I had a different blog planned for this week. You will get that one a later date, but I was going to end it with a follow up to last weeks “Feed Them And They Will Come – The Return” blog. It seems birds must read my blogs here in Tonyrefail. The very next day after I posted that blog a Robin turned up in the garden, and has been present ever since. I have rarely seen a Robin around these parts, which has always struck me as odd. It seems to be a very good habitat for them. There are plenty of old out houses and gardens with nest boxes and feeders out. We have bramble patches and woodland fairly nearby. The plethora of House Sparrows on my feeders seems to back that argument up. So it was quite nice to see our most faithful of garden companions tucking into the sunflower heart mix I have out there. This all came to an abrupt end this morning …
The one thing about “feed them and they will come…” is you have no control over the guest list to your buffet cart. Sooner or later, if you have busy feeders like me, you will attract the interest of the local Sparrowhawk. I had seen evidence of Sparrowhawk activity in the garden a few times. The usual tell-tale signs of a patch of feathers scattered on the lawn. There was a House Sparrow kill left upon the roof of next doors conservatory, but there is also a local cat, which I could not rule out for committing the deadly deed. You can look at the scene of the “crime” and make an informed decision; Sparrowhawks tend to pluck feathers out neatly and cleanly, where as a cat tends to chew and leave wet and messy feathers, but with no actual sightings actually in the garden I could not confirm 100% who the killer was. I have only seen the local Sparrowhawk about three or four times since I moved back to my home town.
That made this morning’s double take as I looked, blearily eyed, out the kitchen window even more heart stopping. There, perched in all his majestic glory, on top of my bird feeder, was a male Sparrowhawk. The sparrows on the feeder had clearly scattered into the fern and other bolt holes that I have planted for such occasion. I am fairly certain that this individual is a young bird, as it had pale feathers on its back and it was a very clumsy hunter. Amazingly it hung around long enough for me to grab my camera, which had the wrong lens on it, no memory card in it, and was set for taking a family portrait, not a wildlife shot! Somehow I managed to quickly get everything set and I got a few shots of the bird, before it pounced on an unfortunate individual. It was hard to tell, but I thought it had got the Robin. Since starting this blog I have seen a Robin out the garden, so unless there was a second individual, it must have caught a sparrow.
I know seeing a Sparrowhawk kill a bird in your garden can be upsetting. Stephen Moss during the series Birds Britannica thought it was due to the lawn becoming extensions of our living rooms, and no one wants to see a Woodpigeon being dismembered in your living room. I am pragmatic about such things. The Sparrowhawk was only trying to feed himself, and during the breeding season, providing food for his brood. You always have to remember, the smaller garden birds always have multiple broods for this reason. It is a weight of numbers game. There is no evidence that Sparrowhawk kills are effecting populations of these birds, it has been extensively monitored for a number of years. Nature always finds its own balance.
According to Greek mythology, the King of Megara, Nisus, was turned into a Sparrowhawk after his daughter cut a lock of his purple hair off to present to his sworn enemy. The Sparrowhawk’s Latin name, accipiter nisus, is derived from this legend. Its name echoes throughout history. The name Spearhafoc, was in common usage at the time of the Battle Of Hastings. It was this which corrupted into Sparhawk, and then to the name we use today. Early ornithologists believed the Cuckoo turned into a Sparrowhawk during the winter months. It is now believed the Cuckoo uses its similarity to the Sparrowhawk to fool the birds into mobbing it so it can get access to the nest to lay its egg.
The male and female Sparrowhawk are strikingly different. The male, which is indeed the first male I have ever photographed properly, is much smaller than the female. It has a lovely blue-ish grey plumage. The female is about a quarter of the size larger than the male, one of the largest size differences in the bird world, and is a chestnut mottled brown. Both have the striped chests. They are probably only second to the Peregrine Falcon as the top avian predators in the UK. I have witnessed a pair of birds hunting along a hedgerow in tandem, one flushing the birds from one side, for the other to pursue and catch. I have also heard tales of them flying alongside vehicles that are flushing birds from a narrow hedgerow. The presence of a predator at the top of a food chain is nearly always evidence of healthy eco-system beneath to support it. So this is why I welcome this sometimes maligned raptor into my garden, and why I got so excited to see it a few mornings ago.
The whole love and hate relationship we have with the Sparrowhawk is summed up quite neatly by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. I will end this blog with his words from his poem on the bird:
“A sparhawk proud did hold in wicked jail Music's sweet chorister, the Nightingale To whom with sighs she said: 'O set me free, And in my song I'll praise no bird but thee.' The Hawk replied: 'I will not lose my diet To let a thousand such enjoy their quiet.”
All Images © Anthony Walton
Wednesday 1st October in the morning found me up before the Committee – the National Assembly Environment and Sustainability Committee to be precise. I was there – with three colleagues from other environmental organisations – to answer questions from Committee members about the written evidence that I had previously submitted from RSPB Cymru concerning the Welsh Government’s draft Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill. The Committee comprised Assembly Members (AMs) who have a particular interest in, and knowledge concerning, a whole range of environmental and sustainable development policy matters – not to be taken lightly, therefore! Their role is to scrutinise the Government’s proposed Bill and to report with proposals, having taken into account the written and oral evidence from a cross-section of Welsh organisations.
So, important to be well prepared, not least by trying to foresee the questions I might be asked and preparing possible answers. Our written evidence included a proposal for strengthening biodiversity in the Bill, together with concerns about process, environmental management and delivery. Looking ahead, I was concerned to ensure that the Bill would provide a good framework for sustainability in preparation for the Environment Bill, expected in Spring 2015. I went armed with both the State of Nature report and the newly published Living Planet report the latter which was produced in part by our WWF colleagues, and which told a tale of catastrophic global biodiversity and habitat loss. The four of us had met two days before to share responsibilities concerning who would lead on what issues. This meeting had proved invaluable concerning shared key issues, while each still being able to express respective organisational priorities.
Nevertheless, and notwithstanding this and much other preparation – reading and re-reading the Bill, together with our own evidence and the submissions of many other organisations – I felt uneasy in the days leading up to the 1st, and increasingly nervous in the hours before our appearance in front of the Committee. I had concluded, however, that it is possible to over-prepare for such an event: too many notes could distract from thinking on one’s feet in response to the members’ questions. However, a few notes give reassurance and help to ensure that all points are covered – Ed Miliband take note!
I was very conscious that I would be there to represent the RSPB, and that my ‘performance’ would reflect appropriately on how we are perceived by AMs. Although this would not be my first evidence session before an Assembly committee – and, moreover, I am no stranger to public speaking – this awareness only added to my pre-stage nerves. I dressed for the occasion in a suit and tie, although it always strikes me as odd to ‘dress up’ before speaking to the elected representatives of the people! But I knew that I would cut a poor figure if I turned up in my usual office clothes of t-shirt and shorts.
So, at the appointed hour and right on time, in we went. My Welsh translation headphone didn’t immediately work, so I had to guess what it was that the Welsh-speaking chairman was asking – only that we each identify ourselves! But then we went straight into questions. From previous experience, I have learned that the way to overcome nervousness is to get in early and say something – which I did. Moreover, I waved my copy of the Living Planet Report, answering a question about the global reach of the Bill, and made a point about the seriousness of biodiversity decline alongside the already mentioned issue of climate change. Phew, I had come across well and could sort of relax and enjoy myself!
The questions from members proceded, all of them sensible, constructive and mostly predictable as they delved into the detail of what was in our written evidence.. My big moment came when I was asked directly about the concerns expressed in RSPB’s written submission in relation to the role and membership of the proposed Public Services Boards (PSBs). I was able to talk at some length about our anxieties concerning the inadequate environmental representation on the proposed PSBs, and about the role that the Boards might be called upon to play in delivering natural resources area statements, expected in the forthcoming Environment Bill. Judging by the nodding heads around the Committee table, I felt my concerns and points were shared by many members.
At last our hour with the Committee was up and out we went. All four of us seemed content with how the session had gone, with no faux pas and nothing left unsaid or forgotten. It just remained to be seen to what extent the Committee would express our points in their report, expected late in November.
Now, at last, I could relax and smile!
Keep an eye out for a further blog later next week from me on the content of the Well-being of Future Generations Bill
When I started blogging for RSPB Cymru I used to live in a house with an incredible garden. It was only when I started reading the various bird watching magazines that I realised how lucky I was to have such a huge variety of wildlife visiting it. My Big Garden Birdwatch counts for both the BTO and RSPB used to easily contain 20 – 25 species, some weeks I could top 30 species of bird visiting the feeders. Add to the bird life a healthy hedgehog population, the occasional fox, at least two species of bat and more bees and butterflies than you could shake a flower at!
But those days are long gone now. We had to move out of that house as the landlord wanted to move back in. It was a sad day, but in the interim period I have seen so much more wildlife visiting various nature reserves and walking around the farmland of my new home. I have moved back to my old hometown of Tonyrefail. From a garden that backs onto woodland, I am now in the middle of a busy main road in a vibrant town.
I have been living here for about two years now, and I have had feeders out in the garden for most of that time. Other than the snowy winter of 2013, I have failed to attract much into the garden. I have seen the occasional Wren, we had a resident Dunnock for a while, there are House Sparrows around, but nothing would venture on to the feeders. All I could guarantee was a flock of noisy Jackdaws that would clear up any scraps of bread I would put out. Now I don’t mind a Jackdaw, a supremely intelligent bird, and it has the most wonderful sapphire eye, but like most people I do long for the odd Robin to be honest.
All of this changed back in the spring, and it weirdly coincided with the new series of Springwatch starting. I had noted that the House Sparrows were searching the rose bush outside the patio doors for aphids to take back to their fledglings, something that they had done before the previous year. I knew where they had nested the last spring, which is not a million miles from my back garden. So half a dozen or so individuals would turn up for a few weeks, and then that was it. If I saw them again it was a red letter day. I decided I would give putting food out another go, and I bought some dried meal worms, and sprinkled them below the rose bush. I had brown stone below the bush, so the Jackdaw’s didn’t find this cache of food for quite some time. In this time the House Sparrows were able to get used to supplementing all the Rose Sawfly caterpillars and aphids on the bush, with some of my food. I tried putting a feeder filled with shelled sunflower hearts out for them. To my delight they started using it. What were six or seven individuals was now about a dozen. As the weeks rolled by they started bringing their fledglings into the garden to feast on this bountiful supply of food. Sunflower hearts have the added advantage that Jackdaws don’t seem to eat them. I only discovered this when I started making some sunflower seed mix with fat sticks and the Jackdaws always left the sunflower hearts.
Word was clearly getting about now as the garden had its own little flock of Goldfinches. Collared Doves were coming in and feeding from the spillages, and then we had a little bit of magic. For a few fleeting weeks we had a stunning male Bullfinch drop by. I have no idea where he came from, or where he went, but I did manage to film him!
A few Chaffinches had cottoned on to the new fine eatery in town, and they started to arrive and call “chink-chink-chink” from the fence, alerting Dawn to get the washing in, as their call is said to foretell rain. Something that did actually prove accurate on one occasion! We did get a Chiffchaff fly in on one day. Blue Tits and Great Tits chose the feeders to ferry food to their nests, one Blue Tit has remained resident.
The sparrow numbers were now starting to border on the bonkers. In a few short months I went from less than half a dozen to maxima (so far!) of forty two birds in the garden! There cannot be a House Sparrow south of High Street I am not feeding! It is clearly Collared Dove season at the moment, as I had a garden record of seven birds in the garden last weekend. The Jackdaws are not sure what to make of it all!
It has been a remarkable turnaround for this semi urban garden. It just goes to prove that with a little bit of study of the bird’s habits and a lot of patience, if you feed them, they do indeed come!
All Images & video taken in my back garden in Tonyrefail - © Anthony Walton