Outside the Backdoor

Observing what can happen in your own garden even in suburbia!

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Six parakeets and counting …

So here we are at the end of January and it’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch time again.  If you’re not familiar with the Birdwatch concept, all you need to take part is a pen, a piece of scrap paper, a view out of the window and an hour.  During that hour you need to record the sightings of the total number of each species of bird you see at any one time on your patch.  So you can’t count two robins unless you see them both simultaneously (and I find robins are particularly sneaky when it comes to flitting out of sight just when you think you’ve seen a second one!)

I love the Big Garden Birdwatch weekend and usually can’t resist doing the count more than once.  Normally we try to do it over lunchtime when we’re sitting near the window anyhow.  Lunch is usually interrupted by the dash for the binoculars – was that really two blackbirds down the end of the garden or cunning starlings pretending?!

I also always hope for something a little special. Over the years our garden has treated us to some unusual visitors.  One year it was redpolls and another it was redwings.  The redpolls required snow and very frosty weather which seems a bit unlikely this year.  The redwings also seem to need it cold to make an appearance but they’re not quite so fussy.  One January a flock of at least fifteen turned up!  The first day I saw one it was just a single bird which subsequently I decided was eyeing up the territory and had spotted the tree at the end of the garden which was still covered in red berries.  The following day he returned with his friends and the flock descended to strip the tree, turning it from red to green in about an hour – not a berry left!  Another less common (and less welcome) visitor might be a sparrow hawk.  We have seen them on several occasions in our garden, on one occasion causing chaos as a collar was chased down into our patio doors in panic.


This one was taken in our birch tree

However, one species we dread seeing during the Birdwatch is parakeets – the curse of
Southwest London!  Some days we can see more than 20 on our cherry tree.  Whilst their antics can be highly entertaining, evidence does seem to suggest they drive away some of the smaller birds and, if nothing else, they simply steal their food.  If a flock of parakeets descends during our Birdwatch count, we may as well give up as nothing else will appear until they take their leave.

So how did we fare with Birdwatch 2016?  Well it certainly wasn’t one of our finest.


Wren – courtesy of Wikimedia

We had several goes at it and saw 14 species overall.  Our best total bird count was 25 and included Great Tits, Collar Dove, Chaffinch, Wood Pigeon, Blue Tits, Robin, Goldfinch, Long Tailed Tits, Wren and, yes, you’ve guessed it, Parakeets!  The surprise was the Wren. A tiny secretive bird with its distinctive up-turned tail, it emerged from underneath the dense ivy leaves and flitted across to hide in a winter clematis.

So what is the point of the Big Garden Birdwatch?  It has now been running for some thirty years and during that time has gathered important data showing, for example, a 50% decline in the UK’s sparrow population and a 75% decline in starlings.  Knowing there is a problem is the first step towards doing something about that problem and without a doubt, this is one way of raising awareness of a changing environment.

For more details of this year’s Big Garden Birdwatch, go to the RSPB  website.

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Ten years to go online

The very first Outside the Back Door appeared ten years’ ago this month!  Anyone who has edited any sort of magazine, church, club, whatever, will know that feeling of staring at vast amounts of white space between the essential news and the occasional item that someone has kindly bothered to give you.  Outside the Back Door sprung out of my need to fill anything up to two sides of A5 in my church magazine.  Over the years it’s proved to be a bit of a hit with lots of positive feedback.  All of which has led to me taking the plunge to move online!

So to give you a flavour of what’s to come, here’s a bit of reflection on what has gone before.  My first article was entitled A sad demise – not exactly a positive note to start on!  The article focused on the death of our monkey puzzle tree which was such a landmark feature when we bought our house back in February 2000.  It made it incredibly easy to give directions to where we lived – just drive straight to the end of the road and look for the monkey puzzle.  We never got to the bottom of what killed it and we’ve never taken the plunge back into monkey puzzle ownership!

It was perhaps ironic that my first article focused on outside the front door rather than the back and it’s rather sad to look back and see that our front garden, small as it is, seemeucaplyptus downs to have only featured when disaster has struck!  In the December 2013/January 2014 issue it popped up again, this time after the St Jude’s storm of the previous October which had felled our eucalyptus tree.  This had originally been planted as a tiny pot plant into a mixed container positioned to fill the space left by the monkey puzzle.  Being a eucalyptus (they rarely grow small), it had managed to take root through the base of the pot and had become far too big for its boots.  One freak gust and it had been uprooted.  Several attempts were made to re-pot it but it was to no avail.  The roots had been ripped and had sounded its death knell.  (The picture is rubbish but you get a sense of what happened!)

Apart from these episodes,  I’m pleased to say that the column has generally taken a more positive approach covering, amongst other things, the development of our vegetable plot, the creation of our pond and the arrival of our cats!  Overall our garden has proved to be a rich source of inspiration, underlining the importance of urban gardens to our environment and well-being.  This is currently being highlighted by the Royal Horticultural Society’s Greening Grey Britain campaign which highlights:

“Today one in four front gardens is completely paved over and our community green spaces are also under threat, with many parks facing a crippling lack of proper funding. This trend for grey replacing green degrades the living environment, increasing flood risk and reducing air quality. It has also been linked to growing mental and physical health problems as well as having dire consequences for wildlife.”

I am proud to think that our little patch of green can be helping the wider environment in some way.