Binoculars and Burglars

It is early, cold and dark. The Sparrows are still in their roost at 7.30 am GMT.  I say GMT because I have noticed that some of my followers are from across the Pond and I don’t want them to have any less accurate a post than anyone else! I know the Sparrows are in the roost  because I just passed the hedge where the Old School Clan like to gather and sing! Oh yes and unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS), with one eye open! (see previous very scientific post ha)

 I am walking around the village this morning checking the roost sites and as I approach the sites identified by my enthusiastic village naturalists, I listen. I am sorry to say this site is not doing it for me. I am thinking one two birds maybe. Sounds to me like a cock Sparrow just letting the neighbours know that this is his patch and his nest is nearby.

Photo by Skitterphoto on

I decide to walk on to the next site. A duck flies over.  I scan quickly with the binoculars, the ones that I always carry, and its turns out to be a female Goosander, unexpected!! I must explain that the binoculars are a sort of hedged bet! I am sort of hoping that villagers seeing me out and about in the semi dark will think ‘are, there is a bird watcher with his binoculars’. Unfortunately I stop loiter about and move in random directions. So I am sure, that actually, what the villagers (staring from behind twitching curtains) are really thinking is ‘who is that weirdo with binoculars looking at the houses. Is he checking them out for burglary opportunities, houses empty or windows left open’? So now, not only am I listening to early bird calls but also listening for the sound of a siren and looking out for the distant blinking of a blue light!

Photo by Dom J on

Anyway us naturalists are not easily deterred and progress needs to be made.  I walk on and this time a Cormorant flies overhead. Now these are not really birds we would expect to see flying about in the early morning in a rural village in England. We might expect Blackbird, Thrush,  Robin maybe, but it is surprising what you see and hear if you look and listen. One day, years back, an Osprey flew over my garden, its wasn’t checking the pond out for fish you understand, it was a fair way up, off on migration, I guess. Then another year the Red Arrows flew over. You just never know!

None of our roost sites this morning seem to be behaving like roost sites at all. So, I begin to wonder, have they moved or have my willing helpers not quite got the hang of the characteristics of a House Sparrow roost site. The sound from a roost is really quite loud, easily discernible to a keen ear at 100 yards. Image a miniaturised male voice choir all singing different songs over and over again. You got it loud!

I return to my roost and whilst drinking a good old fashioned hot English cuppa, I make a vow. I will get up early tomorrow and record my roost site in full choral rendering in the hope that this recording thus broadcast over our local social media will sustain my helpers further in their efforts to help me identify all of the village sparrow roost sites.

The two males, one female  sparrow are now returned to the three foot hedge. No sirens, no flashing blue lights, phew!! Have I told you about the hedge,  I must tell you about it some time.

The Sympathetic Sparrow?

So the days are getting longer and we have had some very cold nights this week. The weather has been great for walking and photography.

The Sparrows were back in the three foot hedge, in human time, at about 8.45pm. I think from my observations, it is true to say, that my sparrows tend to rise and return from the Old School Sparrow Clan roost earlier on bright sunny days. In this respect they might be similar to the humans who live in the house whose wall they use for the nest box home. This behaviour doesn’t seem to be effected by how cold it is!

The strange thing is that as I walk the country lanes, tracks and paths I often end up passing the roost early in the morning or late in the day on my way home and that got me thinking. Do sparrows sleep? Well yes they use unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS). I won’t pretend, I looked it up. That basically means sleeping with one eye open and only half of the brain shut down. This is a survival characteristic; leaving themselves in at least a partial state of alert should a predator be around. It’s the sort of question my granddaughter might ask and I like to be prepared!

My cock sparrow in the three foot hedge

During the week the sparrows got me thinking on another matter. You know finches get the dreaded white foot disease as I call it, papillomatosis. Apparently this is most common in finches and the species that is most affected is the Chaffinch. A symptom of this is a bird that struggles to keep balance. I spotted just such a bird on a large branch of our old holly tree. It wasn’t perched but its breast was flattened against the branch for support since its leg or legs were now unable to support it. Every few minutes it fluttered as if trying to shift its balance slightly. It repeated this behaviour and then out the hedge a House Sparrow arrived. It perched on the branch within a few inches of the struggling Chaffinch. Now the question is why? Was it offering moral support, was it being inquisitive, did it realise the Chaffinch was in difficulties. Of course, I can’t answer the question but what I can say is that our cock sparrows are pretty much self contained and if you watch sparrows they are not particularly gregarious with any bird except their own species in fact in some ways they are very picky about a lots of things. A few minutes later a hen sparrow joined then on the same branch! Then distracted by other happenings in the garden, I looked back and they are all gone! The incident reminded me of the use of Larsen traps by game keepers. They put one crow or magpie in the trap and this attracts other birds that are then caught! The say the trapped bird is making calls in another bird’s territory and that causes the interest. Having seen stumbled over some of these traps in the past I think this could be true, but the visiting birds could also be responding to the distress calls of the already caught bird!

This year something remarkable happened in our garden. A Robin crashed into the kitchen window when a Sparrowhawk charged through the garden. Birds panic and bang, a robin drops to floor, stunned after its rather violent smash into the glass. My wife witnessed this. She was in the kitchen at the time. She went immediately to investigate and found the adult Robin on the floor, still, but breathing, stunned. She picked it up and made a gently hollow in the dry soil in the raised border just outside the window. We have learnt from experience that some birds left and kept warm will recover? It was beautiful sunny day. The Robin lay on its back legs up in the air (not a pretty sight) and my wife retired to continue with her work in the kitchen but at the same time she kept a close watch on the robin to see if it would recover. The Robin, lying on its back, eventually came round. It recovered enough to turn over. Within a few minutes another robin appeared and presented food to it. The injured bird didn’t take the offered food but the new bird dropped the food nearby and flew off. This was repeated three times. Eventually the injured bird came round and flew off. Was this the bird’s partner. Did it realise that this injured bird was in difficulty? There are so many questions!

Anyway the three foot hedge is empty now and my sparrow is with the rest of the clan, at the roost just up the road. They are grabbing a bit of shuteye or USWS to be precise!

Moving House

It’s Christmas day and it’s much like any other cold winters day as far as the sparrows are concerned. But the sun is up early and ready to play and it is now casting beautiful red and orange waves of light across the dawn sky. The cock sparrow arrives back. If the sun is out the sparrow comes early.

He sings, so I guess it’s time for another sparrow story. My friend Ashley made me a beautiful three hole sparrow apartment many years ago. Yes, a much appreciated Christmas present and that’s why this observation on sparrow life is so interesting. Well at least I think so and hope you will to.

The old sparrow apartment nestbox – far left occupied!

Any nestbox is best placed in view. It must be seen without too much effort, from the house window or easily watched as you go about your gardening tasks. The old box was screwed to the wall on the gable end of my neighbours house and about twenty foot up. Do you know, I just can’t remember if I asked permission! Oh well, this wall just happens to be about a third of the way down our garden and visible from the house, shed and other garden locations.

After the first 9 years it began to look a little sad, unloved and the roofing felt was coming away. It had, however, not only served the nesting needs of a pair of house sparrows in recent years but also seen several successful broods of Great tit and three broods of Tree Sparrow (be impressed because that is very uncommon in my garden and unheard of  here about.)

So I built another, with much love and care. I took the old box down. It was no easy task, up a ladder with a screw driver in one hand and box in the other! Anyway, down it came and up went the new box which was practically the same size and I put it back in the same position.

I must tell you at this point (because it is vital to my tale) that the sparrows, until then had been making their home in apartment 1 (far left). I must also tell you a few well know scientific facts about sparrows. Firstly they mate for life, not necessarily a very long one, but for life. Secondly sparrow nest boxes are visited by their owners all year round and often birds will roost in their box at various times in the year. Finally sparrows are very and I say very faithful to their nest sites. The same pair will use the same nest site year after year. We have lived here for 28 years and the sparrows have used the same nest sites both in the eaves of our house and our neighbours every year.

So having removed the old box I contemplated its fate. Should I knock it apart and burn it on the fire, not a very dignified end for a faithful servant! Then I thought, it’s not in that much of a bad state, I will repair it. So I did. I decided that the rejuvenated box once finished would fit nicely on the gable end of our house. I would carefully position it to avoid ‘anything’ falling on the windows as the birds went about their business, raising a family, courting, feeding each other etc.

In spring, hazel leaves appearing, the cock sparrow sits here to claim his nest site in the box on the wall above his head.

Out comes the ladder. Drill in one hand and box in the other. A precarious process at the best of times because you really need an extra hand to hold on with!!! I was to position it at the same height off the ground because the old sparrows obviously had become acclimatised to this height and it was deemed suitable.

So I watched and I waited. The new box in all its nicely finished glory lay empty! The old box, newly positioned had new residents and where were they? Well, the sparrows had moved into apartment 1 on the left hand side! Maybe the faithfulness of sparrows to their nest sites goes well beyond our initial understanding. jOn

Sunset Heaven

It’s 8.24am and just getting light. The cock House Sparrow is back in the 3 foot hedge. In my head I am saying “your early this morning boy”. Quietly though, because after yesterday, people are already wondering why I am photographing apparently empty hedges! He isn’t bothered anyway and sits a respectable 2 foot down and chirrups repeatedly. I say respectable because no self respecting Sparrow is going to sit on the top of the hedge and offer our local Sparrowhawk a takeaway. A sparrow did that, on my neighbours hedge, a few weeks ago and it WAS taken away! Did I mention the three foot hedge. One of these days I must explain.

Now I am walking through country and around the village, I began to think? Should I go to see my daughter at Christmas and our newly arrived grandson. I was trying to think through it logically, pros and cons, but worrying, like millions of others. What are the risks and what potential changes will there be to Covid rules between now and then. What Boris decisions are on the way or not! Then I spot a bird dropping out of Holly tree and it flys down to the ground. Was that a Fieldfare or Mistle thrush?  Mistle thrush, excellent, I don’t see many of these! I crossed the field and entered a small copse with a pool in the middle and here I found the remains of a fish on the bank. Now I am thinking otter, mink? Big fish, a Carp I would guess.  A female Goosander comes from cover and heads off across the pool. The light is closing and the last remnants of cloud on the horizon is doing a very good job of the sunset. Out comes the camera as a wonderful orange glow spreads across the sky in the direction of the Wrekin. The moon had already climbed and shadows and reflections began to charm me. Out comes the camera. After taking far too many photographs I begin walking home.

Sunset across the Weald Moors

Back home the House Sparrow has sung until its hoarse and decided that enough is enough. Everyone should know by now that this is his spot, keep out, though I guess the Sparrowhawk won’t pay any attention to his boundaries! Two Blackcaps arrive on MY homemade fat balls. This makes me feel good. Male and female and they are feeding side by side (how romantic), Blackcap and brown cap! You start to wonder don’t you? Are these middle European migrants coming here for winter or are they are local birds that breed here and love us so much that they just can’t  leave (my fat balls)?

Well, we often say, ‘I am going for a walk to clear my head’. I don’t think a walk in the country does clear your head.  I think we reorganise our thoughts, clear some things out maybe but that is only half the story. We also refocus and reconnect with the natural world around us and take a rest from this crazy  man made world we live in. The sparrows are off to bed, they are not bothered!

Dawn and its pouring with rain again!!

Its not long after sunrise and the House Sparrows are still in there roost in the hedge up the road. But soon the birds will be back in the garden. The wintering Blackcaps are visiting the fat feeders. I would like to think that’s because I have gone to the trouble of making some extra special ‘home grown’ fat slabs for them. This is a speciality of the house, well actually the garden! But realIy we all know that they back because the weather has been wet and cold. By 10am there are three House Sparrows in the three foot hedge, two males and a female. Typically noisy, one of the males sits and chirrups, just reminding everybody that this is his patch and its in my patch!

The female (hen) found a feather, colour, white. This is very fortunate because I have been telling people who are engaged in our House Sparrow project, that sparrows love white feathers. I sneak to the fireplace and lean out slowly, just far enough to poke my camera round the brickwork and point it optimistically at the Sparrow with feather. The postman walking past thinks I have lost the plot! Several shots later I realise I have nothing to share with my followers but I am beginning to understand why sparrows like Hawthorn hedges, even 3 foot of them. Why? Well because House Sparrows are practically Hawthorn twig colour and very well camouflaged when sitting amongst their branches.

The female drops it and the male picks it up, considers it for a minute or two, twirls it round in his beak as if not sure which way it should be held to best effect. Then the hen takes it back before he has time to decide. So the enthusiasm and interest in this object goes on for a few more minutes before the male drops it and then carries on announcing to the world that this is his territory. So is the nest box on my wall above him and it has has been his for some time.