Friday August 07 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

When the small birds sweetly sing

Posted on May 19 2011 at 1:54:51 0 comments

Swallows on a wire

Mary Green offers an insight into the lives of garden birds.

I hope you got to see the bluebells this year. They were out very early and rather thinly because of the warm dry weather, with many of the other signs of spring early too.

The oak came out into leaf way before the ash this year, showing how it responds to warmth more than light, whereas ash nearly always comes at the same time, responding to extending daylight. Hawthorn blossomed early, in April, too, and was magnificent.

For your June treat, remember the poppies at Blackstone near Bewdley. This is a Worcestershire Wildlife Trust nature reserve. It is unusual in that it is farmed for arable crops, but in a wildlife-friendly way. So it has wonderful poppies and other cornfield weeds round the margins, and a wealth of insects including the rare black bee.

You can find it on the OS Explorer map for Wyre Forest and Kidderminster, and there is a car park off the A456 Bewdley Bypass at GR 796744. Cross the road and walk up the track opposite, up to the old railway – you should see the poppy fields around you and some may be open to visitors when the flowers are out in June.

If you want a walk while you are there, continue up the track under the old railway bridge and bear left. This takes you up into another reserve, the Devil’s Spittleful. This is an unusual acid-soil area, so has heathland as well as woodland, with heather and bilberry later in the summer.

The Spittleful is a rock formation. Pass this and turn right where you see another good path. This takes you above a tunnel of the Severn Valley Railway (you may have nice views of trains as you walk) and briefly along a footpath until you meet a cycleway (no 54).

Follow this good track down into the woods back to the bridge under the old railway. It’s a good walk, only a couple of miles, with lots of interesting trees, flowers and birds – and views.

Another June treat is Eades Meadow, which you can find in my last year’s walks. The meadow will be full of several kinds of orchid, yellow rattle, ragged robin and other flowers of undisturbed grassland. I am leading the Village Society Walk to it on Sunday June 3, where I will be on hand to identify flowers. The walk starts from the Jinney Ring in Hanbury at 2.30.

By June, the birds have mated and raised their young, and the next month they will begin to go quiet. Their singing always seems to us an expression of joy, but of course it’s really all about territory and mating, and mostly done by males. This month I look at more unusual things about our common garden birds, which you will see and hear daily.

Many of you will have feeders for birds in your garden. The whole idea of “garden birds” is a recent one, beginning in the 20th century. Before then small birds were caught or raised and sold for food, and also as caged birds for their songs.

The birds in our gardens are still wild, and were originally woodland-edge birds, but we provide them with a wonderful environment even if we don’t deliberately put food out for them. The berries on our bushes feed them in autumn and winter; the insects that come to our flowers and the worms we encourage give them essential protein.

If you do put out food for them, remember to put it out regularly as they need it consistently. Put it among trees or shrubs as they like cover. Be patient while they find it!

Some of our birds are resident all the year round, and some migrate and visit. Even the resident ones, like robins, are augmented by travelling ones in the spring. Spring visitors come here to breed and leave in the autumn: the swallow and cuckoo are the best known. Winter visitors like the fieldfare come here to feed and go back north to breed.

One of the commonest garden birds is the blue tit. Most people know it, though it is sometimes confused with the great tit. The great tit is much bigger, less blue, and has a broad black stripe down its yellow breast.

The blue tit has a twittering song, but the great tit has a much more distinctive call. It begins in the middle of winter when everything else except the robin is quiet. It sings a strong two note repetitive call (great–tit, great-tit) which has been compared to a squeaky wheelbarrow.

Blue tits are fascinating. Apparently, the intensity of the blue on the head makes them more attractive to each other. Darker blue-capped females seek out darker blue-capped males.

What’s more, the yellowness of the breast shows how good a provider the male is, so the female seeks out a male with stronger yellow. This is because the colour is affected by the amount of caterpillars they eat – the protein – and therefore shows how good they are at catching them.

Birds have hierarchies. You’ll see a great tit drive off blue tits from a feeder. Greenfinches will drive off all tits. Big bullies like pigeons and magpies will take over from smaller birds. And of course a hawk will see them all off.

You may not recognise greenfinches. They are a rather nondescript greenish-buff bird. However, you will probably hear their song. They do a little twitter and then a long wheeze, as if drawing their breath back through teeth. Once you’ve recognised it, it’s unmistakeable.

There is a sequence of bird song appearing through the winter and spring. The robin, possibly our most aggressively territorial bird, sings all winter. It is very efficient, sitting on your spade as you dig so it can grab worms and grubs.

The robin is the king of the birds in folklore, its red breast symbolising the fire that doesn’t die, even in winter. It is associated with the spirit of the woods, Robin Goodfellow, from whom in turn Robin Hood took his name. Now it’s our Christmas bird, associated with Christ the King.

Then comes the great tit. In a mild winter it will start to sing at the time of the solstice, December 21, but this year I didn’t hear it till January. By February a lot of birds are starting. The chaffinch begins about the second week. It has the long song, with a series of rapid notes followed by a flourish. At first, it only gets part way through, but then it can suddenly do the whole song and there’s no holding it.

They are very common, and they all seem to start their song about the same time. I guess whoever starts first has an advantage in the mating game, and they all have to catch up quickly! Apparently, they don’t all have exactly the same song, and may have regional accents.

The greenfinch starts soon after this, and the thrush starts to experiment with song. In early stages it’s hard to tell the thrush and blackbird apart, but the blackbird starts to sing a bit later, usually in March.

When their song is fully developed they can be told apart. They both have the same rich, full tone, which carries loudly. But the thrush repeats its phrases a couple of times over, or even more, whereas the blackbird’s song is free-flowing.

Their relative, the nightingale, is not so common. It is a summer visitor, so you’ll only hear it for a few months of the year. The song is not unlike the thrush and blackbird, but more fully developed and very beautiful.

They do sing in the day as well as through the night, but are more noticeable at night. They rarely visit gardens, preferring woods. However, blackbirds sometimes also sing at night, especially in cities where it’s light, and account for some supposed hearings of nightingales!

We all know blackbirds, with their black feathers and beak that goes bright yellow in spring. The female is brown. The thrush is similar in shape, but has brown on the back and beautiful brown-and-cream spots on the front.

Both perch up on trees to deliver their song, especially at dawn and dusk in April and May. The more orange the yellow of the male blackbird’s beak, the healthier it is, so the females go for gold!

Other members of this family include the fieldfare and redwing, both winter visitors. The redwing is common round here in cold winter weather. It descends in flocks on hawthorn bushes and strips them of their berries. It looks like a thrush but has a tell-tale flash of red under its wings. For some reason I always seem to see them while shivering on Alvechurch station waiting for a train.

Also in March you will hear the first of the summer visitors, the chiffchaff. It is a very obliging bird that calls its own name – chiff chaff chiff chaff, in a bouncy tune hitting different notes. Again, once you know it you will hear it all the time through the spring and summer. It’s another insignificant little brown bird, so you may not see it. It is more common in woods and hedges, though one has come to our gardens this year and is chiffchaffing outside as I write.

Shortly after this, in April, come the swallows. They love to be near water, but also nest in old farm buildings. So I look out for them by Bittell reservoir, and also round barns – the Hewell prison farm has lots. They fly along the canal in summer, dipping low for insects. They have a distinctive chattering, twittering song and always seem to be in flight.

There are some lovely less common birds that come to my garden. One is the beautiful goldfinch – so beautiful that a group is called a “charm” of goldfinches. It has a distinctive red and black head and yellow on its wings. Its looks and song made it a very popular bird for caging in previous centuries, and it had almost become extinct in the 1890s. This was one of the reasons the RSPB was first founded.

Goldfinches feed on thistles and other seed-heads and sometimes descend on them in huge groups. In your garden it will come for nyger seed. I was delighted to see them reappear here this April.

Another bird I love is the long-tailed tit. It has a tiny delicate body and very long tail, and pretty brown, black and buff markings, almost velvety-looking. Unusually, they travel around in big groups and will descend on your peanut feeders suddenly and fly away again equally suddenly.

The big groups – extended families – huddle together in winter as their small size makes them susceptible to cold. When they split off into breeding pairs, even then “uncles and aunts” hang around to help out with the brood. I was pleased to see lots around here after that cold winter, and we think we may have a breeding pair somewhere here. They make a beautiful rounded clay nest – my neighbour had one a couple of years ago.

Finally a couple of creepers. The tree creeper and the nuthatch are both seen on trees, and the nuthatch will come to feeders. The tree creeper creeps up the tree, and nuthatch creeps downwards! It has a pale, slightly pinkish breast and a distinctive eye-stripe. It taps on trees like a little woodpecker.

The tree creeper is less common in gardens, and is brown – bark colour – and hard to spot. But if you have a Wellingtonia (see last month’s Village) you may see one, as they love those trees.

Later in the year I will write about some of our bigger birds. In the meantime, this is a good time for the cuckoo before it flies off again. Try it in Eades Meadow. I heard it day and night, and saw it, at the beginning of May in Scotland.

My poem is about Coigach, the place in northwest Scotland I have just revisited. Badentarbat is on an old bird migration route, and later a human one when the highlands were “cleared” of crofters for sheep farming. I read the poem at the Ullapool Book Festival in May, where they were featuring a rediscovered Gaelic poet called Neil Macleod.


Badentarbat lamb doesn’t taste of dispossession
But of the flowers of salt grass: thyme, thrift, orchids
And the salmon and langoustines are sweet
With no tang of the battles round Rhuba Mor
The Summer Isles in summer are still and gentle
Reflecting on the waters with the distant hills
No ache of the scratch poverty of Tanera
As the little boat shows us the fulmars and seals

But the melody goes back in time like a sea rope
Holding the memories of families, their loves and curses
Winding round the burial ground at Badenscallie
Parents who outlived their children
Each gravestone facing an abandoned croft
Those straight stone walls were ruled across the land
Possessing the sheep, the currency of loss

The passion of the poetry needs no translation
Neil Macleod with his stonemason’s trowel
Chiselling away at the craggy language
Building the future of Coigach in words and stone
Boats were hauled across the lochs from Achnahaird
To Badentarbat, followed by migrating skeins
Greylag, pink-footed, piano-key barnacle geese
Now the accordion and banjo play across that portage
Stringing together the past and future

Today, the houses are sung back to life
Roses replace the turf and the small birds come
Just a short climb links peat road and wireless mast
Glasshouses grow tomatoes and beans, like lazy-beds
Aileen sells memories and tea, her wise eyes warm
Holding the happiness of youth and the sea’s blue hardship

I too once travelled these roads, young
Singing with people now dead and silent.
The full moon makes me a road to the isles
I look out to the Torridons, to Skye and Harris
I feel my eyes become long-sighted, connecting
My own past and present together in a true story

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