Back Garden Birding – Beth Aucott

Back Garden Birding – Beth Aucott

Upon finishing my University degree and embarking on the daunting task of trying to find my first job within conservation I set myself an on-going project; to brush up on my bird identification skills. Having had a lifelong love for our natural world I was not a complete beginner but my ID skills were not the best. I’ve always simply enjoyed watching wildlife but four years of studying Zoology has given me a desire to want to know what everything is and so I began to pay more attention to our feathered friends.

After I graduated I began volunteering with my local Wildlife Trust. As well as giving me a chance to gain practical conservation skills, I thought that this would really help boost my identification skills as we visited different reserves and different habitats.

What I hadn’t considered were the birds I could find a lot closer to home.

Mini bird cake feeder containing berry cake, Robin, Erithacus rubecula, hovering and feeding

Eurasian Robin (N. Blake)

My boyfriend’s family home is in Yorkshire, on the outskirts of Huddersfield, where there are a couple of birdfeeders in their back garden. I know thousands of people have a bird feeder in their garden but my dad refuses to let me have one claiming that the birds will “poo on the washing”, so I’m just a little jealous of anyone who does have one. At my boyfriend’s house the feeders are visible from the dining room table and plenty of meal times have been extended as we’ve sat and watched the birds flit back and forth between the hedges and the feeders.

Great Tits are probably the most numerous birds we see, followed by their smaller, flightier cousin the Blue Tit. I love to watch Dunnocks scurrying across the floor, never venturing higher than the edge of a plant pot. I have a bit of a soft spot for these birds; despite their dull brown and grey plumage, I love watching their behaviour. Fat Common Wood Pigeons are plentiful in nearby trees and just after New Year I spent ten minutes watching a Carrion Crow, with some abnormal white feathers along its wing edge and tail, saunter around the garden as if it owned the place.

Dunnock (Mandy West)

Dunnock (Mandy West)

I am jealous of these bird feeders for a more specific reason; they’ve been the place where I’ve seen two species for the first time: a Eurasian Nuthatch and a Coal Tit. The Coal Tit is a fairly regular visitor to the feeder but its visits are brief and it can be lost amongst the flurry of other tits. Upon sighting the tell-tale white spot on the back of its head I let out a squeal of excitement in the kitchen, pointing somewhat erratically at the feeder, before it flew off. A few minutes later it was back and a slightly more calmly this time I got a better look at it. Since that day I’ve only seen a Coal Tit once, again on the feeders at my boyfriend’s house. The Nuthatch was a much more obliging bird, taking its time feeding so I could take in its buttery coloured breast, the smart black stripe across its eye and stumpy tail. I’ve seen Eurasian Nuthatches in various locations since but they always remind me of the first one on a feeder in a back garden in Huddersfield.

Despite the lack of bird feeders, my own back garden in Stafford is not an avian desert. Whilst sunbathing in our glorious summer last year I amused myself by watching Dunnocks in the undergrowth. As I clean the rabbit out every Friday Common Starlings adorn the rooftops, chattering and whistling to each other, their iridescent plumage gleaming in brief flashes, reflecting the sunlight. House Sparrows flutter and hide amongst the hedges. My favourite bird, the humble Common Blackbird, often takes an earthworm meal from our lawn.

Juvenile European Starling (J. Charman) copy

Common Starling (John Charman)

One morning saw me gazing out of my bedroom window at nothing in particular when I noticed a rather scruffy looking ball of feathers on the fence. I scrambled for my binoculars to make out more detail; a faint rosy blush across the breast and a long dark tail. I recognised the bird but my mind went blank when I sought the name. I flicked frantically through my bird book knowing exactly what picture I was looking for. Upon reading the name, Long-tailed Tit, I laughed at myself for it eluding me and then watched a small flock flit between gardens in search of food.

I’ve come to realise that I very nearly made a grave error in coming close to over-looking the value of a back garden when working on bird identification skills. It’s the perfect place to begin. You can stay in the warm and dry, where any noise or movement shouldn’t disturb the birds and get closer views of the birds than you can out in the field. It provides an opportunity to work out what the key features are to pay attention to with birds that you have not encountered before. Watching the commonly occurring species gives you an insight into their behaviour and secret lives. These are all skills that I’ve found really useful when trying to work out the identification of birds out in the field. Plus, nothing beats the excitement of spotting a new species right on your doorstep; you never know what could appear!

Bye bye Blackbird

The deceased Blackbird

For the past few evenings I have been noticing a male Blackbird hopping around in my concrete backyard. I would be working on my sofa that faces the garden and then I would notice the familiar black shape of this common urban thrush just outside my french windows. Nothing unusual you might think. But there was something weird about the whole scenario. I was seeing this bird hopping around very late into the evening just as dusk was really taking hold.

Any self respecting Blackbird would have been safely tucked up in a lofty, leafy roosting site and certainly not still out in the open in a confined space. What is more, there was something odd about its behaviour. It seemed a tad lacklustre and at the back of my mind I thought that it might not be well.

This morning, I returned to my sofa to see its slumped shape face down on the concrete. I actually felt upset. I went out to examine the corpse to find a bloody streak of missing feathers from the base of its neck to its crown. I could only surmise that it had just been attack by something like a Sparrowhawk and it’s blind panic, flew straight into a wall.

That’s life and that’s death.

Such a beautiful bird.

Grey geese over The Scrubs

 Although only feral Greylags they were still a special sight flying over the prison.

I will keep looking up!