22 March 2015

British birds: the birds of Marbury Country Park

Marbury Country Park, near Northwich, is one of my favourite places and I am a frequent visitor. Based on the former landscaped parkland that surrounded Marbury Hall, the woodland that nestles so prettily alongside Budworth Mere has been redeveloped as a public park for all to enjoy. Trails snake through pretty wooded areas, meander alongside the Trent and Mersey canal and border the clear waters of the mere, affording the stroller many an opportunity to observe the local bird life. There are also two bird hides, where both the dedicated twitchers and the casual observer can enjoy the birds that flock to the well-stocked, oft-replenished feeders.

I have spent many a happy hour, smiling at the acrobatics of nuthatches, as they bicker with blue tits over seeds, and admiring the tenacity of woodpeckers, as they battle to extract a fat, nourishing peanut from behind the wire netting of a feeder. These are some of my avian friends from Marbury.

Dunnock (Prunella modularis)
I am a huge fan of this little sparrow-like bird. It may look rather drab but its sex life is anything but. It may have an incredibly short copulation time, of a fraction of a second, but it more than makes up for that by being the most frequent fornicator of Britain’s small birds, recorded at once or twice an hour for a 10-day period! What’s more, it frequently dabbles in polygyny, polyandry and polygynandry. It seems that by mating with two or more males a female not only increases the diversity of the breed, she also helps to prevent rival males from destroying her eggs and encourages more than one male to feed her ravenous offspring. Smart female!

Eurasian Jay (Garrulus glandarius)
Though a shy bird by nature, the jay’s colouring is anything but. With a vivid blue patch on its wings, a body of dusky pink, pretty little black-and-white stripes atop its head and what looks remarkably like a black moustache, this bird is chic. No surprise then that ‘Jay’ was once used, somewhat sneeringly, to describe a flashy dresser.

Like most members of the crow family, the jay can be loud and noisy, and an excellent mimic. As well as copying other birds, they’ve been known to imitate the sounds of cats, dogs and even telephones. Some of their actions even mimic squirrels – they bury large quantities of acorns and show incredible skill at remembering where they’ve buried their hordes.

Jay, at left, and nuthatch, on the right

Nuthatch (Sittidae)
Nuthatches are frequently to be seen upside down, scrambling down a tree trunk or hanging from a bird feeder while pecking urgently to extract their favourite nuts and seeds. And they seem never to keep still, so I’ve yet to get a really sharp photo of one.

As their name implies, they love nuts and, like squirrels and jays, they frequently stash nuts in chinks and crevices. This can cause problems for homeowners – I read one story of a nuthatch burying seeds in the cracks between patio pavers and in potted plants. If the bird didn’t return for all its buried food, the homeowners got its (unwanted) treasure of sprouting trees, shrubs and sunflowers.

Reed Bunting (Emberiza schoeniclus)
As its name implies, the Reed Bunting is most at home in the reed beds and rush-filled pastures that surround many of Britain’s freshwater lakes and ponds, though it has been encroaching on farmlands and into woodlands during the last 80-odd years, perhaps in response to a reduction in its preferred wetland habitats. Luckily, at Marbury, it is flourishing in the expanses of reed beds that fringe Budworth Mere.

Mrs Reed Bunting on the left and Mr Reed Bunting on the right

Another male Reed Bunting



Eurasian Treecreeper (Certhia familiaris)
The Treecreeper (above and left) is one of the most inconspicuous of Britain’s common birds. Due to its extremely effective camouflage-like colouring it is almost impossible to see when stationary and it’s only if you focus your gaze on a tree trunk that you notice it’s scuttling creep upwards in search of the tiny insects that inhabit the crevices in a tree’s bark. On the left, you should just be able to see the tiny woodlouse it has in its beak. These little birds are usually solitary creatures but are known to participate in communal foraging parties with other small birds during the winter months.

Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major)
Britain has four types of woodpeckers – though I’ve heard the percussive efforts of some of the others, tap-tap-tapping on tree trunks in the woods, this is the only one I’ve actually seen. You can see why – it’s bright, bold colours make it easy to spot. It’s a speedy flier though, so I’m lucky it’s attracted to the free peanut supply in the bird feeders at Marbury.

As well as nuts and a broad range of other dietary preferences, ranging from peas and grains to suet, these woodpeckers also have some less pleasant eating habits. They are known to raid the nests of other birds, taking both eggs and chicks to feed their own young. It’s a bird-eat-bird world!

Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)
Though I found these chaffinches in a woodland setting, they are equally at home in urban gardens, as long as there are trees around. Mr Chaffinch’s multi-hued plumage is particularly dapper, and is the reason why the expression ‘as gay as a chaffinch’ was used for a well-dressed and vivacious person, in the days before ‘gay’ acquired a rather different meaning. I think Mrs Chaffinch looks every inch the stylish tweed-wearing countrywoman as well.

Chaffinches are prolific singers, so much so that Brits used to hold contests to determine which bird could sing best and longest. The Avicultural Magazine of 1896 (vol.2, pp.115-17) has a wonderful story about the contest between ‘Shoreditch Bobby’ of Bricklane and the ‘Kingsland Roarer’, organised by the landlord of the ‘Cock and Bottle’ pub in London and, as the Chaffinch is the last but by no means the least bird in this blog post, I have reproduced most of the article here for those who, as I do, love a good story

In the parlour all the gas-jets are lighted, but have some trouble to penetrate the fumes of tobacco, beer, etc. At last the contesting parties enter, each dressed in his Sunday best. …The two markers take their places, and as the clock strikes the two cages are uncovered and hung up. The battlers look around for a moment, shake their plumage, whet their beaks and one may take a grain of seed, but before it is cracked he hears a familiar sound uttered by his opponent. Immediately he replies by a full strophe of his song, to which the other answers with fuller power. Before each marker is already a stroke of his chalk, and now the combat is fairly ‘started’. The chalks are busily employed to mark each properly delivered strophe, and keep pace with each other for a time, until ‘Bobby’ takes it into his head to betake himself to the food trough.

Meanwhile, the ‘Roarer’ continues steadily to pour out his heart, and gains considerably in chalk marks. ‘Costermonger Joe’ is getting very uneasy and cannot understand this ‘trick’ of his much-renowned bird. Never before did he think of food while in the presence of an opponent. In order to draw his bird’s attention upon himself and from the food trough, he moves uneasily in his seat and ventures at last to cough aloud.

It must be understood, that while a match is proceeding no words of encouragement are allowed; no whistling or other means may be resorted to, to recall a truant to his duty. Fair play is rigorously enforced. Coughing cannot be stopped.

At last, Joe can stand it no longer: accidentally his beer glass gets knocked over and falls on the floor with much clatter. Bobby peers across the room to ascertain the cause of the unusual disturbance and catches sight of his master, and immediately he resumes his battle-cry. The ruse has succeeded, although there is a tumbler to pay for.

The chalk marks on the tables are getting very numerous. The Roarer has challenged without a fault for thirteen minutes and is forty points ahead of Bobby, but now he feels rather ‘dry’. He stops working, takes a drink of water and hops to the food box. But ‘Kingsland Bill’ does not give his bird time to lose ground by feeding like the other. In a moment he whips out the brightly-coloured handkerchief the Roarer knows so well, and pretends to wipe the perspiration from his anxious brow. His finch takes the hint, and gallops through the remaining two minutes of the appointed fifteen in grand style. Bobby also had tried hard to make up for the precious time he had lost so wantonly, but could not recover all of it. Although credited with 212 marks, the Roarer beat him by 28 strokes.

Immediately protest is entered by Costermonger Joe, fair play having been violated by the use of the coloured cloth. Bill retorts by calling into question the fairness of the beer glass episode. One word leads to another, the spectators mingle in the strife, expressions of opinion and sympathy with either party are getting more and more select, and battle of another kind seems imminent. Joseph declares he has won, but William insists on ‘fighting’ him for the stakes. This mode of settling the question being declined by Joe, the landlord is called upon to exercise his functions of umpire. With characteristic disinterestedness he declares the whole match null and void, and orders a fresh match to be sung for the same stakes that day week and on the same spot.

Many of the fact-lets for this blog post came from that most excellent publication, Birds Britannica, Mark Cocker and Richard Mabey, Chatto & Windus, London, 2005.