One of the best things I have added to my garden in recent years has been a bird feeder holding Nyjer seeds.  The seeds of this African yellow daisy are rich in oil and protein. Their fat content gives small birds the energy they need to survive the winter and the protein helps them renew their plumage for the breeding season.  Goldfinches adore my Nyjer feeder and queue up in numbers to eat their fill.

This April, though, I was surprised to see a male Siskin feeding, my first in 30 years!  Though they do like to feed on the seeds of riverside Alders and Birches this was still a great sighting in my riverside garden.  Movements of Siskins are quite complex, something that can be worked out from the recoveries of birds which have been ringed.  Scottish birds are thought to make up a significant proportion of the English wintering population, though some come from Europe as far afield as Norway.

Siskins were always scarce in this part of the country until the Forestry Commission started to plant conifer plantations in the Thames Valley.  Gradually, the Scottish population then expanded southwards.  Ironically, the trend is now for the authorities to remove conifers to restore broadleaf woodland, so it may well be that Siskins will become even rarer in future.

Siskins do have years when they are especially common even in Berkshire and, remarkably, our records go back over 150 years thanks to records made by a 16-year-old Eton boy named Alexander Clark Kennedy.  He wrote the first ever book anywhere in the world containing photos of birds, and in it he stated that there were abundant flocks of Siskins in the years 1857/8 and 1866/7.  You can see his book, and a Siskin, in the Eton College Natural History Museum!

The photo has been kindly provided by Brian Clews of the Berkshire Bird Atlas project


George Fussey


When is a Blackcap not a Blackcap?

Eton’s Natural History Museum in South Meadow Lane was built to hold the Thackeray Collection, one of the largest collections of stuffed birds in Victorian Britain. Much of that collection is still in the Museum, over 160 years later.  One of my favourite stuffed birds is our Blackcap, and one of the quiz questions that we ask children when they are doing the ‘treasure hunt’ around the Museum is to answer the question, what colour head does the female Blackcap have?  The answer, of course, is not black (that would be too obvious!), but a beautiful chestnut brown.

Blackcaps are warblers that have markedly changed their behavior over the last fifty years or so.  Prior to 1960 it was very rare to see a blackcap in winter in the UK, but the RSPB now estimate that some 3,000 birds overwinter here compared to the 1 million or more pairs that take up residence in summer.  So though they are widespread throughout Berkshire in the summer, I was delighted to welcome a male Blackcap as a regular visitor to my garden birdfeeder (containing sunflower hearts) over the Christmas period.  It is also partial to the fallen apples that I leave on the lawn.  In the summer Blackcaps typically feed on insects before transitioning to berries and other fruit in the autumn.


The Berkshire Bird Atlas notes the species arriving in the county in November and December.  Many of our overwintering Blackcaps come from Central Europe and, in particular, Southern Germany.  These migratory movements are known from ringing studies.  These involve captured birds being fitted with a uniquely-numbered, lightweight metal ring on their leg that can then be read and reported if they are ever found or caught again.  Studies show that our summering Blackcaps, on the other hand, arrive from March onwards and then depart for Southern Europe and North Africa.  Some ringed birds have been recovered from as far as Senegal, though Morocco and Tunisia are more common destinations, apparently.

Few of us give any thought to the amazing journeys that some of our garden birds make in one calendar year!

 George Fussey



Photo courtesy Brian Clews.