Last weekend, something happened in my garden that had never happened before: I caught all my birds.
I should explain. A colleague and all round good-egg, Rich, and his lovely dad Peter came round to 'ring' the birds in my garden.
I'm sure that many of you are familiar with bird ringing, but if not, it is a technique in which very fine nets (called 'mist nets') are slung between two poles.
Birds don't see the net, they fly into it, and get caught in pockets in the net. They are quickly and expertly extracted by experienced and licenced ringers (for the sake of the birds, ringing is only be done by qualified people).
The birds are measured and weighed, and a small metal ring is put on their leg, the right size ring for the right bird and on the right leg. And away the birds go, none the worse for their experience. Here's one of my Great Tits in the act of being ringed.
The value of the work is that, should those birds turn up in another net on another date, then we get an insight into their lives such as where they go, when they go and how long they live. The scheme is administered by the British Trust for Ornithology, and you can find out lots more about how it all works here.
But back to my garden. I was intrigued to see if I learnt anything new about 'my' birds and how they use the garden.
The six nets were unfurled at first light, and then checked every 20 minutes through until about 1pm. In that time, 46 birds of 14 species found themselves in the nets.
Now I record the birds daily in my garden, but never see more than two Wrens at a time. In those six hours, three Wrens were ringed.
Similarly, I never see more than three Dunnocks at the same time, but in the ringing session we caught five.
Watching bird ringing also allows you the privilege of seeing birds up close, which reveals things you would otherwise never see. For example, we caught a Chiffchaff...
...which allows you to see the 'wing formula', which is a way of looking at differences in the wing feather shapes to conclusively separate them from Willow Warblers.
I also didn't know that in the past some people knew of Blue Tits as 'Billy Biter', but here I got to see why:
We didn't catch any birds that already carried a ring, which is what you really hope for. But at least these 46 birds are now out there and may be caught by someone else, somewhere else, helping us understand a little bit more about our birds and how they are faring, which then gives us a bit more information to help save them.
And you know what? After Rich and Peter had left, the first bird I saw in the garden was a Dunnock, but without a ring: at least the sixth in the garden that day!
Once in a while, I bring you a blog that is little more than a set of photos, because nature sometimes speaks for itself.
Today's is of a Sparrowhawk. He had just finished bathing in my pond, which is thrilling enough in itself, but on this occasion he decided to come and sit in a myrtle tree outside my bedroom window. (I originally thought it was a female based on the brown colouring, but have since discovered it is a second-year male. You'd never be able to work that out from most field guides!)
And there he felt so comfortable that he decided to dry himself in the weak, late-autumn sunshine. Never before have I had the chance to see all the barring in the tail feathers so clearly...
...or indeed in the primaries, those largest wing feathers on the left.
But look how much more prominent that barring is from below, and how he has a rufous patch on her flanks almost like a Redwing. Look, too, at those long, pure white feathers under his tail, albeit still a bit bedraggled at this point. Come the spring, these white feathers will be put to good use, when he will circle high in the sky above her territory, those feathers flared like a powder puff. Females do it even more than the males, signalling to other Sparrowhawks that the ground below is her territory.
And, dried off, he gave me a withering look, and was gone...
Ok, here's a little challenge for you. Just a few weeks ago, I was noseying around in a bush in a friend's garden, when I suddenly realised that something was looking back at me.
See if you can find it.
I moved into another position to get a different view. Now there were two things looking at me.
Have you worked out what they are yet?
Here's a close up of one of them in case you need a better view.
It's a Wood Pigeon chick, known as a squab. I'd guess it's about two weeks old, and its sibling is behind it to the left. Don't they look really really odd at this age, with the straggliest, yellowiest curly 'hair' on their heads and backs?
Baby Collared Doves look very similar at this age, but don't have such a ridiculously outsized beak. A baby Wood Pigeon has to grow into its face!
It was a reminder of how late into the season the pigeon family can continue to nest, and indeed active Wood Pigeon nests have been found in every month of the year, although most breed between April and October.
For the first few days of their lives, these two chicks would have been fed 'crop-milk' by their parents. This isn't regurgitated food; it is actually produced by the adult's body in the food storage pouch at the back of its throat, called the crop. The cells that line the crop wall fill with a milky fluid that has more fat and protein than mammalian milk. Which other birds adopt this strategy? None other than penguins and flamingoes.
So although Wood Pigeons are often ignored or dismissed as being clumsy and dopey, the next time you see one, remember that it is one of the nation's most successful and adaptable birds that gives its youngsters the healthiest start in life, and is the closest you'll get to having a penguin in your garden!