Your garden may be grey, dead and splattered with hailstones — but hang out a bird feeder and it will be transformed into a flurry of activity.
By the time January comes round, the last of the nuts and berries have gone and the birds are depending on humans to keep going until spring. Feeders have become a crucial part of the fight to stem the loss of our declining garden birds.
And this weekend is the perfect chance to have a good, hard look at what is fluttering round your garden or local park as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch begins.
Thousands of people across the UK will be watching from the warmth of their kitchens as they take part in the world’s biggest wildlife survey.
All you need to do is spend one hour at any time this weekend noting the highest number of each bird species seen in your garden or park.
This year, harsh conditions in Europe mean there is a good chance of seeing lots of our more unusual winter visitors.
Shortages of nuts and berries elsewhere in Europe have driven species such as waxwings, bramblings, redwings, blackcaps and fieldfares south and west into Northern Ireland and they are becoming familiar sights at the bird table.
Last year starlings and house sparrows topped the poll, although chaffinches and greenfinches were more common further west, said RSPB media officer Ciara Friers.
“There have been a lot of siskin this year, as well as redpoll and long-tailed tit,” she said.
“Keep an eye out for winter thrushes — redwings and fieldfares. Especially with winter thrushes, due to a lack of berries they seem to have come south a good deal more than usual. There are also a lot of waxwings — when you get a lot of them, they call it an eruption.” The survey is a key part of the fight to protect our declining garden birds. Last year the State of the UK’s Birds report revealed that we have lost 44 million nesting birds since 1966 — and house sparrows alone account for 20 million of these losses.
The starling, the most common garden bird seen as part of the Birdwatch survey, has declined by 80% since 1979.
That's why our garden birds are so dependent on us to help get them through the winter by providing them with extra food.
“At this time of year in the wider countryside a lot of the food has run out and the berries on the trees have gone. The ground is hard when it’s freezing so it’s very difficult for birds to reach worms,” Ciara said.
“This brings them into the gardens because they are desperate for fat-rich foods so that they will be in perfect condition to start breeding again in the spring.”
You can make up bird foods from fat-rich foods such as lard, seeds, nuts and dried fruit and make sure these are kept topped up. It is also vital to provide water for garden visitors.
For more, log on to the RSPB website at www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch or call the RSPB office at 028 9049 1547.
Meanwhile, Orangefield Park in east Belfast is hosting a free winter bird day on Saturday from noon until 3pm at which families will be able to watch experts mist-netting and recording the birds in the park.
Visitors will be able to take part in the birdwatch and join workshops in arts and bird feeder making. The Ulster Wildlife Trust will also be on hand to give a talk about gardening for wildlife.
For more, log on to www.belfastcity.gov.uk/parks
Cook up a tweet treat
Birds need fat-rich foods at this time of year, such as bird seed mixtures. Avoid mixtures that have split peas, beans, dried rice, lentils or pink or green lumps, which are dog biscuit. You can make your own bird cake by pouring melted suet or lard (not cooking fat margarine) onto a mixture of ingredients such as seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake — one-third fat to two thirds mixture. Stir well and let it set in a container. Put a ping pong ball in water containers so that they don’t freeze over.