Sunday, January 04, 2009

What’s in my garden?

Great tit Parus major (left) and coal tit Parus ater (right).  The great tit is larger with a black bib and a full stripe on the belly.  The coal has a distinctive white spot on the nape and double white wing-bars.
Guest post from Tajinder:

I’ve been doing the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch for a number of years now. However, for the last 69 weeks I have also been taking part in a different kind of survey known as the Garden BirdWatch organised by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). The survey costs me £15 a year because it pays for the administration of the survey and I receive a quarterly magazine called Bird Table.

I wanted to share my experiences with you because I thoroughly enjoy the bird watching experience from my garden. It allows me to learn my garden birds and their song/ call. I also get to see some interesting bird behaviour.

As a garden birdwatch ‘surveyor’, you decide how many times a week and the number of minutes you want to record the birds in your garden. Once you have decided this, you should stick to this commitment as it allows the BTO to make weekly and annual comparisons of how your garden birdlife is doing. I have committed myself to watching my garden birds every Sunday from 10-11 am. I put my feet up, binoculars in one hand and a notepad/ pen in the other (plus tea and chocolate biscuits as back up). And then I watch…

I submit my records on-line because it is a really easy system to use. You can also pull up your previous records and create graphs with the touch of a button. So, not only the BTO scientists get to see your results, you do as well!

For more information, please go to the
BTO website.

I’ve recorded over 20 bird species and here are a few:

Top place: blue tits Parus caeruleus & greenfinches Carduelis chloris
2nd place: Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs
3rd place: Robin Erithacus rubecula
Rare visitors: coal tit Parus ater & song thrush Turdus philomelos
Bird of prey: sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus
Scarcer species: green woodpecker Picus viridis, swifts Apus apus – yes swifts do count. Unlike gulls and other birds that fly over, these count because they are aerial feeders

I get jays Garrulus glandarius, but they never come when I’m doing the survey.

When I first moved in to my house, I didn’t see any house sparrows Passer domesticus. However, I spent a few years making my garden a little wild and then getting really lazy which allowed patches of bramble to develop. The bramble attracted a small group of house sparrows which included 6 fledglings this year. I’m so proud of my laziness.

Sharing your garden bird records
If you have any wildlife sitings, please share these with the LBR Nature Conservation Ranger Team who can be contacted on 020 8501 1426. These records will go into GiGL which is the Greenspace information for Greater London database. This database helps us to track London wildlife and work out whether species are increasing or decreasing and if possible to formulate plans to save some of the declining species.

Tajinder Lachhar


  1. Hi, Tajinder

    I'll bet you've got wrens in your garden too, but they're difficult to spot because they don't visit bird tables or feeders. They scurry about the ground like little mice. I have a pair that nest every year, but I hardly ever see them.

    If you want goldfinches in your garden, you need a clump of Japanese anemones and leave the seed heads on all winter. Last winter, for the first time, I didn't get round to cutting the seed heads off my Japanese anemones. They stayed fluffy and looked good until the spring; then, for the first time in years, a pair of goldfinches turned up in my garden, set about the seed heads and stripped them. I thought they were eating the seeds, but in the summer I found a nest apparently made of cotton wool: Japanese anemone fluffy seed heads.

    The plant divides easily and is robust, so look for a neighbour or friend with a big clump in their garden and ask for a rooted clump.

  2. If Tajinder want a Japanese anemone rooted clump, I have a plentiful supply of the white ones, I am not keen on the pink ones.
    Yellow birds also adore the rose hips from rosa rugosa. Again, plenty of thorny cuttings available.
    And, showing off, due to the proximity of the Claybury woods, as well as green woodpeckers we have a frequent tiny visitor, a black and red woodpecker which loves the peanuts.

  3. Weggis mostly gets Starlings, pigeons and magpies. But we have a regular Robin and Wren, various Tits and the occasional Green Woodpecker and last week I had a Greenfinch on me nuts. And last summer we had a pair of Jays.

  4. Coxsoft - Yes, I have recorded wrens, but I tend to hear its big mouth more than actually see it.

    Coxsoft & Anne - I'm afraid I'm a bit of a fraud or cheat when it comes to goldfinches. I've had a nyger seed feeder for years now which has attracted up to 15 goldfinches one summer.

    Anne - I get daily visits from male and female great spotted woodpeckers and in spring the female brings the juveniles on the peanut feeder. And if there is any other bird on it, it gets a short sharp peck.

    Weggis - Well done on managing to identify all those birds... I knew you was a secret bird watcher.

    Happy birding all!


  5. Hi Tajinder, I am jealous! I have never seen a family of woodpeckers, only one at the time!
    I will also have to do a google search to find out what a nyger seed feeder is.
    Well done!

  6. Anne

    I've got a picture of two woodpeckers feeding on the nut feeder at the same time! They don't like to share, so this was very rare.

    The nyjer seed has to go into a specialist feeder because the nyjer seed is very small and can get get blown out easily from a normal feeder. You can find these on reputable bird food sellers such as RSPB Shop or CJ Wildbird food:

    Nyjer feeder:

    Nyjer food:

    By the way, if I don't remove the dead heads on my rose bushes, the goldfinches help themselves to the seeds inside them as well as any wild teasle in my garden.


  7. B21 I hope the following will add to the above and help encourage people to more fully understand and enjoy Nature’s wildlife and why surveys are necessary and the types of criteria necessary to sustain wildlife in all its forms.
    There are a number of plants that retain their seed-head or fruiting bodies well into the new year. Regrettably this is not recognized in the horticultural maintenance regime of many Councils, Redbridge included, for they are still in these enlightened times prone clear away many beneficial plants as a matter of course, rather than leave them to their natural cycle where wildlife can fully benefit from the plants’ natural attributes.
    It is probably more beneficial for all concerned to delay tidying herbaceous borders, bedding and shrubberies until the following year say around February or even into March, for the days of formal bedding can be replaced by less expensive plant replacement in herbaceous borders.
    Herbaceous plants that provide seed and fruiting bodies are too numerous to list here however, an obvious one is the Kniphofia Species (The red-hot pokers) both the traditional forms and the Scottish Hybrids which flower later than the type often well into October and September. These attract a wide range of finches, some of with are on their migration route.
    The herbaceous “natural debris”; by this I refer to the decaying leaf and flowers parts and stems, retain much which can be beneficial to the plant, the insects and environment which work to support the plant species.
    This plant debris invariably makes its resources available to the plant, birds, living and hibernating insects, as well as provides some trace mineral elements which, by decay, become available to many forms of wildlife and the plant itself.
    The perceptive, observer will notice (in particular) birds foraging among this plant debris, and also observe their ingesting portions of that debris for its mineral or trace-element properties. This plant debris often has an ideal balance of humidity which helps the minerals to be taken-up by the plant, birds and insects.
    However, many an observer (say the one seated comfortably eating chocolate digestives in a warm conservatory for example) may rarely be able to note the insect activity or the interchange between wildlife and plant debris on all levels. This is a science and part of many spheres of wildlife science in its own right, but is very dependent on wildlife and plant interactions.
    I am somewhat concerned regarding the denominations of this survey criteria but appreciate that levels have to be attainable for a wider group, however, there has to be some control on the overall quality of the findings.
    It is reasonable and competent to include these ‘occasional’ survey findings – however, by their very nature occasional surveys are overly incomplete for so many essential variables may not be recorded.
    Although survey variables are many I will list a few here in order to enlighten the would-be botanist or environmental enthusiast of the commitment they should become prepared for:
    Survey criteria written forms: (I include first those which require no specialized knowledge or equipment and follow these with a few that are most easily acquired)
    A robust notebook: (remember this is bound to get muddy, smudged or rained upon.)
    Pencils, pocket-knife, magnifying lens, viewing apparatus (binoculars or telescope), Biro or permanent marker-pen, warm clothing, refreshments which do not have noisy wrappings, a basic camera.
    The form should include the following as basic:
    Location OS is the recognized standard and can be ascertained from Google Maps;
    Date – Time – Weather conditions – Environment conditions;
    Species Common Name (Latin qualifications can be added (or suggested) at a later stage)
    Species Sex (or size compared to other birds at this location – some species reverse this criteria);
    Species Colour (note changes which are obvious and not attributable to light conditions);
    Species Numbers (note those which are seen at the same time – rather than are seen during the period of observation – you may be double or triple counting regular visitors)
    Species Numbers (two full-counts per hour is normally acceptable if leg-ring-colour/numbers are not included);
    Other activity (are your observed species interacting with other species - fighting for feed or chasing other species away, or being chased away etc.)
    Feed types (are they taking all or only some of the feed you have provided? Are they interchanging your feed choice with plant “debris”, insects or with regular visits to water sources?) If there are several visits during feeding to the water source, try to ascertain why this is.
    Range of visitors [seen] (list only at one count per hour the entire range of species visiting your survey)
    Range of visitors [unseen] (list those birds species, or other wildlife species which can not be seen but can be identified by noise e.g. birdsong, hedgehog rustling in inaccessible hedging, dogs that are nearby – this last may change the visitor count.)
    Condition of Visitors (make notes regarding their plumage state, taking regard of conditions they may be under e.g. breeding season, mating season, resting season, bodily condition will indicate the species uptake of feed or lack of sufficient feed availability).
    The above supply the basic survey input – however, to be more representative other criteria need to be recorded and some will require the availability of particularised equipment.
    The time and regular appointment with your wildlife is well and good but the following evidence will ascertain why your survey numbers vary.
    You need to expand the weather category – using temperature, daylight strength, ambient light type, air-movement, humidity of the air and humidity of the surrounding environment and moon phase.
    All of these measurements are recorded from positions where no adverse criteria will affect their results.
    Adjacent Location Criteria (this is in five or more parts)
    Record the activity of phenomena on the other side of each of the four boundaries of your chosen survey area. (this could be children playing, traffic, lack of traffic when normally there is some, sports activity, lawn-mowing activity etc.)
    Division of information gathering:
    Using your chosen site for the base-data input, now move your recording to four adjacent or nearby sites giving each visit to these sites a 30 minute recording period. Record all necessary information for each additional site.
    This cross-referencing will indicate if your site is providing the correct environment for the local wildlife – or, if your site is providing artificial criteria and exaggerating the survey data.
    There will be a cross-reference irregularity if, for example three gardens are all providing Wildbird feed next to each other. Birds will hop from one garden or food-source to another picking out only prime food types. In such conditions birds and wildlife rarely eat the full range of essential elements for a balanced diet. It is only when such sources dry-up that birds migrate to essential nutritional and mineral sources such as insects, leaf debris or soil, grit and mud imbibing
    Next comes collections:
    You will be required to collect samples of droppings, feathers, fur, photographs and audio recordings. (for this you will need sterilized containers, tweezers, a small microscope, a torch and matches.
    You might like to include weight-left impressions (for this you need a sheet of heavy gauge plastic, some plasticized-mud, plaster of Paris and a strong bag or container.)
    Providing plants, shrubs, cover and environments depends entirely on your local expectations.
    If you intend to attract late migrating birds a good species is Cotoneaster Waterii which provides an inhibitor to ensure only the correct bird species imbibe it and at the correct time of year, these fruits are taken usually from February through to Late April but as always conditions of environment may alter these.
    For most other occasions many of the fruiting species, Cotoneaster, Pyracantha, Sloes, Rosas, Malus all play a significant part in the seasonal availability of feed and seeding body distribution. Herbaceous plants and shrubs also play a spread-out larder provision.
    Probably the most valuable of shrub/tree species is Buddleia for this provides insect, nectar and seed throughout the longest period. Pruning of this species is best treated as part-pruning. That is pruning protruding branches right down to the trunk when they become a nuisance, but leave the majority of branches until you can see the seed has been taken, usually in late February of even as late as April. At this pint you prune the branches of this species hard back to the trunk, leaving only one or two full length branches. These full length branches will provide valuable flowers approximately six-weeks earlier than those which form of the new braches which will sprout from the trunk.
    There are too many species of plant to list here, leaving you with the advice that you can choose plants and shrubs that fit your site without over-powering the site, and that provide flowers, seed or fruit and leaf debris over a particular period.
    Imported plants and new varieties of plants may be imported or F1 Hybrids, which can encourage insects which can not be utilized by British Birds or birds visiting these shores. F1 Hybrids may not produce flowers that produce useable nectar or seed of any kind.
    There are no quick-fix answers to establishing an area to encourage a visit from local wildlife. So start with the basics which can be found in leaflets and books (often from lazy authors), and expand these basics from the knowledge of your own observations. Finally be slow to tidy-up nature, slower still to cut-back shrubs and trees, slower still to cut lawns to precision heights. Purchase and encourage shrubs and trees which will not over-power a site, and remember people can walk around the spread of a shrub, if they realize that the shrub can not take in its branches or step aside to let people get closer. This last fact is the best Health and Safety Advice available.
    There is as much common sense attached to the enjoyment of Nature as there is non-sense attached to staid ideas so often applied To Nature.
    Richard Cooper of Riverside Concern
    PS please forgive the MSWord anomalies in this submission.

  8. Hi Tajinder,
    Thanks for this post, makes me feel like getting into the garden again, been a bit too cold lately though, but at least its getting lighter every day.
    We have an evergreen shrub in our garden
    ( Cotoneaster glabrata ) which has now grown to 15 feet high above the fish pond. It provides an enormous amount of berries for the birds to eat in these wintery days. As usual, for this time of year, a flock of Redwings ( Turdus iliacus)
    have been performing all sorts of acrobatics to reach the berries. The shrub is nearly bare, only the most inaccessable berries are left.
    The Blue tits are pinching the occasional berry and are already popping in and out of the bird boxes, (bit early). Blackbirds and Robins are grabbinga few berries too.
    Last Friday, while watching the Redwings a creamy coloured bird flew in, I didn't recognise it at all, and it only stayed for a short time. It wasn't the Waxwing because it had no crest. I have been told the Siberian Chiff Chaff has been seen in London but I dont know what it looks like. It was certainly a lot bigger than our Chiff Chaff. Just in case anyone thinks it was a dove, sorry, not a chance, wrong size and shape.
    I recommend anyone who wants a bird attracting shrub to plant one of these, but dont plant it near to any pond the continuing falling leaves and flower buds are a nighmare.
    Ron King

  9. I recommend anyone who wants to help the birds in these wintery days to plant a 'Cotoneaster glasbrata' Its berries attract so many birds.
    Ron King

  10. Quite true Ron - however, if everyone planted just that variety of Cotoneaster "glabrata" then you would limit the range of visiting time for your visitors - C. glabrata does not produce an inhibitor - it is also worth noting that with a predominance of one variety present the birds could suffer from mild toxicity poisoning.
    An idea might be to buy three cotoneasters of differing varieties and plant them together as a groupo of companion plants, including, perhaps a yellow berried variety such as C. franchetti, C. 'Rothschildianu', or C. frigidus which is an excellent standby you can extend the season considerably. Similarly a hedge made from species selective berrying varieties will do wonders. Hedge subjects are planted 45cm apart in staggered rows and can include many species not just Cotoneaster.
    Another early taken cotoneaster horizontalis is the herringbone cotoneaster and is exceptional as it will eventually take-on the shape of anything it is planted against such as screening old tree stumps, dustbin sheds etc. The moral is plant subjects for a purpose and consider the probabilities of the shrubs potential to be hard-pruned or left to grow naturally.
    Ron! I notice you have not included your recent visitor?
    Richard Cooper

  11. Yes, Ron - and so do a Maseratti and a Champagne cellar!

  12. Hi Ron

    Here's your Siberian Chiffchaff story and picture:

    I don't get redwings in my garden, but I saw quite a few in Valentine's Park on Tuesday 6/01/09. Very pretty birds.

    I was also at Rainham Marshes on 8/01/09 and they had Penduline tits. As usual I was looking in the wrong direction and missed them.


  13. B21 - May I make a definition of identification here - before we get an influx of sitings of the Siberian Chiffchaff.
    The Very Similar and more common bird which could be mistaken for the Siberian Chiffchaff is:
    The Dunnock (Prunella modularis) which can be found here :
    To see the very similitude of the Dunnock the Siberian Chiffchaff follow Tajinder's link.
    This is quite an eye-opener.
    Similarly - if you see a suspected Waxwing - check the Internet pics with those of a Jay which could be similarly mistaken.
    However, there are reports of Waxwing both juvenile and adult recently in this area and along the Eastern Counties of England.
    Good Twitching.
    Richard Cooper
    For RSC

  14. Hi, all.

    Ron, you should see fat wood pigeons bouncing my firethorn up and down to get the berries. Its needle-sharp spines also make it a great shrub for discouraging burglars.

    To add to Richard's praise of Cotoneaster horizontalis, the new shoots are covered in greenfly in summer, and my sparrow gang need the greenfly for their babies, as well as its winter berries. I have a hedge of Cotoneaster horizontalis in my front garden and a Silver Queen holly, so my sparrows are doing very nicely.

    Did anyone mention ornamental thistles? Great for seed-eaters.

  15. In the evening standard of yesterday (Tuesday 13th January),page 22, in an article published by RSPB, they mention that there are no lesser spotted woodpeckers recorded in London.
    Now, the Claybury Park glossy brochure mentions them.
    So: either we are not in London or, the brochure is wrong! Tajinder has better talk to RSPB!

  16. I have seen a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in my garden on rare occasions. IG5 = Essex postcode but "London" Borough of Redbridge. Take your pick.

  17. So, if Greater London does not claim the lesser spotted very rare variety of woodpecker, Essex is the richer for it!

  18. Perhaps we should ask these birds whether they recognise the local authority boundaries......

  19. How do you spot an Essex bird?

  20. Hi Richard/ Rep

    Dunnock/ Siberian chiffchaff

    I've been speaking to some expert birders and this is what one of them (Roy) tells me:

    "Dunnock and Siberian Chiffchaff are both small, insectivorous passerines (which means that they are perching birds, and have similar thin pointed beaks), and are both largely grey in colour, but this is where the 'similarity' ends. In 'real life' Chiffchaffs (all races) are smaller, slimmer birds which will tend to be found feeding very energetically in trees, shrubs etc. (similar to a very slim Blue Tit I supose). Dunnocks, on the otherhand, will be seen in bushes/ scrub but generally very low down, and they feed on the ground 'shuffling along' with the body held horizontally (in size and shape they are perhaps best compared to an extremely slim Robin - but note the different posture). Dunnocks also characteristically flick their wings (if you see this you'll know what I mean!).

    Plumage wise there is very little similarity - see the photographs in the following links; (The Sibe
    Chiffchaff in the news story - scroll down to Jan 2nd)
    (more Sibe Chiffchaffs)

    Far more likely than an 'influx of sightings of Siberian Chiffchaffs' due to confusion with Dunnocks is for the 'normal' race of Chiffchaff (of which small numbers are regularly seen in the winter) to be reported as the Siberian Race. These tend to be browner (sometimes greener) above, and with yellowish or buffy tones below (brighter green/ yellow during the summer), some greyer birds are often not possible to identify - with certainty - to race.
    (Chiffchaffs - 'normal' British race)

    Similarly Waxwing and Jay, although superficially similar in colour (pinkish
    with patterned wings + black on the head and tail), are very diffferent in size, structure and behaviour. (a plump Starling like bird that will only be seen in trees + feeds on berries, compared with one that is the size and shape of a Jackdaw which typically takes food from the ground - or from bird tables).

    Whenever possible it is almost always best to assess the shape and structure of a bird (and usually size as well) before starting to compare plumages - this is something that can be difficult to do from photographs, but gets easier (with practise) in the field."

  21. Anne

    Lesser spotted woodpeckers

    Can you assist me with finding the article on the above? A website link will suffice.


  22. Anne

    Evening Standard article on lesser spotted woodpeckers. I have found the one you are talking about and I am currently doing some investigating on this.

    Kind regards,

  23. Well done on this Tajinder, and I must say your articles on birds are really interesting.
    Because of you, I am taking a keener practical interest.
    Something I noticed quite recently (since last year, or thereabout) is that the management of the ancient hedge across the road from us, along Claybury Park, has been changed slightly and is a bit 'strict'. It used to provide excellent nesting ground for the sparrows but not so excellent right now because the hedge is cut too well and perhaps not at the right time.
    I don't know if you monitor at all the maintenance of hedges in the borough. I realise it is a daunting task but if it can be done, it would be very nice to see more of these little rascals.

  24. Anne

    Re: Lesser spotted woodpeckers

    According to my sources, the original article was much longer than what the Evening Standard put out. As you may know newspapers have to fit in articles into a limited space so we think a hatchet job was done. This has led to a confusion of the facts. The numbers for LSW references were to do with central London. Apparently they left out a whole load of statistics and species. Basically LSW are decreasing in London and could vanish completely. Habitat loss is a major factor but changing climate is also exerting some influence.

    I can confirm that the Greater London region has had sitings of Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

    Hope that answers your query.


  25. Hi Tajinder,
    I have just realised you have replied to the query and I thank you for taking the trouble to check the facts.
    So, LSW are documented in the Greater London Area, which is fine.