The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch takes place this weekend and it's reckoned that half a million of us are likely to spend an hour perusing the wild space that's nearest to our front or back door.
"But, Tense," I hear you cry, "You do that anyway!"
Admittedly this is so, but the Tense Towers team relish the one weekend in the year when, it could be argued, quantity matters more than quality. Our Lass is excused a wry smile at this point. For not only are we logging the number of species in the garden, but also the number of each species. Against the clock. OK, so it's not strictly against the clock, it's just that we're only supposed to spend an hour on the activity. This means that every little happy bundle of feathers counts.
Whilst our garden is less than the size of a tennis court, when there's numerous habitats to watch, it does become a bit more complicated. With lawn, borders, hedge, tree, feeder and bird table to scan, even two pairs of eyes aren't enough when a feeding frenzy kicks off.
For some species, where we wouldn't expect to see more than one or two individuals at a time, this isn't a problem. Song Thrush, for example. We only ever see these in ones, which makes for easy counting. Or Wren, where again if we see one individual in a week, we're ecstatic.
Other species are more numerous. Where these are large birds, like Collared Dove or Wood Pigeon, it's pretty straight forward to log the quantity. Some of our flying visitors are both very large and only ever appear in ones...
|Thames Valley Police helicopter|
Yet more species arrive in multiples and squabble fiercely amongst themselves. In a dynamic situation like this, it's important to be able to recognise differences between individuals. If males and females have different plumage, that's a big help. For example Blackbirds, we can spend a few minutes counting the really black male ones and a few more minutes the browner female (or perhaps 1st winter) ones. The same goes for Greenfinch, Chaffinch and House Sparrow, where the males tend to be more prominently marked.
Great Tits are not identical, the male having a broader black stripe down his front. However, in the hurly burly of the garden environment, it can be tricky to compare this feature. Oddly, today we've only seen one, so the problem has not materialised.
A few species make it nice and easy for us. Dunnocks always turn up in threes. The Great Spotted Woodpeckers take turns at the feeder, he with a red flash on the back of his head, her without. You will always know if you've got more than one Robin, as the posturing and bickering will draw your attention like a red r... obin to another Robin?
The male and female Goldfinches, however, are hard to tell apart. Fortuitously, they tend to visit the feeder all at once, monopolising the ports and queuing impatiently on the crossbar to the exclusion of all else, simples!
Sadly, Starlings don't visit in huge numbers any more, possibly a reflection of their well-documented decline, so head counts aren't difficult. However, we need to keep our eyes peeled, and be on our toes, to spot the Coal Tit as it nips in, grabs a seed and disappears again.
All of this means that the most difficult bird to monitor in our garden is the numerous, rather small, similar-looking and incredibly lively Blue Tit. With individuals flitting to the peanut feeder, the sunflower feeder, the fat block and bird table from several different vantage points, they're almost impossible to count. I reckon we've had six today. Maybe. That's my best estimate short of deploying the superglue.
I hope you have the opportunity to take part in the RSPB's survey. All records count, just don't include helicopters.
Pig lard and curd munch? I ate a bacon and cheese slice during my hour's vigil.