Thursday, 29 October 2015

I only ever get pigeons!

People are always coming to tell me that they put out food to attract birds but they only ever get pigeons. If this sounds like you then you'll be pleased to hear that you can change that.

Here's what could be happening.,,,,,,,,

I'm guessing that you're trying to cut costs. Bird food isn't cheap and, once you've started putting food out for the birds you're bound to feel that you want to keep doing it. Am I right? So you shop around for the least expensive food you can find in the hope that you can keep your feeders full all the year round.

Well my bird loving friends, I can see that this is well intentioned but by buying that inexpensive food (from your local garden centre or discount store) you can almost guarantee that it is packed with wheat, corn and flaked maize. The very thing that pigeons love!

Most of the inexpensive bird food sold by large retail outlets is bulked up with wheat, corn, biscuit meal and flaked maize, The high energy seed, preferred by the small wild birds that you're wanting to attract, is only found in low proportions.

Your little birds will throw out all the food they don't like and will only eat the good stuff. You've probably seen them doing this.

Here's another reason....... the inexpensive food is likely to be stored in large warehouses for a very long time. There is no guarantee that the storage conditions are cool enough to keep oil rich foods from turning rancid and dry enough to deter moulds from growing. Your small birds may find this food unpalatable and may bypass your garden feeders in favour of someone else's. If you're buying peanuts from the same place, then your feeders could be a source of aspergillus mould which creates the deadly aflatoxins responsible for killing wild birds.

And here's another reason....... if you've filled up your feeders with predominantly wheat and corn and all your target species have turned up their little beaks at what's on offer at your feeding station, your food will certainly go off very quickly and further deter the birds from visiting. You'll watch in earnest in the hope that something stops by but your food will be on the least wanted list.

So, what's the solution? Well, if you think about how much food is going to waste by continuing to buy bird food in this way, and how little you're actually helping the small birds, it may not surprise you to hear that you can make a big difference by changing your supplier.

A long-tailed tit inspects a garden feeder
You can also save yourself some money by understanding the feeding habits of birds, Why do your feeders stay full at certain time of the year? Well this is when there is a lot of natural food available. Your little avian friends will always prefer to eat natural food so, during those time, just keep a small amount of food in your feeders. If they don't eat it in a couple of weeks, tip it out and add another small amount. That way you won't be wasting feeders full of food.

I've suggested some reputable suppliers at the end of this blog and you might want to compare prices. You can rest assured that all the food is sourced and stored correctly and that the contents are of the highest quality. You'll be able to choose what you feed and many of the sites will give you advice about what to feed to which species at different times of the year. Some even give you the calorific value of each type of food. You'll be able to choose whether you offer husked food (greenfinches love de-husking black sunflower seeds) or high energy food and, very soon, you may see a decline in pigeons in your garden. Having some pigeons isn't all that bad - they will clear up the seed that has been dropped on the ground which deters rodents.

Remember to store your food in a cool, dry place, preferably in a proper storage bucket, and it will stay fresh for a long time.

A goldfinch on a niger feeder

We'll look at what to feed and when to feed in my next blog.


BTO bird care range
CJ Wildbird Foods
Little Dicky Bird
Ernest Charles
Garden Bird Supplies
Living with Birds
Bird Box
The Blue Barn, nr Leeds

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Top tips for choosing bird feeders

Hello birdwatchers

It's been a wonderful few days and I've been catching up with jobs around the home. There's nothing like pottering around in your own space and putting your own little world to rights.

One of my not so little jobs was to take down and wash all of the bird feeders in my garden. Now this isn't the most pleasant of tasks at the best of times and one job that you definitely need a nice day for. Today was the best of days, great weather, birds singing all around me and I had all the time in the world to do it. However, most of the time, we're very busy; the weather isn't so inviting or it is just too darn cold during the winter months, so you need to be able to get the job done fast.

Here are my top tips for choosing the right bird feeders for your garden..

1. Don't go for bargain priced feeders.
It really is a false economy and you may be contributing to the ill health of your garden birds. Cheap feeders tend to be badly designed and poorly finished to the point that I've seen birds get their legs caught in badly fitting wire. Cheap plastic feeders are less likely to have proper drainage holes too. 

Good wire mesh feeders

2. Check that the food ports have suitable drainage holes
Poor drainage creates a breeding ground for mould and bacteria and optimum growing conditions for the seed. If you regularly see your seed sprouting then this is probably because of poor drainage. Have a look at the base of the bottom feeding port - has it got holes? Are they blocked? When topping up your feeders, make sure that you poke out any dust that has accumulated at the bottom. If there is any damp food in there then take the feeder apart and clean it. Use a reputable dealer when restocking on feeders and when buying disinfectant (see the list below) 

3. Think squirrel! 
If you're lucky enough not to have squirrels in your garden then you'll be able to keep the initial cost of buying feeders to a minimum and buy non-metal varieties. Be aware though that plastics do react to the elements (especially UV light) and may soon have to be replaced when they become brittle. For the rest of us who are plagued with destructive squirrels, go for metal feeders that won't rust. The seed feeder tubes will still be plastic but the feeding ports, top, base and hanging mechanism will all be made of robust materials. The top will also be shaped to disperse raindrops and prevent the food from getting too wet. Some feeders are housed in a squirrel-proof cage which only young squirrels are sometimes able to squeeze themselves into. I can recommend The Nuttery for their caged feeders. I've had mine for over 20 years and they've replaced parts for me free of charge. Droll Yankee feeders are also very robust and reliable.

I've had this feeder from The Nuttery for over 20 years - check out the supplier list below
Of course the squirrel can just tip this caged feeder at an angle to get the food out, but there are some squirrel-proof feeders on sale that completely prevent the little darlings from using them. As soon as a squirrel comes near the feeder, a metal sheath drops down to prevent them using the ports. I've not had to use one myself but those that have assure me that it provides hours of fun! 

4. Check how they're put together 
To ensure that your garden birds remain fit and healthy (or at least that you're not responsible for making them ill) you need to clean your feeders regularly. "How regular is regularly" I hear you ask. Well, recently on Springwatch we were advised to clean our bird feeders on a weekly basis if we had seen any signs of greenfinches with Tichomonosis (a protozoan disease - we'll cover that in a future blog). I think you could see Chris Packham blanching at the thought of having to do this each week until Michaela demonstrated by dunking a feeder whole in a specially formulated disinfectant. If you're going to clean your feeders weekly by dunking them fully assembled then, depending on what they are made of, your feeders probably won't last very long. You may get away with it over the warmer months but for the rest of the time I would advise that you take them apart - at least four times a year at least. My general rule is to wash them when I see the plastic tubing going a bit opaque and when a bit of bird poo has accumulated on the top.

So, once you've decided that you're going to take them apart, this is when things can get very onerous. Bird feeders range from the very simple to the ridiculously complicated when it comes to taking them apart. When buying new feeders, have a good look at how they are put together.

a) How many fiddly screws do you have to undo to get them apart?  It's not easy to do this when your  hands are freezing and, if they are difficult to take apart and put back together, you'll be less likely to clean them. Also, trust me, you'll end up dropping a vital screw on the ground and it will mysteriously disappear. I have one small feeder that comes apart by removing just one screw. Simple and beautifully designed.

b) Ask yourself how easy it could be to actually damage the feeder by taking it apart. Sounds silly but there are feeders out that require the use of pliers or mole grips to get them apart. Once you've done this they look scratched and the protective coating is easily removed from the metal.

My feeder that is held together by 1 small screw
This feeder from Nature's Feast allows you to use 3 different types of food. It is very weatherproof but is very difficult, and fiddly, to take apart and is easily damaged.

Metal fat feeder and a hanging bird table for perching birds
A selection of metal feeders including a niger seed feeder (left)

Don't forget that not all birds can use hanging feeders so make sure that you provide food for birds that like to feed on the ground too. If you see blackbirds and robins trying to balance and take food from your hanging feeders, don't be amused, be aware that they are doing this out of desperation. All that activity is making them use up valuable energy so give them a hand and put some food on the ground.

We'll look at what to feed and when to feed in my next blog and you can learn about the common mistakes that people make when feeding birds.

I'll be spending the day at the Blue Barn in Pool-in-Wharfedale near Leeds on Sunday 16th August to answer questions about birds and feeding birds in your garden. Do come and say hello and you can enter my prize draw to win a free 2 hour birdwatching class, a feeder and some seed.

Here are some garden feeder suppliers


BTO bird care range
CJ Wildbird Foods
The Nuttery     
Little Dicky Bird      
Ernest Charles 
Garden Bird Supplies 
Nature's Feast 
Living with Birds.
Bird Box          
The Blue Barn  

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Where have all our birds gone?

Hello birdwatchers

You may have noticed that the RSPB has announced the results of the Big Garden Birdwatch survey that took place in January this year. Over half a million households took part in the survey and over 8.5 million birds were counted in total.

The blackbird was the most widely spotted bird in our gardens this year and both robins and wrens were seen more often than last year.

On the down side, the reported numbers of song thrush, house sparrow, greenfinch and starling were worryingly low with the number of starlings reported in the survey reducing by 80% since the first survey in 1979.

So what could be the cause of this observed drop in numbers of birds visiting our gardens? 

Well, there are a few factors to consider

1. The main reason that we have seen fewer birds in our gardens this winter is that we've had a long stretch of relatively settled weather in the UK.  The long spring and summer months of 2014 will have produced a good natural seed crop providing more food than usual for our birds. As the winter has been relatively mild and dry, much of this food will have remained on the ground unspoilt over the last few months. Our birds will have taken advantage of this abundant food source and will not have had to rely on our garden seed so much.  Many people have been telling me that they have had fewer birds visiting their feeders throughout this winter.

2. The weather has not only been milder here but it has also been milder on the continent. Our resident population of birds is usually supplemented by thousands of individuals that make their way across the North Sea to feed in the UK each winter. If the weather is mild on the continent then many of these birds will be able to find enough food over the winter and won't make the journey to the UK. This may account for people observing fewer chaffinch, brambling, starling and thrush species during the survey. Certainly, we've barely had any waxwings travelling to Britain this winter which is one indicator of the abundance of winter food on the continent.

3. Still, the trend is that most birds are declining year on year.  Why is this? Well I'm going to depress you now but we have to face facts. Most of our bird species are declining because of us. The human population is increasing exponentially and the UK is a tiny island. We've all heard our parents and grandparents say to us "I remember when all this used to be fields". Most of us will probably have memories of our own about places we used to play as children that are now covered with houses, business parks or roads. We're losing vast amounts of habitat each year to concrete and most of our open countryside is intensively farmed. Intensive farming involves the removal of miles of hedgerow; efficient grain collection; the planting of winter crops; and frequent spraying with herbicides and insecticides over the growing season. We class rough grassland and scrub in cities and suburbs as 'waste ground' and are happy to see it go. This ground makes excellent habitat for seed eating birds; those that search for insects hibernating over the winter and also for birds that need to eat small mammals to survive like kestrels and owls. We put our politicians is under pressure to satisfy the need for housing resulting in pledges to build in the region of 100,000 new houses each year. How many years will that take before most of the UK is under concrete? I can't bear to work it out.

So, next time you're asking yourself where all the birds have gone, take a look at the 'development' going on around you and reflect. Our birds are the price of our 'progress'. Enjoy them while you can.

Song thrush

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Winter collection from D&G 2015

Wild goose chasing in Scotland has always been one of my favourite winter activities and last weekend I took 6 birdwatchers on a 3 day tour of Dumfries and Galloway.

As usual we stayed with Linda and David Birdsall at the fabulous Millbrae House B&B and Self Catering Accommodation. Thanks to both of them for their warm welcome and their wonderful hospitality. 

The Solway is home to thousands of geese, whooper swans, ducks and waders over the winter months and the western light, and the beautiful rolling countryside of Dumfries and Galloway, makes the perfect backdrop to see them. 

Our first day took us to WWT Caerlaverock which gave us our first view of barnacle geese, around 6,000 all the way from Svalbard. 

Barnacle geese all the way from Svalbard

We prepared ourselves for a search through flocks of Eurasian teal to find the one green-winged teal from North America, then it swam out from behind an island and was completely on its own in the water. 

A green-winged teal spending the winter at Caerlaverock
Compare our Eurasian male teal with its American cousin. Note the horizontal versus vertical white stripe

Shoveler, wigeon and pintail fed on the lagoon and curlew, redshank and golden plover could be seen in the surrounding fields. The high tide had also flushed a few grey plover from the shoreline and we were able to compare them with golden plover. Despite the drizzly weather, the western light brought out the oranges of the willow on the reserve. A buzzard perched nearby looking for an easy meal and roe deer fed around the field margins. 

Mute and whooper swan with mallard and tufted duck

When the weather took a turn for the worst, we sheltered in a hide overlooking the saltmarsh. A low movement caught my eye and I was so excited to see a female hen harrier flying towards us. Everyone managed to see her as she looked us in the eye and flew past the hide hunting low over the fields. Her white rump and owl-like face clearly visible. This was a rare and wonderful sight for us and I'm sure that we will recall that experience on all of our future trips to the area. We ate a hearty meal at Barend in Sandyhills and listed our birds of the day. 

On day 2 we stuck close to our B&B visiting Rockcliffe first thing, Carlingwark Loch in Castle Douglas; Threave Castle; the red kite feeding station at Bellymack Farm, Laurieston and Loch Ken to look for Greenland white-fronted geese. By the end of the day we'd also seen pink-footed geese, more pintail, teal and wigeon, goldeneye, red kite, redwing, mistle thrush and ticked birds such as little grebe and coot at Carlingwark Loch (which are difficult to find on the Solway reserves). 


Redwing at Carlingwark Loch

Roe deer at Threave Castle

Threave Castle

Red kites at Laurieston

Greenland white-fronted geese
On a recommendation, we travelled to the Willow Tree in Palnackie for our evening meal. The food, ambiance and staff were fantastic and we will certainly return next year. 

On day 3 we headed to one of my favourite reserves in the UK, RSPB Mersehead to get another goose fix. 

RSPB Mersehead

I love the mixture of habitats and the feeling of space giving uninterrupted views of rolling hills, rough grassland, farmland, lagoon and shoreline. A thin strip of wet woodland provides an enchanting walk to look for treecreeper and great spotted woodpecker. The enchantment comes from the many species of bryophytes and lichens that have colonised the standing trees and fallen branches and it seems that, if a person stood too long, they would quickly become a mossy mound. 

Bryophytes and lichens at Mersehead

 Mersehead hides also showcase the work of local artist John Threlfall. The colourful murals certainly reflect the diversity and the charm of the reserve.

Hide art at Mersehead by John Threlfall

 I'm always emphasising the importance of scanning fence posts, twigs and distant trees when birdwatching and there is no easier place to do this than Mersehead. We were able to add a distant stonechat to our list then, another rush of excitement, as the horizontal stance of a large raptor alerted us to a female hen harrier sitting on a nearby fence (probably the same bird as seen at Caerlaverock). By this time the drizzle was quickly covering our lenses so taking photos wasn't possible but we had fabulous views of her perching and hunting over the fields. Flocks of pintail, teal and lapwing lifted as she made her way over the landscape. 

Time was moving on and, as the rain had stopped, we decided to aim for a starling murmuration towards Gretna. On the way back, a couple of little egrets spotted in a field made us stop on the side of the road. This proved profitable as, from there, we could see the solway and managed to scope red-breasted merganser and a female scaup as well as more redshank, curlew and a heron in the fields. 

We got to our starling site just in time and watched a swirling mass, twisting and turning in unison, before the light finally disappeared. After a quick coffee stop at Gretna we headed back home to Leeds. With a group total of 83 species we had so many wonderful memories to reflect on on they way back. 

Starling murmuration on the Solway coast

If you're interested in joining me at D&G next year then give me a call on 07778 768719 or email