One of the best things about travelling is getting a glimpse of somebody else's neighbourhood nature. We spent the last week in Val Thorens, in the French Alps, and these guys were daily visitors to our balcony (encouraged by a few kitchen scraps). They're Alpine Choughs, talkative characters who are master aeronauts, and some of my favourite birds. Over the past few years I've spent literally hours watching them while the rest of the family ski, and they still amaze and entertain me. Well worth the journey.
Beautiful as a snow-covered Histon and Impington might be, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's had enough of the white stuff for the time being - the snow has certainly had a big effect on all our lives. But what effect has the snow had on our local wildlife?
One of the most noticeable - and notable - effects of the hard weather has been to bring some interesting new visitors into our gardens here in the village, in the shape of fieldfares and redwings. These two species, relatives of our blackbirds and thrushes, are winter visitors to the UK, flying in from the north at the same time as our summer visitors take their leave and head south to warmer countries. Although these are not uncommon birds - an estimated 680 000 fieldfares and 650 000 redwings visit the UK every winter - they rarely visit gardens, preferring to forage in woodland or in farmland fields and hedgerows.
However, this winter has been different. Figures from the ongoing British Trust for Ornithology Garden Birdwatch project show that, compared with the previous four winters, January 2010 saw a substantial increase in the occurrence of these birds in the gardens surveyed. Difficulties in finding food under the snow and ice drove the birds to seek food in places they would normally avoid, and as a result fieldfares and redwings were recorded in about one third of gardens instead of the more usual one in ten. The hard weather brought them into closer proximity than normal with human beings, giving us a chance to see these beautiful birds in our own backyards.
So have you spotted them? The fieldfare is a large and striking bird, about the size of a mistle thrush, with a bright yellow bill, boldly spotted breast, and a slate-gray head and back. They've been particularly noticeable this winter in crab apple trees around the village, where they've even been holding territories and seeing off the blackbirds who more usually exploit this food source. Windfall apples have also been a popular fieldfare food source in gardens.
The redwing is a smaller bird, about the size of a song thrush, with a spotted breast, a marked eye-stripe, and bright red patches visible under the wings. I personally saw them throughout the village during the snowy weather, and enjoyed some particularly good views of a small group feeding in the rowan trees outside the Histon library one morning - a reminder that you never know what you'll see when you head out of the door on even the most mundane shopping trip.
These are birds that spend their summers in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, who travel south to us to escape the harsh, cold conditions of winter in their breeding areas. One has to wonder what they make of the snowy and icy conditions we've been experiencing here!
Details about the resource used in compiling this article are available on request.
When I went looking for signs of life in the woods last week it seems I was looking in totally the wrong place. I should have been looking in my own back garden, in our pond where the marsh marigold has pushed its first green arrows up through the ice.
We put the pond in in 2007. It was always intended to be a wildlife pond, but our choice of location was governed by the need to put it somewhere where it wouldn't continually swallow footballs. Hence it ended up in the vegetable garden, restricted to quite a small diameter by the space available.
We really weren't sure what it would attract, given its site and size, but received wisdom is that any pond is good for wildlife, so we gave it a go. We planted it with native pond plants - marsh marigold, water mint, spearwort, veronica, yellow flag and some oxygenators - and a non-wild water lily that is too big for the pond but was bought from a garden gate plant stall for 50p by my son on his way home from the swimming pool one day. Then we waited to see what happened.
The pond has been truly amazing. It has attracted a wide variety of invertebrate life, including a crazy number of breeding damselflies, and we've had frogs and even toadpoles in it. In the summer it's a major distraction - always something interesting to look at. A fantastic addition to the garden.
The photos below show the progress of the pond from when we started to dig it in 2007 to last year when it really began to need a good clearout - a job for this Spring, I think.