Twitcher’s Temptations

How the weather can alter, catching you out at every turn if you’re not prepared. And how blasé were we, getting used to easily-above-freezing overnight temperatures in January?

On the very days we have front windows and the patio doors that lead out to the back garden replaced the Midlands experiences a blast of Arctic wind and overnight frosts of some severity. All credit to the two cheerful guys sorting out the glazing, listening to Radio Two and joking about wearing shorts (surely only postal delivery workers do that in winter?) going about their business – great job by the way. (Sealed units in the previous windows had leaked and for two years (or more) we’ve been trying to see through layers of condensation as well as the leaded lights.)

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Water in the wheelbarrow, stupidly left in the right way up (usually I stand it up against the allotment shed door) didn’t thaw for three days straight. Giving me an idea:

We have been trying, unsuccessfully of course to get rid of the pondweed (“duckweed”) in our back garden pond. Ever since, in fact, a well-meaning fool (I see him every morning in the mirror) had the idea that it would encourage wildlife to visit the pond and cut out the process of eutrophication. But, by golly its persistent! But during these freezes its all trapped in a surface layer of ice so, using a handle less shovel I simply slid the panels of frozen water out of the pond and onto the lawn. Where they sat, un melted for a couple of days. Nothing is simple, needless to say and about a handful of the fast-multiplying plants evaded capture, but for a while at least I can pretend I’m winning.

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The cold weather had a dramatic effect on bird visitors too. And the amount of time they spent in the garden. Greenfinches came (absent for so long), a trio of waxwings, a single (male) reed bunting, a very speedy coal tit joined the regulars at the “service station”. There was a high flying flock of lapwings (one of my favourite birds as a youngster) and the return to our skies of buzzards.

Then it’s the first official day of the RSPB Great Garden Birdwatch – and it is warm and raining!

Ridiculously, when you consider it, in reality it doesn’t matter. But I was psyching myself up to record a bumper list of visitors. Instead in the time I planned to do the observation – between nine and ten in the morning (this following the time when I add feed to the range of feeders about the garden – and birds being creatures of habit as well as opportunists it seemed to make strategic sense) – I sit in the upstairs bedroom (better view of the whole garden) and ponder. There was a guy on breakfast TV from the RSPB who broadcast some statistics/comparisons.

The Big Garden Birdwatch has been going for more than thirty years now (last year half a million people sent in their records). But the time-to-observe has been extended, its over three days now. I get it: it gives more people the chance to take part and, importantly organisations like schools (where grounds can be key to wildlife) but it also makes me wonder how valid comparisons can be. I’m not thinking this in a negative way: indeed I love the idea of the rise of “people’s science”.

Also the instruction are not simply tally mark every time you spot a species, and, rather harshly, I am not certain every participant will understand exactly what is needed to make the results credible. This swill, if I am correct mean dubious results.

But – and this is extremely snobbish of me – how accurate will observations be? How well do others (it’s always others isn’t it, because we all know that what we are recording is a hundred per cent accurate don’t we? Editor’s note.) There is what we know as the “pterodactyl factor” where gullible people have been convinced that here was a rare species in the vicinity. How does the RSPB deal with this?

I suddenly realise that there are wood pigeons feeding from the table –and I dash outside (very unscientifically) to rebuild the woven-from-canes roof I have put there to prevent the ungainly monsters snacking on the precious food. I have to confess my partiality here: wood pigeons are not popular with allotmenteers – and they gobble up the food so rapidly that other species must starve. Wood pigeons indeed remind me of Hercules cargo planes: big, grey, safe and heavy … and I prefer the helicopter antics of the tit family or the marauding style of the Spitfire-like starlings.

And then, I must confess I am sorely tempted to add some of the birds that have been here over the past forty eight hours (the waxwings: surely it won’t make a big difference – and they were definitely here ironically in the top of the rowan tree that was stripped of the looked-for red berries well before Christmas by redwings!). But I resist. Because this is the twitcher in me trying to take over, to show off, to have better results (because nobody is watching right? Nobody checking?) It would be pointless. I know that these other species have visited the garden and that should be enough. I smile; just a few moments ago I was casting aspersions on the integrity of others and look what just happened!

The whole bonus might just be, of course, the increase in the number of people joining in and being interested in what is going on in their own gardens! This should lead to engagement in the wider environment. It is well served by the number of people, I guess, feeding birds and the range and quality of bird feeds available – from almost every shop in the high street.

It is also fed by the wonderful RSPB website which promises additional tasks monthly that people can undertake at home to increase wildlife habitats/provision. And not all just about birds. Gotta be a good thing!

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