It’s been a very strange autumn so far, probably the warmest on record here in the north of England and, understandably, this has been affecting our birdwatching experience. 

The normal seasonal spectacle of wildfowl and waders fleeing the frozen northlands has been reduced to a steady flow over a longer period of time but, thankfully, the temperatures in the far north are now low enough to make feeding there impossible. It’s been so lovely to see whooper swans, pink-footed geese and wigeon arriving in larger numbers but they’ve been facing an unexpected problem on arrival, our water levels in the UK are very low.  

In the normally flooded Lower Derwent Valley, just south of York, whoopers, pink-footed geese and wigeon have been struggling to make their traditional ‘service station’ stops because, apart from the river itself, the whole area is devoid of water. These flocks usually spend time feeding in flooded fields but, instead of looking like an extensive wetland, the area is green and dry with only small channels of water. Water in the Lower Aire Valley at Fairburn, St Aidan’s and Skelton Lake is also lower than usual. 

Without water there’s no mud so, in addition to the wildfowl, waders such a curlew, black-tailed godwit and dunlin are also having to make longer journeys to find food. If birds become concentrated in a smaller area then the food will quickly run out which will probably mean that we get a lot of movement during late autumn and early winter when water levels rise again. If you see birds travelling in what seems to be the wrong direction then it’s likely they’re only making short journeys to find food. The same is also true whenever we get flooded ground. Too much water can make food inaccessible for many water birds and water can become polluted during flooding. 

It’s a very different situation at the moment for our berry and seed eating winter visitors. We have a wonderful berry crop across our county this autumn, just ripe for the thousands of redwing, fieldfare, mistle thrush and blackbird that are winging their way to us, across the North Sea. These normally last for most of the winter but, with the high temperatures continuing, there might be issues about how long these berries will remain palatable if bacteria are able to colonise and thrive. Hopefully our autumn and winter temperatures will return to normal but if they don’t and your local berry crop fails, you can help your local thrushes by providing grapes, soaked raisins and apples on your garden lawn. Any uneaten fruit will attract insects which are also a great food source for birds. 

■ Feeding bullfinch

The dry conditions over summer and autumn have created a bumper crop of ground vegetation seeds such as nettle, thistle and dock which are loved by bullfinches and goldfinches. Look for them hopping from shrubs to adjacent seed heads and scan the ground for linnet, sparrows and reed bunting feeding on the fallen seed below.  You may also see flocks of goldfinches with siskin and redpoll feeding on birch seeds (produced from the female catkins) and alder seeds (obtained from inside the ripened black cones). It’s likely there’s not much activity at your garden feeders during the early autumn but as soon as the cold, wet weather returns much of the ground vegetation will decompose and your birds will be back looking for food once more. 

One of the main challenges this year will be the lack of acorns. Oak trees are wind pollinated and the cold, wet spring prevented pollination in the north this year. Consequently, our jays, which can usually be seen flying backwards and forwards to find and cache up to 3,000 acorns, will need some support this year.  You can help them by putting whole peanuts on the ground, or on your bird table, then just watch them fill their crops and take them away to eat over the coming months. 

Linda Jenkinson teaches people about birds in and around Leeds. For details of indoor and outdoor classes email linda@startbirding.co.uk or call 07778 768719. Visit www.startbirding.co.uk or Start Birding on Facebook and Twitter. 


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