Winter Birds and Wildlife

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There was not much to like about our home when we first viewed the property 9 years ago.

An empty, institutional care home sat in a huge, neglected field, on a gloomy December afternoon, with mist drawing in.

It was the glimpse of a ghostly barn owl flying silently across the would- be garden with pheasants roosting noisily in monster leylandii hedges, that sold it to us.

From this blank canvas, building our Natural Pool 5 years ago, and creating the 5 acre gardens around it, we’ve been astonished by the increase and diversity in wildlife the place now supports.

It’s during the winter months the birds are active and easy to see.

With our prairie style garden and relaxed, wildlife friendly planting, the seed heads and grasses not only look beautiful in winter, they provide a great food source for birds.

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Charms of goldfinches in huge numbers balance like acrobats from arching verbenas, feast on teasels, and swing from miscanthus seed heads all winter. They fly out of the borders like shoals of fish as you walk around the garden.

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We’ve seen sparrow colonies explode in numbers-both tree and house varieties.

These feisty little birds hang out together in noisy gangs, squabbling all day, and are so numerous they have formed splinter groups and moved into the barn eaves. They dive in and out of the rose garden – their favourite food being the Cardoon seed heads towering high in the rose garden.

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Our resident starling family is expanding. These speckled, iridescent birds bubble and squeak all day long, and go to bed in the walls of my office where they chatter long after it is dark.

In winter they are often joined by hundreds of ‘wild’ starlings that sweep down en- masse to feed from the lawn, and bathe in our natural pool.

It’s good to know that the sparrows and starlings, both national ‘low numbers’ species, are doing so well here.

Blackbirds are abundant. They strip the orange and red pyracantha berries by the back door, and nest in it in summer. They enjoy crab apples from the trees and a plentiful worm supply on the lawn throughout winter. They love foraging in the bark mulch and make a mess of it on the lawn, which tidy gardeners may not enjoy!

We welcome the Red Wings and Fieldfares in winter- they descend on the orchard from nowhere in astonishing numbers to feast on windfall apples. I never feel bad about leaving apples on the ground anymore.

Our Natural Pool is a magnet for birds, summer and winter, but during the winter months, with the water plants cut back, it is easy to see the birds splashing in the shallows and drinking form the beach.

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We see our kingfisher most days now- feeding on newts and diving beetles.

Recently two kingfishers have started appearing together- they spend more time sat beside the water in winter, and have regular altercations with a pied wagtail.

The pool is a convenient watering hole for birds throughout winter – it is interesting to see how different birds have their preferred spot for bathing and drinking. Sparrows and starlings like the beach, gold finches prefer the secluded marginal shelf. Grey wagtails hop on the beach rocks.

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In summer we hope to see the reed bunting back nesting amongst the reeds again, and it won’t be long until the swallows are back dipping in the water as we swim.

Not all the garden is open and airy, and the Winter Garden, with its mature shrubs and trees is the perfect place to spot the secretive Blackcap and shy Mistle Thrush.

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Likewise adjacent to the house the gravel garden with its free draining surface, sheltered microclimate, plentiful seed supply and protective cover from sparrowhawks, is the perfect habitat for tiny wrens, dunnocks and robins. It’s lovely to watch them go about their busy lives from inside the warm kitchen.

Song Thrushes do well here. Our black soil and plentiful mulches on the borders encourage the not so welcome slugs and snails- thrushes do a great job cracking into these and are welcome here as a natural pest control.

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Out in the horse field behind the winter garden, our mixed farm animals have attracted a variety of field birds coming in from the open countryside. We see Starlings, Fieldfares, Redwings, Blackbirds, Pied Wagtails, Pigeons, Mistle and Song Thrush, Crows, Jackdaws, Kestrels, Long Eared Owl, and Buzzards.

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The Kestrels nested in our kestrel box for the first time this year and raised 4 chicks.

Regularly seeing birds of prey is a great sign that lower down the food chain things are working well and the ecosystem is well balanced.

Of course any garden with seed heads, berries, fruits and of not too tidy a habit will attract birds throughout winter, but nothing beats a well-stocked bird table with a variety of feeders to bring them all together for enjoyable viewing.

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Our feeders are placed close to trees, hedges and shrubs so birds can dive for cover from the Sparrow Hawk.

We enjoy seeing the usual crowd of Goldfinches, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Blue Tits, Great Tits on the feeders along with the more unusual Ringdoves, Long tailed Tits and Woodpeckers.

So great are the numbers now that my birder husband was forced to confess over Christmas that the seed bill for his winter bird feed is astonishingly greater than the feed bill for 6 sheep, 6 goats, 4 horses and one hungry cow.

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So we come full circle. Over the last few years I have missed the Barn Owl. I worried that making the garden has somehow robbed it of an open space to hunt. Our resident Tawny Owls have reared chicks in the owl box at the bottom of the garden for the last 5 years and I feared their presence has seen the Barn Owls off.

Imagine my delight when we discovered two Barn Owl chicks in the Tawny Owl box late this summer.

If you build it they will come

Photography credit: Jeremy Watson