Girton Birdwatch - March 2014
Two Taiga Bean Geese were at Cambridge Research Park on the 12th January and were still there on 5th February. I think that this is only the second time this bird has been found in Cambridgeshire. As its name indicates this was once an agricultural pest, but the bird's history in this country is somewhat clouded by the fact that for many years the bean goose was not even separated from the Pink-footed goose (not until 1833). There is still uncertainty about the taxonomic status of the two forms occurring in Britain: fabalis, the 'taiga' bean goose of Scandinavia and Russia west of the Urals, and rossicus, the shorter-necked heavier-billed 'tundra' bean goose that occurs further north and east in Arctic Russia. Fabalis or 'taiga' is the only race to visit Britain in any number. The Yare Valley in Norfolk used to support a large flock where, despite the 'bean' part of its name, it developed a liking for winter grass. However, over-grazing by sheep and disturbance by birdwatchers and light aircraft had an adverse effect upon numbers. The main reason for decline to an historical low (149 birds in 2000), it seems, has been our very mild winters which reduced the need for the birds ever to leave Denmark.
The RSPB's Big Garden Bird Watch was very disappointing for me this year as only eighteen birds visited our garden in the allotted hour, no doubt because of the weather, covering a mere seven species. The species with the greatest representation was the Goldfinch, with seven individuals. Not a bad bird to have as a regular visitor and it's good to see that it's on the increase nationally. Like so many of our birds it almost became extinct in many areas because it was so highly valued as a cage performer. Not only is it a beautiful bird (with its black-and-red facial mask, white rump and brilliant bar of yellow across its black wings), but its song is extremely pleasant. Moreover, its highly co-ordinated bill and feet movements meant it could provide amusement with its 'tricks' - a skill more naturally useful in its ability to feed so successfully on thistle or teasel heads (and of course on your niger seeds). When one adds the fact that in classical Europe goldfinches were believed to have curative powers, like gold itself, and often kept on hand-strings by children because of their supposed health-giving properties, it is understandable that in the 1890s the Society for the Protection of Birds (which metamorphosed into the RSPB) saw one of its first tasks as being the rescuing of the goldfinch. The present population of in excess of 275,000 pairs bears witness to the success of the policy of legal protection that the Society initiated. The collective noun for goldfinches, a charm, sums up the regard in which this bird is held although - and I've only just discovered this - the term a 'charm of goldfinches' did not initially refer to the physical attractiveness of the bird but derives from the Old English c'irm and meant the blended tinkling sounds produced by a small flock.
The second most numerous visitor to our garden on 'the day' was the Woodpigeon with five, which many people would probably not find as pleasing, although woodpigeons entering suburban gardens in increasing numbers is becoming unremarkable. The small flock of House Sparrows (7-8) which we've had in previous years seems to have disappeared, again in line with the national trend. Recently we've been visited by a male Blackcap and a small group of four or five Redpolls (which I'm told are quite common in other parts of the village).
I've seen very few Redwings or Fieldfares on the Recreation Ground this winter - although, unsurprisingly, lots of seabirds, mostly Black-headed Gulls rapidly acquiring their mating plumage - but these attractive Scandinavian thrushes are not far away as a walk across the fields to Histon revealed the other day (11th February). The now fenced-in sheep-grazing area was carpeted with the birds, probably attracted by the worm-rich, newly manured, soil and lack of human disturbance.