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!

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