Saturday 29 January 2011

Pig lard and curd munch

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again, when the UK human population has the chance to survey the numbers of birds frequenting their gardens.

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
Less subtle than a Sparrowhawk, but as good at emptying the garden in seconds. Grrrr.

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.


holdingmoments said...

Well, you saw more than I did; but then every little helps.

It's strange how some of the regular birds decide to hide during this mini census. No sign of my Robin, or the other six Goldfinches, (only 3 turned up), and just token representatives by the Starling and Sparrow community.

Imperfect and Tense said...

Their sense of timing is obviously connected to a sense of humour. My poor brother had nothing at all, he was somewhat disappointed. Presumably more people put food out this particular weekend, so the birds are spoilt for choice. But I suppose we can forgive them for their lack of loyalty.

Katie (Nature ID) said...

I like this method of surveying - what one can find in an hour, once a year.

ps - I'm flummoxed as to your "Tense Towers" moniker.

Imperfect and Tense said...

It does seem to be successful, with loads of people taking part . The big benefit is felt when the trends are compared over time. This survey has been running for over 30 years, so it is really useful.

As to your question, Katie, the short answer is that when I set up this blog, I thought it would be all pedantic ranting about spelling or whether people indicated direction changes when driving. To be fair, I was recovering from an op and was as high as a kite! Anyway, the name "Imperfect and tense" sort of suggested a category of verb whilst also tipping its hat to my supposed fallible and crotchety nature. The sub title, "Instant grammatification" followed suit, punning gratification, grammar and Graeme all at once. I said I was on drugs! As it turns out:

1. This isn't a short answer.
2. There's a lot less ranting than I thought.
3. I found that I rather liked writing about Nature.
4. Sadly, I do go back and correct any mistakes I find in my previous posts.

Supposedly, every Englishman's home is his castle, so it was a short step to calling our house Tense Towers. You'll have to ask Our Lass how tense it is, and there aren't any towers. The phrase probably nods in the direction of a John Cleese sitcom "Fawlty Towers", which folk of my age quote a great deal. I have to admit a heresy and confess to not enjoying FT that much, too much cringe comedy for my liking.

Phew, there was nearly a blog in there! Thanks for asking :o)

Katie (Nature ID) said...

Haha! Phew! I was hoping you weren't slyly hinting your Lass was "imperfect" and you were "tense." I do follow other writing/grammar blogs and yours hasn't really lived up to the name and is much better for the nature (IMHO). If you lack any blog material, your reply would make a good future post. Cheers!

Imperfect and Tense said...

I would never suggest such a thing, especially as I am no longer the best birder in the house :o) Fortunately, for all concerned, it's going to be Nature all the way. Although I do reserve the right to go absolutely bananas if a misplaced apostrophe irks my sensibilities!