As each day of the current cold snap goes by, the number of small birds taking advantage of my offerings of nuts, sunflower hearts and fat balls appears to swell.
I'm sure that many readers are sharing the same experience and enjoying the antics of a whole host of garden visitors.
Suburban gardens, with their rich variety of shrubs and trees, provide shelter for a remarkable range of birds. They also provide cover for lurking cats! But in the countryside, or at least in parts of the countryside, too much natural cover has been eliminated as hedgerows and those wee, wild corners have steadily disappeared as man has sought to extract more and more from his few acres. However, I am fortunate in that most of the hedgerows hereabouts have remained. They are augmented by clusters of birch, rowan and hawthorn, which fringe the dense conifer plantations, and between them they also provide marvellous shelter for a whole host of small birds.
I recall a late afternoon meander some years ago along some of my local hedgerows which perfectly illustrated their value for, as | wandered slowly through the neighbouring fields, my progress was charted by hundreds of mini evacuations of flocks of finches and tits. There were great tits, blue tits and coal tits together with chaffinches filtering through the branches in their frantic search for insects and spiders.
Blue tits and great tits are two of the most common native birds but a recent report from the British Trust for Ornithology has revealed that their numbers appear to have slumped this autumn which has been attributed to the fifth warmest April in more than 100 years. As a result, caterpillars - an important food source for young tits - developed early and with fewer of them available during the main nesting season, it is thought that this has led to the reduced survival of nestlings and smaller populations over all.
As I walked, there was still quite a harvest to be gathered from the hawthorns and a bevy of blackbirds was hard at work popping the red haws one by one down ever receptive throats. They scolded me and hurried off a few yards as I disturbed them. One particular cock bird, in prime condition with his almost luminous bill, those yellow eye-rings seeming to enlarge his dark glinting eyes and his black plumage fairly singing in the brittle November sunshine, hurried to and fro with a real volley of blackbird swear words!
Mixed flocks of chaffinches and greenfinches similarly bounced away in that buoyant flight, the pink breasts of the cock ‘chaffies’ and the yellow flashes on the wings of the greenies catching the rays of the sun.
There were no cats here but there was a menace. As I stood in the corner of a field for a moment, a slate grey shape suddenly slid from the hawthorn bush ahead of me and sped low and straight along the hedge side, about two feet above the stubble. A cock sparrowhawk was on the war path. He flew along for about 15 or 20 yards in a rapid, yet surreptitious approach before suddenly lifting over the hedge to continue on the other side, the purpose of which was to catch any panic stricken bird bursting from cover. On this occasion, however, his attack brought no reward and I lost sight of him as he zig-zagged through the birches into the nearby forest.
As a constant background to my meandering, endless groups of geese criss-crossed the sky - smallish skeins of greylags, heavier in flight and deeper of voice and larger groups of falsetto-voiced pinkfeet, somewhat smaller and, it appeared more hurried. Rooks and jackdaws increased the general cacophony of noise and a flight of a dozen whoopers added a more musical note. A covey of partridges rose on whirring wings from the stubble and sped away from my dogs and a gathering of pheasants responded more noisily by rising with loud, throaty protests to clear the spruces and seek a more peaceful place in one of the forest rides.
However, my eye caught another movement along the edge of the forest - another menace! It was a dog fox on the prowl but I was downwind of him and quite well camouflaged with the hedge at my back, so he was completely unaware of me.
He was following a well-defined path, no doubt a regular fox highway, and steadily coming straight towards me. His progress was unhurried and unworried although he constantly stopped to sift the air for danger and paused frequently to examine anything and everything, sniffing here and there, perhaps catching the scent of voles in the tussocks of grass through which his path took him. He also marked his progress at frequent intervals by lifting his leg and leaving a succession of visiting cards to inform other foxes of his presence. Foxes are generally solitary creatures yet there is a social order of vocal contact and scenting. These ‘sign posts’, along with scat, advertise the fox’s presence, its dominance and sexual status to all other red foxes that pass by.
He rarely moved forward more than a few paces before he stopped again, his sensitive nose providing a never-ending ‘computer’ read-out of what had passed that way before him. His nose did not, however, tell him of the presence of a brown hare some 50 yards away to his right. As if it knew that there was sufficient distance between it and the fox, the hare first stood on its hind legs, bolt upright, ears flicking this way and that, nose working overtime, before then slowly loping off at right angles to the path of the fox, quite unconcerned and unhurried.
I was convinced that the hare was well aware of the presence of the fox, but equally sure that Foxy knew nothing of the hare. Maybe he had picked up the scent but had ignored it knowing that the hare could outrun him anyway and so was unprepared to expend energy needlessly in some fruitless chase. But suddenly, he did come across an interesting scent for he paused and examined the grass really intently, pushing that black button of a nose deep into a particular tussock. He spent a good half minute examining it then cocked a leg and turned briskly into the cover of the forest and out of sight.
As I now turned homeward, the geese seemed even more active with skeins, large and small, flying in every direction. The rooks and jackdaws were also gathering and heading for their roost and the sun painted the few clouds out to the west in a lovely warm pink glow. The snow cap on the Ben sparkled and the sun dipped to the horizon casting an almost bronzed light across the stubble accentuating the rich colours of the hedgerows and trees.