Thursday, 31 January 2013

I'm being followed by waxwings!

Hello birdwatchers

What a mixture of weather we've had over the last couple of weeks. Snow, hail, gusty winds and rain have really made life difficult for us, never mind our poor birds!

Nevertheless, Start Birding has been out and about as usual looking for birds in and around Leeds. I've been lucky to have some wonderful, committed and very hardy people out with me over the last couple of weeks and I've really appreciated their company. I've also appreciated being followed by a flock of waxwings over the last couple of weeks. A small flock of 29 birds appeared on my street on 25th January, calling loudly from a telegraph pole. They didn't stay for long and, by the look of them, they were really struggling to find food. Another sighting was reported later that day at Rodley Nature Reserve. I'd also received messages that a similar sized flock had been seen earlier in the week at Morrison's at Kirkstall and outside Co-op at West Park - more later.

wader beaks and feeding depths

So what have I been doing since my last post? Well, classes have been going well at Hollybush where we've continued our theme of understanding wildfowl and have since moved on to birds of prey and wading birds. These are difficult subject areas and I've really been impressed with the development of everyone's identification skills. This week we learned about why waders have beaks of different lengths and how to differentiate between some similar species of wading birds.

Unfortunately, the threat of heavy snow prevented our trip to Potteric Carr from going ahead but more settled weather later that day made a trip to Pugney's Country Park in Wakefield possible for a couple of hours. The following day, I was joined by five brave birdwatchers at Calverley Woods; the venue for one of January's "Sunday Strolls". The purpose of these walks is to introduce Leeds birdwatchers to venues closer to home and to raise awareness of the species of birds that either live in or pass through our city.This walk was organised in partnership with Gael Timbers from the local community group, Creative Calverley

Enthusiastic birdwatchers at Calverley Woods
The following Saturday, a recent Start Birding prize draw winner, and her partner, joined me on a walk into the woods around Meanwood to look for woodland birds and learn some bird song. We managed to meet up, despite the very deep snow, and safely made our way to Meanwood. It was a sunny morning, and the temperature had risen so much since the snow fall that the melt water dropping from the trees was like heavy rain. The wood was full of bird song and we were able to pick out treecreeper, nuthatch, siskin, robin, dunnock, bullfinch, chaffinch, coal tit, blue tit, great tit and jay. A male sparrowhawk was extremely active throughout the morning giving us some excellent views of its "flap, flap, glide" flying jizz.

Last year's Hollybush event prize draw winner at Meanwood Valley

Snow covered woodland at Meanwood Valley

The slight incline back to the ring road was too much for the car in such heavy snow so, when the wheels began to spin, my guests had to pop out and provide some assistance. Thanks to them and a kind lady who  joined in to help get us on our way.

While out on the walk, I received a call from a concerned resident of Swinnow who reported that a large bird had been sitting on her neighbour's roof for the last couple of days. She thought it was a goose so, once we'd finished at Meanwood, I decided to go and have a look. There was still a lot of snow on the small side roads so I parked my car and walked to the address I'd been given. Sure enough, there was a large bird sitting on the roof - a musgovy duck, a domesticated bird native to Mexico, Central and South America. It was inactive, but it looked well. This clever bird had worked out a good survival strategy while food was scarce. It was not able to feed while the water and ground were frozen so had decided to sit close to a chimney. It had worked out that there was enough heat there to minimise fat loss until the snow and ice thawed. If you have seen it, I hope that you're feeling reassured now that you know it is ok.

Our "Sunday Stroll" on 27th January went ahead despite heavy rain and high wind, although I decided to cut the session short when the winds became gustier later that morning. Most of the snow had gone already by the time we met at Farnley Hall Park. As it was too windy to look for woodland birds, we first took a look at the Farnley reservoir on the Leeds ring road. A variety of mallard related "dodgy ducks" were joined by wild mallard, coot, teal, tufted duck, goosander, greylag geese, Canada geese, mute swans and gulls: black-headed, common and herring. As the ice had only just begun to clear, diving ducks were at a minimum and there was no sign of species such as pochard and goldeneye that normally visit the reservoir in winter.

On the walk back to the car, a flock of waxwings could be heard above the sound of the traffic and the wind. This time, around 22 waxwings were present, sitting high on a nearby tree. They very quickly moved off towards Swinnow. We had a quick stroll around the reserve at Farnley Hall Fish Pond, off Hall Lane then gave up for the day after finding goldfinch, long-tailed tits and a rainbow nestling in the houses beyond the pond. I hope they found their crock of gold.

Yesterday I had a quick look around Hawksworth Wood for our walk this coming Sunday. Lo and behold, as we stopped to look for dipper and grey wagtail on the stream, those trilling calls were heard again above the sound of rushing water, high winds and noisy traffic. Around 23 waxwings were sitting just above our heads. A perfect end to a lovely walk which I hope you'll join me for on Sunday.

Find out more about indoor and outdoor classes by calling Linda on 07778 768719, email linda.startbirding@gmail .com or visit 

You can also follow me on Twitter @StartBirding

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Assist our birds through the winter freeze

Hello birdwatchers

With the cold weather finally upon us, it is now time to start thinking seriously about our feathered friends out there in your garden, trying to keep warm during the long winter nights.

To stay alive in the winter, birds must spend most of their waking hours feeding to lay down valuable fat reserves. They need to ingest enough calories by day to replace the energy they lose, just trying to keep warm at night. The lower the temperature, the more calories they need.

Frozen ground and haw frosts make food inaccessible for wildlife. In addition, when water is frozen, birds can become dehydrated and find it difficult to effectively preen their feathers which, in turn, affects their ability to insulate their bodies from the cold.

If you are at home during the day, please try to keep some water available in your garden and ensure that there is some frost-free food. When there is thick ice in your bird bath or pond, you can just slowly pour a kettle of boiling water over the top of the ice. The water will cool quickly and stay unfrozen for a while.

As snow is on the way, keep checking your feeders to make sure that the seed hasn't got wet. If this happens then the seed will become unpalatable to birds and they won't use your feeders. Keep your feeders clean and filled with a variety of food and you may even attract some different species into your garden. Birds can travel great distances to search for food. Put food on the ground and you may provide a valuable feeding station for a desperate brambling, skylark, tree sparrow, yellowhammer or reed bunting, even if you live near the city centre.

See the British Trust for Ornithology site for more information about how birds keep warm in winter.

Preparing your garden now for the winter freeze may make this year's Big Garden Birdwatch a year to remember. I often hear people say that the hour they chose to watch birds was the quietest hour they'd had in the whole year. I wish you luck this year and do let me know if you see anything unusual.

The Start Birding programme of events has continued since my last post. The Tuesday and Wednesday evening classes have been learning more about wildfowl and last weekend's trips took us to Pennington Flash near Leigh in Lancashire and to Middleton Park in Leeds.

I'd not visited Pennington Flash for quite some time and I was very excited about going. Despite the weather being chilly and damp due to the water-logged ground, the weak sunlight provided some warmth and enhanced the colours of the birds and the winter vegetation. The iridescent pink and green plumage of a lapwing flock stood out well against the darkness of a shale spit. Small groups of gulls; common, black-headed, herring, lesser black-backed and greater black-backed were concentrated in one spot, sparking off a quick lesson on gull identification.
Iridescent pinks and greens on a lapwing flock

lesser black-backed and black-headed gulls (photo: Rodney German)
Goosander and goldeneye displayed on the main lake while a pair of teal filtered nutrients in the shallows. A a flock of snipe probed the muddy edges in front of the teal and a kingfisher was spotted fishing in a nearby pool. A group of stock doves fluffed up their feathers against the cold, again showing iridescent pink and green.

a small flock of snipe (photo: Rodney German)


two stock doves feeling the cold
Teal, pochard, shoveler, mallard and tufted duck populated the shallow pools on the reserve while make-shift bird tables provided food for finches, tits, robins and reed buntings. Scarlet elfcup fungi punctuated moss covered fallen branches like tiny rosebuds.

Male bullfinch and greenfinches (photo: Rodney German)
Willow tit

Long-tailed tits (photo: Rodney German)

Scarlet elfcup fungus (photo: Rodney German)

Robin (photo: Rodney German)

The sun shone on Sunday morning and the edge of Middleton Wood was alive with activity from great-spotted woodpeckers. Three females and one male chased each other around the treetops, calling so loudly that all the dog walkers remarked on the spectacle. Treecreeper, nuthatch, goldfinch and siskin fed quietly above our heads while blue tits, great tits, coal tits and long-tailed tits provided material for our lesson on bird song. Suddenly there was a commotion of alarm calls and a sparrowhawk was seen gliding low through the network of branches. A jay squawked loudly - a bit too late to be of assistance to the rest of the woodland - but we didn't see the sparrowhawk catch anything.

If you'd like to learn more about birds, or join me on one of my walks, call me on 07778 768719 or email

Keep warm!

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A happy new year from Linda at Start Birding

Hello birdwatchers and a happy new year to you all

My 2013 bird list started with a fantastic day around the outskirts of Wakefield on the 2nd January. Water levels were high but, luckily, our target birds were at home on deep water - some normally living out to sea. Long-tailed duck and scaup were found at Anglers Country Park and Wintersett, respectively, and turned up again as we walked around Calder Wetlands. Large flocks of wigeon were everywhere and accompanied by gadwall, goldeneye, goosander, mallard and teal. Unexpectedly, a small flock of waxwing landed close by, alerting us with their soft, trilling call.

waxwings at Calder Wetlands

a grey heron at Wintersett

It has been great to see so many people outdoors over the last week. The weather has been mild but, because of all the rain, the ground is completely saturated, footpaths are unrecognisable and outdoor activities are not for the faint hearted or unequipped. Nevertheless, the number of walkers, runners, birdwatchers, cyclists and horse riders out there has been remarkable and really noticeable on today's Eccup circular walk - especially given the terrible footpath conditions. It was yet another grey morning, and birds were scarce, but the ones we saw were really worth the extra effort it takes to walk in those conditions.

We began our walk by taking a look at the birds on Eccup reservoir. Accompanying a few hundred wigeon were a small, displaying flock of goldeneye; some very smart goosander; mallards; great crested grebe and cormorant. A couple of adult pied wagtails were joined by a juvenile on the water's edge and small skeins of greylag geese honked noisily as they made their way to the nearby fields.

Moving on, we took the lane past the water works, looking for siskin on the roadside alders. A pair of bullfinches brought some colour to the dullness of the day then flew off showing their distinctive white rumps. A mistle thrush rattled at us from a nearby high tree. Scanning the field opposite the water works, we found a red kite, a crow and a starling all perching on a partially dead oak.

Making our way down to Bank House Farm we found about 10 grey partridges then were surprised to find a buzzard feeding on a rabbit corpse in the next field. A red kite, also on the ground, watched from a few yards away while a two more kites circled above. After a few moments, the buzzard left, leaving the kite finish off the remains of the kill. We watched as another kite joined the first, possibly a mate or a family member as there was no aggression between the two birds as they fed together. The third kite kept its distance. Tree sparrows, house sparrows, chaffinch and yellowhammer could be heard in the hedgerows and 3 skylarks called as they flew overhead. Raptor alarm calls alerted us to a kestrel flying over.

Red kite at Eccup (photo: Peter Scholes)

Throughout our walk so far, a large, swirling flock of lapwing had been airborne, flying this way and that as if something was disturbing them. As we approached the farm, we finally found them at rest so we were able to take a closer look at them through the telescope before they took flight again. There was a lot of activity on the farm but we couldn't find any other reason why they might be so unsettled. A little further along our walk, a flock of of about 60 golden plover had joined the lapwing above our heads. We were just able to hear their plaintive cry above the sound of walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Unfortunately the settled out of sight.

Apart from many views of red kite, our muddy walk back to the reservoir was only punctuated by sightings of jay, blue tit, great tit, yellowhammer; flocks of chaffinches, crows, jackdaws and woodpigeons; 5 stock doves, a blackbird and another great view of a kestrel - this time a male perched on the outer branches of a nearby sycamore. Back at the reservoir, we had a much needed cuppa and had another look at the birds on the water. A great-spotted woodpecker "chipped" from a high branch,  officially making himself the last bird of the day.

Woodpigeons are everywhere at the moment and, using them for size comparison, it is a great opportunity to scan the fields and learn how to identify stock doves. These beautiful resident birds are very much overlooked by birdwatchers and, to make matters worse, they have a quiet, repeated oo-woo oo-woo song which is difficult to pick out in a noisy spring woodland. I have spent the last year trying to raise awareness of this species and have manged to find stock doves on most of my walks over the last 12 months and in my garden just 2 miles from Leeds city centre.

Stock doves can easily be misidentified in urban and semi-urban areas as some feral pigeons can show similar markings. Thankfully, feral pigeons have such variable markings that, generally, no two are alike. Stock doves, however, are completely alike so look for pairs or small flocks in woodland or nearby farmland with mature trees. Stock doves have a gentle looking face with a black, deep set eye, a white cere (where the nostrils are) above a yellow beak and violet and green iridescent feathers around the neck. It has been described as having lavender plumage which contrasts with striking black wing bars and a black bar to the end of its tail. In flight, the stock dove looks as though someone has drawn around the wings with a black felt tip pen so check those flying pigeons and doves!

There are no white markings on a stock dove and they are in better proportion than those small headed/large bodied woodpigeons. When walking, stock doves have a nodding head unlike the woodpigeon's "obese gait". Just be aware that young woodpigeons could confuse you, as they don't have a white collar and can appear darker around the eye than an adult bird, but they still have a small head and a large body and waddle like a woodpigeon.

Click here for some stunning photos of stock doves by Sue Tranter.

If you'd like to find out more about how to identify birds or you'd like to join me on one of my walks then contact me