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Bird observer page 2005, January onwards 2005.

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Bird observations for 2005

1st January 2005, Saturday.

The autumn and winter so far have been quiet in our nest boxes. There have been no birds roosting overnight in box 1 with the camera until tonight, when a bird appeared with the New Year.

2nd January 2005, Sunday.

Today was fine and sunny, with much bird activity on the feeders and, in the evening, a return of the roosting bird in the box. The winter trees are looking like tracery, bereft of leaves, and the light is low in the sky so that the birds are seen in silhouette against the sky, by the camera. Night time temperature is below 3C.

6th January 2005, Thursday.

As regular as clockwork, our bird has been in every night this year so far. It is a sleek and healthy looking specimen. It is to be remarked that during the three minutes' silence for the tsunami victims, this week, the birds, blissfully unaware of human social mores, kept feeding as normal.

14th January 2005, Friday.

Our resident bird is gradually adding detritus to the camera-equipped box. The current issue of "New Scientist" magazine for 15th Jan 2005 has an editorial on page 3 entitled "Something to crow about" which has a description of New Caledonian crows which use tools to reach food, even when they've had no guidance from instructor-crows. "At least some of the crows' abilities, then, seem to be hard-wired into their brains." The original reference they quote as Nature, vol 433 page 121, Alex Kacelnik, Oxford university. "Being called a birdbrain will never again carry its former sting."

3rd February 2005, Thursday.

The birds are pairing up outside in the garden, and displaying to each other. The middle of February, St. Valentine's Day, is the traditional time that birds choose their mates for the forthcoming season. The box is visited often during the daytime. For at least the past three weeks, the weather has been overcast and cloudy with N to NE winds and temps around 8-11C during the daytime, and 2-3C at night. The roosting bird has made a big mess which we now need to clean out of the box. The weather has not been conducive to picture-taking.

6th February 2005, Sunday.

Our bird was up and away at 07:05, first light in Guildford. It is a large and splendid specimen, a "Big Bird" and it only just manages to squeeze through the nestbox hole.

17th February 2005, Thursday.

For the past few days the wind has moved back to the N-NE-E directions and the night time temperatures are only a few C. The birds eat more from the feeders in the cold weather. The daffodil buds are well-developed, a little earlier than usual this year. We had cleaned out the camera-equipped box, without disturbing the habits of the roosting bird. Various pairs of birds have been inspecting the box during the daytime. In the other box at the bottom of the garden there has been no sign of occupancy; it is very clean internally. There is a third box with a glass end, into which a pair of sparrows have been trying to fit, so far unsuccessfully. They make repeated efforts to get in. Perhaps "birdbrain" is a useful epithet for this pair.

24th February 2005, Thursday.

There has been a sprinkling of snow lying in the garden this week, and the birds are paying more attention to the feeders. The night time temperatures are not particularly cold, hovering around or just below freezing. The roosting bird seems to be quite comfortable. A report in the press ranks birds in intelligence, from jays and crows (at the top) to ostriches and kiwis (at the bottom). Our birds are more recognisable by their behaviours and body languages than they are by their appearances. I am beginning to wonder if wireless technology has got sufficiently far advanced that one could fit a tracking transponder to a garden bird and find out where it goes during the daytime.

9th March 2005, Wednesday.

After a significant spell of snow at the weekend, the wind has again moved back into the N-NE-E quarter and it is still quite cold, with night-time temperatures around freezing and day-time temps never making double figures Celsius. A few days back the bird, a reliable rooster, had introduced a sliver of "test straw", to mark the box as being occupied. We have noticed this behaviour in previous seasons at this time. At the same time, the bird has amended its dirty habits and is no longer leaving droppings in the box. We have not needed to "muck out" again since the beginning of February.

Today, for the first time, the beginnings of nest moss are being brought in, and the roosting bird is sleeping in the three-quarters of the box not occupied by this moss. Easter is early this year; in past years the process has been sufficiently advanced that we have seen eggs appear at about Easter Day. This will presumably not be happening this year. We have not been keeping an eye on the box during the daytime, and so haven't seen the comings and goings with nest material. In addition, the camera is now into its seventh season and the CCD is generating dotted streaks; perhaps a little attention with a hair dryer may help it. Meanwhile we have no decent pics to post here.

10th March 2005, Thursday.

There was a little weak sunshine this afternoon. In box 2 there are the beginnings of a nest and at sunset, in box 1 the bird looks up before thrashing around for five minutes and then settling down for the night's roost.

12th March 2005, Saturday.

Progress as normal in the two nesting boxes. Here is a picture of a duck taken this afternoon in Milford, Surrey.

17th March 2005, Thursday.

St Patrick's Day. The food on offer at the UniS Roots restaurant was Irish Stew, a special offer. The staff on duty didn't recognise it on the till (a fancy electronic job) until told it was "ordinary lamb stew", which, when it arrived, was more accurately described as "vegetables in gravy". Anyway, it was not a patch on the regular day's Irish Stew in the Oxford University Staff club a few weeks ago, which was the best I've ever had. And that was on a normal working day, rather than a festival. The UniS runs a "hotel and catering management" course (or used to) and is said to know about hospitality. Ah well, that's what happens when one lets managers manage things. Meanwhile, the birds in the box 2 at the bottom of the garden are making fine progress on building their nest, although the birds in box 1 are holding fire. Perhaps they are managers.

19th March 2005, Saturday.

Managers are absolved from blame after all. Observing the camera-equipped box today, we saw numerous visits by a number of different birds, sometimes in two-at-a-time, sometimes throwing around the nesting materials, sometimes measuring up with spread wings, and occasionally hissing at an intruder who didn't happen to be a partner. We are not sure how many different individuals were involved in this nest-box-opera, as they are almost impossible to identify by markings, and only just distinguishable by size and body language. On several occasions a head was thrust into the box hole with a morsel of food in its beak. If there was no occupant to receive the feast, the head was withdrawn and the bird disappeared.

In a period of competition for occupancy of the box, there is clearly little to be gained by going to a lot of trouble to bring in lots of nesting materials.

The Humans celebrated the Welsh Grand Slam victory in the Six Nations rugby, with a bottle of champagne and a Chinese carry-in. Meanwhile, the regular roosting bird had arrived and put itself to bed.

24th March 2005, Thursday.

Maundy Thursday, and clear skies this evening. The bird was busily bringing in nesting materials until some time after local sunset, finally settling to roost at 18:35 GMT. In the other box, box2, the half-built nest has not developed at all over the past week or so. It may have been abandoned; possibly there has been a battle.

Easter being very early this year, we shall not see eggs on Easter Day.

25th March 2005, Good Friday.

Having been asked a number of times, we show here a picture of the camera and electronics in box 1. The developing nests may be seen in box 1 (with the camera), and in box 2 where some recent activity is now evident.

We have also cleaned out the garden pond in which the water lily is beginning to shoot up for the season. There is a frog in the pond, but sadly, no frogspawn.

Today we found a dozy bumblebee in the kitchen. There is a report on the BBC website about the effects of this year's curious winter weather on the development of wildlife this spring, including support from the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) for the BBC's "Springwatch" programme.

1st April 2005, Friday.

In box 1 the pair of birds has seen off intruders and has been busy nest-building. As has been seen in previous years, the nest-builder has been stripping splinters from the back of the box. This seems to happen at this stage of the nest building cycle. The weather this week has been inclement; we have no idea yet about when the first egg may be laid, but previous years' data may be found in birdstats.txt and we see the first egg on a date between the 17th and the 26th April for those years where nesting was successful.

2nd April 2005, Saturday.

It has been a fine and sunny day today. A picture of the nest in box 1 shows the bare wood where the bird has been stripping splinters. Over the back garden fence a horse is sunning its backside in the warm light and another horse is keeping a motor vehicle company on the far side of the field. Meanwhile, a sneak preview of the activity in box 2 shows there has been recent additional construction, although not to the extent of the feather we can see in box 1.

7th April 2005, Thursday.

April showers are with us. In Complexity Digest today we read the following...

Researchers Call For Expanding The Repertoire In Studies of Birdsong, Science Daily.

Excerpts: A pair of leading scientists who study songbirds as models for understanding the human brain and how humans acquire language say it's time for the burgeoning field to begin singing a different tune and study a wider variety of species.

(...) say that while a great deal of knowledge has been gleaned by studying songbirds over the past three decades, a narrow focus on just a few species only provides a fragmentary picture of how the brains of nearly 4,000 songbird species function.

(...) there is much greater diversity in how and when birds learn to sing than is generally recognised.

(...)

* Source:
Researchers Call For Expanding The Repertoire In Studying Birdsong,
ScienceDaily & University Of Washington, 2005/03/28

And there is an abstract from the Journal Ethology.....

Ethology
Volume 107 Issue 6 Page 521 - June 2001
doi:10.1046/j.1439-0310.2001.00680.x

The Dawn Song of the Blue Tit Parus caeruleus and its Role in Sexual Selection
Angelika Poesel, Katharina Foerster & Bart Kempenaers

Sexual selection arises when variance in male reproductive success is non-randomly related to phenotypic characters of males. Song can be considered as such a phenotypic character and several studies have shown that song complexity and/or song output are important in competition among males or in partner choice.

In the blue tit Parus caeruleus a peak in male singing activity occurs at dawn during the female fertile period, i.e. after pair formation. The function of this dawn chorus is not well understood. In this study 20 male blue tits were recorded at dawn and song complexity and output were expressed as versatility, mean strophe length, mean percentage performance time and bouts with or without drift, i.e. with or without a systematic decline in percentage performance time.

Females mated to males with a higher mean percentage performance time (output) and a higher versatility (complexity) started to lay eggs earlier, but the latter was not significant. Females mated to males that showed no drift in their song bouts laid significantly larger clutches. Our results thus suggest that in the blue tit, song output at dawn, rather than song complexity, might be a trait under sexual selection.

14th April 2005, Thursday again.

The nests in the two boxes were "hanging fire" for a bit, but today we see that in box 2, there is new straw and a certain amount of soft stuff including feathers. This is good, as we had wondered if it had been abandoned. In box 1, the resident bird continues to roost every night but has not yet stared to "line the nest". It is possible that in the next two weeks, egg laying will start in both boxes.

16th April 2005, Saturday.

In box 2, we see the newly-lined nest. In box 1, there has been much daytime activity, with the male bird bringing food for the female, and pieces of lining being brought in, tried for size and style, and then removed again. It is an overcast day, rather cool. The female human is going to try to run the London Marathon 2005 tomorrow. It is good running weather at the moment.

Later in the evening we see the roosting bird in box 1 taking care not to go to sleep in the deep nest cup.

17th April 2005, Sunday.

This is the first date, historically in our records, when eggs have been laid in our boxes, that then successfully turned into fledglings. There are no eggs in either of our boxes, despite the fact that the weather this morning was brighter, although frosty.

Meanwhile the female human brought home this year's London marathon medal - heads and tails after completing it in 4:02:58 hours, compared to the 4 hours 25 minutes she took 25 years ago in the first ever London marathon: see medal 1981 heads and tails.

Rather rarely, we see both birds of the pair roosting tonight, in the box together. We haven't seen this in previous years at this stage of the nesting cycle. We present two in-line representative images.....

The birds commune with each other.

The birds sleep together.


18th April 2005, Monday.

There is no evidence of further activity in box 2. But in box 1, with the camera, the female arrived an hour early in the evening light, and settled down broodily in the nest cup. The male came along later, but was firmly but gently chased off by the female on several attempts to get into the nest with her.

22nd April 2005, Friday.

Box 2 has a well-formed nest, but no further signs of activity.

In box 1 we see the first egg this morning, very exposed, and an alternative picture taken with no camera flash shows the nest detail around the egg.

23rd April 2005, Saturday.

Today has been overcast and wet. But there is a second egg in box 1 and this evening, a resplendent bird sitting on the nest (which was eggless this morning) in box 2. There are several bluetits calling to each other around the garden.

24th April 2005, Sunday.

Sunshine at first this morning and a broody bird in box 1, being fed by the male from time to time, and leaving eventually to reveal the third egg. But there are no eggs in box 2 yet despite the overnighting female.

25th April 2005, Monday.

It was very wet overnight, 13.2mm in the rain gauge this afternoon, but no further egg in box 1 and no eggs at all in box 2.

26th April 2005, Tuesday.

A fourth egg has appeared on the fifth day in box 1, but there is no activity in box 2 and the nest there seems to have been undisturbed from yesterday. The box-1 eggs are pointed and resting in a neat clutch in the nest cup. On the left hand side of this picture we can see the bare wood from which the bird had been stripping splinters during the construction phase. We have no idea why it does this.

27th April 2005, Wednesday.

There have been some very lively April Showers today. The nest in box 2 would appear to have been abandoned. In box 1 there is the fifth egg of the sequence. In the evening the male bird came in with a large juicy caterpillar, and the two of them proceeded to tear this in half and eat half each. The male bird also left behind a dark feather; it is not clear if this had come from his own plumage or had been imported. However, the nest cup is now half-lined with some dark feathers. The extra feather was removed by the female.

We are expecting visitors from Los Altos, Calif, USA, and from Adelaide, Australia, over the next week. They will get a first-hand view of the activities. We are laying bets on the total number of eggs in the clutch, ranging from 8 to 11. The Los Altos visitor will also have the benefit of observing the humans voting in the local polling station on the 5th May. This is Nature in all her glory.

28th April 2005, Thursday.

The sixth egg in box 1 appeared this morning. We didn't investigate the situation in box 2 during daylight hours today, but at 21:40 BST we see a happily roosting bird on the nest.

29th April 2005, Friday.

There was a very pleasantly symmetrical layout of seven eggs, in box 1 this morning, and in the afternoon the bird started to brood on them seriously. The nest is ornamented with several loose dark coloured feathers which have been imported recently. These move around the nest box and cause confusion in the monochrome TV image of the sitting bird.

Although there was an overnighting bird in box 2, there was no sign of any eggs this afternoon, and the nest cup has been filled in so that the top of the nest is a flat surface on which the bird sits.

30th April 2005, Saturday.

After a dash round to Heathrow Airport at first light today, in warm muggy and misty weather, we returned to see the first egg in box 2. We had almost given up hope for this bird.

Meanwhile, here is an in-line image of the seven eggs in box 1, which have not been added to overnight and which are now subject to the warm underside of the female for most of the daytime as well as the night.

Seven eggs in box 1

1st May 2005, Sunday.

It is a warm and humid day today. As the undergraduate ditty has it,

Hooray, hooray,
the First of May.
Outdoor sex
begins today.

In the case of our birds, in box 2 the egg that we saw yesterday is missing, and is possibly buried in the nest material. However, in box 1, where the bird is busily brooding and keeping the eggs warm, we see an eighth egg. The male brings in a steady supply of food, and the female has been importing some white feathers to go with the black ones.

2nd May 2005, Monday.

It is Bank Holiday Monday today and the sun is shining. The bird in box 1 is permanently stuck on her eight eggs, and the male is bringing her regular supplies of food. The eight eggs were laid over a total period of 10 days, and we are wondering whether they will all hatch at once, or whether, as in former years, there may be differential development, leaving the later hatchlings to struggle for food supplies.

Happily, in box 2 today we see a pile of six eggs. Counting backwards, that probably means that the first egg was laid on the 27th April; the bird has been assiduous in burying the eggs in the nest material.

Six eggs in box 2

On Saturday the 30th April the local outdoor swimming pool ("lido") opened for the summer, instantaneously attracting the human female who promptly did 40 lengths of its 50 metre length. Today is revisit day.

5th May 2005, Thursday.

Today is election day in the UK. The bird in box 1 is keeping her eggs underneath her for most of the day, and we only get the occasional glimpse of the eight eggs. We haven't tried looking in box 2, where the other bird will be doing likewise.

6th May 2005, Friday.

Energetic brooding is happening in both boxes. Here is a view in box 2. This may be described as

How to work very hard indeed, without appearing to.

10th May 2005, Tuesday.

We predict that hatching will happen in the next two to three days in box 1, and over the next weekend in box 2. The humans have been frantically busy with visitors, and it is exam season into the bargain (no pun intended).

The female human has spotted our swallows, exiting the garage where they are revisiting last year's nest. Here is a previous year's picture of them roosting on the telephone wire just outside the nesting site.

Roosting swallows

We noticed that there are two of them; accordingly one might think it is "summer" as it is not the case that "One swallow does not make a Summer" but funnily enough, yesterday morning there was a frost here. Rumour has it that the Gulf Stream is faltering....

12th May 2005, Thursday.

It is likely that today will be hatching day in box 1. At 05:30 the temperature in the air outside the box was 0.6 Celsius and there was ice on the car and on the lawn. Our female bird is only allowing herself a few minutes at a time away from the eggs, and the male has been busy, repeatedly bringing her food, and preening his tail feathers afterwards while perched outside on the telephone wire.

At 04:30 there was a noise like a burglar alarm going off in the Great Outdoors; a cuckoo, with an electronically regular rhythm, and a persistence to rival electronic forms of sound production.

13th May 2005, Friday.

The strong Easterly winds over the last two days have made it seem much colder than the thermometers would indicate. It was 8C outside this morning when the first three eggs in box 1 hatched. Much activity ensued; the female bird eats the shells to replace her calcium, and the male of this particular pair is more than usually attentive, bringing a continuous supply of food.

In the afternoon sunshine at 2pm a further two eggs hatched. The female was absent, and the young bird backed out of its shell, leaving its head stuck in the remains, and wagging it around so that it looked as if we had a mobile egg. The male bird has been in many tens of times with food.

We have been speculating on the mechanism that brings hatching into synchronism. This year, in box 1 the eggs were laid over a ten day time span, at the rate of one a day with two missed days. Now we see five of them hatching on a single day. They will have had differing incubation times. How do the eggs communicate their hatching moments to each other, and in any case, how do they know where in the sequence they were laid? It appears, over the 7 years we have been watching this process, that hatching happens on the 12th or 13th day after the last egg was laid. This would make a good topic for someone's PhD thesis (unless it has been done and is well-known).

At 17:00 BST the sixth egg has hatched and the youngster (which is blind at this stage) is trying to preen non-existent feathers and to scratch itself with a hind leg (the wings at this stage look like undeveloped forelegs). The mother has come in with something in her beak which is large, wriggly, and black. It successfully disappears down one of the young.

The rearing operation in box 1 appears to be very smooth, slick, and professional this year. We are wondering whether our birds are experienced. We are also wondering about "first time parents".... where do they go, in the great outdoors, to learn their parenting skills? The usual cop-out that naturalists have is that "it is by instinct" but, as a complex systems researcher, I find it very difficult to see any mechanism by which these skills can be innate. On the other hand, it is clear that the newly-fledged young, only three weeks out of the egg, can fly immediately, and more impressively, can land on a twig. And all this is without having had any practice or training.

Looking in box 2 (which we haven't done for ten days) we see a happily-brooding bird and it would appear that hatching has not yet occurred; possibly over the weekend.

14th May 2005, Saturday.

It is again grey outside and cold, with the central heating running from 06:00 and the bird in box 1 spending most of her time sitting on the naked hatchlings. A seventh egg has hatched, and the nest cup has been enlarged. The female is spreading herself widely to cover the young. The male continues to bring supplies of food. It is time to update the statistics file.

In the garden, the Californian poppy is out, as also is the rhododendron in its tub. Taking the roof off box 1 reveals the seven hatchlings, and any noise from the human makes them present beaks.

Six beaks at the ready

In box 2, a temporarily-absent bird reveals seven unhatched eggs.

15th May 2005, Sunday.

At 5:00 BST there was a ground frost and there was ice on the car. The air temperature alongside box 1 was 1.2 Celsius. The wind is in the East.

At 13:00 the eighth egg in box 1 hatched. The new hatchling is only half the size (linear dimensions - so about 1/8th of the mass) of the largest, which has a two-day head start. The bird made a hearty lunch of the egg shell and remains from inside the egg.

At 15:00, inspection of box 2 (after a ten minute wait for the female to depart) shows that four of the seven eggs have hatched this morning.

16th May 2005, Monday.

The thermometer outside box 1 reached a balmy 17 Celsius this morning, but the wind has moved back into the East (what is it with East Wind this year? he seems to be dominating our weather) and at 21:10 it is only 7C and is forecast to get colder again tomorrow. Possibly for this reason, the male bird has come in out of the sporadic rain and is roosting alongside the female overnight. Euros is the Greek God of the (unfavourable) East Wind, or perhaps more appropriately the Roman equivalent is Vulturnus. Try Google or Teoma.

Two birds and family, asleep

Here, the female is the lower of the two birds, on the left with her wings spread out to cover the young. The male has had enough of the cold wet weather outside, but judging from the body language of the female she is not too pleased to have his company in the confined space.

The female has been wagging her tail up and down at a frequency of about 2 Hz, which may be linked to her respiration rate. A little movement on her part may reassure the young. We took a few short mpeg film clips showing the activity.

17th May 2005, Tuesday.

There is still a chill in the air today, requiring a jacket outside, but the weather is bright and dry and the birds are all busy feeding. We see that all 15 of the eggs have hatched; there are eight developers in box 1, with their backs beginning to darken, and there are seven eager beaks in box 2.

Seven two-day-olds

20th May 2005, Friday.

The wind has moved around into the West and the temperature is now around 16C. The weather has been wet for the last 24 hours, with around 9mm of rain in the gauge. The pair of swallows are chasing each other around the garden and visiting their nest in the garage.

Our two broods of birds are pressing on with feeding the young. A view in Box 1 (which hatched initially on the 13th, a week ago) shows wing feathers developing. It also shows the "hungry laggard" who hatched two days later, and is less developed, and has his beak open at the bottom of this picture, presumably to try to catch up.

Hungry laggard with open beak

In box 2, which is in any case two days later, the birds don't seem to be developing quite so quickly. So far we haven't spotted the male associated with box 2.

21st May 2005, Saturday.

Squally showers today, in between which we mowed the lawns and took the camera down the garden. For some reason, this year the Christmas tree that survived from the 1992 season indoors, and that we brought along from our last residence as a memento, has been growing well this season.

Anyway, patience (and aching arms from holding up the camera) was rewarded by this picture of the male arriving with a succulent green caterpillar. He paused just long enough for the shutter to fire.

Feeding time at the birdbox

The female human's comment is "yummy".

23rd May 2005, Monday.

At long last the weather is a bit warmer. The birds have been bringing in more nest materials over the weekend, and the nest has become quite untidy. The birds sit in a higgledy-piggledy manner in the bottom of the nestcup, slightly obscured by the new strands of material.

The parents are bringing larger caterpillars and insects now, which the young find difficult to swallow at a single go. The parent stands over the youngster, trying to force the insect down its throat. This is reminiscent of "muzzle loading a cannon" on the Warrior at Portsmouth harbour.

Meanwhile, the spinal ridge on a youngster is growing feathers, as we see below. The youngsters are preening and scratching themselves now, and there is significant nest-box activity even when the parents are absent.

Spinal feathers are developing.

A little later on the parent birds have tidied up the nest and the young have aligned themselves, all facing due south, rather like the domains in a ferromagnet. While we took this picture, the adults waited patiently with their next course of caterpillars. It seems that these birds are like the Royal Family; the state (us) provides them with a secure place to live and some protection from predators, and in return they are expected to pose for the paparazzi, forgoing a little privacy in the process, and their images then appearing in publications.

Aligned birds in box 1 at day 10 from hatching.

24th May 2005, Tuesday.

We continue to be surprised at the rate at which the young birds in box 1 are being fed. There is continual traffic by both parents, and a constant flow of edible caterpillars and insects. This raises a question...what happens if the young birds are overweight (obese) at fledging? Will they have enough power-to-weight ratio to fly away, or will they lumber heavily up like the ill-fated Brabazon?

One reason this comes to mind is because in a previous season, the last bird of the brood to fledge, which was the runt of the family, actually managed to fly much better than his siblings who were all much better fed. Perhaps this is part of Nature's self-regulation.

Reports from other broods of parus caeruleus around the country are mixed; some are proceeding normally but a few have met with disaster, possibly caused by the unwelcome attention of natural predators.

25th May 2005, Wednesday.

It is much warmer this afternoon. In box 1, the young birds are climbing up on the nest cup and practicing flapping their arms with the sprouting wing feathers on them. In box 2, on the other hand, the small birds are huddled together in the bottom of the nest cup and don't seem to have been fed nearly as well. As far as we can tell, all seven of them are still alive.

Here is a picture (from box 1) of the mother having just fed caterpillars to a few of the youngsters.

After a feed

Outside in the front drive the Californian poppies are coming along, and in the box, after the mother has departed, the young arrange themselves neatly in the nest cup.

26th May 2005, Thursday.

The young human suggested dragging the air conditioner up to the house from the outbuildings. It is warm. In box 2, where we haven't disturbed the birds for five days, a quick look shows small lethargic creatures with unhealthy-looking feathers. It seems probable that they have got so far behind that their development has been interrupted. It may even be the case that the nest has been abandoned recently. We recall not having seen the male bird helping with their feeding, and it is possible that the task has been too much for the female. The warm weather may not be helping.

However, later on, a peep in this box with a torch after dark reveals the bleary-eyed mother, otherwise looking hale and hearty, sitting on the underdeveloped youngsters and clearly trying her best for them. (Both our boxes have liftable lids, and we have found that the sitting birds don't object to the occasional observation).

In box 1 it is quite a different story, with seven healthy youngsters on video all hopping around in the nest, and the eighth (which hatched two days late) holding its own in the corner. Interestingly enough, the birds are now so far developed that the mother has not come in at dusk to sit on them (for warmth), but is taking a well-earned rest away from the nest where she may at last get a good night's sleep.

The huddle

Over the Bank Holiday weekend we expect cousins from Boston with twin small humans about 4 years old, who may be entertained by the live video from box 1. We are wondering whether box 1 fledging may happen one or two days before the time that we usually expect, which is normally 21 or 22 days after hatching. A guess at the moment is 2nd June plus or minus one day.

27th May 2005, Friday.

Carrying on from where we left off yesterday, the textbook says that fledging happens between 15 and 23 days after hatching. Our birds in box 1 are jumping up to the nest hole now, although they haven't been able to grab hold of the rim to look out yet. We are beginning to think that fledging may occur over the Bank Holiday weekend, rather than around the 2nd June (Thursday) as speculated above. Hatching was the 13th May, two weeks ago today, so 15 days later is tomorrow, Saturday the 28th.

The temperature today outside the nest box registered 31C on the thermometer. The adult birds have been engaging in a "feeding frenzy". In the picture below, taken at 17:30 BST, we can clearly see the late starter (in the centre of the picture) with less-developed back feathers.

Box 1 birds after two weeks

In box 2 the young birds are still somnolent, but alive. Again, we have not seen the adult birds bringing any food. On the other hand, a cursory scan of the weblogs shows that someone has been searching for pictures of "bat eggs", and it is indeed true that outside in the warm evening air, bats are flitting about and chasing evening insects.

28th May 2005, Saturday

Sunny and breezy today, but not nearly so hot as yesterday. There are loud chatterings from box 1, and cheepings from box 2 which die down between feeds. The birds in box 2 seem to be getting on better today, and a couple of hours observation of the feeding routine shows that there is only the mother on duty, but she is bringing food on average 5-10 times an hour. Here she is waiting on the roof, watching the observer warily.

Watching and waiting with food at Box 2

A pair of courting goldfinches decide to get mixed up with the action during a feed. The mother departs after looking around warily.

Goldfinch

30th May 2005, Monday.

Observation of the feeding frequency in box 1 yesterday evening gave us a figure of about 1 feed a minute over a period of an hour. Both parents are providing feeding services. The birds in box 1 are coming along well early this morning (04:30).

We took a few pictures out of the window over the birdbox, and have some portraits.

Box 1 wire is a staging post

Movement

Waiting

The colours are very vivid in these shots, taken in the early morning sunlight, and without any colour correction later.

It is noticeable that recently (the last two or three days?) the box 1 birds have not been bringing in the soft succulent large green wriggly caterpillars so often. See some of the pictures. We see the box 2 bird with a caterpillar, above, but they are at an earlier stage of development. Box 1 birds appear to be bringing smaller and harder food; insects and grubs. We have a speculation to make here; either the supply of caterpillars is becoming exhausted (end of caterpillar season perhaps?) or else, the young birds need to be trained to take a wider variety of food in preparation for fledging and having to cope outside. It also may be the case that their digestions are hardening up and that they can cope with "solid food". In any event, we have let the nut and seed feeders run out to exhaustion, and while the parent birds have been visiting them from time to time, trying to extract the dregs of solids, they haven't succeeded, and we haven't noticed any nuts or seeds being fed to the young.

Outside in the garden, we hear young bluetits squawking in the trees, identical sounds to the noises from the nextbox microphone. Inside the nestbox, the young squawk when they are being fed. We surmise that other broods of bluetits have fledged now, and that they are sounding off in the great outdoors to attract attention from any passing adult bluetit who happens to be bearing a load of food. And this raises another question; do the adults recognise their own offspring, or is there generalised feeding going on "in the wild"? It may even be the case that the older siblings assist in feeding the younger. Inside the nest, we sometimes see a youngster begging food from a sibling, and getting a peck down the throat as a reward.

This evening, feeding is less fluid. The box 1 birds are bringing food, but pausing for a minute or so in the wires outside the nestbox, clearly trying to encourage the young inside to take a look out as a preparatory exercise to fledging. Perhaps fledging will occur tomorrow morning.

31st May 2005, Tuesday

The holiday is over and the builder/painter has started to work on the outbuildings next to box 2. Whereas the birds in box 1 (who haven't fledged yet) are content to sit tight and be fed regularly, observation of box 2 fails to detect any feeding activity by the adults, but there is much squawking and cheeping going on, and an anxious face frequently appears at the nest box hole calling for the mother (at 20:15 BST in the evening light). The decorator is due back at 08:30 but there will be three and a half hours of good feeding time before he arrives, and possibly the mother will persuade the box 2 young to fledge in that time. The young human detects a bluetit calling from the nearby trees, so perhaps the heavy human activity in the garden has temporarily deterred her.

Looking hopefully for mother and food

Meanwhile the garage doors are being painted, which doesn't deter the swallows who come and go as normal. Care is taken not to close both doors at once.

The building and decorating works have already been postponed for a week, and the builder remarks that at this time of the year many jobs are worked in around the demands of the nesting birdlife.

1st June 2005, Wednesday.

The wind had moved back into the East overnight and in the small hours the temperature outside registered 8C. The male human got about 3 hours' sleep. In box 2, the picture above prompted a peek inside, especially as there was no sign of either adult. Four youngsters were huddled at the middle of the back of the box, and in each of the front two corners of box 2 was a corpse. Clearly they had been dragged there by an adult to prevent cross-contamination of the young with parasites. On one of the four remaining young there were some smallish leech-like parasites, about 1/5th the size of a woodlouse, feeding happily.

Accordingly, and especially as the evening was chill, we extracted the live young and disposed of the detritus over the back fence. Indoors they responded well to a little warmth from an infra-red lamp and began to cheep and present beaks for food. We dug some small worms out from around the green cone kitchen waste recycler, and washed them and dismembered them into bite size lengths. Each bird willingly took two or three of these, before they settled down to sleep for the night. We deloused the fourth youngster, which was very groggy, and left them in a shoe box lined with kitchen paper towel, under a little warmth, from midnight until 4am.

In the morning the fourth bird was dead. The remaining young were very sleepy, and didn't present beaks for breakfast. There is no way one can feed a youngster if it won't present a beak. We waited until 5am when the other pair of adult birds began to feed their eight young in box 1, and then returned the three box 2 birds, in a cleaned out nestbox lined with more paper towel, to the stand on the wall in their usual place. The hope was that the mother would pay a visit and be able to recover the situation.

Sadly, the mother did not show, and at 9:00 am the birds were dead in the cold morning air. They clearly felt the cold as one could see them shiver. They huddled together as best they could for warmth.

In the garage we took a picture of a swallow sitting on its nest. The feeding activity in box 1 proceeded apace all day, and at 8pm the eight birds had still not fledged, although they had been paying visits to the nestbox hole to inspect the outside world. The nut and seed feeders were replenished which immediately attracted bird traffic. Our parents selected a few whole nuts from the open topped container, and took them up into a tree where they stripped them down to a sensible size, using feet and beaks. The parents seemed to have an inbuilt sense of the concept of a "balanced diet", for they alternated the odd nut with the usual supply of insects and caterpillars.

It appears that it is the female bird who is responsible for nest hygiene. Perhaps housework is not "socially constructed activity" after all. Both birds tried on one occasion to see off a jay which had strayed into the local nestbox zone. Magpies have also been trolling up and down in the hedge, presumably on the lookout for any young fledglings that have made it that far and no further. Outside on the common, the landscape is teeming with freshly-fledged bluetits. We have remarked before that the population of these birds is about stable from one year to the next, so there has to be a high failure rate in the reproductive process.

The parent birds in box 1 have been exemplary so far, in setting a fine example to us all, of the labour and effort needed to bring up young successfully. In box 2, the process was very much more hit-and-miss and the pair bond not strongly in evidence. Box 2 also doesn't have the collection of staging posts nearby for when the adults come and go. Feeding was much slower, and we surmise that the two young who died did so from cold and lack of food. This nesting season has been the coldest we have experienced since we've been watching (1999).

2nd June 2005, Thursday.

All the birds in box 1 successfully fledged today. The first was gone by 9am, and the last was reported to have left about 16:30. The laggard was last to fledge. The male human has been in examiners' meetings and has not been around with the camera. The diary for the 2005 nesting season can now be closed, and it is pleasing to know that our earlier forecast of the fledging day was accurate, in the event. We can now bring the statistics page up to date.

3rd June 2005, Friday.

It is the day after fledging. It has been mostly fine, but there are heavy showers at 17:00. Outside in "bird heaven" which is where the birds all go after their "earthly existence in the nest box" they are all flying around like little angels. Every so often one attempts to fly in through the patio doors and has to be shooed out. Occasionally the young fly into the glass and the house walls. Cacophony abounds. The nut feeders are in heavy use. The traffic transformation over a few days reminds us of the return to school after half term, on the roads, with birds coming and going in every direction. Air traffic control for birds has not yet been invented.

Here is an excerpt from "Complexity Digest", of a somewhat philosophical nature.

Over the past 600 million years the Bacteria, Archaea and microbial Eukarya have continued to evolve into brand new niches. As it happens, a few branches of Eukarya - plants and animals - grew freakishly huge bodies. They also created both new substances for bacteria to exploit, such as plant lignins, and new environments for microbes to inhabit, such as feathers and urinary tracts. Indeed, some of the richest and most interesting ecologies on Earth can be found inside the animal gut.

One of the huge species, Homo sapiens, got remarkably self-important.

* Source: The Great Chain Of Being, Sean Nee, DOI: 10.1038/435429a, Nature 435, 429, 05/05/26

6th June 2005, Monday.

POSTSCRIPT

The young bluetits are following each other around in the garden and trying to get the hang of feeding, from the nutfeeders among other sources. They are still making the characteristic squawking noises that we recognize from their final days in the box. Many of them are landing up in the hedge from time to time.

We watched (in the last week) a film clip on the BBC in a programme hosted by Bill Oddie. A pair of bluetits was unloading a dead youngster from a box. That may explain what had happened to the seventh bird in box 2. It seems surprising that the adults have enough strength and lifting power to do this. Other people have reported finding dead young on the ground outside the nest boxes. It doesn't really seem very likely that a youngster can get to the hole, clamber out, and then expire and fall down vertically. Perhaps the undertaking services provided by the parents is the explanation. It may even be the case that the adults can transport the body some distance from the nest. This is a question still to be resolved.

25th June 2005, Saturday.

The building and painting jobs in the garden outbuildings are complete. The swallows have raised their new season's brood and the young chicks are now being fed daily. The swallows dart around the garden catching insects on the wing. The swallows were quite happy to make their way in and out past the workmen.

The nutfeeders are in heavy demand; about three pints of peanuts a week is the rate of supply, and many birds and species are visiting. The young bluetits are particularly endearing to watch. We have seen a bullfinch, which looks like a military version of a robin, slightly camouflaged.

There were violent thunderstorms last night. The female human was attempting to translate herself physically to Rio where there is a conference on the care of old people. She got as far as Paris, and Air France (which we used to call "Air Chance" in the 1950s) failed to connect, slamming the boarding gate shut in the faces of the passengers..... Today she is on a flight to Sao Paulo, the Rio flight a day later being oversubscribed with conference-goers. Perhaps the swallows will teach the Air France operation a thing or two about intercontinental travel.

Swallow chicks waiting for food


Other bird pictures and assorted topics at flickr.com/photos/rabinal/




email d.jefferies@surrey.ac.uk
David Jefferies
25th June 2005.