Take part in the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend

PUBLISHED: 23:21 26 January 2018 | UPDATED: 23:33 26 January 2018

Female blackbird perched on washing line. Picture: Nigel Blake

Female blackbird perched on washing line. Picture: Nigel Blake

ILIFFE

How to take part - and the birds that topped the charts last year

Great titGreat tit

It’s time to fill up your feeders because the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is back this weekend, for the 39th year!

Last year nearly half-a-million people in the UK (11,000 of whom took part here in Cambridgeshire) joined in with the world’s largest garden wildlife survey, counting eight million birds.

These sightings provide an invaluable overview of garden wildlife across the country. By comparing results to those of previous years, we can monitor trends and work out which species may need help. Take the starling: our statistics show they have declined in UK gardens by 79% since the Birdwatch began. On a cheerier note, your data also helps us note species on the up, such as long-tailed tits.

So take a seat, reach for a cup of tea and enjoy spending a relaxing hour with your feathered neighbours.

StarlingStarling

How to take part

Joining in with Big Garden Birdwatch is simple and enjoyable - and a great excuse to watch your garden birds.

WoodpigeonWoodpigeon

Here’s our step-by-step guide...

1. Choose a good place to watch from for an hour from January 27-29, 2018. Which window gives you the best view? Make sure it’s comfy and you have the essentials within easy reach - a nice, hot drink and your favourite biscuits - and somewhere to jot down what you see. On the website we’ve got a nifty counting tool to help you keep track of what you’ve seen.

2. If you haven’t got a garden that’s no problem. Just pop down to your local park or green space and join in there.

3. Relax and watch the birds for an hour.

Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)Long tailed tit (Aegithalos caudatus)

4. Count the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. For example, if you see a group of three house sparrows together and later another two, and after that another one, the number to submit is three. That way, it’s less likely you’ll double-count the same birds.

5. Come back to the Big Garden Birdwatch website and tell us what you’ve seen. Or use a paper form. It’s FREE to post back to us.

That’s it! By taking part and telling us what you see, you’re helping us find out more about garden wildlife - so take a big pat on the back from us.

Goldfinch (Carduelis-carduelis)Goldfinch (Carduelis-carduelis)

Which birds will I see?

We don’t know! We can’t predict which birds you will see in your garden, which is one of the joys of taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch. You might see your usual visitors, or you might see a rarity, but you won’t know unless you take part.

For instance, Big Garden Birdwatch 2017 revealed an explosion in the number of recorded sightings of waxwings, a more unusual garden visitor. These attractive looking birds flock to UK gardens in winter once every 7-8 years when the berry crop fails in their native Scandinavia, known as an ‘irruption’.

Blue titBlue tit

Yet, more familiar tit species took a hit last year, and we’ve seen in a lot less of our gardens following weather changes throughout the year.

What if I don’t see anything?

It can be really frustrating if all your garden regulars don’t show up on the day you do Big Garden Birdwatch.

If you watch for an hour but don’t see a dicky bird, we’d still like you to tell us about it!

WoodpigeonWoodpigeon

Even a total of 0 birds is still useful data to us - it’s as important to know where there weren’t any birds as where there were lots.

There are also questions about the other wildlife you might see in your garden year-round. If you’re disappointed in your birds’ lack of loyalty, we’d love you still to send in your results.

Which birds topped the charts last year?

RobinRobin

In 2017, some familiar garden birds topped the charts, which you might see in your gardens once again this year:

1. House sparrow - noisy and gregarious little birds. They are cheerful exploiters of man’s rubbish and wastefulness, having managed to colonise most of the wild: the ultimate avian opportunist perhaps. However, monitoring suggests a severe decline in the UK population, which is estimated to have dropped by 57% over the past forty years.

2. Starling - at a distance starlings look black, but when you see them closer they are very glossy with a sheen of purples and greens. Their flight is fast and direct and they walk and run confidently on the ground. Starlings spend a lot of the year in flocks, particularly during the winter months when you might witness a magical murmuration. Unfortunately, starling numbers have also dramatically decreased, by a whopping 79% since the first Big Garden Birdwatch in 1979.

Female House sparrow against white backgroundFemale House sparrow against white background

3. Blackbird - males live up to their name but, confusingly, females are brown often with spots and streaks on their breasts. The bright orange-yellow beak and eye-ring make adult male blackbirds striking. They are now Cambridgeshire’s (and the UK’s) most widespread garden bird, after being seen in more than 97% of the county’s gardens.

4. Woodpigeon - the UK’s largest and commonest pigeon, with a population that has increased by 1060% since 1979 across the UK. It is largely grey with a white neck patch and white wing patches, clearly visible in flight. The cooing call of the woodpigeon is a familiar sound in woodlands as is the loud clatter of its wings when it flies away.

5. Collared dove – these pale, pinky-brown grey coloured birds, with a distinctive black neck collar (as the name suggests), moved up one place in the 2017 results. They have deep red eyes and reddish feet. Their monotonous cooing is a familiar sound to many and it’s easy to mistake them for a woodpigeons, however they are a lot smaller than a woodpigeon.

6. Blue tit - a colourful mix of blue, yellow, white and green makes the blue tit one of our most attractive and most recognisable garden visitors. In winter, family flocks join up with other tits as they search for food. Changes in weather during breeding seasons can have a big impact on these small birds.

Male house sparrow (Passer domesticus)Male house sparrow (Passer domesticus)

2016’s prolonged wet spell meant there were fewer caterpillars about for feeding their young. It’s likely that this led to fewer younger birds surviving than usual, meaning there were fewer seen in gardens -16% less blue tits in fact!

7. Goldfinch - a highly coloured finch with a bright red face and yellow wing patch. Sociable, often breeding in loose colonies, they have a delightful liquid twittering song and call. Their long fine beaks allow them to extract otherwise inaccessible seeds from thistles and teasels. Increasingly they are visiting bird tables and feeders – there’s been a 48% rise in the number of goldfinches visiting Cambridgeshire gardens since 2007.

8. Robin - the UK’s favourite bird - with its bright red breast it is familiar throughout the year and especially at Christmas! Males and females look identical. Young birds have no red breast and are spotted with golden brown. Robins fared well last year, moving up two places from 10 to 8 in the charts.

9. Great tit - the largest UK tit; green and yellow with a striking glossy black head, white cheeks and a distinctive two-syllable song. It is a woodland bird which has readily adapted to man-made habitats to become a familiar garden visitor. It can be quite aggressive at a bird table, fighting off smaller tits. Great tits followed the trend of their relative the blue tit, following a poor breeding season in 2016, and as a result were seen in 13% less gardens in 2017.

Female blackbirdFemale blackbird

10. Long-tailed tit - easily recognisable birds with distinctive colouring, long-tailed tits look like a ball on a stick with their long tails (bigger than their body) and small bodies. They are usually noticed in small, excitable flocks of about 20 birds. Greater numbers of long-tailed tits are surviving our milder winters, meaning the number of birds seen in our gardens in the county has increased by 144% in ten years.

How to make fat balls and cakes for garden birds

Blue tit on feederBlue tit on feeder

Make your own tasty treats for the birds this weekend. Here’s how:

Step 1: You’ll need fat, such as lard or suet, which will set hard when cool. At room temperature it should be soft enough to stir with other ingredients.

Step 2: Pop the fat in a bowl and add a mixture of seeds, nuts, mealworms and other goodies that birds will eat (see list). Stir.

Step 3: Roll the mixture into balls.

Step 4: The balls can be placed into suitable bird feeders, usually the ones made from a wire mesh which allows hungry birds to peck at the fat.

Step 5: Alternatively, stuff the fat mixture into holes in trees. Or, make a hole in the base of a yogurt pot and thread string through it. Tie a knot inside the yogurt pot to keep the string in place. Fill the pot with the mixture and hang from a tree or bird table!

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