Whereas the late summer and early Autumn may have given us small numbers of birds in our gardens, winter weather brings the feeding flocks of Tits and other passerines in to food sources that may not be so readily available elsewhere. Our resident bird populations are topped up by continental immigrants, not just the Redwings which and have come in small flocks this year but Blackbirds and Chaffinches and even Robins. Our familiar breeding birds therefore may not be the individuals that graced our winter gardens.
With our garden birds come their predators and in one week we received three photographs of Sparrow Hawks. Most of our Sparrow Hawk photos are of the brown females which favour a diet of pigeon on which they may stay to feed but Kit and Alison Farrow managed to get this picture of the much smaller and colourful male. The males specialize on small birds that they may find at our bird tables so their visits are often fleeting and rapid with the only evidence being the agitation of the small birds that escaped. Kit Farrow was lucky to get the photo opportunity. Their colouration has led watchers to mistake them for Merlins which are birds of coasts and moorland and unlikely to be seen here.
Brian Green has provided this photograph of a Goldfinch. Goldfinches have been one of the conservation successes in recent years when other passerines such as Greenfinches and House Sparrows have been declining. In part this is due to Nyjer seeds in our garden feeders which has proved to be a favourite.
Goldfinches have an interesting history. From the middle ages they were much favoured as a cage bird as they are pretty and would sing and they would unkindly be taught to draw water out of a bucket with a string. There is a famous picture of a Goldfinch in the Mauritzhuis in the Hague by Rembrandt’s pupil Carel Fabritius of a Goldfinch with a bucket indicating this activity and indeed one of the local names it was given was the Draw Bird. The caging was so popular that the Goldfinch population became severely depleted in the
nineteenth century and it was one of the first birds to be prioritized by the RSPB after the Protection of Birds act in 1880.
Another name for the Goldfinch was Thistle Bird from its liking for thistle down. Its Latin name is Carduelis carduelis (Carduus is the Latin for a Thistle!) As a result of this it appears in a large number of devotional pictures from the middle age Italian Renaissance, the most famous of which is the Madonna of the Goldfinch by Raphael in the Uffizi in Florence. The legend has it that the red area on the bird’s face came from the blood of Christ when it plucked a thorn from his crown, and this has given this very lovely bird a special significance.
On a more mundane level we can report that the numbers of wintering Shoveler on the Dulwich Park lake has often been up to ten and may soon outnumber Mallard which seem to be declining. There are also two Little Grebes, a pair of Egyptian Geese and a burgeoning population of Moorhens which suggests the its ecological health remains good. A Cormorant airing its wings on a small branch on the island overlooking the lake was a bizarre sight one day in January. Perhaps it might have an interest in the Carp which someone has introduced.
I look forward to more of your photographs which furnish these regular articles, and I am always available to answer questions about any observations that crop up.