This morning, winter made sure I knew it was there. A heavy frost had coated everything in crystals. It wasn't long after dawn and already, fluffy, hungry-looking birds were lurking in the bushes. The bird feeders were nearly empty! Under normal circumstances, you could perhaps accuse me of being a little disorganised, but this morning I became a hyper-efficient bird-feeding machine. In no time I'd found porridge oats (central heating for birds, too), some bashed-up apples, a bag of cheap currants for thrushes and sunflower hearts to replenish the feeder. It was time to brave the cold.Crunching over the grass, I made my way down the garden to the bird feeders. I got halfway there before a great spotted woodpecker burst from its position on the peanut feeder.
'Sorry, woodpecker,' I thought (I'm not yet at the stage where I'm talking directly to the birds), 'you can come back in a couple of minutes'. It was so quiet and still outside that I heard the whirr of its wings as it went to hide in the ash tree.I also heard fieldfares 'chacking' overhead as they searched for unfrozen fields, a wren singing from down the hedgerow and saw a flock of lapwings flopping their way across the sky, also on the hunt for a nice field full of worms. I might not have noticed any of those things if I'd stayed indoors.There was a slight hitch when I found the lid of the bird feeder was iced firmly shut, but a jug of warm water soon fixed that and sorted the frozen bird bath, too. With the feeders full, fruit scattered on the ground and oats sprinkled around, my job was done.By the time I was back inside and peering out of the kitchen window, birds were already back on the feeders. They got their breakfast; I got a feeling of satisfaction. It was a good start to the day.
I could probably count the number of times I see a jay in summer on two hands, but for the last few weeks it has been difficult to travel anywhere without encountering one of these colourful crows.
With their brilliant colours temporarily concealed by the abundant lush green foliage of high summer and a natural tendency for shyness, you could be forgiven for thinking that jays leave us at this season. They are still here of course, but raucous calls coming from deep within the treetops may be the only clue to their presence.
It is a different story now though. The autumn leaf drop means there is no place now for these woodland residents to hide and jays are much more obvious through their transformation into 'hoarders' and 'stashers' of the treasures of the woodland floor.
Daily plundering sorties see every jay meticulously scouring the ground beneath our magnificent oaks for glistening acorns nestled in the golden-glowing leaf litter. The wettest summer on record has produced an acorn bonanza in our woodlands and jays have been quick to take advantage.
In spite of the abundant food on offer, jays don't spend the diminishing daylight hours scoffing their bounty and fattening up in preparation for winter. Jays, like most crows, are very intelligent and play the long game by burying their treasure in a variety of well-spaced underground stashes, providing a source of food on which they can depend when food becomes harder to find in the depths of winter.
Regular flights between foraging grounds and their stores in various woods is what makes jays so much more visible now. Of course, even the cleverest of birds, can't be expected to remember where it has buried all of its acorns and it is these forgotten seeds that give rise to the next generation of oaks.
Walking around The Lodge at lunchtime, there was a rustle and then the sound of powerfully whirring wings. A fat, brown bird flew from the crispy leaves in the sweet chestnut woodland and away up the hill from us. It made me jump!For a split second, I thought, 'what on earth was that?' but then it became obvious. It was a woodcock, an enigmatic wading bird that lives its whole life in the... woods.It's very hard to see woodcocks while they're on the ground. They are very good at it: their feathers are a mixture of beautifully mottled, rusty browns - ideal for lurking among leaf litter. They have long, sensitive beaks for finding creepy-crawlies on the forest floor, and their large eyes (for seeing in dark conditions) are set far back on their heads so they can see what's behind them. When they spot you - long before you spot them - they're off like greased lightning.This is the time of year when many woodcocks come to the UK, flying non-stop across the North Sea, to escape the harsh winter. They can turn up in some odd places - we often get phone calls or e-mails from people reporting that a strange, brown bird with a long beak is poking around in their garden, or that they've found one dead underneath their office window after a collision.It's possible that, in spring, 'my' woodcock tapped its way out of an egg in a remote Russian forest, full of elk and bears and owls. Or maybe it bred in this country, performing a strange, grunting, squeaking, night-time display flight known as 'roding'. I'll never know, but it's nice to wonder.
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It's a myth that you need binoculars to get a good look at birds. All you have to do is stand still and be quiet, and very often they'll come to you.At lunchtime, I went out for a potter around The Lodge's gardens to stretch my legs. I paused to admire the tree by the pond. It's a very strange-looking thing: a tangle of lime-green twigs armed with monstrous, inch-long thorns. Among the spikes are yellow, golf ball-sized fruits, like slightly furry limes. As I read its metal name tag - Japanese bitter orange - something else caught my eye. A goldcrest was interested in the tree, too. It was well-hidden among the branches. Goldcrests are the UK's smallest birds. They're a rather dull green colour with a yellow stripe on their head and a charming expression.They need to eat almost constantly at this time of year. As a tiny bird with a dainty, needle-like beak, the bitter oranges were no good to it - it was hunting for morsels of insect food.I stood still. The goldcrest carried on going about its business: clinging to the twigs, fluttering upside down and dodging the thorns. Then it perched on the edge of the tree and took a good look at me before darting over my shoulder and into the shrubs behind.It just goes to show you don't need to be dressed in camouflage or to sit in a hide for hours on end to have an eye-to-eye encounter with a wild bird.