Sunday, 29 January 2017


Thursday morning was the coldest we'd woken to this winter. Frost and chilling fog wrapped the garden. The max/min thermometer read -3.1C but this was in a sheltered place next to the house. Away from shelter it would have been lower. This passes for a cold winter's day these days. 
continental robin showing blue fringing around face

Ponds had frozen and needed the heel of a boot to expose fresh water for the birds. We long for the arrival of spring on foggy, cold days in January. But if we take time to look, the garden is filled with birds - many are European migrants - or from further afield.

Predictably, the ground-feeding birds are first to emerge. Half a dozen hen pheasants  at my feet as I fill the feeders. Dunnocks and wood pigeons. And robins: our gardens host many migrant robins each year. 

When I go down to let the hens out, the orchard is chack-chacking with around sixty fieldfares. 2016 was our best apple harvest and we left lots of windfalls which now attract many thrushes -
including continental blackbirds, song thrushes and fieldfares. The fieldfares rise into the air and loiter noisily in the misty birches until I leave. Our local thrushes have to fight it out with the new arrivals. I'm pleased that a resident blackbird ringed  last year is still with us.

I watched a tiny, two-tone common shrew scurry through cerise flowers of cyclamen coum to vanish beneath the varnished leaves of a purple heuchera. We've dressed all the beds and borders with chippings which conserve soil moisture and also provide cover for invertebrates. These in turn provide food for insectivorous wrens and shrews. My Mammal Society book tells me that shrews shrink in winter. They reduce the size of their liver, their skull and brain. 

It's then the goldrush as goldfinches arrive to buzz and chatter at the feeders. Mike had given me an industrial sized feeder, an absolute mother, which I've sited on a sturdy former swing-ball post. It can be seen easily from the kitchen and threatens to suck hours out of my day. I'm captivated by the too-ing and fro-ing of the birds as they move from our Fragrant Garden feeders, to the seeding heads in perennial borders and wildflower meadow, to the feeders further up the garden. Greenfinches join the goldies. On the shorter feeder by the sweet chestnut pollard there's a redpoll. It has a silver ring on its right leg and is the only redpoll this year - last year they were numerous. Last February we caught a redpoll that had been ringed in New Mills in the north of Derbyshire, perhaps the same one? Next weekend we set up the mist nets and ring again. 
The bird movement is mesmerising. A male siskin arrives on the mother feeder. Redpolls and siskin are small birds but they take no sauce from the bigger finches.

And then the cherry on the cake: a male brambling. Bigger and more confident than its chaffinch cousins, this old gold and black beauty is immediately filling up on the tall feeder, 'bossing' it. It will stay in the UK during winter and then make a return journey to the continent to breed as spring approaches.

The influx of migrant birds is a reminder how inter-connected the world of wildlife is. The brambling feeding with us is dependent upon suitable habitat and food for breeding in the north of Europe; it is dependent upon there being suitable stopping-off points during migration; and then dependent upon there being sufficient food and shelter during its winter stay with us. As the world retreats behind borders, nature reminds us that the world is bigger, more inter-connected and richer than the  small locality we call home.

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