Bird Watching (UK) - - What To See And How To See It -

OUR KNOWL­EDGE ABOUT how birds use our gar­dens is grow­ing; dif­fer­ent types of bird feed­ers, nat­u­ral plant foods, shel­ter and wa­ter will at­tract dif­fer­ent species, and this gives us an idea of what re­sources they are lack­ing in the wider coun­try­side. How­ever, the re­sources that we pro­vide can only sup­ple­ment those avail­able in the sur­round­ing habi­tat, and ev­ery gar­den bird­watcher knows that the birds they see will de­pend on the nat­u­ral pop­u­la­tions nearby. In my gar­den, at the fringe of the fens, sur­rounded by arable farm­land with only scat­tered trees, I have never seen a Nuthatch, and ac­cept that I prob­a­bly never will. Th­ese are birds that need wood­land; they are found not too far away, in Thet­ford For­est, but we know from the most re­cent Bird At­las that this species is very thinly scat­tered across much of East Anglia, with Thet­ford For­est be­ing a hotspot. De­spite my best ef­forts, a few peanut feed­ers are not enough to sus­tain Nuthatches in such an un­favourable area. In more heav­ily wooded parts of the UK, such as Wales and south­ern Eng­land, Nuthatches are much more abun­dant, and here they are com­mon gar­den visi­tors. Of­ten likened to small wood­peck­ers, with their strong bills and front-heavy sil­hou­ettes, they are as happy cling­ing to a tree trunk or feeder up­side-down as the right way up. In their pre­ferred wood­land habi­tats they for­age along trunks and branches for in­ver­te­brates and on bird feed­ers they are bold and ag­gres­sive, scat­ter­ing other birds. While they nat­u­rally nest in tree cav­i­ties like Blue and Great Tits, they will of­ten plas­ter the cav­ity and en­trance hole with mud to ad­just the size; in boxes they may com­pletely plas­ter the in­side so the lid can’t be opened. Weekly gar­den bird counts from BTO’S Gar­den Bird­watch (GBW) give us in­sights into how and why Nuthatches come into gar­dens. Through­out most of the year Nuthatches are gen­er­ally seen in about 15% of GBW gar­dens, but in some years num­bers in au­tumn show a sharp dip, while in other years the rates in Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber climb to over 25% of gar­dens. The cause is the vari­abil­ity of their nat­u­ral food sup­ply; in au­tumn Nuthatches switch to feed­ing on seeds, SEED HATCH You may at­tract Nuthatches to your gar­den, but only if they are nearby to start with The BTO runs vol­un­teer sur­veys to mon­i­tor and ex­plain changes in bird pop­u­la­tions. To find out more about the Wa­ter­ways Breed­ing Bird Sur­vey visit but nat­u­ral tree crops vary hugely, with boom and bust years fol­low­ing one another. In years when seed crops are poor, Nuthatches are able to fall back on gar­den feed­ers, and this ex­plains the peaks in Nuthatch counts in gar­dens in those years. This goes to show that in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions gar­dens can pro­vide im­por­tant sup­port­ing re­sources, mean­ing that, un­like in my own gar­den, bird feed­ers can re­ally make a dif­fer­ence for Nuthatches. Re­sults from the Breed­ing Bird Sur­vey show that Nuthatch num­bers have in­creased rapidly since the 1970s, and this in­crease has been ac­com­pa­nied by a north­ward range ex­pan­sion into north­ern Eng­land and Scot­land, where this species was for­merly ab­sent. They are very seden­tary birds, and do not move far from their breed­ing grounds in the win­ter, and it is thought that in the past win­ter con­di­tions have lim­ited their num­bers. More re­cently, milder win­ters may have al­lowed the pop­u­la­tion to ex­pand, and it’s also pos­si­ble that the fall back of gar­den food sup­plies have also helped to sus­tain their num­bers through hard times.

Kate Risely is the Bri­tish Trust for Or­nithol­ogy’s Gar­den Bird­watch Or­gan­iser

De­spite my best ef­forts, a few peanut feed­ers are not enough to sus­tain Nuthatches in such an un­favourable area

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