Girton Birdwatch - January 2008
We have another member of the plover family which visits the outskirts of the village in large numbers at this time of the year and that's the very attractive Golden plover. This bird may be found in flocks of 300 or more - at least it used to be - on both sides of the old railway line running from Gatehouse Lane to Westwick. (On 4th December about 4000 were to be seen in a field east of the M11 near Trumpington). It remains to be seen whether the bird can cope with the disturbance occasioned by the building of the guided bus-way and whether the increased activity on its completion frightens the birds away. I doubt whether we'll see Wheatears, Green Woodpeckers or Grey Wagtails down that way any more, but who knows, birds have proved infinitely adaptable in the past.
The Golden Plover, as its name suggests, and in its breeding plumage, has speckled gold and black upper parts, with a jet black neck and belly, set off by a curving white dividing line running from its face to its tail. The amount of black on its underside is variable and is sometimes lacking completely. In winter, when we are much more likely to see it, its plumage is much duller, and without the black. They are present in this country all the year round but in winter their numbers are swelled by migrants from further north. They gather in large flocks, often with their cousins the Lapwing, and both in colour and behaviour, may appear very thrush-like, but their upright posture, fast jerking running and plaintive call always help with identification. Their flocks are also likely to include a liberal sprinkling of Black-headed and Common gulls. All these birds feed on worms but only the Golden Plovers and Lapwings are directly engaged in catching them, the gulls relying on stealing them from the waders. However, it's been suggested that the relationship is not just one-way as the gulls spook easily and help warn the plovers of predators. Interestingly, when disturbed the 'Goldies' and Lapwings rise as one, but the mixed flock splits up in the air into two separate flights, one of each species.
If you want to see these birds you'll probably have to go in search of them but you can stay warm at home and keep your eyes on your feeders with the real chance of spotting a visiting Siskin. This is a very small, greenish-yellow finch, with dark wings and a yellow wing bar. The male has a black crown and a small black chin patch. The female is grey-green, more heavily streaked and without the black on the head. There are quite a lot around the area at the moment and are likely to visit your garden. A few decades ago Siskins were not often seen outside their scattered breeding sites in upland coniferous woods - mainly in Scotland - but their numbers have been increasing markedly in recent years as they've spread to many mature plantations, expanding into southern Scotland, Wales, the New Forest and, fortunately for us, the Breckland of East Anglia. Another significant change has been their increasing willingness to visit gardens, especially if those gardens are near conifers, where they are likely to make a bee-line for the peanuts. (They visit in summer also). Before the 1960's it was seldom seen in gardens with one of the first recorded sightings being in 1963 when, probably encouraged by the harsh winter of that year, one visited a bird-table in Guildford, Surrey. Three years later the birds were popping up in gardens here in Cambridgeshire. Our growing desire to attract birds to our gardens, and the growth of a multi-million pound industry devoted to providing conveniently packaged seed mixtures and other bird-related products, has itself played no small part in this phenomenon.
For such small birds (14cm, 4.75 in) Siskins are noticeably aggressive and quite capable of taking on that bully of the bird-table: the Greenfinch. If you get the chance to compare the two you'll probably notice the Siskin's sharp little beak, very different to that of the Greenfinch, as it is adapted for feeding in conifers, and extracting tiny items of food from tight spaces. Their song is thin and high, but with a peculiar yodelling quality and characteristic 'dluee' note and often a strange wheezing or creaking sound at the end of phrases. They are very acrobatic and engage in tit-like gymnastics, happily feeding completely upside down like 'little parrots'.