Wildlife Wednesday – our resident woodpeckers!

We have continued to fill up the bird feeders over the past couple of months, and the changing weather has brought with it a greater variety of garden visitors including coal tits, chaffinches and greenfinches.

However, the real star of the show has captured everyone’s attention: it seems to be fond of peanuts and is usually seen in the mornings and early evenings, although it is around all day and we can hear it calling from the ash trees over on the other side of the garden. ‘It’ is the great spotted woodpecker.

Woodpecker

Since its arrival a few weeks ago, I have been trying to capture the woodpecker on camera. To begin with I had no success at all, despite leaving the GoPro out for an hour at a time in the mornings. I managed to take some video from inside the house, but it was quite far away and these birds are too shy to come and feed while people are sitting nearby outside.

Eventually last week I managed to get a short piece of footage of a male woodpecker sat on top of the bird feeding station… however then I really got a surprise, because he had brought with him a juvenile bird!

Woodpeckers

Although this species isn’t at risk, it is still great news that they are breeding in our area: I am hoping that we might be able to encourage its less common counterparts – the lesser spotted woodpecker and the green woodpecker – into our garden.

Size 23cm
Diet Insects, larvae, seeds, nuts, tree sap vegetable material – will also take eggs and young birds during the breeding season
Population (UK) 140, 000 pairs
Breeding Between 5-7 eggs which hatch after 12 days, young fledge at 20 days old and remain with parents for 7 days

 

Identifying these birds is pretty easy – if you are lucky enough to have a full view of one then it is a pretty distinctive species. It can be confused with the lesser spotted woodpecker (this was my initial thought upon seeing one in our garden for the first time) however having since gone away and read up on them I have realised that there are actually numerous differences between the two, including the fact that the lesser spotted woodpecker has a red poll and has much less contrast between the white and black feathers on its wings.

However, the juvenile great spotted woodpecker does have a red poll and is overall much duller in colour than the adult birds, so this may lead to some confusion unless an adult bird is nearby to the youngster.

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Distinguishing between the male and female great spotted woodpeckers is made very simple by the fact that the male has a red stripe on the back of the neck whereas the female does not.

When there is not a clear view of the bird or you do not have binoculars to hand, it can be a little more difficult to identify the exact species. The fact that it is some kind of woodpecker should be fairly obvious from the way it hops up the trunk of a tree (these birds have particularly stiff tail feathers to aid them in this – if you look closely you will see that the tail is actually pressed onto the tree as the bird moves) and from its characteristic undulating flight.

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The call of this bird is also easy to pick out once you know what you are listening for (I am struggling to learn different bird songs, but the call of the woodpeckers has really stuck with me). It is a loud, singular ‘tick’… that description doesn’t do it much justice, but you can easily find recordings of it on the internet if you are curious!

This species does have more to it than simply brightening up the bird feeders each day: it actually has some very interesting adaptations which I thought I would mention (information courtesy of the books listed at the end of this blog post).

Woodpeckers are probably best known for how they create their nests (by chiselling a hole in a tree trunk). The force required from their beaks to be able to achieve this could potentially be damaging, so the bones and muscles in their heads have evolved specifically to protect them from this – for example layers of spongy tissue ensure that the brain is well guarded.

In winter when food supplies are scarce, great spotted woodpeckers will feed on tree sap, using their long tongues that can reach up to 4cm away from their beaks. In addition to this they will wedge pine cones into small gaps so that they can remove the kernels, and will use branches to crack open nuts and seeds.

I think that in the process of writing this blog post I have discovered another of my favourite bird species… although maybe I would find all of them as fascinating if I discovered more about them!

 

Sources used in this blog post:

The RSPB Book of British Birds

Collins Wild Guide: Birds

Collins Nature Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds

Wildlife Wednesday – observing wild birds

Last Saturday I went to another one of the work experience days with the National Trust at Quarry Bank Mill. This one was focused on the observation and recording of bird species on the estate – the data we collected from this is important as it allows the populations to be monitored so that any changes in numbers can be seen and conservation strategies can be put into place if necessary.

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We set off from the university at five o’clock in the morning and then spent a couple of hours walking and listening out for birds. We were accompanied by an ornithologist who volunteers at Quarry Bank – his knowledge on birds was incredible… what sounded to me like a jumble of many different bird songs coming from all directions worked almost like a map to him: he could point at a tree and tell us what species was perched in it without evening catching a glimpse of the bird! This was an important lesson for me. The majority of my bird watching (with the exceptions being species that I know well, for example the buzzard) has revolved around me walking along with binoculars, scanning the trees trying to spot something. Now I see how backwards this is – if I could learn bird songs then I could identify the species using my ears, and seeing them would just be an added bonus. It does also help if you know exactly what you are looking for.

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There are other important factors to be considered when heading out to watch birds: the time of day is clearly a very important one. Early morning is probably the best time to observe the usual garden birds, although I have noticed that the woods appear to come alive with noise again at dusk so this can also prove to be a suitable time (the fading light can make it difficult to see though).

I often see buzzards in the daytime – particularly in summer when the sun is shining I watch them swooping over the tops of the trees. Other birds of prey such as kestrels and marsh harriers do also seem to be around at dusk; I don’t know if it is just chance that I have seen them more frequently at this time though. Nocturnal species such as owls are definitely more likely to be around in the evenings.

Buzzard

One thing is for definite: you are more likely to be able to observe birds at a time when few people are around. During the day when dog walkers and gamekeepers are passing by, birds are disturbed and will retreat into the trees away from the main paths, whereas in the early hours they are not likely to be bothered by a lone walker with a pair of binoculars.

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Walking quietly is essential – birds have remarkably sensitive feet and can pick up vibrations from heavy footfalls. At home I tend to walk in wellies; these are actually very noisy and I feel that walking boots are probably more suited to the role as they don’t rattle around so much.

When we were on the work experience we did make a fair bit of noise as there were fifteen of us walking in a group, and our guides kept stopping to explain things to us – some birds are not at all bothered by this disruption, but more elusive species would have steered well clear of us.

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Another factor to take into account is the weather. During poor weather it is less likely that you will see smaller birds as these will take cover in the vegetation, and the conditions can interfere with the hunting patterns of birds of prey. However, some weathers can later bring life to a habitat: for example after rainfall, worms come to the surface of the soil and garden birds such as blackbirds take full advantage.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog post, I am hoping to do some more focused write-ups about specific bird species I have been observing at home so stay tuned for those!

Wildlife Wednesday – deer tracking

When we first moved to Norfolk, I can remember walking round the garden and seeing a small deer scampering away from me into the undergrowth. Ever since then, I have tried many times to capture this creature on camera – most of the time this has not been particularly successful, however recently I changed my tactics and now finally have some videos to share!

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The deer which are most common in the woods and fields surrounding where I live are muntjac – these are not native to Britain: they were introduced from China in the 20th century as an ornamental species. Being an invasive species they don’t actually do much good in the niche they have filled in the ecosystem – rare plant species and woodland birds have suffered as a result of their release.

However, they are still a part of the wildlife in Norfolk and have proved to be very useful while I find my feet with tracking larger mammals in their natural habitat.

Standing at around 50cm in height, muntjac have short legs and relatively long bodies, meaning that they are quite low to the ground. The patch of white underneath their tails is unlike that of other deer in that it is a vertical stripe and cannot be seen when the tail is lowered.

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There are various signs that muntjac leave in their habitat which can be used to determine their presence.

The first of these is footprints: as shown in the picture below, these would at first glance appear to be just like the prints of other UK deer species, but there is a significant difference in the size of them, with muntjac prints not generally exceeding three centimetres in length.

I found these ones at the side of a ditch – the deer would either have been stopping there for a drink or may have just been crossing over.

Another sign is the characteristic paths formed when the deer repeatedly use the same route through the undergrowth – this particular one shown here has been there since I first saw it four years ago! When the surrounding foliage is taller, these paths create tunnel-like structures.

Muntjac deer also bark – to the untrained ear this can sound similar to a dog, but it is a rougher, lower sound. I often hear muntjac barking if they have been disturbed.

When heading out to watch the deer, I set off in the evening at around half past seven. At the moment it begins to get dark at around half past eight, so this gives me an hour to walk and observe.

I felt that the evening was a better time than early morning as I never see anyone in the woods at night, whereas there are often dog walkers and game keepers in the earlier hours.

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The route I have been using takes me around to the far side of the wood – I don’t really know if this has an effect on my success with finding the deer, but I feel less exposed than if I were to enter the woods by walking down the main path.

Once in the woods, I try my absolute hardest to walk quietly… when wearing wellington boots this is much easier said than done! (My walking boots are currently in Manchester). I walk quite slowly, taking care with where I place my feet to ensure that I don’t snap any twigs underneath them.

Muntjac

If I see a deer, the best thing I can do is stand very still. I usually walk with my camera set up and ready for action, so I simply have to press one button and then just watch. You will see in the video at the end of this post some very wobbly filming where I am moving in an attempt to get a better view of the deer but have disturbed them in the process… I have since learnt that it is much better to just remain still and quiet.

Considering that these were the first few occasions on which I went out specifically to watch deer, I’m pretty pleased with how the footage turned out.

In the coming weeks I hope that I may be able to travel a little further afield to find some other species. There have been deer other than muntjac in my area, but sightings of them are rare.

Last year I accidentally disturbed a large deer: as it ran off into the trees I realised that it was a little bit too tall and leggy to be a muntjac, so my next guess is that it was a roe deer. Despite keeping my eye out, I haven’t seen a deer that size since…

About two years ago I also came across this fawn – clearly I didn’t want to get too close and I didn’t have a decent camera at the time, so this photograph is terribly blurred but I believe that this could be a roe deer? Maybe some of my readers can enlighten me!

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I hope you enjoyed today’s post on Wild Call – maybe you might feel inspired to go on a deer watching adventure of your own…

Wildlife Wednesday – exploring the garden pond

As of today, I am beginning a new series of my blog posts. These will be released every Wednesday and will focus on the wildlife around my home in Norfolk.

In the first of these I will be taking a look at the life in our garden pond: since I used my GoPro to film underwater a couple of months ago I have been really excited to take a closer look at the organisms residing there.

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Armed with my cameras, a net, waterproof notebook and a couple of plastic tubs, I set about extracting organisms from different areas of the pond. It is amazing just how much life there is below the surface – the amount of times I have walked past the pond and not even given it a second thought is ridiculous!

The pond does seem to dry out each summer, which lead me to wonder how so much life exists there if it cannot be supported all year round. Having done some research, I have learnt that any creatures that can fly will often leave and then return when the water levels are up again. Some types of larvae can burrow into damp mud in order to survive, but the other organisms are likely to die. They are reintroduced to the pond by accidentally being carried over by visiting birds or mammals.

Unfortunately I do not have identification books for pond life (I really ought to invest in some keys to help me), so I apologise in advance if I have made any mistakes in this post.

The most common creature that I came across was mosquito larvae. I was able to identify this easily due to the way that these organisms hang vertically in the water, and their particular swimming pattern.

The picture below shows two mosquito larvae at different stages in their development. The one on the right hand side is younger and more curled up than the older one on the left hand side.

Mosquito larvae

I believe that the next creature is a caddisfly larva – initially I was unsure, but then I saw some of them inside ‘cases’. Normally these are constructed using tiny pieces of plant and grains of sand, however I saw cases made out of flat leaves: this is a distinctive feature of the mottled sedge caddisfly larvae.

On the surface of the pond I observed pond skaters and whirligig beetles. Before I began to read about pond skaters I was unaware of the fact that they are actually predators that target other animals that have fallen onto the surface of the pond. They also scavenge on dead animals.

Pond skater

Whirligig beetles usually stay near the surface, however if they happen to be disturbed they will swim underwater. In the video at the bottom of this post you can see that the whirligig beetle I discovered must have felt threatened by my presence, as it swam to the bottom of the container I placed it in. (In the interest of the welfare of all of these creatures, I tried to limit the time they spent away from the pond to just a few minutes).

This picture of the whirligig beetle isn’t of particularly good quality – they move so fast that it is difficult to capture them at all…

Whirligig beetle

Just below the surface I came across the common water flea. These transparent filter feeders are abundant in the pond and provide an important food source for beetle larvae.

Common water flea

I initially thought that the next organism was a leech, but was relieved to discover that I was wrong! It is a flatworm, and whilst it is a predator, it wouldn’t have been interested in me as it prefers to feed on larvae and larger dead organisms.

Flatworm

The picture below shows the common water slater: these are mistakenly believed to be an indicator of polluted water, however this is not true (they are just particularly tolerant of low oxygen levels).

Water slater

In the shallows amongst the plants there were numerous pond snails (I am not entirely sure of the exact species). Many people think that these reduce pollution in the pond but this is not strictly true; whilst the snails do ingest a lot of material, they simply recycle it into other forms – so the pollutants are not actually being removed from the ecosystem.

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Much of the life in water is too small to be seen with the naked eye: I feel that I have probably only seen the tip of the iceberg with the amount of life that exists in our pond.

Despite seeming like an entire ecosystem by itself, the pond is not isolated from the world around it. The diversity of life under the surface supports many other groups of animal – for example garden birds, frogs, toads, bats and grass snakes.

The video below shows some of the video clips I gathered whilst pond-dipping. Some were taken using the GoPro in the pond, whereas others were filmed whilst the animals were away from the pond.

I hope that you enjoyed the first post in my new ‘Wildlife Wednesday’ series – stay tuned for more exciting discoveries next week!

 

(The following website was used in the writing of this blog post: freshwaterhabitats.org.uk )

Work experience with the National Trust – wildflower surveys

On Saturday I went on another of the National Trust work experience days. This was the first session where I wasn’t freezing cold or soaking wet (or both!) – the sun was shining, the sky was a glorious blue and according to my phone the temperature even reached 18 degrees at one point! It is so lovely to think that spring is finally here.

The purpose of this session was for us to expand our knowledge on wildflowers and their identification.

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In the morning we had an ‘informal lecture’ sort of thing to bring us up to speed on wildflowers (I didn’t really have much of a clue beforehand!) After a brief re-cap on the anatomy of plants, we moved onto looking at key features which can be used to distinguish between plant families. These include the position of leaves on the stem, the type of leaf and the arrangement of the flower heads.

In the session I made very quick, rough notes but for the purposes of this blog I copied them up in neat – the results of which can be seen below…

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The different features shown vary depending on the family that a plant belongs to – we learnt the specifics of ten different families (although there are many more than this, we didn’t have time to look at them all so instead focused on the ones we would be most likely to see at Quarry Bank in March). The table below summarises the families we examined.

Family Key features
Buttercup family / Ranunculaceae 5 petals, 5 sepals

Lots of stamens and carpels

Deeply divided leaves

Cabbage family / Brassicaceae 4 petals (in cross shape), 4 sepals

6 stamens (four long, two short)

Pinks / Caryophyllaceae 4/5 petals, often deeply notched

Swollen nodes

Opposite leaves

Pea Family / Fabaceae Flower is zygomorphic

Compound leaves

Rose family / Rosaceae 5 petals, 5 sepals (united at base)

Alternate, compound leaves

Carrot family / Apiaceae Umbel flowers

Compound leaves

Daisy family / Asteraceae Capitulum flowers
Figwort family / Scrophulariaceae 2 lipped corolla

Ridged stems

Mint family / dead-nettle family / Lamiaceae Square stems

Whirls of flowers

2 lipped corolla

St Johns-wort family / Clusiaceae 5 yellow petals

Entire, opposite leaves

Glossary of terms in table (also see diagram above):

  • Carpel – the female reproductive part of a flower
  • Corolla – the petals of the flower
  • Node – area on the plant stem from which leaves and buds grow
  • Sepals – usually found underneath petals, protect flower when it is in the bud (just to add to the confusion, sepals are often green in colour, but when sepals look like petals they are referred to as tepals!)
  • Stamen – the male reproductive part of a flower, produces pollen
  • Zygomorphic – a bilaterally symmetrical flower

Having learnt the theory, we were then given a chance to practice using dichotomous keys with some cut garden flowers. A dichotomous key is a series of questions providing the reader with two choices, which eventually lead to the name of the species.

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After lunch we then headed out to the Southern Woods, where we began our wildflower survey. (This is an example of a Phase Two survey – see my blog post from the 25th of February for more information on Phase One habitat surveys).

Due to it still being fairly early in the year, there weren’t a huge amount of flowers to be found, however we did find some. Despite being armed with hand lenses and books, it was surprisingly difficult to identify the exact species and we spent a considerable amount of time examining the plant shown below… Now I have a confession to make – I can’t actually remember what we decided this was!

Some other plants that we discovered included the lesser celandine (pictured below)….

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…and the wood anemone. This particular species is an example of an ancient woodland indicator, so comes in handy when conducting Phase One habitat surveys.

All in all, this was a lovely day out in the fresh air; it felt a little bit more relaxed than our previous sessions with the National Trust, although that may just have been an effect of the weather.

(I’m also just going to apologise for the irregularity of my blog posts recently – I should be back to posting normally again as of next weekend).

Work experience with the National Trust – Phase One habitat surveys

Yesterday I went on another of my work experience sessions with the National Trust at Quarry Bank Mill. Although it rained a little bit, we were actually quite lucky with the weather as Storm Doris had been through the area just two days before!

Whilst our previous two sessions had been focused on the River Bollin, this time we moved onto a different aspect of conservation and learnt how to conduct Phase One habitat surveys.

A Phase One habitat survey is usually the first survey carried out on an area and is a method of noting down the different types of habitat and any other important features present. It can be followed by a Phase Two survey (this is any survey that focuses on a more specific factor, for example a particular animal population).

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When out in the field, notes need to be made quickly but also need to be clear so that they can still be easily understood at a later date. For this reason there is a key which is used in Phase One habitat surveys. For most features this just consists of a series of letters and numbers: letters are used for more broad categories while numbers are then added afterwards to indicate more specific details.

We were given the task of surveying three different fields which were a short walk from the mill. The National Trust has only owned these fields for around eighteen months so not much progress has been made with them yet – they were previously owned by a farmer who lived in a dilapidated house nearby (this also now belongs to the National Trust).

Buying the land was integral to the continuation of conservation projects in the area: due to the close proximity of Manchester airport there were concerns that the fields could have been used for more car parking space, which would have had a significant impact on the flora and fauna living there.

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There is a public footpath across the new land and it is now frequently used by dog walkers – apparently people were reluctant to use the path before because of the farmer having a reputation for shooting dogs!

Conducting the survey on these fields was helpful for the National Trust, as they will be able to use the data to identify the best plans for conservation and to monitor changes over the next few years.

One of the main things we had to note down was the type of vegetation.

An example of this can be seen in the picture below; this is known as improved grassland (B4). This means that it has been ploughed up and re-seeded in the past, has been excessively treated with herbicides or fertilisers, or has been heavily grazed by livestock. These actions drastically reduce the biodiversity of an area.

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The next pictures show a much more biodiverse field. This has been impacted less by human activity and presents a variety of different habitats – ranging from acid grassland (B1) at the top of the field, sloping down into neutral grassland (B2) in the more low-lying areas. (The ranger who accompanied us told us this, as we were unsure. We could tell that it wasn’t improved grassland due to the greater variance in plant species, but we needed the expert opinion to help us with the rest!)

There were some areas with trees that had to be marked down as well: small numbers of trees are marked down with a dot on the map, but if they cover more than thirty percent of a section of land then they are classed as a woodland. At the bottom of the field in the photograph below we can see an example of a broad-leaved woodland (also known as deciduous woodland – A1.1).

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Types of boundary were another important factor – ordinary fencing holds little significance to wildlife but must still be noted (usually drawn on the map), as it can be used to allow livestock to selectively graze a particular area.

Hedges encourage greater biodiversity, but can vary significantly. Intact hedges (J2.1) do not have any gaps and could hold livestock without the need for extra barriers, whilst defunct hedges (J2.2) show large gaps and are incomplete. Defunct hedges usually arise from poor maintenance. Hedges with trees (J2.3) are also noted down.

There were a couple of ponds in the area we surveyed, which of course had to be recorded along with everything else! The ponds we saw were near the improved grassland and the water was discoloured by algae, so they were likely to be eutrophic ponds (G1.1). To determine this properly we should have measured the pH, but we didn’t have the necessary equipment for this on the day.

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Once the rough copy of the map had been drawn out in the field, we took it back with us and drew up a proper coloured version. The codes that are used for the data collection are just a temporary measure to speed the process up, and the neat map relies on a series of colour codes.

I hope that you enjoyed this week’s post on Wild Call – it isn’t long until the end of Winter now and I really cannot wait!

Feeding preferences of garden birds

I was back in Norfolk last weekend for a brief visit, and it was just my luck that the weather was cold and extremely dull… Apart from walking the dog, most of my time was spent indoors watching the occasional snow showers.

However, having recently acquired a GoPro, this was a great opportunity for me to experiment and get to grips with how it worked.

Before Christmas my dad built a station for our bird feeders and at this time of year the garden birds have really been appreciating it – watching them from inside the house inspired me to set up the camera and attempt to gather footage of them feeding.

After a few failed attempts I managed to set up the GoPro so that I could control it from inside the house using WiFi – this was brilliant as it meant I could conserve battery and only film when there were birds present.

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I was really pleased with how the videos turned out, however while I was observing and filming I noticed things about the feeding habits of the visiting birds which led me to do more research and write this blog post.

Something which I had not really considered before but became glaringly obvious to me as I watched, was that different species of bird showed preferences for visiting certain feeders. This would of course make sense as diets vary between species, however once I began to think about this my curiosity on the subject grew.

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The table below shows the natural diets of our garden visitors and the feeders I observed them on (we provided the birds with fat balls, a seed mix and peanuts).

Species Natural diet Choice at feeders
Blue tit Insects, larvae, fruits Fat balls, seed mix, peanuts
Blackbird Fruit, seeds, small insects, small molluscs Ground feeding only (crumbs from fat ball feeders)
Robin Mainlyinsects Seed mix and ground feeding below fat balls
Hedge sparrow Grain, seeds, young plants, fruits, earthworms, insects Ground feeding only (crumbs from fat ball feeders)
Starling Insects, fruit, seeds Fat balls
Long tailed tit Insects Fat balls
Greenfinch Seeds, insects Peanuts

 

Something that I find particularly intriguing is that items like fat balls clearly don’t occur naturally in the habitats of these birds, but do prove to be a popular choice – there must be a reason behind this…

All of the species that feed on the fat balls also eat insects as part of their diet. In February, insects are quite hard to come by, so the birds must have some alternative – this is my theory for why fat balls are so popular.

If we look at the nutritional content of insects, we can see that they contain a high proportion of protein and fat – fat balls also contain significant amounts of these substances, so provide the birds with the correct nourishment.

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Certain brands of fat balls also have added calcium – a mineral that is found in some insect exoskeletons. The correlation between the nutrition provided by insects and fat balls suggests that this could be the reason why most of the birds I observed fed on the fat balls.

However, this does still leave some questions unanswered – why, for example did the greenfinch (whose natural diet consists of seeds and insects) not show any interest in the fat balls, but instead visited the feeder containing peanuts?

It is likely that due to me only having a limited amount of time in which to film and observe the birds, I may have missed an opportunity to see this.

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Another factor to take into account is that not every bird is suited to feeding from different types of feeder: the robin cannot perch on a feeder at all, so either has to hover momentarily or feed from the ground. This means that this species is restricted to seeds or crumbs dropped from the fat ball feeders, as it would be unable to access the peanuts or to remove pieces of fat ball for itself.

The more I thought about the feeding preferences of the garden birds, the more interested I became. I still have many unanswered questions, such as how the birds know to choose the correct feeder, and whether this is a learned habit or if (after many generations of birds being fed by humans) it is becoming an innate behaviour.

The video below shows some of the clips I gathered with the GoPro:

Sources I used in this blog post:

The RSPB: www.rspb.org.uk

Ark Wildlife: www.arkwildlife.co.uk

Top Insect: www.topinsect.net