Blackbirds at Dawn

Anglers Country Park, this morning. Photo credit: Barbara (my trusty Tough TG4 let me down temporarily this morning, so here’s the equally good iPhone version of what I was going to photograph).

There’s a fiery sunrise but, unlike yesterday, there’s no frost and the pond isn’t iced over. As they often do at this time of year, blackbirds have gathered on the lawn first thing and I’m pleased to see that one song thrush has joined them as thrushes – song or mistle – haven’t been a regulars in the garden this autumn.

Anglers Country Park

We take a stroll around the lake at Anglers Country Park, south-east of Wakefield this morning. About seventy-five pochards are resting in the quiet corner of the lake near the Main Hide, while a smaller flock of wigeon, perhaps 20 or 30 of them, are at the less-sheltered far end of the lake.

It’s a while since we saw a treecreeper, so we’re pleased to see one meticulously making its way up a trunk of one of the conifers in nearby Haw Park plantations. There seems to be a reasonable number of wrens about, so hopefully they won’t be caught out any prolonged severe winter weather.

The star bird of the morning though, is back at the car park, coming down to the bird feeders: tree sparrows, perhaps a dozen of them. The tree sparrow population has plummeted in recent years, so it’s good to see them again.

Link

Room on the Broom trail at Anglers Country Park, an ingenious way of breaking up the two mile circuit of the lake for younger children (but wouldn’t it be better to get them really interested in ducks instead?).

Early Birds

The blackbirds have the lawn to themselves first thing in the morning, just as it is getting light. We counted eight on the back lawn yesterday. They concentrate on the area around the feeders, so I guess that they are primarily interested in spilt sunflower hearts.

At the top end of the lawn, a male has a bit of luck and seems surprised to have caught a worm. Soon a female notices what’s going on and tries to make off with his prize. He chases her off, then returns to the worm.

Before he can settle down to eating it, a rival male blackbird barges in. As the two males fight it out, the female spots her opportunity, dashes in and makes off with the worm.

Hen Party

The dawn patrol of blackbirds is soon ousted by a gaggle of female pheasants.  It’s not unusual to see seven of them busy around the feeders but usually one or two of them will break off the main group to inspect the herbage around the pond, or to forage on the veg beds.

There’s evidently a pecking order amongst the females because as they pirouette around, pouncing and pecking any spilt seed they notice, one of them will make a quick lunge with her beak at another, momentarily shooing it away from her personal space.

Melting Moments

South Ossett: By mid-morning, the sun has melted away the frost and fog. A blackbird makes considered progress across the lawn, pausing every couple of inches to closely inspect the turf.

wren perches on the fence, then flies down to a row of bricks to forage around.

At the foot of the old wall, beneath the twisting stems of the Russian vine, a dunnock hops along, pausing to probe the soil.

wood pigeon takes a break in the top branches of a sycamore.

Blackbird v. Song Thrush

snail shells1.30 p.m.: One of the song thrushes is bashing a snail against the concrete edging alongside the pavement. That corner of our garden should be a good hunting ground because last week, on a warm wet evening, I spotted a dozen garden snails nibbling the leaves of the hosta by the front door and I relocated them by chucking them diagonally across the lawn into the bottom of the beech hedge. Most likely they have slowly made their way back to the hosta.

garden snailbrown-lipped snailBut garden snails are getting on for twice the size of the other snail that we get in our garden, the brown-lipped,  Cepaea nemoralis, and, so far, the song thrush is going exclusively for the smaller snail.

Having extricated the snail, the thrush goes to one of the clumps of sedge we’ve planted and wipes its beak against it, probably to remove the slime. It then takes a look around, probably on the look out for more food items to take to its young in the beech hedge.

Worm Wars

blackbirdIt pounces on a large earthworm that it’s spotted beneath the rowan. It’s giving it a good tug when a blackbird flies in and there’s a head to head with lots of bluster and threat. At one stage the two birds are locked beak to beak in a tug of war with the unfortunate worm stretched between them.

worm wars

blackbirdBut despite the spirited defence put up by the song thrush, the larger blackbird takes possession of a three inch length of worm and flies off behind next door’s leylandii hedge, pursued by the thrush. The thrush now has back-up: it’s mate has appeared.

The thrush might have lost the battle but when it blackbirdreturns it picks up the remaining section of worm which is twice the length of the piece snatched by the blackbird. The song thrush is feasting on this when the blackbird returns and tries to grab it but the thrush retreats across the road and continues to wolf down the worm. This time the blackbird doesn’t get the chance to snatch it away.

Blackbird in the Bins

Not quite a blackthorn winter: a passing hail shower whitens the ground but as hail turns to sleet and rain it soon melts away.
Not quite a blackthorn winter: a passing hail shower whitens the ground but as hail turns to sleet and rain it soon melts away.

blackbird4.15 p.m., 43°F, 6°C: The blackbird loves what I’m doing with the compost bins. It wrecked the new heap that I was building up in neat layers sprinkled every few inches with Garotta compost activator by tugging out pieces of moss, which I guess it has been using for nest building. Now it’s getting into the bin with the old heap of well rotted compost which I’m in the process of spreading onto the onion bed. blackbirdIt’s scouring the bin for food items but it breaks off briefly to fly to the top of next door’s apple tree, bursting into melodious song in mid flight.

It's cool enough this afternoon for me to get out my silk gloves again!
It’s cool enough this afternoon for me to get out my silk gloves again!

sparrowMeanwhile the sparrows keep up a consistent chirping, a reassuring backing track to sketching in the garden.

wood pigeonA wood pigeon flies over, getting up enough speed on the downhill section of its flight to ‘freewheel’, stiff winged, up the apex of a neighbour’s roof. I’m not sure if the intention was to impress the wood pigeon sitting on the television aerial but they’re soon joined by a third pigeon and there’s a lot of bowing and cooing. So much pigeon courtship takes place on ridge tiles.

I like the 150 gsm cartridge paper in my new Collins &  Davison A6 Travel Journal. It takes Noodler's Ink better than my previous pocket sketchbook.
I like the 150 gsm cartridge paper in my new Collins & Davison A6 Travel Journal. It takes Noodler’s Ink better than my previous pocket sketchbook.

First Frogs

Emley Moor transmitter seen from across the Calder valley from Horbury, 11 a.m.
Emley Moor transmitter seen from across the Calder valley in Horbury, five miles to the northwest, 11 a.m.

2.30 p.m., overcast, merest hint of drizzle, 51ºF, 11ºC: Frog activity has started again in the pond. I counted seven but I guess there are ten in all, hidden in corners.

greenfinchIn the branches of the crab apple a greenfinch gives its nasal intake of breath through clenched teeth call – ‘Jeeeez!’

female blackbirdBlue tits continue to take an interest in the nest-box. Two female blackbirds fight it out by the shed. A male hops in between the two of them, as if to say ‘now cool it down.’

We two frogs together clinging

frogsThere are two frogs at my feet, one clinging to the other at the edge of the pond. I’m relieved to see the elegantly wafting tail of a male smooth newt in the depths below. I did wonder whether the female blackbird that developed the knack of catching them last year had eliminated them altogether.

Newt catching last year.
Newt catching last year.

I cleared overhanging plants and a lot of the pondweed a month ago so if the same female returns this year, she won’t be able to perch on so much emergent vegetation. I’ve left a big clump of pondweed in the deepest section so there’s plenty of room for the newts to hide.

Snowdrops

snowdropsblackbird43ºF, 8ºC, 10.15 a.m.: In the back garden a robin is singing; a pair of magpies call raucously; a blackbird splutters in alarm and house sparrows chirp continuously from the hedges.

A fragment of shrivelled crab apple drops on my sketchbook, then another. There’s a male blackbird seven feet above my head in the branches of the golden hornet. Blackbirds and thrushes prefer the fruit after the first frosts of winter, when it has started turning brown.

bluebottleIt’s warm enough for me to spot a bluebottle investigating the snowdrops which are now in flower in foamy strands along by the hedge in the meadow area and here by the raised bed behind the pond.

I’ve been reading up on botany recently: the petals and sepals of the snowdrop appear identical so, as in other monocots, they are called tepals.  The leaves don’t appear to grow from a stem but there is a short squat stem which lies hidden in the bulb. 

Birdbath

pheasantsrobin3.45 p.m.: Three female pheasants walk up the wood-chip path to peck at spilt sunflower hearts beneath the bird feeders.

blackbird bathingA robin’s bathing routine is interrupted by a blackbird, a more enthusiastic bather.

Two male and one female blackbird patrol the lawn. The female comes lower in the pecking order and is seen off by one of the males when she darts forward to pick up a morsel.

female blackbird female blackbird

Pheasants

pheasants and blackbirdsThere were eight blackbirds in the garden this morning. The lawn is the main gathering ground but now that the crab apples are starting to turn soft there will occasionally be one in the tree. Wood chip paths and a cotoneaster bush dripping with berries give them further foraging opportunities.

Star of the show is the ring-necked pheasant with white streaks on his crown. A female gives him the opportunity to puff himself up and display his plumage. As I add the colour, I can’t decide whether his tail coverts are grey or a very pale green. I get Barbara to take a look and we decide that the exact shade changes depending on how the fine feathers catch the light but the colour really is a sage grey-green.

Blackbird catching Newts

blackbirdblackbirdOver the past couple of days we’ve seen a female blackbird resting in the middle of the blanket of duckweed that covers most of our pond. She’s not bathing or struggling to get out. This evening I realise what she’s up to.

blackbirdShe grabs a newt from just below the water surface in front of her and immediately flies to an open grassy patch at the edge of the pond to peck at it. I don’t see whether she eats it there and then or whether she takes it off to feed to her young.

blackbird blackbirdI’ve seen her stalking along the edge of the pond on the look out, I now realise, for any unwary newt that might surface. Our resident newts are smooth newts. Unlike the great-crested newts they don’t have special protection under the Wildlife and Countryside Act but would this female blackbird care if they did? I think not.

newtI’ve seen her once before with a successful catch which she took to the raised bed behind the pond. I could see her prey was a long and flexible creature but at the time I couldn’t positively identify it.

Pond Pyramid

pond food chainblackbirdThis female blackbird is at the top of a pond food chain, at the apex of a food pyramid, but she’s not the top predator around here; she runs the risk of being incorporated into the food chain of one of the local sparrowhawks or domestic cats. tadpoles

The newts are predators in their own right; I’ve watched them eating newly emerged frog tadpoles. The tadpoles, at this early stage of their lives, are eating the algae that grows on the clump of frogspawn.

From thin air, just add water . . .

pigeonI find it amazing that you can start with sunlight, water and carbon dioxide and in a few links along the food chain end up with a blackbird.

wood pigeon
wood pigeon

Although my aim is to build a little eco-system in the back garden, I do think that I ought to tweak the chances of survival for the newts by clearing some of the duckweed so that the blackbird can’t sit in wait at the centre of the pond.

Update

pond rakingTwo days later, on Saturday, Barbara spotted the blackbird catching a newts again, five in total. I spent five minutes raking the duckweed to the edges of the pond which should make it impossible for the blackbird to perch in the middle of the pond and give some additional cover to the newts when she is stalking around the margins.