Winter seemed to arrive out of nowhere this year, and what a winter! No autumnal descent into grey, featureless December days. One day it was autumn, the next the depths of winter as we’ve rarely experienced it. And, as we struggle to work or school, it’s likely we won’t have much time to think about how the birds are managing. But they face a huge struggle to survive the rigours that a British winter can throw at them. The darker days give them fewer daylight hours to find food and the snow covers vital feeding areas. Worst still, it comes at the beginning of the winter with the possibility of further periods of similar weather to come. Their fat resources will be lost too early and many will perhaps not survive. So anything we can do to augment their meagre pickings gives a real boost to their chances of survival.
Many of the blackbirds and song thrushes, robins and starlings that visit our gardens in winter are in fact visitors from abroad, and not the ones who sang so wonderfully in the apple tree last spring. They originated in Scandinavia or Eastern Europe, fleeing even worse winter weather, leaving those Western Scandinavian shores on a stormy October night and crossing the North Sea to descend onto our eastern coasts and then to spread out in flocks across our counties.
With them come other birds that are rarely seen in most of our gardens. Until, that is, the prolonged frosts and deep snows drive even these birds from their usual rural wanderings to seek out food among our more regular visitors.
One of the most colourful is the waxwing. Occurring most winters on the eastern half of the UK, these starling-sized birds sometimes erupt east from the Continent, apparently due to failure of the berries they rely on, and then we are inundated with flocks of these amiable, and often very approachable, birds. Their weak trilling call is distinctive as they work their way from berry bush to berry bush, devouring avidly the rowan and cotoneaster berries left untouched until now.
A flash of orange and black among the chaffinches under the bird table will announce the presence of a small group of bramblings, a finch closely related to the chaffinch, but a more robust-looking bird. The female is more subdued in its colouration but both sexes show a distinctive white rump as they fly off. Their wheezy nasal call should stand out among the other calls in the garden.
Another unusual finch is the much smaller siskin, the male with a gorgeous bright yellow and green plumage with a black cap. As ever, the female is a duller colour but both have a penchant for peanuts and will allow excellent views as the flock jostle for positions on the feeders with the goldfinches and tits.
As the frosts and snow really settle in you could be graced with fleeting visits from small flocks of two winter thrushes. The redwing, slightly smaller than a song thrush, has an orange flash on its flanks and a high-pitched wispy call. The fieldfare is a bigger, more solid thrush, elegant against the snow in its grey, brown and white and often with a striking yellow bill. Shy at first, hunger will bring it close. Apples chopped up and strewn on part of the lawn brushed free from snow usually results in a visit from a passing flock of these lovely birds.
Most of the British warblers rely on insects and, as our winters just can’t sustain them, they migrate in late autumn returning from April as the sun stirs the bugs and spiders they need. However one British warbler, the blackcap, has become increasingly hardy and perhaps thousands now stay over in the UK. Still finding it hard to find food in harsher weather they will readily come to bird tables, the male is easy to identify with its black cap, the female is less so with its dull brown cap.
Tree sparrows are increasing after a shocking decline in the last thirty years. Learning to take advantage of the bird feeders they are often overlooked in rural and town edge gardens amongst our more usual house sparrows.
And,if you are really lucky, the harsh weather might just bring in our smallest British bird, the goldcrest. Usually more at home in conifer plantations seeking out small insects and spiders, goldcrests will occasionally come to the bird table for crushed up mealworms and other insect food. Finely-crushed suet balls sprinkled on a bird table will prove attractive to this species.