Big Garden Bird Watching

On the way to the wood this week, we visited Bishopsbourne to continue our exploration of the Elham Nailbourne – an intermittent stream that only rises in really wet winters and which is running now.

I have used Keynote to put some labels onto this Apple Maps image of Bishopsbourne, a lovely little hamlet that time seems to have overlooked.

Bourne House lies at the edge of the hamlet and the Elham Valley Way runs through its grounds and so it was possible for us to walk there. Although the nailbourne itself is mostly dry, another spring rises here and this one looks like it keeps going all year. It feeds into the bed of the nailbourne and then down into the lake in front of Bourne House.

Bourne House is the home of the mother-in-law of ultra Conservative politician, Jacob Rees-Mogg – someone who’s Wikipedia entry says that his anachronistic upper-class mannerisms and consciously traditionalist attitudes are often seen as entertaining. Whether you find him entertaining or not, here he is infamously lounging during a debate in the Houses of Parliament last year:

We hope to return to Bishopsbourne in the summer to revisit the Bourne House spring and also have a drink at the nice-looking pub in the hamlet once it has reopened in future, happier times.

This time of year is when Foxes mate and I have more footage of the moth-eaten old gentleman being rebuffed:

I am very fond of him but I can see why a vixen might not view him as much of a catch. He has half a tail, his backbone is often arched upwards perhaps suggesting an old injury and for the last couple of months he has been carrying a back hind leg.

On the videos, I have seen signs that this leg of his has been improving recently and he does now occasionally put it down on the ground as he walks, but his ability to help provide for a young family in a few weeks time has to be compromised.

Other than our dog, we don’t eat meat here and so we never have those kind of scraps for him but he is currently the most keen of consumers of the nutritious and energy-packed nightly peanuts that we lay on. I am so pleased to have been able to support him while his leg recovers.

Magpies are a problem unless the peanuts go out when it is almost completely dark – I don’t want to encourage our over-abundant Magpie population in any way and so usually try to put them out late. But even though I have put the peanuts out in the light here, the Magpie is wary of getting too close to a Fox, even a rather tatty one with a bad leg:

When we first came here, I was surprised to see male Foxes cocking their legs just like a male dog. For some reason it had never occurred to me that they would do that:

On the last weekend in January every year, the RSPB runs the Big Garden Bird Watch, the world’s largest wildlife survey. Last year 485,930 people throughout the UK counted 7.8 million birds. This weekend, it is the 42nd year that the event is being held although the number of people taking part this year might be affected by today’s horrible weather.

We set up the mobile hide so that we could see the feeders at both of the ponds at the same time and spent a happy hour in there quietly observing. The rules are that the bird has got to actually land and you count the maximum birds of a species seen at one time. At the end of the hour, we had recorded 75 birds of 15 species which I think is probably a fair representation of the birds that are around the feeders at this time of year (Wood Pigeon, Crow, Magpie, Wren, House Sparrow, Dunnock, Robin, Chaffinch, Blackbird, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Long Tailed Tit, Green Finch, Stock Dove, Green Woodpecker).

We were particularly pleased that a Green Woodpecker choose that particular hour to come and do some probing around the meadows..

..and a small flock of ten Stock Doves landed in a nearby tree:

For the last few days, a Blackcap has been coming in for a drink and it would have been good to have spotted her during the magic hour, but she was a no-show:

At this time of year, male Robins get very territorial and so I presume that these two must be a pair since they seem to be relaxed in each others company:

As we go round the meadows, we have started to hear the uplifting and surprisingly piercing call of the Song Thrush. There is great variety in its song but each phrase is repeated several times before it moves on to the next one which makes it unmistakeable, even to us.

A little Wren has twice now been discovered inside the hide if the door is left open. It is poking around the windows, presumably after Spiders. Personally, I am very happy for it to come in and do that, whilst also being a bit neurotic about trapping the bird in there by mistake:

It is a few months now since we put a perch and accompanying camera up along the margin of the reptile area. This area hasn’t been cut for two or three years and now the sward is getting fabulously unkempt and tussocky. There are also about ten log piles here, to help shelter the Slow Worms that were released by an ecologist back in 2019 when they were saved from land being developed nearby.

This habitat must surely suit small rodents as well as reptiles and we put the perch up to see if birds that hunt them, such as Kestrels and Owls, might like to use it as a look out. This week, for the first time, one of our target birds was caught using the perch:

The Sparrowhawk has been using the perch as well, although always on the lookout for bird prey rather than rodents.

We found one of the log piles had been bulldozed apart to get at rodents sheltering within. The logs are really heavy – only a Badger has the strength to have done this:

There are exciting plans for the wood this year and hopefully the Covid situation will not delay them too much. The People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and Natural England run the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme to try to understand more about Hazel Dormice and what can be done to stop their recent catastrophic population crash – down 51% since the millennium. We have joined together with our woodland neighbour, and a local ecologist who holds a Dormouse handling licence, and we are entering our combined twenty acres of woodland into this programme. Thirty Dormouse nest boxes will be going up in our wood and twenty in the neighbouring wood, a total of fifty boxes to be checked at least twice a year by the ecologist with the data sent to PTES. Our neighbour and I also hope to start the three-year training to get our own licences and then eventually we can take over the monitoring of the boxes ourselves.

In preparation for the start of this project, we took delivery of thirty Dormouse nest boxes this week. These will be put up with the holes facing the trunks of the trees so that they are less likely to be used by Birds.

Birds continue to check out the bird box with the camera on it in the wood.

This is as far as they have got though so far. We buy our bird seed from the inspirational Vine House Farm run by Nicholas Watts in Lincolnshire. He has hundreds of boxes there occupied by Tree Sparrows each year, and he reports that 50% of these boxes already contain nesting material (they were all cleared out in September last year):

Elsewhere in the wood, there was this lovely shot of a Woodcock:

And a photo that manages to encapsulate how cold it has been recently:

This January I have put down my customary escapist fiction books and picked up some nature writing. I’ve completed two books so far, The Butterfly Isles by Patrick Barkham and Orchid Summer by Jon Dunn. Both have the similar underlying premise of trying to see all British Butterfly species and all British Orchids in a single year.

I’ve really enjoyed them both and will now be emerging from this long, dark, windy and wet winter knowing an awful lot more about both of these topics and very much looking forward to seeing my first Butterfly and Orchid of the year.

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