Birdwatching during lockdown

Thu 23 Apr 2020

By David Bennett

Originator and leader of Birdwatching for Beginners walks at Markeaton Park, and recipient of the Derbyshire Ornithological Society Annual Award for significant contributions to Avian Conservation within Derbyshire

OK, so you’ve cut the lawn and trimmed the edges, and tidied up the hedge. You’ve done some weeding and a bit of pruning. You’ve even painted the fence. If it wasn’t for Covid-19, your garden would now be good enough to open to the public!

What can you do next? The answer is to spend some time sitting in the garden, especially with your children, and just looking. It’s a great way to relax.

Birds are most active and noisiest from April to June, and with less traffic, you are hearing more of them. They are singing to attract a partner or to announce that they have a nest ready for occupation. The best way to learn more about them is to watch with someone else. It’s a great opportunity to introduce wildlife into your children’s home learning curriculum.

If you don’t have the good fortune of a garden, there are plenty of parks and open spaces around Derby where you can have your permitted daily exercise and spot some birds at the same time. Many of them have lakes or ponds which will give you the bonus of seeing water birds.

I live in the middle of a residential area, so it is a case of watch, hope and entice! As you’ll see from this picture of my back garden, it has the thing that all birds want – a birdbath.

Birdbaths.jpg

For birds, clean water is essential both for drinking, and for bathing to keep their plumage free of mites etc. If you don’t have a bird bath, any dish or bowl can be used. Keep the water clean, clean out any bird mess regularly, and keep it filled up. I top up mine every morning first thing, and again during the day if there has been a lot of bathing or the sun has made the level reduce. If it is too deep, put a stone or brick in the middle so that birds can perch on it.

Our most frequent bather is the Blackbird, who can get a very good splash up the fence, and really seems to enjoy the cold clean water. Robins are also regular, and Dunnocks and Woodpigeons, although the Pigeons use it mainly for drinking.

I can’t begin to guess how many hours we have spent watching the birds bathing. After they have finished they invariably go to a high fence point to complete their ablutions. Cleaning the beak is usually first, then wing fluttering and then they spend a lot of time preening, to clean their feathers and get them in the right alignment for flight.    

On the left of the picture is a small solar fountain.  Being solar the water only flows when the sun is out, but the two bowls retain enough water for birds to drink.

This photograph shows three things I have put there for the birds.

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You can see two of the four nest boxes in my garden. They all have an entry hole of 3.2cms diameter, the size for a blue tit box. If the hole is bigger, it is liable to attract larger creatures like squirrels or magpies. If you have a supply of spare wood you could make your own nest box - check the internet for measurements.

My bird feeder is made of strong plastic tubing and metal. If the feeder is too flimsy it could be damaged by squirrels. I fill it with mixed seed to attract different birds. I regularly see the Dunnock throwing out the bits they don’t like, so that they can get to their favourite food, and the Woodpigeon comes along and vacuums up anything dropped! Try not to buy cheap, poor quality food – my mixed seeds have peanut pieces, black sunflower, corn etc.  Remember contaminated food can kill birds, and large nuts can choke young birds.  Fat balls (never salted) are a good source of food and energy.

So let me share some of the enjoyment of the regular birds that come to my garden. These are some of the birds you have a good chance of seeing either in your garden, or when you are on your permitted daily walk. I started my current garden bird list three weeks ago when I could no longer go birdwatching at Carsington. It was a joy to become completely absorbed for three one hour sessions watching the comings and goings in my garden. 

To make a bird survey, all you need is a sheet of paper with board to rest it on, a pencil, binoculars if someone in the family has a pair, and a simple bird guide like an Eye-Spy book or a Bill Oddie bird guide. You will also need a watch to make a note of the time of sighting. Or you can create a spreadsheet on your computer.

The most active on survey 1 was a pair of Blue Tits which went in and out of No 4 nest box 7 times, 3 times carrying nesting material. This had to be a spot to keep an eye on, but sadly for some reason I only saw them once in week 2 and once in week 3, and in both cases all they did was take food from the feeder, and did not go in the box. That suggests something changed and maybe they had another nest they preferred. I can’t think of anything that happened in my garden to discourage them. That was a sad outcome from my regular monitoring.

Blue tits are yellow and blue, a bit washed out in colour. Don’t confuse with the Great Tit, which is bigger and with a black head and sharper colours.

The next busy bird was a Woodpigeon. I soon spotted his regular flight path – right to left over the lawn, over the flower beds and down to the base of the seed feeder. His food comes solely from the food that other birds have thrown out of the feeder, and his best friend there is the Dunnock. On survey 2, I clocked that he would come in to feed and if there was no food, he’d be gone in 15 to 30 seconds. But on one trip when the Dunnock had previously been down before him, he was feeding for four minutes.

For the 3rd survey I put some seed in a dish on the lawn. The Woodpigeon flew over it 16 times! Then while he was waiting on our house roof, he watched a Blackbird eating from the dish. When the Blackbird left, he flew down, walked round the dish three times, then tucked in! He was eating for 11 minutes, following which he walked across the lawn to the bird bath, drank, and left.

Most people know the Woodpigeon, a heavy bird, with a very distinctive white patch on its neck. Not to be confused with the feral Pigeons that live on cliffs and in cities, such as Osnabrook Square in Derby.

Now comes the Blackbird. Very much the early bird, and the bird most likely to be digging for worms in your lawn, or throwing out the moss in your gutters. He will protest quite loudly if you get too close to his patch, as he flies away. In survey 1, Blackbirds were logged seven times, and in the 3rd survey 12 times, yet hardly at all in survey 2. I’m not quite sure what is going on, but I think the activity in week 3 indicates that there is some nest building going on in a nearby dense hedge.

As its name implies, the Blackbird is all black with a yellow beak, smaller than a Pigeon but bigger than a Blue Tit. The female is brown. Blackbirds sing a great deal, usually on the top of a tree or branch, and can run quite quickly if disturbed.

Dunnocks are very frequent in our garden and are what birders call LBJ’s (Little Brown Jobs). They are usually found near the ground among the bushes. We often have them in pairs, and they are presently spending a lot of time chasing each other, with a lot of wing flapping. Quite clearly this is the mating season. When they do pause, they can sit on a hedge or fence and sing a sad but pleasant repetitive song. In my garden much of their time is spent in and around the feeder, and as I said earlier they choose what they want and throw the unwanted seed out and on to the ground.  

Dunnocks are around all year and are sparrow size. In fact they look like Sparrows with their varied brown feathers, but they are actually in a group called Accentors. Watch out for these very active birds.

The Robin is not a bird that I see very frequently in my garden, but as long as you get Christmas cards, you will know the National Bird of England. The redbreast makes it very distinctive.  When it does visit my house, it is usually to bathe, something I have seen a number of times in the last three weeks. It searches for small living food rather than seed, although it will visit my feeder. 

The Robin is almost the first bird to sing in the morning, usually on a visible branch although sometimes you can hear it but not see it. Juveniles have the pink breast when they are still young but it slowly deepens to become the red that we all know.  In bad and cold weather Robins will follow you from bush to bush in the hope of food, and with patience will take seed from your hand. Mealworms will get their attention even quicker!  If you want to show off, say you have seen an Erithacus Rubecula!

That’s the top five in my garden, but your garden could quite possibly get other and different birds, such as the Collared Dove, Great Tit, Magpie, Starling, House Sparrow, Pied Wagtail, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, the rarer Greenfinch, Long Tailed Tit, Carrion Crow, Rook, Raven and Jackdaw.

And on top of this list, if you can get to a lake, then you can add Mallard, Coot, Moorhen, Mute Swan, Canada Goose, Great Crested Grebe, and Tufted Duck. So much to see!

We would love to hear about your sightings from your birdwatching. Why not share your photos with on our Derby Parks social media pages? Tag them #Birdwatching.