Girton Birdwatch - April 2013
As I write (18th March) the firecrest is still to be found around the village. It is not where I guessed it might be - behind Wellbrook Road - but in the grounds of Girton College. I owe this information to Dave Heath who provided precise instructions on how to find the bird i.e. take the narrow pathway opposite Thornton Road for about twenty yards until it opens out to form a small clearing, the firecrest may be found on the ground, on the track into the trees on the left, or on the adjacent maintenance buildings. On my first visit, at about 9.30 am, I saw no birds at all, except the odd crow and Dave, on hearing of my dismal failure, sent me a couple of photo's taken by his son Jonathan 'just so you can say you saw it'! I returned at lunchtime on another day - the time Dave always saw it - and sure enough there was the firecrest feeding on the ground with a couple of goldcrests, the odd wren and, in the trees, a small flock of long-tailed tits. Birds, as you probably know from your own experience, are creatures of habit when it comes to feeding.
In many respects firecrests are very like goldcrests in appearance - in fact the female, which has a yellow crown, may be mistaken for its male cousin - but has a black stripe through the eye and a white stripe over it. It will probably have left the village by the time this is published but if not it's well worth going to have a look, as the firecrest is still a rare and unusual bird to have on our doorsteps. It was only added to the list of British breeding species in 1962 and although it has since consolidated its presence, mainly in the south and in Wales, its distribution remains erratic, and numbers have fluctuated between 22 and 100-odd pairs during the last ten to twenty years.
This winter I count myself lucky that I haven't had to go in search of goldcrests for they have come to me. One of my bird books suggests that 'goldcrests often visit gardens, but not bird tables ' to which the response nowadays must be: 'Oh yes they do!' We have had a regular visitor to our feeders over the last few weeks not, it seems, to take advantage of the various seeds put out, it being primarily an insect-eater, but to feast on the fat-and-peanut mixture my wife concocts. Apparently this appears to be happening more and more in other parts of the country also. The book quoted above also says 'only rarely do they come down to feed on the ground, or to drink or bathe at a puddle' but 'my' birds are often on the ground, escaping the starlings, and pecking away at the fat droppings and, as mentioned, the birds at Girton College are frequently to be seen on the ground. Perhaps we are seeing a real change in behaviour here in response to changing environmental conditions? In parts of the village single fieldfares have been entering gardens apparently in search of food. These beautiful thrushes - the Spaniards call them the royal thrush - have always done this but have preferred very large orchard-like gardens and single visitors, to modestly sized gardens, seem much more unusual. More dramatic changes have recently been reported from the USA where a team at the University of Nebraska has reported in Current Biology that swallows' wings are becoming shorter (a genetic change?) which allows them to change direction more quickly, making it easier for them to avoid cars and other traffic more effectively. The goldcrest, being the smallest bird in Europe, loses heat very rapidly and is extremely vulnerable to cold winters. The fact that it is sedentary also makes it liable to fall victim to cold weather. Eight out of ten birds are believed to die each year and really severe conditions can cause dramatic crashes in numbers. After the harsh winter of 1916-17 (another was 1962/63) numbers plummeted leading T.A.Coward to write that the goldcrest 'could have little more than an obituary notice'. Should we fear for the goldcrest this winter/spring? It depends. The goldcrest is a remarkably resilient bird and has an impressive ability to survive in the most hostile conditions. It is resident as far north as Shetland and in northern Continental Europe can manage to cope with temperatures of minus 25 degrees with just six hours of winter daylight. It survives the long night-time fast by burning up fat equivalent to one-fifth its body weight. Extreme drops in temperature seem to matter less than periods of continuous freezing weather accompanied by snow and ice, and whether or not hoar frost or a coating of ice persists on trees. Cold periods, interrupted by brief thaws, are less likely to be life-threatening, so perhaps our dismal, wet, cold winter and spring, with the odd bit of snowy weather thrown in, might not prove so threatening for goldcrests after all.
With April around the corner I should be reporting the return of our spring migrants but not this year! However, many villagers have reported a range of winter visitors and residents making use of their feeders with siskins, redpolls, blackcaps being some of the more unusual, while there are still plenty of waxwings around locally. The last few days have also seen a common buzzard circling over the Rec, no doubt anxious to start breeding.