following its start as an event aimed at children in 1979 in collaboration with Blue Peter, the Birdwatch has now been running for an amazing 40 years, with the hope of many more years to come.

With over half a million people taking part each year now, the Big Garden Birdwatch has officially become the world’s largest wildlife survey. Clocking up over 8 million watch hours and more than 130 million bird sightings, the survey has amassed four decades worth of valuable results for the RSPB. What happens each year to these results though? Well once collated into one big data set they are analysed to monitor trends, and allow us to understand the state of British wildlife such as to identify species declines, and to help protect and conserve it.

To give you an idea of some of the basic results the Birdwatch can provide, lets take a look back at some of last year’s results published by the RSPB. To start, the top 10 garden birds in the UK and Northern Ireland in 2018 were found to be:

2018 big garden birdwatch results

(c) RSPB

  1. House sparrow
  2. Starling
  3. Blue tit
  4. Blackbird
  5. Woodpigeon
  6. Goldfinch (11% rise from 2017)
  7. Great tit
  8. Robin
  9. Long-tailed tit
  10. Chaffinch

The 2018 survey also showed big increases from the past year in the number of sightings of winter visitors, such as siskins and bramblings, and a 5% increase in greenfinch sightings. Despite house sparrows being the most commonly seen species in our gardens in 2018, since its beginning, the Big Garden Birdwatch has seen house sparrow sightings drop year on year, with a 57% decline over 40 years.

In relation to the survey itself though, since 1979 participants have increased in number from approximately 34,000 children to more than half a million individuals of all ages. Whatever your experience or knowledge of birds and wildlife, this is one event where anyone can now get involved. In addition to helping out the RSPB, this survey could also have wide ranging benefits for yourself too. For example it could:

  • Allow you to take a moment to appreciate what is in your garden or local green space
  • Aid your mental health by spending time out in nature and/or being mindful of your local wildlife
  • Allow you to get involved in citizen science where your involvement could have a big difference for scientific knowledge and species conservation
  • It is a bit of fun!

So, if you are interested in the world’s largest wildlife survey, how could you get involved? First, go to the ‘Bird Garden Birdwatch 2019’ section of the RSPB website and either request a free postal pack, download a counting form and bird ID guide or decide to complete the Birdwatch online. Then pick a day between 26th-28th January to sit and watch the birds in your garden or local green space. Follow the rules for counting the birds, and when your hour is complete either send your results to the RSPB by post or online. How you do your Birdwatch though is entirely up to you. It’s simple!

 

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As a result, the Big Garden Birdwatch has now helped to inspire many new generations of birdwatchers and I can say that I am included among them. This was evident at the age of 12, when I decided to write a piece for my local magazine trying to get more people (even then) involved in the Birdwatch. Though my knowledge, writing and understanding of the world has come a long way over the last 11 years, my passion for wildlife, its conservation and its communication have remained the same. So why not listen to 12 year old Laura, do the same as me, and take part in this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch!

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This blog post has been written independently from the RSPB, but all RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch resources and facts used in this blog post, such as seen in the photos of the resources included in the postal pack I received, are entirely the property of the RSPB

 

Barmy about barn owls: Owl pellets

Currently we have at least one pair of resident barn owls on our 250 acre Dairy Farm, with one notable pair being seen amongst our farm buildings and fields closest to the centre of the farm.

On 26/05/16, I found a barn owl pellet within our straw barn, which was at least 1 month old. Through my interest in barn owls and the other species living on our farm, I then soaked the pellet and teased it apart to find the small mammal bones within.

The pellet was filled with lots of bones, such as shoulder blades, hipbones, femurs and humeri.

From the skulls and jaw bones found in the pellet, I was able to identify the four skulls to species level. Two skulls were from common shrews…

…and two skulls were from field voles.

It was really interesting to be able to get closer to the small mammals that can be found on our farm, whatever the level of species abundance. It also gave me the opportunity to brush up on my skull and bone identification skills with the help of an RSPB owl pellet identification guide, which can highly recommend to others

(https://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/Owlpellets_tcm9-133500.pdf). 

I also recommend to others to get out at this time of year and to find your own owl pellets to learn more about the owls and prey species in your local area.

Winter into spring: April on the farm

April is one of my favourite months of the year on the farm. During April, the Dorset countryside begins to burst into new life. Newborn lambs bounce in the fields, newborn calves snooze in the fields in the spring sunshine, birds begin to nest and raise a new generation, and flowers carpet the woodlands.

Plants this April still followed a trend of being late, with some woodlands not becoming decked out in their full splendour during this month like in past years. Still Bluebells, wild garlic, early purple orchids and late wood anemones began to coat the woodland floor. Also, the woodland ferns began to unfurl in the woods later than usual.

During this April, trees were very much still late, with sycamore and silver birch finally bursting into leaf. Oaks were noticeably asynchronous in their bud burst, with some trees on there way to being in full leaf and others yet to start.

April saw the main crop of migrants arriving on warm winds. This year our barn swallows returned on April 6th, exactly the same date as in 2015! By the time we were fully into April, bird breeding pairs had been firmly established, and the nesting season for many bird species was fully under way. During April, more birds can be heard singing at dawn than any other time of year, which is quite magical to hear.

This year the tawny owls are breeding later than last year, but by the end of April the first hissing calls of tawny owl fledglings could be heard resonating through Dorset woodlands.

Life could be seen blooming everywhere throughout April. Dog violets and cowslips, among other species, were seen flowering along roadside banks.

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Brimstone butterflies, orange tip butterflies, and peacock butterflies all began to emerge during the first half of April.

Throughout April, I made myself busy amongst the mounds university revision, by setting up my camera trap at different popular sites around our farmland. It was amazing to see the first badger cubs emerge from their den, and even more special to me, was being able to watch fox cubs beginning to explore above ground with their siblings, during the second half of the month. Fox cubs have to be my highlight of beautiful April!

 

Winter into spring: March on the farm

With the month of March comes the arrival of spring, symbolising the start of another year’s new growth and a transition following the bleaker winter months. March has often been associated with the saying ‘comes in like a lion, goes out like a lion’, referring to the weather. This was true about this March, with wild weather and strong winds featuring at the beginning of March, before the weather becoming more calm as the month progressed.

As traditional, during March, wildfowl made a sudden departure, fox cubs were born, buzzards established breeding orders, hawthorn and elder broke into leaf, small tortoiseshells emerged, nest building began, small warblers such as chiffchaffs returned from Africa, crocuses flowered, summer visitors began to return, and winter migrants began to migrate to their summer territories.

Though primroses, daffodils, celandines and blackthorn first flowered during February, it was nice to see all these flowers still blooming throughout March. Song birds during March could be heard singing, and the first woodland flowers began to come out at the end of March. The traditional ‘Mad’ March hares also made an appearance, with females resisting the advances of amorous males.

The beginning of Spring is symbolised by lengthening days and increasing temperatures. At the end of March, with the clocks going forward an hour, lengthening days were fulfilled, but this year the increasing temperatures did not make an appearance during March. After the stormier weather at the beginning of March, a cold spell set in, halting the advancement of Spring. This was symbolised with sycamore and silver birch being late coming into leaf, wood anemones and ferns being late to come out in the woods, and Blackbirds nesting late.

On the farm, new lives began during March. Aberdeen Angus suckler cows gave birth to their calves and three of our four mules gave birth to lambs, highlighting one of my favourite parts of the farming calendar.

My highlight of March was beginning to use my new Bushnell camera trap to photograph and video the wildlife on the farm, including the local badgers.

Winter into spring: February on the farm

February is often described as the bleakest month, with the land still gripped in winter and the coldest temperatures often being reached. It cannot be ignored though, that February also brings the promise of coming spring, with the feeling in the air beginning to change, as the month progresses.

Some mornings a light frost can be woken up to, but still frosts are less frequent this winter, than they used to be.

Plants are beginning to stir in February, with catkins (male flowers) hanging from hazel trees, celandines appearing, pussy willow flowering, primroses flowering, and gorse flowering in the hedgerows.

This year on our farm though, blackthorn is flowering early in February, along with horse chestnut trees already coming into bud and the buds beginning to burst.

Animals are beginning to become more active in February, with brown hares becoming easier to see in the fields, rabbits becoming ‘frisky’, female foxes being pregnant, and grey squirrels giving birth in their drays. Also, badgers are beginning to give birth to cubs too, with the most obvious sign of this being remains of grass seen around the entrance tunnels to setts, left from where badgers have dragged grass down into their setts to make nests.

As well at this time of year, starling flocks begin to disperse, as individuals head back to their breeding ranges and rooks begin to build their nests in preparation for breeding. The drumming sound of great spotted woodpeckers can now be heard more frequently, as males defend their territories against other males and attempt to attract a female. This is the same with the dawn chorus, as in February it begins to pick up, due to males defending their territories and advertising themselves to available females.

Conditions were mild towards the end of February this year, leading to insects, such as honeybees and butterflies beginning to become active.

In relation to the farm side of life, in February our four sheep were brought inside in preparation for iconic spring lambing at the end of March.

My highlight of February, was beginning to hear blackbirds singing at dawn and dusk as the month came to an end, which is a traditional sign that winter is over.

Winter into spring: January on the farm

January is often a cold and bare month, no leaves on the trees and an atmosphere of dormancy. But I say, if you just look closely enough, beauty is still there to be found.

January is the month when snowdrops begin to spring from the earth, hinting at the new life that is to come with spring.

Trees stand bare and leafless, showing off their magnificent skeletal shapes.

The last of the autumn’s berries still laden the hedgerows throughout January this year, in particular bright red rose hips.

As well, windfalls still lie beneath the apple trees from last years crop, ready for the taking. Badgers make frequent trips to the orchard to take advantage of the food source, and all that can be seen as evidence of these raids, are the discarded left overs of apples out in the nearby fields.

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Many gulls feed on the farmland fields during the daytime, with the flocks being mainly made up of herring gulls and great-black backed gulls. Usually also during the winter, flocks of starlings feed around the farm, but they only appeared for the first time this winter, near the beginning of January. Currently they can be seen flocking on the fields to feed or chattering away in the trees around our farm buildings. As well, iconic of this time of year, fieldfares and redwings can be seen feeding in the fields.

During the daytime, lots and lots of birds visit the bird feeders in the garden, to feed on peanuts and mixed seed. These bird species include, blue tits, chaffinches, great tits, goldfinches, house sparrows, dunnocks and great spotted woodpeckers.

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During the night at this time of year, tawny owls can be heard calling, as they attempt to rekindle pair bonds before the breeding season begins from February onwards. Also, female foxes can be heard calling to males, as they become receptive for mating.

Some mornings are woken up to a frost covered landscape. It makes things look particularly magical with the ground sparkling in the morning sunshine. With changes in winter weather though, these mornings have become rare in Dorset during this winter.

This January, change is in the air. Not the change of tradition, but change that feels wrong. Daffodils began to shoot from the beginning of January and primroses appeared in the hedgerows.

My highlight of January 2016 has to be, seeing a lone kestrel hunting close to our house everyday. A magnificent sight to see a bird hovering, still in mid air, before swooping down to catch a vole.

Gorgeous great spotted woodpeckers

Every year, during the breeding season, I am lucky to have great spotted woodpeckers returning to my family’s garden to feed on peanuts from our bird feeders.

In my opinion, great spotted woodpeckers are beautiful birds with colourful markings and a distinct call.

In particular, I love to watch the birds fly to our garden in pairs from our nearby wood, and as the season progresses, seeing one of the pair come less and less, leading to eventually seeing them both return together with their chicks to feed them from the feeders.

This year I saw a couple of different pairs using our feeders, and a number of chicks being bred as well. I loved being able to watch the birds from my window, seeing a parent collecting peanuts from the feeder and flying to the chick hiding at the edge of the garden, before being fed.

Nearer the end of the season, with chicks dispersing, the parents began coming less and less, until the same older chick was seen coming to feed in our garden daily.

Last week i took some photos of the youngster on two consecutive days and the second day was the last time i saw a great spotted woodpecker feeding in our garden.

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Brilliant barn owls

When I arrived back home a week ago from my first year of uni, I was told that my friend had seen a pair of barn owls on my home farm. These owls were seen to be using a barn owl box that had been put up by my Dad a couple of months ago. As barn owls had been seen by my family and myself on our dairy farm before, this year my Dad had decided he wanted to give them a helping hand, in the hope that they would use our box to breed. The news that it was possibly being used already, excited me. Consequently, I wanted to see for myself that the box was actually in use, and planned a barn owl box stake out the following evening.

I headed to where the box was situated at 20:45 and positioned myself in a cubicle barn across from the box, where I could look through a gap up at the box and surrounding possible perches. Patiently I waited, with no sign of either adult birds, though I could hear an individual screeching noise coming from the box, which made me aware that an adult bird was present.

After a period of only blackbirds, magpies and pheasants being heard, I heard a screech come from the nest box, followed by an adult female barn owl flying out of the entrance hole of the box, and landing on a metal roof truss a couple of metres from the box. After a few minutes of the female scoping her surroundings, she flew a couple of metres further, perching on a second roof truss. There she preened her feathers, stretched and defecated, before returning back to the nest box.

It was amazing to actually got to see the female up close, closer than I had ever seen one before. From this sighting, I could deduce that the female was going through the processes of incubation, though I cannot say at what point the female started sitting. On my walk back home from the barn, I disturbed the male who had been sat on a bank of grass not too far off from the barn.

I am looking forward to keeping an eye on the pairs’ process, and a family friend who is a licensed bird ringer is hoping to make a visit to us at the end of June to check the barn owl box. If there are chicks and they are big enough, he is hoping ring them. I cannot wait!