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January 31st- RSPB Garden Birdwatch 2021

The annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is always a pleasure and never more so than this year, knowing it was carried out in the company of tens of thousands of others. The annual frustration of not seeing the usual species I’m sure many will identify with! But this year was actually very representative of our daily garden birdlife.

Conditions were ideal with a low of -5C around dawn with the temperature reading -3.5C when I began recording. Through the hour I noticed several waves of feeding- it was actually rather quiet for about quarter of an hour after the initial feeding frenzy. Bramblings were perhaps stars of the show with 4 appearing in this rather lean year for the species. Our goldcrest duly turned up to feed on the fat spread on the branches of the Christmas tree. The marsh tits just made it on time, five minutes from the end! I decided to carry on recording unofficially to see how many species we could attract and we managed 26 species actually in the garden through the day with 23 recorded in the survey time.

Each time I take part in the Garden Birdwatch I think why don’t I do this every week? You learn so much about feeding habits and always see something new- for instance the nuthatch is a regular garden visitor here but this morning we saw one on the window feeder for the first time. The slight competitive edge to it can be thrilling, particularly if something different shows up in the last few minutes or seconds. Here are the scores in order of appearance for our garden in Gilling East, 8.30-9.30am.

Coal tit   2

Blue tit 5

Great tit 4

Chaffinch17

Brambling 4

Blackbird 8

Great- spotted woodpecker 1

Long-tailed tit   12

Nuthatch   2

Woodpigeon   5

Magpie   2

Carrion crow   1

Pheasant   5

Robin  2

Tree sparrow   6

Collared dove   1

Dunnock   3

Greenfinch   2

Wren   1

Jackdaw   1

House sparrow   1

Goldcrest   1

Marsh tit   1

Other species seen outside survey time, goldfinch, fieldfare and starling.

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January 25th- goldcrest on the Christmas tree and blackbirds going to roost

A goldcrest started to visit our bird table a week or so ago. It feeds on tiny fragments of fat balls. It is often disturbed by larger birds so yesterday I decided to use our Christmas tree which is still in surprisingly good condition. I stood it up on the patio, close to the window, and sprinkled its outer branches with finely crumbled fat ball. It was an instant success. The goldcrest immediately used the dense cover of the tree and of course looked at home in coniferous habitat giving us exceptionally close and prolonged views of this tiny bird.

Goldcrests are remarkable. It was wonderful to observe at close quarters the agility with which it explores the densely needled branches of the Christmas tree. I couldn’t help wondering if this bird is a local or a migrant. It is well known that goldcrests cross the North Sea from Scandinavia in the autumn and of course return there to breed in the spring. When you see a goldcrest well this feat seems truly astonishing. It has been interesting to compare it with other birds; long-tailed tits minus the tail are a very small bodied bird, but next to a goldcrest they look big and it is dwarfed by a blue tit.

We’ve had some very hard frosts over the last few nights and little thaw by day. Our pond has ice at least 5cm thick now. The sunsets have been cold and beautiful. Standing outside with the temperature already below freezing as the sun goes down I feel the conditions that animals have to survive. They face a 15 hour night of sub zero temperatures. If they haven’t had sufficient food they might not see the next morning. Blackbirds gather loosely, “chink-chinking” away to each other as the light fades. Blue tits roost alone in holes; they love our house martin nest boxes to roost in. As small birds go to roost the tawny and little owls begin to call and if I am lucky I see a woodcock fly to the fields behind the house.

I treasure the experience of cold winter dusks. As the light in the south western sky fades I retreat to light the fire and ponder the raw struggle for survival faced by animals outside.

 

Goldcrest in our Christmas tree.
Blackbirds just before roost.
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January 23rd- sketching the spectacular nuthatch!

We find ourselves isolating still; fortunately nobody is ill but it is now 5 days of waiting for test results, so there has plenty of time to study garden birds. We are very fortunate to be close to Gilling woods and have a good selection of birds visiting. Daily maximums include 4-5 marsh tits, 2 nuthatch and a regular flock of 16 long- tailed tits stable at this number for weeks now. A pair of bramblings still visit, probably birds from a flock that feeds in a nearby maize field. Recently a goldcrest has started to visit the bird table to feed on crumbled fat balls- exquisite.

I spent some time making detailed studies of nuthatches this week. These are worked up studies, very much from life observation but made from the comfort of the studio. Each time one lands on the bird table I find myself struck by its beauty. Not just the colouration but its shape, so unique amongst garden birds. Their fast and bold arrival at the feeders often sees other small birds scatter. Earlier today the male nuthatch came out of nowhere and planted himself right in the middle of a flock of long-tailed tits on the peanut feeder; there was a ‘bomb burst’ of pink, white and black! What a contrast of two species just a few feet from where I stood. Nuthatches, long-tailed tits and our marsh tits are all very tame and allow very close approach when we are in the garden.

Nuthatches are becoming increasingly vocal now as they begin to establish territories. The male is looking pristine with rich terracotta flanks contrasting blue grey upperparts, the female is basically a toned down version of the male. At a time when so many species are in decline it is nice to report that the nuthatch is a species doing extremely well; expanding in range and population in the UK.

The variety of plumage colours on our bird table at the moment rival any selection in other habitats at anytime of year and I’m sure many of us have never been so grateful for the beauty of our garden birds.

 

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January 20th- bramblings come to the garden and robins sing their spring song again

We are isolating again, awaiting test results, so find ourselves restricted to watching garden birds. In the last few days a male and female brambling have started visiting the feeders. Judging by their flight line they are commuting back and forth between the small flock that is feeding in a maize field on the edge of Gilling woods.

The male is gorgeous, really deep, rusty orange. The upperparts are wearing down to black. This type of moult is called abrasive moult. Gradually the outer tips of the feathers wear down to reveal more of the colour of the inner feathers. In bramblings this means the upperparts of the male will eventually turn jet black in time for the breeding season. Its bill will also turn black. Male bramblings are striking in winter but become even more so by the time they arrive back on their Scandinavian breeding grounds in May. The female by contrast is very pale with a soft peachy orange breast and fawn and grey upperparts.

Bramblings love black sunflower seeds. I prefer to feed these in their husks which keeps the kernel cleaner and perhaps more likely free from contamination with disease.

Robins have been very conspicuous in the last few days with chases and territorial disputes commonly seen around the garden. They are seen in pairs more often. The rather melancholy winter song has been replaced by a louder spring song as males guard their new territories and attempt to secure a mate. At first light this morning two males were singing with great gusto either side of the garden.

 

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January 18th- snow in watercolour

I have spent the last few days enjoying, observing and sketching snow. We feel so lucky to have experienced a good fall of 4-5 inches last Thursday. My local sketching project which started at the beginning of April 2020 is now over eight months in. I have been fortunate to record the seasons within a couple of miles of home; it has been amongst my most rewarding painting projects. I have filled fifteen sketchbooks and accumulated scores of unframed watercolours including several large sub projects, all local.

Since April when I decided to make the project a year in duration I wondered whether we would be lucky enough to have a good covering of snow and the last couple of weeks have fulfilled my hopes. If forced to choose I would pick snow as my favourite weather; if it is forecast during darkness I find it hard to sleep as I gaze at nearby lights to watch for the first falling flakes and I am out in the snow at the earliest opportunity. This time more than ever before I have observed the new compositions created by snowfall, a consequence of walking the same route again and again. Familiar features are accentuated in an entirely new and beautiful way.

 

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January 14th- more snow

We awoke to about two inches of snow which became around four inches by mid morning. A slow thaw set in late morning, but now it is all freezing up again. A long exercise/work walk this morning from home, first around the woods and then along the Holbeck. Familiar scenes are entirely new compositions in the snow. After the walk Tolly and I  did some 3D figurative sculpture work in the garden! I am so inspired in the snow I hardly know where to start, so many sketches made today including this simple watercolour started in the field and finished back in the studio. More soon.

Holbeck in snow- January 14th
Some 3D sculpture work
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January 13th- blue and long-tailed tits

I’ll be honest, I have looked at other birders’ lockdown lists and felt quite envious. Assuming they are sticking to the rules there are some impressive local exercise bird lists. But balancing this my more considerate side says “stop, think how lucky you are”, and this is true. I may not have coast or even wetland large enough to hold more than a few mallard, but I have mixed woodland, a stream, damp meadow and some wonderful views on my doorstep. To walk with my 8 year old son and see this world through a child’s eyes is also deeply informative and enriching. He is not craving more unusual species but delights in the everyday things.

There is however one species I must confess to missing even when our wonderful locality is taken into account- the lapwing. Each winter I look forward spending hours sketching flocks of lapwing. The variety of plumage in a winter flock is astonishing. This relatively common (but seriously declining) wader is surely a contender for Britain’s most beautiful bird? There is also the experience of being out in the cold listening to the flock, studying reflections, seeing it rise when disturbed and enjoying watching the birds settle again. We do however have one or two breeding pairs ten minutes or so walk from the door and it will thrilling, hopefully, to see them return in February or March…

But today I sat in my warm studio and enjoyed sketching blue and long- tailed tits. The long-tailed tits are on the feeders for a larger proportion of the day, probably several different flocks visiting in turn. I have been watching them feed in a bird cherry tree (Prunus padus) which I planted outside my studio. The tree has been established for just three years now but has proved to be a magnet for birds. In autumn chiffchaffs loved feeding on the aphids in its leaves. The now bare branches continue to attract birds. The long-tailed tits explored every branch of the tree today a few feet from where I work.

Some local male blue tits are changing their behaviour as the days lengthen. Many are singing now and some are investigating nest sites, displaying to passing females as they do so. Male blue tits have a beautiful gliding display flight often performed in the vicinity of a potential nest site.

So, as I read impressive lockdown bird lists on Twitter this evening I shall remind myself how lucky I am. There are so many people out there, perhaps some of you reading this now, who would be so grateful to be able to see half of what I can see each day.

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January 9th- snow at last

It snowed and snowed yesterday, but unfortunately at Gilling’s lowly sea level height snow fell snow upon thawing snow, snow upon thawing snow. I looked with envy at photographs of deep snow at higher elevations only a few miles from here. But there was enough settled snow early in the morning to see the Holbeck and surroundings white, so I set off to revisit a favourite view which I have painted frequently since the first lockdown.

The Holbeck is now flowing fast and the surrounding fields are waterlogged beneath a layer of ice. I knelt in the snow and sketched in watercolour using a flask of warm water to unfreeze the paint on my palette; the silence accompanying the falling snow here was beautiful, perhaps especially in this time of unbearable news. Watercolour does some really wonderful things in freezing temperatures. The experience of painting outside in snow cannot be replicated in the studio; my fingers numbed eventually to the point where I wrestled to keep control of the brush.  Walking back I didn’t hear any birds until I approached the village where great tits and blue tits were singing their full spring song. the days are getting longer and signs of spring are gradually accumulating. But for now I am relishing each day of winter.

When the snow stopped in the evening, skies cleared and everything froze solid. We awoke this morning to a hard crust of frozen melting snow and very hungry garden birds. There was a fieldfare down on the lawn at first light, sixteen long-tailed tits on the bird table and marsh tits dashing back and forth all day. The trip to buy some essential shopping required one of the longest car defrosting sessions I can remember. Opening the doors took several minutes, wipers were encased in big lumps of ice, the road beneath treacherous. But as I scraped I listened to the first drumming great-spotted woodpeckers. Driving to Helmsley my eyes were drawn to the moors beyond, clean white, but I am unable to visit them for now.

 

A frozen watercolour palette- Holbeck, Gilling East
Studio painting immediately on return from field sketching.
Watercolour- frozen solid
Fieldfare in snow
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January 7th- redwings, fieldfares and woodcock

The cold has brought redwings and fieldfares into the village in greater numbers. I have put windfall apples down and the blackbirds have been challenged by a larger member their family for the first time this winter; fieldfares have no problem seeing them off. One beautifully marked bird was a regular visitor today. It was a luxury to use my studio as a warm hide from which to make these studies. A redwing appeared for a while but was too shy to descend to the lawn. Its feathers were extremely fluffed up , the temperature at the time still -3C. These winter thrush species are not unexpected in cold weather, but they always add a touch of Scandinavian wildness to the garden; I know that as soon as there is a hint of a thaw they will be gone again, back out into the fields to feed on invertebrates so I make the most of their presence.   

In the second half of the gloaming I can sit in my studio and see woodcock fly between the woods to the south and the damp fields to the north of the garden. They fly very fast twisting as they go on arched wings. When they are low I can clearly hear the air moving over their stiff flight feathers. I would love to be able to see them feeding in the flooded fields at night. In the winter of 2010/11 and living in Ampleforth at the time, we were very fortunate to be able see a woodcock feeding area from our house, a spring which remained unfrozen in severe frost. I remember several nights when the moonlight was so bright I could comfortably watch them feeding in the snow. One evening a little owl made an attempt at catching one, ambitious to say the least, but also a measure of how hungry animals were in that very cold December. Bobbing woodcock feeding on moonlit snow with Orion sailing majestically above, still amongst my most memorable birding experiences.

 

Woodcock in January gloaming.
Extremely fluffed up redwing and fieldfare in garden.
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January 5th- counting long-tailed tits and roosting blackbirds

Tolly and I had a conversation this morning about counting long-tailed tits; more particularly about how difficult it is! There are often more on and around the feeders than you think. Pink and white balls of fluff with pied pin-tails sticking out can easily fool the eye; one or two retreat to cover, another flies in from elsewhere to join the feeding frenzy, meanwhile there are more even further away, newly arrived or just ready to depart. Essentially though, they all arrive and leave the garden together.

Yesterday we saw them come from a nearby hedge. They gathered in a large cotoneaster before descending in ones and twos to the feeders. This was our chance, counting them as they flew in the same direction across a gap to the feeders. Fifteen we counted, one after the other! Once the flow had stopped and they were all on the feeders it was impossible to recount them accurately, but we had recorded a maximum. They have been visiting the feeders very frequently during this cold week. The temperature has struggled two or three degrees above freezing at best and ice remains thick on the pond we built last summer. Once again facing a new more severe lockdown, birds will help us through. The whole family is home working again and feeders have been moved so we can all see birds.

The year has started cold. Our part of North Yorkshire has been pummeled by frequent wintry showers. They are falling readily as snow on the hills and moors. It is wonderful to see the white hills just above Ampleforth in the morning. I still long for a good covering of snow here in Gilling, but with the air coming off the relatively warm North Sea it is not quite cold enough. Having established that we will all be working at home again we will find a new routine. Exercise in the form of brisk local walks for Tolly and I will start tomorrow and the lockdown blogging will resume in earnest.

 

Blackbirds just before roost on new year’s day.