Suburban diary: Nuthatches

dscn1086To say that nuthatches have colonised our neighbourhood would be an overstatement; but there are now some, where previously there were none. We first noticed them in the local park, moving up through the trees in their familiar way, often disappearing at the very instant we identified them. Eventually a single bird briefly showed up on one of our feeders, disappeared and didn’t return. We are about 100 metres or so from the park and there are plenty of trees to choose from, probably plenty of feeders too, so there was some disappointment but no real surprise.

And then, earlier this year, they returned; a single individual to begin with, joined shortly afterwards by a second. They have been regular visitors ever since, particularly keen on the sunflower seeds and usually waiting until a feeder is clear of other birds before quickly taking seed to eat elsewhere, returning frequently. Surprisingly, they seem less attracted to the whole peanuts on offer than they do to the sunflower. So far they seem to have exhibited none of the aggressive behaviour sometimes associated with nuthatches.


    Goldfinches: a little too flashy for my tastes, but thriving

In the twenty years or so since we moved here, the garden has undergone inevitable change: layouts have altered; plants, features, trees even, have come, gone, grown, flourished, failed. So too, the birds…

The flock of starlings, which greeted us when we first arrived – 200 strong or more – dwindled to a handful before, thankfully, beginning a faltering but continuing recovery. Goldfinches? We never saw any for years, then a few appeared to take an interest in some flowering lavender; today they are, numerically speaking, the dominant variety. Also surprisingly dominant in their own way are the blue tits – first to the nest boxes every year and well capable of holding their own at a crowded feeder. Of the occasional visitors, our favourites have probably been the usually solitary goldcrests and the slightly more frequent siskins – a maximum of four in the case of the latter, and always in winter. There have been blackcaps, also in winter and sometimes paired; long-tailed tits are no longer a rarity, although they seldom linger.

Sparrowhawk_10 14 14_0004A buzzard once perched on top of the gate, no more than 3 metres from the kitchen window. There have always been sparrowhawks: whether the present ones are direct descendants of the originals, or itinerants occupying a new territory, there is no way of knowing. As recently as last week, the current male was within a whisker of taking a nuthatch, in a beautifully executed tight loop around the feeder. The nuthatch was saved by the rotation of the feeder and the hawk continued onwards without any reduction in its speed, tilting almost 90º and squeezing through the tightest of gaps between tree and trellis. A juvenile [pictured left] once sat for a long time on top of one of our fence posts, looking a little confused and a bit disoriented. Possibly it was out on its own for the first time.


Suburban diary: The battle for control of the treetops

We live a few miles from where we spotted those five buzzards in the previous post – a short hop from where the suburban fringes give way to farmland. I often think of it as a kind of frontier: the west midlands conurbation finally (thankfully!) dissipating into copse, covert, and the rotating mix of arable and grazing pasture.

Inevitably the divide is blurred and, in the same way that the building line encroaches outwards, remnants of the former greenery remain trapped within the suburbs – parkland, golf courses, cricket clubs. Often bequests from benefactors long departed, these oases endure – covenanted, protected and inviolate; safe from the clutches of the developers. Being arboreal, they also make for a fascinating battleground…

Not quite enjoying the cause célèbre status of the “back from the brink” red kite, or the poster bird celebrity of the osprey, buzzards seem to have just got on with the job of reoccupying territories from which they had long been absent. As an aside, something similar seems to be happening with ravens, although not in anything like the same numbers. Perhaps the ready supply of roadkill is part of the equation; the apparently unstoppable rise in the local grey squirrel population seems to be another, at least where the buzzards are concerned.

Over the course of the last couple of years I must have seen at least half a dozen instances of grey squirrel being carried in the talons of low-flying raptors; always buzzards and mostly around the tops of the trees which surround the local park – a mix of tall conifers and broadleaf (horse chestnut, in the main). A couple have been young, possibly snatched from dreys; mostly they have been of adult size.

In the context of evolutionary timescales, this is a brand new food chain – the greys being non-native and relatively new to the UK. If it is a building block in the longer-term reduction in the grey squirrel population, then it is a welcome one as far as I’m concerned. The greys have had an easy ride up to now: the polecats, pine martens and goshawks which might have controlled their numbers are largely absent from our locality; there’s the odd weasel and that’s about it. Reports of a slowly recovering goshawk population, should they turn out to be true, will be welcome in all sorts of ways; the buzzards are doing their bit – but they could certainly use some reinforcements.