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Enjoy the birds around you - and help track their fortunes with the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

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The days are now visibly lengthening, but the weather is getting steadily colder.

A long-tailed tit. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A long-tailed tit. Picture: Jonathan Heath

Robins that have done their best to keep us cheerful with their songs right through the autumn are still singing into winter, and our local blackbird has been tuning up too – at first just a soft subsong delivered through closed bill, but occasionally a louder performance at near-normal volume.

Soon they will be in full voice and we can all start to dream of the spring. High in the trees nearby, the starlings chatter to each other with combinations of rattling calls and whistles, sometimes incorporating mimicry of other species and sounds.

The collared doves are pairing up and singing too, a characteristic three-syllable coo, nearly always accented on the central note.

The RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch takes place on the last three days of this month, so now is the chance to enjoy your local birds and add to our knowledge of their populations and distribution. Go to https://www.rspb.org.uk/get-involved/activities/birdwatch/ and enrol there for some lockdown enjoyment. It does not matter how many or how few species and individuals you log as all the information is valuable and helps the RSPB to track changes in garden bird numbers and compare them year to year.

A goldfinch. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A goldfinch. Picture: Jonathan Heath

In our garden we have regular visits from several species, among which my favourites are the dainty long-tailed tits and colourful goldfinches.

It will be particularly interesting to note how many people see house sparrows, which have been in a sharp decline over recent years.

In London, for example, their numbers fell by a dramatic 60 per cent between 1994 and 2004. House sparrow chicks are fed mainly on invertebrates, unlike their mainly seed-eating parents, and there have been marked reductions in insects and other invertebrates in our towns and cities, so this could be a major factor in their decline. Out in the country, loss of winter stubble and more secure storage of grain may also be involved, depriving the sparrows of extra food sources.

A house sparrow. Picture: Jonathan Heath
A house sparrow. Picture: Jonathan Heath

While certainly not the most musical of songs, the chirping calls of house sparrows always make me smile as I walk past a colony of these charming little birds, and I do hope their decline can be reversed.

Some early flowers are now showing. Winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) and snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) are among the earliest to appear, and can be seen in parks, gardens, and churchyards.

Winter aconites. Picture: Martin Walters
Winter aconites. Picture: Martin Walters

Winter aconites are low-growing perennial plants in the buttercup family. They have deeply divided leaves and produce a single yellow, cup-shaped flower above a frill of leafy bracts. Though not native to Britain, they have long been naturalised here, having been introduced to gardens in the 16th century, with the first record in the wild in 1838. Their native range includes south-east Europe and Turkey. Tough, hardy plants, they are tolerant of frost and snow.

Usually appearing slightly later than winter aconites, snowdrops overlap with them in flowering season and both may be seen together from now until March.

Snowdrops in snow. Picture: Martin Walters
Snowdrops in snow. Picture: Martin Walters

Our ‘native’ snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is widely naturalised but is probably not a true native, having been introduced in the distant past. Garden records go back to 1597, and it was first recorded in the wild by 1778.

It is found through most of Europe, mainly in damp woodland. With their pure white, nodding flowers snowdrops echo the effects of snow and frost, and thrive even in the cold of winter.

The leaves of snowdrops contain ‘anti-freeze’ proteins that help to prevent ice crystals forming in their tissues. Like most members of the lily family, they have narrow, strap-shaped leaves. The flowers consist of two whorls, the shorter, inner petals tipped green and notched, the outer sepals longer and pure white.

Snowdrops. Picture: Martin Walters
Snowdrops. Picture: Martin Walters

Several other species and many cultivars of snowdrops are grown in gardens, and most of these have larger flowers than the European species.

  • Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based writer and naturalist.

Visit Martin’s author page for more articles like these:

I had the itch to twitch when rare shrikes and flycatchers stopped by

Hobson’s heron and the tamer side of Cambridge’s wildlife

Cambs nature - mild and wet autumn is fantastic for fungi

The small invertebrates with the big job of maintaining the ecological balance

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