Blackbirds, Tree Sparrows and Fieldfare

Last year's harsh winter weather provided Paul Hobson with an amazing photo opportunity ...

As a wildlife photographer I tend to work with a clear focus and like to target a specific species at a time. Sometimes it’s one I haven’t covered before, more often it’s something with which I have a real love-affair, such as adders and golden plovers. I’ve tended to overlook the more common ones – birds in particular – thinking that I’d be sure to pick these up in the course taking other photographs. Then last autumn I was asked for some pictures of blackbirds and realised I had very little on file. Even worse, blackbirds are probably one of my favourite birds! So I decided to make them one of my projects for the winter.

I had been researching tree sparrows at the time and was searching for an area where they could be found. Driving around the small villages to the south of Chesterfield I came upon a number of smallholdings and in the hedges nearby were tree sparrows. At one smallholding in particular, where they kept horses, there were a number of bird feeders, clearly this was where the tree sparrows were attracted to. To add to my delight a number of blackbirds were holding court in the grassy, lawned areas. It semed like an ideal situation photographically – all I needed was permission to put up a hide.

The owners, John and Carol, proved to be true wildlife lovers who have a genuine empathy with the natural world so they happily gave permission. I set up my hide and with Carol’s daily feeding of the birds the scene was set for what I hoped would be a productive winter’s photography. Little did I know just how good it was to become.

The tree sparrows were very tame and didn’t mind my hide at all, even perching on top of it at times. I particularly like action images of birds so set out to capture them in flight. Because they are colonial, they would usually arrive in groups of 10 or so. The bird feeder only had three perches so a certain amount of jostling always took place as each bird vied with its colleagues to get its share of the seed. This resulted in a few hovering just beyond the feeder and it became a fairly simple matter to photograph them.

As the winter progressed it started to take an icy grip. This was probably the best winter I have ever experienced as a wildlife photographer. Carol’s daily feeding during the two prolonged snowy periods became vital for the survival of many local birds. Harsh winters are real killers. The short icy days were scenes of frenetic activity as birds tried to stock up with enough fuel to see out the deathly cold of the long night.The number of blackbirds slowly built up and eventually there were upwards of 30 birds relying on Carol’s daily food supply. Blackbirds don’t usually work and feed this closely but the cold forced unlikely alliances and muffled deep-seated antipathy towards each other. Their innate aggression would occasionally spill over as two equally matched male blackbirds decided that they couldn’t tolerate being so close to each other. Usually individuals know their place and back down after a little bluff. On one occasion though this didn’t happen and two males went at it hammer and tongs in the snow. No Marquis of Queensbury rules here, anything went!

The action was so fast and furious that I struggled to follow it with my eye but I kept the camera trained on the sparring pair and let the motor drive run image after image onto the memory card. Later in the warmth of home I reviewed the images. Most were all right but there were one or two that really captured the over-heated aggression of the two males. One in particular shows a blackbird actually stamping his foot down on the head of his competitor, pure winter thrills and spills! Although the images look really aggressive neither blackbird was mortally wounded. One bird did have his feathers and confidence badly dented but he retreated to live and scrap another day.

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As the winter took a really firm hold I started to put apples on the ground to supplement Carol’s seed and raisins. First a single and then three fieldfares arrived the next day. These winter thrushes from the arctic north were clearly struggling for food but, again, I didn’t realise just how aggressive they could be. One bird, obviously more powerful than his two friends, quickly drove them away, no honour here! He (or she) then set out to drive away all the blackbirds and song thrushes. First he would fly at one small group, others would sneak in behind his back, and he would return and try to drive those off. The first lot having now quietly hopped back, he would then have to re-double his efforts. This lasted all day and he eventually defended a small area of two metres with a group of apples as his reward.

It was hard to watch all this as I had started to recognise individual blackbirds and song thrushes and think of them as friends. The solution was either to stop putting the apples out or to scatter them so widely that he wouldn’t physically be able to drive away the others. In the end he made the decision for me and left, with luck to find another food source elsewhere. Blackbirds and song thrushes returned to their sparring. What a winter. If only this one is as good!

BirdTalk

Fieldfare• Thrush-like migratory birds that arrive from October and leave between March and May• Very social and often noisy, they spend the winter in flocks• Hawthorn hedges with berries are a favourite feeding ground

Tree sparrow• Smaller and more compact and colourful than the house sparrow• Male, female and young all look very similar• The species has declined dramatically and is on the RSPB red list

Blackbird• Although males are black, females are brown, often with marks on their breasts• Primarily loners, males will establish a territory and hold it throughout their lives• They only live an average of 3 to 4 years

In the 2010 RSPB Big Schools’ Birdwatch blackbirds topped both the county and national list, with an average of 4.3 being seen at each school. Although sightings of most species had declined from the year before – perhaps due to the snowy weather.

Next year’s RSPB Birdwatch will take place on 29th and 30th January. Details on www.rspb.org.uk

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