Q. Last winter and spring we got a lot of enjoyment from the bird feeders I put up for the smaller birds in our garden. Unfortunately, I have had to take them down as they are messy eaters and throw the food everywhere.
Not only were my flower beds being trampled by the lumbering Woodpigeons searching for the food but, more importantly, the dropped seeds also attracted rats. Can you please advise how to feed these smaller birds without attracting unwanted visitors?
A. Birds are indeed messy feeders, and problems like yours can be common, unfortunately. Even “no mess” feeders and seed aren’t a complete solution, although they can sometimes reduce the mess. One of the easiest solutions is to move your feeders to a paved area if possible, or to place some form of paving on the ground beneath the feeders.
It won’t stop the seed scattering, but it will make it easier to clean up any mess, which should hopefully discourage the rats and stop the pigeons trampling plants. Removing the excess food in this way will also help prevent sickness in the birds you do want to feed, as will making sure that you clean all your feeders regularly.
Q Can you help with identification of this pipit I saw on holiday in Mallorca in September. It could be Olive-backed, Tawny, Richards or Meadow.
A. We think the location of the sighting is enough to make Olive-backed Pipit unlikely, and the rarity of Richard’s Pipit in Western Europe would tend to count that species out too. Besides this, the bird’s wings don’t look ‘buffy’ enough for Olive-backed, and its breast is far too streaky for Richard’s. Tawny and Meadow Pipit are far more likely to be spotted in Mallorca, but this doesn’t seem to match exactly to either of those species. Taking into consideration the fineness of this bird’s flank streaks when compared to the breast streaks, that whitish belly and yellowish-buff breast and the strong looking beak, we think that this is in fact a Tree Pipit.
Q. I took these photos on 16 August at Portiragnes reserve close to Beziers in the south of France. There were four or five, which I took to be a family group, in scrub next to a brackish lagoon close to the coast. They had streaked backs, but without the obvious pale supercilium (eyebrow) you’d expect to see on a Sedge Warbler. At least some had a distinct pale crown stripe, which put me in mind of Aquatic Warbler, but having read Steve Wiltshire’s article in the September issue of Bird Watching that seems unlikely. The clearly red/pink legs were another distraction. I’d be grateful for your observations.
A. This bird is striking what is often thought of as the typical Aquatic warbler pose, and at first glance it does resemble that species. The Aquatic Warbler is an uncommon sight in Southern Europe except while on passage, and we would love this to be one. Unfortunately, close examination is telling us that this particular bird lacks some of the features we’d expect. The pink legs seem right, as does the general colouration, but the supercilium isn’t obvious enough, and we’re struggling to make out a hint of the pale crown stripe that is one of the best markers for Aquatic Warbler. The plain breast, although possible in an adult Aquatic Warbler, along with that white tipped tail, is telling us that this is the more common and widespread Zitting Cisticola.
Q. Please can you tell me why flaked maize as a straight food is unobtainable? This was a favourite of Blackbirds and Robins when I could obtain it and was used on a local farm in the 1950s and 60s.
P Williams, Abercarn
A. Well, the good news is that flaked maize is still available on its own rather than as part of a mix. Flaked maize apparently has the highest oil and energy content of all cereals, which would explain its popularity with Blackbirds and Robins, and is regularly used as feed for calves and lambs, as well as by home brewers to flavour beer!
We found a few suppliers on the internet, such as Maltby’s, selling in bulk quantities, but if you’d like to support local businesses, or buy smaller amounts, it could be worth your while visiting an animal feed supplier or home brew shop.
Q. Could you identify this bird for me please? The photo was taken in Norfolk in June 2016.
Heather Bint, Gosport
A. This attractive little bird is either a Whitethroat or its smaller relative, the Lesser Whitethroat. While these two species can look noticeably different in guide books, in the field separating them can be a little more difficult, especially when viewing conditions aren’t perfect.
We’re plumping for the larger Whitethroat, based mainly on the warm brown tinge to this bird’s back and the length of the tail. We’d expect a Lesser Whitethroat to be a bit greyer, and the tail to be proportionately shorter than with this example. There is also that hint of a white eye ring, which fits better with Whitethroat than it does with Lesser Whitethroat.
Q. Your magazine stated that badgers are still mating in March, but I have always been led to believe that their cubs are born in February. Not an ornithological question, but I'd be pleased to know when these things happen.
A. Badger mating is a strange process, especially in relation to timing. You are correct that the majority of badger cubs are indeed born in between mid-January and mid-March, with February being the peak time.
The peak mating season occurs straight after this, between February and May, but badgers can mate at any time during the year. Once they have mated, there is usually a delay of between two and nine months before the fertilised egg implants in the badger’s womb, which results in the young, whenever the badger mated, being born in that January to March period.
Q. Could tell me if this is a juvenile Sparrowhawk?
A. Everything about this bird, from the bill to that long tail, thin long legs and plumage is telling us that this is indeed a Sparrowhawk, possibly the raptor most likely to visit a garden in the UK. You are correct in your assumption that this one is a juvenile; in fact, we can see the signs of downy feathers still on this bird, making us conclude that it is one of this year’s brood.
Q. I have repeatedly seen parakeets in the area I live, Astley, 10 miles west of Manchester. I first spotted them in spring last year, so they have survived over winter. Are they likely to be escaped pets that have taken advantage of a mild winter, or an enterprising bunch of southerners having a go up north?
The UK’s Ring-necked Parakeet population seems to have come from several escapes across the country, rather than a single event, and they do seem to be spreading north, especially into urban areas such as Manchester. We think it’s likely that the birds you saw are part of this spread.
Q. Why are some bird populations quoted as breeding pairs, others as breeding territories, and others as individual birds?
A. Counting birds is a difficult job at the best of times; and the best of times for counting different species occur at different points in the year. As a result, the way we count birds varies from species to species. Some are tallied by visually counting the birds as they fly over on migration, and for these we use a figure given as the number of individuals. Some data comes from backyard surveys, and for these too the results are best given as the number of birds. With others, such as ducks and seabirds, the easiest way to count them is to extrapolate the numbers based on the number of breeding pairs or nests. In some cases, a mix of the two methods is used; in the case of several species such as Canada and Barnacle Goose, the estimated number of birds counted in the winter is divided by three to give the number of breeding pairs. In short, whether the quoted figure appears as breeding pairs, individuals or territories relies largely on the method of data gathering.
Q. This photo was taken by me on Lindisfarne two weeks ago, as the tide was coming in. As well as the Ringed Plovers (wonderful, maybe 100) and Dunlin, there is a bird in the middle and I would be very interested to know what it is.
A. Despite looking very different to the Dunlin alongside it, this is another Dunlin. Dunlin are notoriously variable, both in terms of size and plumage, which can make ID difficult, even for the experienced! This one is particularly dark in the underbody, but examining the other two Dunlin on the rocks will reveal quite large colour differences, the rightmost bird being quite dark around the neck. Familiarity with Dunlin and all their variations can be useful, as the bird is often used by wader watchers as a “yardstick” species for picking out real rarities.
Q. We were in Suffolk last week at Trimley Marshes (what a brilliant place for birds!) and saw this bird which we couldn't identify. We suspect it is a young bird but it didn't seem to be like any of the other youngsters. Can you help?
A. This is a male Ruff in its breeding plumage, as shown by that thick plumage around the neck and the proportionately small head. This one was almost certainly on his way to the Scandinavian and Arctic breeding grounds, although a very few Ruffs (and their female equivalent, “Reeves”) do occasionally breed in the UK.