A relatively mild winter has been followed by a cold bleak early spring with unseasonal snow and people have been reporting seeing good numbers of small birds in their gardens. Indeed, as the RSPB points out in the context of their annual big garden birdwatch in the last weekend of January, the status of many of the nation’s small birds is reflected in what we see in our gardens. Many of our garden birds, of which the Robin is a typical example, are woodland birds that have adapted to a new way of life. At the end of winter, food becomes scarce and gardens are a refuge, enabling us to see sometimes unexpected visitors.
The Siskin is a typical late winter visitor that we rarely see before March, and this has been observed by several of us at our peanut feeders as a greenish yellow canary-like bird that is distinctly smaller than the abundant Greenfinches. An even more unusual late winter visitor is the Brambling, a pair of which appeared this year in a garden in Rosendale Road. This is a native breeding bird of Scandinavia that winters here typically in beech woods. Its closest relative is the Chaffinch and it is most often seen in the company of Chaffinches as a strikingly marked finch with a rusty orange breast and shoulder and black head. Both the Siskin and the Brambling will have departed to northern breeding quarters by the end of April, so their stay with us will have been short, but we will have seen them at their most spectacular as by erosion of their feather tips they reveal their breeding plumage, thereby avoiding the need to moult.
Staying with the theme of small birds, many of them have clearly survived the winter well. The smallest, indeed Britain’s smallest, the Goldcrest is rarely seen but those of us who have not yet lost our high tone hearing will be able to hear the very high song of repeated notes followed by a brief flourish of equally high notes coming from the depths of many of our conifers in which they remain camouflaged. But the more exciting has been the appearance of a much rarer Firecrest singing in Sydenham Hill woods giving hope that it may become a regular new breeding bird for Dulwich, although this may be difficult to verify. For anyone lucky enough to spot it you will see a small warbler sized greenish bird with a strong black and white eye stripe, bright flame coloured crown and a hint of rust colour over each shoulder.
Amongst the commoner birds one of the remarkable things has been the huge increase of the numbers of Goldfinches in our gardens. A record 35 were counted in a Carson Road garden late last summer and their delightful canary like song has been a feature of our gardens all winter. We have alas had losers. It is now some years since I saw a Bullfinch in Dulwich, but Chaffinches have done well and House Sparrows are managing to hold their own albeit in smaller numbers.
The RSPB pointed out, following the national birdwatch, that Blue Tits had a bad breeding year in 2007. The inclement weather from May onwards appeared to have washed out their supply of small caterpillars on which they feed their young. Great Tits fared better and I have noticed that this winter there have been more Great Tits than Blue Tits on the feeder which is the reverse of the usual situation. Long Tailed Tits breed in April and were able to take advantage of the fine April weather and they prospered, but how they will do in this much more inclement April we shall have to await.
More good news is that Little Grebes are back in Dulwich Park and should breed once more and I have also seen one in Belair Park. Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs were back from mid-March and are now singing well.
One afterthought; I trust nobody was taken in by the April 1st item on the Today Programme that announced that the RSPB was issuing bird traps as a result of the influx of small birds from the continent in order to repatriate them to Denmark and preserve the food supply for our native resident species.
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