I love feeding the birds. It's better than TV for me, watching to see who's visiting and what they're up to.
Of course most of what they eat is seed I've bought in from the RSPB. But I do like the idea of my garden providing some of it too.
So this year I've got the bit between my teeth, and this week I've been sowing a cornfield.
First step, prepare the ground. I'm sowing a large area - 300 square metres - so I went at it with a rotavator, but this works just as well in a small bed and is even worth trying in a large planter.
The land I'm sowing was under a closed canopy of rotting plum trees until a month ago, so I don't have a significant weed burden to worry about, so rotavating is all I'm doing to prepare the soil.
Then it's onto the seeds. I bought 600g of cornfield annual wildflower mix - the basics are Field Poppy, Corn Chamomile, Cornflower, Corncockle, Corn Marigold, plus I went a bit posh and got a mixture with a bit of Opium Poppy, Field Forget-me-not and Night-flowering Catchfly.
I also bought 600g of mixed cereals - oats, wheat and barley.
I split them into six cereal bowls (and then got in trouble when there were no clean ones for dinner). This meant that I could better gauge how evenly I was sowing them across the plot, rather than having to try and guess an even rate over the whole area.
Then it was a case of broadcasting the cereal seed and raking them in so they are buried an inch or so down, safe from pigeons, followed by scattering the annual seeds on the surface.
And that's it - nature I'm hoping will do the rest.
Here is a photo from Hidcote where they had sown such a mix, minus the cereals.
A late winter or spring sowing tends to have few poppies (sadly) but I'll happily settle for something that looks like this.Especially if the sparrows and finches take up the invitation too!
You know those teenagers who seem to eat like a horse but never put an ounce of weight on (I remember the days!)? Well, watching the birds at the feeders today was just like that.
In particular, my male Blackcap seemed to spend almost all the day sat in the fat feeder inside the squirrel guard - peck, peck, peck. I thought he might get to the point where he wouldn't be able to get out.
Much of the time he had to share the feeder, either with my two House Sparrows, with Great Tits, Robins and Dunnocks, or as here with the male Blackbird. (The latter has to be ever alert in case the dominant female spots him and comes barging in - he is pretty scared of her, I can tell you).
Of course, the need to feed like a glutton is a sign of the huge energy demands of these cold days and long, even colder nights on small birds. Research on tits has shown that they need to eat the same number of calories as their body weighs in grams (so an 11g Blue Tit, for example, will need to eat 11 calories a day, which would be the equivalent of me having to consume 70,000 calories a day. Even I couldn't manage that).
That means our garden birds have to undertake an almost constant search for food; every day is a question of survival. It is where garden bird feeding - which I know most of you do - can be a real lifeline.
As well as feeding fat balls, I also feed nyger, peanuts and seed, and this is where I unashamedly plug the RSPB “Fair to Nature” certified sunflower hearts that I've just started using,
They are only just out, and the idea is that the farms the RSPB sources its birdseed from must meet rigorous conservation standards, set by Conservation Grade.
For example, Fair to Nature farmers must have at least 10% of the area they farm as wildlife habitats.The RSPB has always been careful where it sources its birdfood from, but this takes our sunflower seed standards to the highest level.
It's lovely to think that my birds are happy, but the place where their seed came from is full of happy wildlife too.
Regular readers will know that I have just had major tree work done in my new garden - 30 soaring leylandii that were poised to crush my neighbours' property have had to be removed, given that four had already fallen in the gales last winter.
It still leaves me 350 trees and shrubs in the garden, and that includes some lovely semi-mature trees such as three English oaks, a small-leaved lime and a walnut.
What I don't have are trees that are old enough to have rot holes and hollow trunks, so any hole-nesting woodland bird is going to need a bit of help.
So, with my tree surgeons here, it seemed the perfect opportunity to use their tree-climbing skills and brawn to put up some more unusual and chunky nestboxes.
Here is the first to going up, a Tawny Owl box, with John, the tree surgeon's 65-year old assistant, making enthusiastic flapping motions and owl noises at the foot of the tree!
Tawny Owl boxes mimic hollow tree trunks, and are either erected vertically (as here) or slung on the underside of a branch.
You do need to be careful with Tawny Owls breeding in a garden as they can be vicious in defence of their young, but my box is high in a spruce and should be fine.
My second box is an open-fronted box.
I've been ambitious here because it is technically a Kestrel box, and I did have a Kestrel hover over my vegetable patch at Christmas so it is worth a try.
It is possible that both boxes will get used by Jackdaws (better there than down my chimney!) or possibly Stock Doves - we'll see.
But I guess it's that golden rule of giving nature a home - fulfill their Home Needs and see what comes!