A nice bowl of country vegetable soup was perfect accompaniment to another year's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch count. So my Blackcap didn't show, but I was pleased with 12 species, and particularly with a Song Thrush and six House Sparrows. The interesting thing will be will to see if my encouraging results are reflected in the county and national results when they come out.
With so many people inputting their records online these days, the data experts at RSPB HQ who analyse the results can turn around the results in just a few weeks, which is excellent. Here's is your link to fill in your results.
With the skies blue this afternoon (although the wind keen), I put in an hour's walk from the house into the lanes on the edge of the downs. Lords and Ladies (Cuckoo Pint) were unfurling in the hedgebanks and a Fox lazed in the sunshine on a south-facing bank (left), but what caught my wildlife gardening eye most was the antics of some Blackbirds in my tiny local park.
Now I only get one or two Blackbirds in my garden, and they make a bee-line for the spillage under the feeders. And yet here in the park, just over the back fence from a line of back gardens, were at least eight Blackbirds within a few feet of each other, acting much more naturally (right).
It was fantastic to watch them in action. They were in the thick of the leaf litter, flicking the leaves aside to find what might be lurking underneath. This was no gentle probing and poking, but a real whip-crack toss of the head to uncover little surprises. Here clearly was a wonderful food supply, probably full of creepy-crawly nutrients.
It reminded me that although supplementary feeding at our bird tables is really valuable - and I would never denounce it (at least when done hygienically) - we also need to look to nature for our wildlife gardening inspiration to the home-grown foods that creatures seek out. A sight like 'my' Blackbirds today makes you groan for the loss of all those leaves that are sucked up like litter each autumn by those energy-guzzling garden 'vacuum cleaners', when if they were spread into shrubberies and borders they might provide feeding grounds for legions of Blackbirds through the winter, and natural compost too.
I'm sure I don't need to tell any of you that this weekend is the biggie - half a million of you counting the birds in your gardens and giving us a brilliant snapshot of what hot and what's not this year. Will the Starling continue its seemingly inexorable demise? Will December's cold mean more birds regularly using gardens than normally? It will be fascinating to find out.
If you're still unsure exactly what to do or how to input your results online, everything you need is here. See it as your most productive hour of legitimate idleness this year.
I've got very high hopes for my garden. I've been recording the birds every week in the garden for over 10 years now as part of my data gathering to learn first-hand what works and what doesn't, and last week set a NEW RECORD. I recorded 18 different species in the seven days. I quickly remind everyone that I have but a tiny garden in suburbia, so imagine my delight!
My previous record was 17 species, in early January 2009. And I have previously had two weeks with 16 species. So as you can imagine it felt like my garden was heaving.
The highlights were seven Long-tailed Tits darting around the feeding station and a Goldcrest coming down to fat balls on two separate days.
And these - both a male and a female Blackcap coming regularly to the fatballs .
Now normally I pride myself that all photos on this blog are mine. But in the gloom this week, even a record shot of these neatly coiffured warblers wasn't possible. So please excuse me raiding the RSPB's illustrations to bring you a flavour of what has been an exciting 'practice run' for the big count ahead.
I'm typing rather gingerly today. I had the rare treat of a spare weekend, so I was able to spend almost all of it in the garden (hoorah!), but I have the pulled muscles to show for it. Gardening is such brilliant exercise, but ever so painful occasionally!
One of the benefits of such quality time in the garden is the chance to see and hear everything, such as spotting the first tiny points of the Wild Daffodils poking up through the grass, or being 'serenaded' by an over-enthusiastic band of Starlings trying out their spring voices (keep practicing, lads).
Unfortunately, it was also time to take stock of the winter losses. Geoff Wakeling's reply to a recent blog talked about the loss of his beloved Echium; I lost both of mine too. They were Echium pininana from the Canaries, which had grown well last season to be 18 inches or so high and thick in the stem. This year was to be their time, when they would rocket skywards into the biggest plant-pyramid of a million blue flowers and hopefully the same number of bees too. But their crowns were so frosted as to have turned to yucky mush (left).
In a normal winter, I would expect it to survive here on the south coast. But no such luck this time - their fate was the compost heap.
It was very sad too to find a dead male Blackbird under the shrubbery at the front. I couldn't work out the cause of death, but then there are so many possibilities. It is easy to imagine that predators, cars, glass windows and starvation are their only enemies, but they can contract a wide range of viruses and bacterial diseases too.
As I always say, it is a jungle out there beyond our front doors, where survival is a daily challenge. Even small ailments make creatures extremely vulnerable. And that's why nature has equipped most species to churn out loads of youngsters during the rich times of spring and summer to give just a few the chance to see it through to the next season to start again.
Interestingly, I have only recorded one male and one female Blackbird at any one time in the garden for over eight weeks now, so it was encouraging to see that a very-much-alive male and female were still visiting my bird table today. Had a new male quickly moved in? Was the dead male a newcomer himself? Or have two males been around but never on view at the same time? The latter is probably most likely, for ringing studies have shown that usually our gardens are visited by far more birds than we realise.
I guess the good news is that I still have a pair (at the very least) as we head towards spring. It's just a shame that they won't have my Echiums to admire.
PS Watch out for Geoff Wakeling appearing soon on Sky's new Horticultural Channel, which opens on 11 March. I'll remind everyone nearer the time, but it's great to know that we will have someone wildlife-friendly presenting :-)
In my garden 'hotel', I have a big accommodation omission. Any bat which comes passing through gets a nice evening meal over the pond, but there's no place for them to stay overnight. None of my trees are old enough to have cavities, and my house is too new to have gaps in the eaves. Yes, a new extension is required to offer them a room at the inn.
So this week I set about buying some bat boxes.
Now the first thing to say is that these in the photo aren't my boxes, for mine are currently under the arm of a friendly postman somewhere. But I thought it a good photo to show some of the essentials of bat boxes.
The good people at this particular site have done the huge favour of naming what creature should be using which box. It's always best I find to ensure that your guests know which room is meant for them ;-)
The bat boxes look good. About the dimensions of a tit box, they have a good 'ladder' underneath the box (hopefully up close we'd see that it is grooved to give them a grip). And there's a good flight path in so the bats have clear air to approach the box, land on the ladder, and climb up the narrow slit and into the box.
This nature reserve has also done well in putting two boxes facing in different directions. Hopefully there's then another box around the corner facing in yet another direction, for this then gives bats the chance to move around over the course of the seasons. These are fussy critters that like their bedroom temperature to be just so.
But then the 'no-no' is that this reserve has painted the box. Bat boxes should be untreated wood, because bats are very susceptible to the chemicals leaching out of paints and preservatives.
So I await my bulging post-bag with excitement. I sense I'm going to be up a ladder very soon.
PS Interestingly, after a flurry of advice only a few years ago that terrace nestboxes are just what sparrows want, the advice has now changed. Individual nestboxes about a metre or so apart has been shown to be preferable to ramming pairs right up next to each other. It seems they just like a little bit of space sometimes!
Temptation is a cruel mistress. There I was this week, minding my own business, when a seed catalogue came plopping onto my doormat. It looked up at me with puppy-dog eyes saying, 'Open me, open me - you know you want to.'
And sure enough I have succumbed and spent happy hours this week thumbing through. They are the only books I ever get where I scribble all over them in the brightest felt-tip pen available as I work out what I'm going to try this year.
Last year I experimented with sowing a dwarf Rudbeckia called 'Toto' to see if it had the same allure for bees as the bigger, older varieties do. It proved a bit of a flop, but I'll keep them going this year to see if they do better in year two and en masse . And if it fails, well, you don't know until you try.
However, the Scorpion Weed Phacelia tanacetifolia was great for bees, and Echium Blue Bedder was top notch for them too. As was the Borage. And I eagerly waiting to see what happens to the Globe Thistle which only grew into a rosette of leaves in year one - I'm hoping it will shoot skywards and get covered in Comma butterflies .
So what for this year's seed-sowing extravaganze (into my peat-free trial composts, of course)? Well, there's just so much to have a bash at!
I'm going to try Echium russicum from seed for the first time (I'm aware of my weak spot for all the Echiums). And I want to do some Honesty to enliven the woodland garden. Plus I'm going to sow some Honeywort (Cerinthe major) which I know is another bee favourite. And I'm itching to give Scabious ochroleuca a try, which I'm hoping will be a beautiful yellow foil for my native pink Field Scabiouses.
Did you try anything new last year? If so, how did it go? And have you got a growing urge you're just going to have to give into this year? Do share!