Terry O'Connor

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The consolation of birds

A couple of sunny days, now the cold, overcast gloom of winter has returned. There is not much to enjoy about a dismal day in February, apart from a warm fire and a good book. The garden has yet to wake up, and a walk in the countryside feels more like bracing therapy than actual pleasure. At least this has been a good winter for birds, by which I mean that a good number and variety of them have crowded the garden, providing the Miserable-Late-Winter-Watch Live which the BBC has yet to get around to.

The usual tits and finches have been out in force, though the long-tailed tits rather let me down on RSPB Garden Birdwatch day by failing to turn up in their customary numbers. Reporting a single LT tit seemed slightly ridiculous for a species that is usually present as a twittering mob of fluffy energy. On the other hand, redpolls have been a constant presence since mid-December, devouring prodigious amounts of nyger seed and nonchalantly evading the much larger, bullying bullfinches. They are endearing little birds, with a ring of black skin around the base of their short bills and a blob of red on the forehead, as if some terrible make-up accident has smeared mascara around their mouths and lipstick on their heads. One male has a pink flush down his chest and quite a white rump – possibly an Arctic redpoll, though one would need more time than I feel I can spare to be absolutely certain. To have half-a-dozen of these little finches brightening up the garden is enough. Questioning their identity and place of origin seems impertinent, with hints of the Border Agency. “From Tromsø, you say? And how long do you plan to stay in the UK?”.

Saturday’s sunshine drew me down the garden with a generous mug of coffee, to sit in the arbour. This is a fine timber indulgence, like the upturned prow of a rowing-boat fitted out with a bench seat. It is only a few yards from one of our most heavily-used bird feeders, and makes an excellent hide. A jay preceded me down the path, a reminder that my neighbour is putting out peanuts to complement my sunflower and nyger seeds. Sitting quietly in the arbour, I watched a coal tit systematically extracting seeds from the feeder and flying off with them to cache the seeds in several different places. One of our window boxes sprouted a row of sunflowers last year, neatly planted by a busy coal tit. This Saturday’s bird obviously thought that the apex of the arbour would make a good hiding place, and several times flew up to a point just over my head. Its final gesture before flying off was to drop a sunflower seed, with pin-point accuracy, into my coffee. I took that to be an accident, not a comment on my intrusion.

Time passes, and there will soon be more and warmer sunshine. The familiar winter birds will disperse and be replaced by the first chiff-chaffs, shouting their monotonous but welcome song from the willows. For some, watching birds and noting their identity and numbers is a matter of serious field biology, and for others a matter of obsession. I feel rather sorry for the dedicated ‘twitchers’. If you are someone who will travel the length of Britain in order to see a confused and worn-out Siberian blue robin, can you still feel a quiet pleasure on hearing the first willow warbler of spring, or watching a busy mob of long-tailed tits tucking into a fat ball? Watching birds in the garden is the comfort-food of natural history – readily available, far from haute cuisine, but undeniably nutritious and exactly what one needs on a dismal February day.

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