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Nature blog - Jenny Bourne

The RPA Nature blog with Jenny Bourne.

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bumbarrels, dunnocks and signs of spring

Date posted: Wednesday 8th February 2017

bumbarrels,  dunnocks and signs of spring

Long tail tits have been regularly feeding on the fatballs and peanuts on my plot over the past few weeks. It’s always a delight to see them up so close, though, like all tits, they don’t stay in one place for long.. This sums up their attraction well: “A brief, high-pitched “see-see-see” sound, followed by the appearance of half-a-dozen tiny balls of fluff, each attached to what looks like a protruding stick. Then, more calls, as these flying lollipops flit from one tree to the next, pause, grab an invisible insect, and then move rapidly on.
Encountering a flock of long-tailed tits on a frosty.. day is always a delight. Few other birds so immediately provoke a smile, for few other birds are quite so… well, adorable is the word that most readily to mind. When you discover that… the long-tailed tit is the only small bird that spends Christmas with its family, then their status in the pantheon of cuteness is confirmed. With long-tailed tits, it’s not just their endearing appearance: pink, buff and black, with that tiny bill and impossibly long tail. It’s also their sociable habits: youngsters from a previous brood will often help their parents raise the next one, in what scientists call “co-operative breeding”. And you simply never see a lone long-tailed tit; one is always followed by another, then another, until a host of them are flitting around you, seemingly fearless of this great, lumbering mammal in their midst. When I was growing up, I didn’t see long-tailed tits anything like as often as I do nowadays. This isn’t because I was any less observant; this species really has bucked the trend of songbird declines, having almost doubled in numbers since the 1980s. Partly, that’s down to a run of mainly mild winters. Like other small birds such as goldcrests, long-tailed tits are especially vulnerable to long spells of cold weather, which make it harder for them to find food and keep up their energy levels. But it’s also because they have changed their habits: they are seen in gardens far more often than they used to be, and have learned, in the past decade or so, to come to bird feeders.”

bottoms up

“The poet John Clare loved them too: calling them “bumbarrels” (after their barrel-shaped nest), as in these lines from his sonnet Emmonsail’s Heath in Winter:
And coy bumbarrels twenty in a drove
Flit down the hedgerow in the frozen plain
And hang on little twigs and start again.”
(Guardian Nature Diary 22.01.17)

An early foragaging honeybee out on the first flowering snowdrops spotted on Monday and this ladybird appearing at the weekend – all signs of spring on the way, along with the green shoots of spring flowering bulbs now bursting up and daffodils in bud.. it’s been mild, damp, dull and overcast for a while and today is so dark and dreary, sun is in short supply!

Last weekend I sat for an hour looking out at the birds in our courtyard for the RSPB Big Birdwatch. Predictably, several birds usually seen were absent, but twelve house sparrows made an appearance, now officially on the red endangered list – they mob our seed feeder noisily squabbling and causing much kerfuffling, but good that we’ve got some! On the plot the furtive dunnocks flit among the undergrowth, travelling through what used to be a thick, luxuriant ivy covering full of flowers:

Paul Evans (Guardian Country Diary 08.02.17) writes: ‘There’s something surprisingly rapid about Prunella modularis; it’s like being in the presence of a little ticking bomb. It’s movements are quick and edgy…Tseep! The dunnock calls to maintain radio contact with its clan. It’s a call that can be heard in woods from here to the Caucasus – and because the bird was taken there in the 19th century, in New Zealand forests, where dunnocks sing in the silence left by other birds that have been wiped out.’ And he uses the wonderful word ‘furtle’ to describe the hedge sparrow’s movements in the hedgebanks.. On our site we have various mature fruit trees that provide perching places for birds, but there is a possibility that one particular cherry may be removed – this will have an impact on the birds around our site and we may see fewer as a result – any loss of trees is a loss of wildlife and, in D Trump’s childishly eloquent, if limited, vocabulary, ‘sad’!