Winter fuel

Pembrokeshire garden © C A Lovegrove

RSPB Pocket Birds
by Jonathan Elphick and John Woodward.
Dorling Kindersley 2003.

17th January, 2013. As I write this there is a female Great Spotted Woodpecker on the bird feeder, hammering away at the fat balls.

I don’t hear it early morning now as it taps the bark on the dying Scots pine outside – maybe there’s no live food available, or maybe I’m not waking early enough – but it’s got bolder and no longer flies away in fright when we appear at the window, as the occasional shy jay does. The woodpecker is a sight to swell the heart, with its striking pied plumage and the bold splash of red under its tail clearly visible as it feeds.

As it’s winter now, with the first appearances of sleet and snow, it’s vital to keep the feeders replenished with mixed seed and fat balls to provide fuel for wild birds.

Magpie: engraving by Thomas Bewick

The fat balls are loved not just by the woodpecker but also by the odd starling, and particularly by the various tits – Great, Blue, Coal and even the occasional Long-tailed or Willow Tit – which cluster greedily on them. Irritatingly, some of the tits, especially the Coal Tits, and a pair of nuthatches go for the seed feeder, seeking out the black sunflower seeds and spitting out the other seeds to carpet the ground. That’s great for the ground feeders such as solitary robins and thrushes and the cowardly magpies, but it’s a messy sight and we worry about it attracting vermin – rats, grey squirrels and so on – even though we know they’re part of nature too.

Of the other common birds attracted by the never-ending feast we regularly see sparrows (who, hereabouts don’t seem to have realised that their species is in decline) and finches (especially chaffinches). There are often over ten birds on the feeders, with almost that number waiting their turn in nearby branches, such as on the small oak that sits potted up on the decking. Blackbirds hop around or flit from beech hedge to buddleia, the males asserting territorial dominance and ownership of the bashful female lurking quietly in the shadows. Collared doves and, in the winter, flocks of starlings also put in an appearance.

We catch glimpses of other avians in the sky, some gliding around such as the ubiquitous buzzards and the occasional Red Kite, some passing overhead like the pair of ravens announcing their presence by a distinctive ‘cronk’ or, in season, the Canada geese who visit a neighbour’s lake and take a morning or evening turn in their pairs, calling exultantly to each other. High up we often see gulls wheeling or returning to the sea, and once we were lucky to see a flock of lapwings alight in a nearby field en route from or to somewhere exotic.

If it wasn’t for the various mini-guides we wouldn’t know even half the species that fly around our neck of the woods. The RSPB Pocket Birds guide is our usual first port of call, with its wealth of concise information, photos and distribution maps contained in half-page or full-page entries, though we supplement that with the Collins Complete British Birds photo guide,¹ where the photos are in a little more detail.

Every day, whether it’s grey and misty or less frequently sunny, when we go for a constitutional or just stare out the windows, we wonderingly repeat the mantra “We’re so lucky!” Thanks to guides like these we can appreciate just how lucky we are.

Starling by Thomas Bewick

February, 2023. And now, nearly a decade after a move from West Wales to near the English border in southeast Wales, we continue to stock a bird feeder, this time with sunflower seed hearts as well as mealworms and fatballs. We again get a whole bunch of finches (Fringillidae, principally goldfinches but also of course greenfinches and chaffinches), the usual range of titmice or Paridae (blue tits, great tits, coal tits and, occasionally, long-tailed tits), house sparrows (Passeridae), and European robins (Erithacus rubecula).

Dunnocks, blackbirds, woodpigeons and occasionally collared doves root around on the terrace below the feeders; occasionally jackdaws from the roost in the churchyard’s copper beech take an interest; and at least three times a sparrowhawk has darted in and nabbled a tiny or medium-sized bird from the vicinity, swooping low at fence-height, on one occasion even settling on the terrace and getting started on its prey, all this in full view from our sitting-room. Buzzards, kites and the odd heron fly overhead, in summer competing with paragliders for air space beneath the Black Mountains.

I don’t know how much our efforts contribute to the health of the local avian population but we do know the news continues to be bad: so many species have had drastic percentage falls, while bird flu is currently more than decimating coastal and migrating birds. We all can only do what we can do in the face of a threatened ecological collapse, and enjoy nature while it’s still around to enjoy.

¹ Paul Sterry’s Collins Complete British Birds (Ted Smart, 2004).

Review from January 2013, reposted after responding again to the annual RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, a public survey undertaken by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at the end of every January to review numbers of wild birds in Britain.

34 thoughts on “Winter fuel

    1. I hadn’t, or at least I don’t remember ever seeing or hearing it, but I’ve just found and listened to the clip on YouTube ( and, yes, it is wonderful! Cleese in full Basil Fawlty flow as only Cleese does. Ah, the hysteria. Reminds me of teaching…

      And thanks for the appreciation!

      Comment reposted where it belonged as a reply…


    1. Pocket birds? Avian marsupials, surely?

      Friends have just returned from Costa Rica clutching one of the local birding bibles — they’re everywhere. The bibles, I mean.


  1. What a lovely post, and what a great variety of birds in your area. I remember putting out a feeder full of sunflower heart seeds and being inundated by goldfinches, masses and masses of them, which was a nice surprise as in general you don’t see that many of them around here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We get up to a dozen of goldfinches at a time, making their collective name – a charm – sooo apt! They do love sunflower hearts and, for their size, quite often hold their own against some of the other larger visiting birds.

      You might enjoy this post I did, ‘Goldfinch Boys’, about the symbolism of the bird in Renaissance art:

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How lovely! And what a variety of birds you get to see around. I enjoy both bird books and watching the several birds that come around where we live too. We’re lucky in that being about an hour away from a bird sanctuary, we spot many migrants passing by as well. We stopped putting out bird seed though since the cats might get at the diners.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Mallika. 🙂 And wonderful that you get to see migratory birds overhead on their way to the sanctuary! We’ve had a couple of cold snaps here so providing food for local wild birds is all the more imperative; but to stop larger birds – mainly jackdaws, magpies and woodpigeons – pinching all the seed I’ve resorted to a twisted net of chicken wire to keep them away yet still allow the passerines access. Seems to work!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We have quite a cast of regulars too–rock pigeons, mynahs, white eyes, tailor birds, rose ringed parakeets, green pigeons, crows, sparrows–on and off, jungle babblers, treepies, large barbers, and little bats at dusk. White throated kingfisher visit sometimes. Earlier when we didnt have so many houses built here, hoopoes and owls were also seen often. Now I only hear owls sometimes.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. What a lovely range – like the Gerts in Australia the range you have of medium-sized colourful birds is impressive, and I’m very envious! Apparently hoopoes are occasional visitors on the south coast of England but I’d love to see them at some stage.


        1. Our bird feeder is never more than a couple of metres from our kitchen window, giving us a grandstand view of their comings and goings, all through the year but especially in winter when food is otherwise scarce.


    1. To be fair, Bart, we live in a small town (perhaps ‘big village’ is a better description) within a National Park, so it would be expected that we might have a greater diversity than towns.

      But there is a surprising wildlife influx in larger towns here in the UK: urban foxes roaming the streets at night, even in daylight, peregrine falcons colonising ledges of high rise buildings and feeding on pigeons, we even heard tawny owls calling from trees when we lived in central Bristol – clearly there’s enough to scavenge on in conurbations as well as to prey on for animals higher up in the food chain.


  3. Lovely to read about your birds. Ours are very different. Magpies, (who warble) cockatoos, galahs, parrots and ravens all on the loud side. Then blue wrens, spotted pardelotes, silvereyes all on the smaller side

    Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m not surprised, Other Gert, Aus is over 30 times the size of the UK! 🙂 Mind you, I see that the RSPB’s bird identifier lists “405 species of birds found in the UK, including some rare overseas visitors,” so we’re not doing too badly in comparison. But it’s not a competition, I hasten to add! 😁


    1. They do! In past years we’ve had a group of long-tailed tits appear sporadically, but never at exactly the Birdwatch weekend, until now. And sparrowhawks are splendid visitors, glad you got one, Liz – I’m pretty sure ours is a close resident as I snapped it sitting on our fence preening itself for a good ten minutes.

      Our most exciting moment was years ago in Bristol when we spotted a young peregrine on a nearby telephone pole, which then promptly flew down onto the window sill where we were watching from inside! We had this wonderful close-up of its huge eyes and feathered ‘trousers’ for a good minute and a half before it flew off. We could barely hold our breath!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Wonderful! Our sparrowhawk was a one-off but I got a super photo of it sat on our hedge. Husband noticed from downstairs when all the small birds vanished and went silent, and he messaged me to tell me, I got the camera out and verrrry carefully got my shot.

        Lucky enough to see a good few peregrines as they used to nest on the big clock tower in the middle of the campus we both worked on – and they used to eat their pigeons on a ledge near the top of the Biology building, right by the only window of … the tiny Ornithology department! We also have them in town, nesting on the old BT tower. I regularly enjoy herons when running along the canal – once had an eight-heron run, although it was a long run!

        We have “twitched” once, and once only: we were staying in Penzance and the app announced there was an Iceland gull in Newlyn, about a mile away. So we walked down, saw it and had a cup of tea!

        Oh we’re also lucky enough to have parakeets in (now) most of the local parks. I know they’re an incomer but I do love them.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. How lovely and supremely apt that the peregrines ate their prey outside the ornithology window ledge! And an eight-heron run – there’s a folktale motif in the making there! As far as I know no parakeets have made it into Wales yet, but I guess it’s only a matter of time… 😁

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Aonghus Fallon

    We had no woodpeckers in Ireland until recently. I hang out fatballs, monkeynuts and birdseed and get mostly finches and tits. Walking down to my gate last week I heard a distinctive tapping sound but thought nothing of it. Then I glanced out the window a few days ago. It’s funny how quickly you notice an unfamiliar bird – what was it? Bigger than a finch but smaller than a blackbird. And that beak!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. No woodpeckers until now? Extraordinary. This RSPB guide confirms that, and of the two we have in Wales the Great Spotted Woodpecker seems the most likely to be the one you, um, spotted, possibly migrating from Scotland. The Lesser Spotted apparently hasn’t yet reached Scotland but it’s possible that this – rather than the other candidate, the Green Woodpecker – was what you had, especially as it’s only the size of a sparrow or, as you say, a finch. The Great Spotted is only marginally larger though, and one can’t miss its beak …


      1. Aonghus Fallon

        Yeah, it was a greater spotted! I wonder if we now have more than one kind, though? My sister shared a photo of a woodpecker at her birdfeeder, and it was definitely green, whereas the one I saw was piebald.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Aonghus Fallon

            Hah! Buzzards (also from the UK) are recent arrivals, too – the difference being that they used to be native here, but died out back in my grandfather’s time.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Wonderful. We saw buzzards a lot in Pembrokeshire – sat atop telegraph poles when they weren’t patrolling the skies! I assume their return and recovery is due to farmers, especially sheep farmers, no longer allowed to persecute them? I know they were often blamed for killing newborn lambs in the fields.


  5. I really enjoyed your post! Every Sunday when I go to Quakers I end up bird watching at least as much as I meditate on spiritual things! We meet next to a large glass wall looking out onto the garden. I get so caught up in the life of the birds there that I’ve started taking wild bird seed to each Quaker meeting and putting it out for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a lovely idea, to combine a meditation with birdwatching! And especially in the accommodating set-up of your Quaker meeting room too. 🙂

      When we do our regular walks along the nearby canal it’s a pleasure to find a sunny seat, close my eyes and meditate with the sound of blackbirds, robins and other birds in the background, along with the occasional hammering of a woodpecker as variety.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your sunny seat sounds lovely. I go out in the car some days and park up next to a wood and just listen. Blackbirds sing my favourite bird song. I love the sound of them especially when I’m in a small village and there’s the smell of wood smoke in the air. Such sensory experiences just say “home” to me.

        Liked by 1 person

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