I associate different species with different berries – blackbirds with blackberries, redwings and hawthorn, mistle thrushes with holly and greenfinches with yew, for instance.
Many species can take any of these berries so I must conclude that there is a vivid memory that makes the link for me.
At this time of year, I hark back to a sighting of bullfinches on a climbing honeysuckle in my parents’ garden nearly40 years ago, so I look out for a rosy red male on the honeysuckle that grows over an arch in our own garden. This autumn, the shiny, red berries are still intact but I have not given up hope.
One of the great things about counting birds for the BTO is that you get to know your local patch. We can almost guarantee to encounter a flock of house sparrows as we walk up the hill towards the village church, we have learned that the best trees for treecreeper are at the end of our lane and know that there is one really good spot for bullfinches. A large oak tree is the focus of this territory, with thick hedges alongside the roads and running off into the fields, dominated by hawthorn but including dog rose, honeysuckle and blackberries. The hedges are not regularly cut, being set back a little from the edge of the road and adjacent to grazing, rather than arable, fields and some of the bullfinches’ favourite seeds are there too, such as dock, nettles, dandelion and fat hen.
Bullfinch numbers have dropped dramatically since the 1970s.
As a young and enthusiastic bird ringer in the West Midlands, I remember many summertime catches of a dozen or more in overgrown gravel workings. My record total of 31 was actually a winter flock, seen in wet woodland just a couple of miles from the centre of Birmingham. I remember counting them very carefully, in the full knowledge that this was exceptional. On the other hand, I did not imagine that numbers would crash to such an extent that a spot with a regular pair would become a favourite part of a birdwatching walk, just because of an almost guaranteed view of bullfinch.
If you are out about in the countryside, it is worth focusing at least some of your observations on particular patches, perhaps even staking out a stretch of hedge to see just how many species come calling.
The sugar-sweet ripeness of blackberries, for instance, will bring in birds as small as tits and as large as woodpigeons. The berries also attract flies, wasps and butterflies so you’ll also find lots of spiders’ webs and insectivorous birds. When you think about it, it’s not surprising that gardens seem quiet at this time of year.
For more on the BTO and its work, visit www.BTO.org
Next time, Graham will be looking at the jay and its habit of hiding acorns.