ONLY a few weeks ago, tens of thousands of keen bird-watchers were up early on a Sunday morning with scarf, notebook, coffee flask and folding chair ready to spend an hour in a hedge, writes John Large.
It was the annual RSPB bird count day, a census of all birds spotted in the garden, from which the RSPB will deduce Britain’s most common birds, which species are in decline or even in serious trouble.
I feed our wild birds every morning at 8.15am and we invariably observe the same procedure.
The blackbirds watch the food scattering process from the bushes and a couple of handfuls lands on the grass specifically for them. They are reluctant to feed from the table.
The loyalist of my customers, they are also the most aggressively territorial, and will spend precious energy on a cold day chasing off invaders from a neighbouring garden.
Ground feeding is not recommended as any residue will attract rats, and if there is a dog in the family it is bad for its waistline.
But a couple of handfuls will be instantly disposed of by the blackbirds.
Like all birds, they puff out their feathers in cold weather to insulate themselves with a layer of air to keep them warm.
Don’t imagine they have been self-indulging. They need all the food they can get.
While the blackbirds are chasing each other off the lawn the smaller birds creep up and shyly manage a peck or two.
The robin, who always greets me from an azalea as I make for the bird-table, sees his chance, as do sparrows and wrens who are the first to give way when the bigger fry arrive.
They settle under the table and await crumbs.
The bigger birds in our garden are pigeons and jackdaws.
The piegons treat breakfast as a serious business, methodically moving round the table taking far more than their fair share.
The jackdaws arrive from our spare chimney or the church belfry, look daggers at anyone who dares to share the table with them and make a very clumsy take-off for the next garden after a minute or two.
My bird list is pretty short this year. I dream of having a Lapland bunting to report or a hoopoe, that regally crowned cinnamon pink bird with strong black and white markings on wings and tail.
Those who live in rural Kent might very occasionally see one, but no chance if you’re doing your list in Alford.
Meanwhile, excitement from the east has descended. The starlings have alighted on the table and are doing some serious pecking. They have a guard bird out, and at a signal from him they rise in a cloud of flapping wings and make for the safety of the yew tree.
They know the sparrowhawk hovers sliently in this area.
The starling is a jaunty visitor, always busy and good-natured. They swagger around off the ground and table showing off their spiky, glossy feathers with violet, green and blue illuminating their dark coats. They off they go en mass, and all is quiet.
Where are the common birds of yesteryear, the greenfinch, the chaffinch, and pied wagtail? Where is my songster par excellence, the thrush? There are tits around, and their food requirements are amply catered for in the next-door garden.
It will take the RSPB some time to compute all of our input, but in due course we will know which species make up the Top 20.
I suspect it will be much the same as last year and the year before. It is not a case of losing any of our native species, so much as a worrying decline in numbers.