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A Year in The Garden • A Natural History Diary


Fraser S Simpson  December 1996.



This small, suburban garden, in the town of Kilmarnock in south-west Scotland, does not look on first impressions like the place to find much wildlife. However, in 1996 I probably spent more time taking note of the comings and goings of the birds and beasties than any other year. Back then I compiled a month-by-month summary of the highlights. Having recently found these notes, this seems like a good place to post them. For more background on the garden click here.


The sub-zero temperatures for most of this month followed the heavy snow in the last week of December 1995. This led to the movement of more birds into the garden with record numbers towards the end of the month. A female Goldcrest was recorded everyday, feeding, surprisingly, on peanuts from both cage and mesh feeders, bird cakes made from dripping and suet, and many other scraps including cheese. In any other year it is an occasional, shy visitor in the conifers. On the 3rd a Goldfinch, only the second garden record, visited for around five minutes at 1535h. It appeared suddenly and fed on peanuts from a large wire cage feeder and departed as quickly as it had arrived. Greenfinch numbers climbed from one on the 1st to a record 10 on the 4th, followed by 11 on the 11th. They fed on peanuts and seed, particularly black sunflower seeds. Siskins visited in typical numbers with a peak of five individuals at various times throughout. Chaffinch numbers averaged around 15-20 birds with a peak of 25 on the 9th. Numbers of House Sparrows were low during the snow cover in the last week of the previous year with just two or three speugs around, but, following the thaw, seven had returned by the 3rd, followed by 14 on the 9th and peaking at 32 on the 11th and 26 on the 18th. Starlings on the other hand were always numerous and dominant at the food sources, typically when extra feeding was provided in the form of fat, meat scraps and cheese. Around 30 was typical with a peak of 40 on the 9th. Following the usual resident pair of Collared Doves, a second pair arrived on the 9th and three or four birds were often present throughout the month. A single Robin was present with occasionally two from the 18th and up to three Dunnocks were observed at once during the month.


The cold weather continued into February although diurnal temperature were generally slightly higher than January. There were only a few mornings with fresh snow. Overall numbers of birds were generally lower and the Goldcrest departed within the first few days. The huge national invasion of Waxwings hit the area around mid-month. A flock of 19 of these exotic-looking wanderers from the far north were seen just a few hundred metres from the garden from the 22nd. Would they grace our garden and provide a new tick? A Song Thrush began singing from the larch tree later in the month.


In contrast, March was a mild month as winter lost it's grip. Numbers dropped further as the month progressed. The last few Siskins departed as the pair of Blue Tits began to show more signs of establishing their territory, chasing the similarly-sized finches from the peanut feeders. Waxwings (finally!) visited the garden on the 7th, probably after depleting the berry stocks in nearby gardens. Fifteen were seen from 1740h until 1800h when they fed mostly from a cotoneaster shrub in a neighbouring garden (which, strangely, was cut down a few days later). They were also seen early again next morning. A Sparrowhawk surprised the Chaffinch flock feeding on the garage roof on the 19th when it successfully took one bird and plucked it in the nearby larch. On the evening of the 23rd, a male Tawny Owl was heard calling from Dean Castle Country Park approximately half a mile away, carrying far in the still air. This far north, Lesser Black-backed Gulls are summer migrants and our annually visiting pair arrived home much later than normal with one bird on the 30th - about three weeks later than usual. This bird, presumably the male, quickly re-established it's territory on the surrounding rooftops, chasing off any gull which attempted to take food provided on the garage roof. The female followed it's mate in returning about a week later. Single Small Tortoiseshell butterflies were recorded on the first few warm days as April neared.


Waxwing İFraser Simpson  Blue Tit İFraser Simpson


Again there was little rain this month and temperatures were well below average but there were signs that the breeding season was under way. Greenfinch, Chaffinch, Song Thrush, Blackbird and Dunnock could be heard singing from the garden and the surrounding area. Dunnock, Starling and House Sparrow were all observed collecting nesting material from the back patio. The Blue Tits, which normally begin nest-building this month, failed to start and were possibly nesting in a neighbouring garden as they were regular visitors throughout the month. On the night of the 20th the northerly return passage of Redwings was evident with many birds heard passing overhead for several hours. The first Small White butterfly of the year was observed flitting over the garden during a warm afternoon on the 28th.


May was a much wetter month than April with the diurnal temperatures improving. Frosts, however, still occurred up until the third week. A pair of Collared Doves was present in the first half of May and often perched on the larch tree for long periods, suggesting that they might nest, but, disappointingly, they later departed. The disappearance of the female Lesser Black-backed Gull, with only occasional visits, suggested that the pair was breeding nearby and in fact these large gulls use flat-top roofs at several sites down in the town centre. The first Blackbird brood fledged on the 4th although only one bird survived to independence due to the fact that people will let their cats wander into other people's property. A single Mistle Thrush put in a brief appearance on the 4th but was obviously keen on pushing on to some other destination. Perhaps a late migrant individual? Our Starlings nesting under the roof gutter hatched on the 11th and the noise levels from the hungry stuckies increased towards the month's end. The 18th brought a surprise when the Blue Tits were discovered to be building in the nest box, suggesting they had been disturbed from an earlier attempt elsewhere or maybe it was just down to the cold and wet weather of the spring. Incredibly, they completed the nest in just three days and the first egg was laid on the 21st. By the 29th a full clutch of nine eggs had been laid. In previous years of successful breeding in the garden, the nest has been constructed at a more leisurely pace over a period of two to three weeks. The first record of Swift within the garden occurred on the 27th when two birds flew over the garage, below the level of the roof. A late female Siskin visited briefly on the 28th, feeding on the peanut bags for a few minutes.


A very warm period with many days over 20°C and little precipitation. Strong southerly winds during the first week contributed to a large, nation-wide influx of Painted Lady butterflies in what was to become the largest in recorded history. The 14th provided our first garden record of this stunning immigrant with another or the same present the following day. Accompanying them were large numbers of Silver-Y moths. Lepidoptera continued to dominate the garden wildlife scene when a Large White emerged on the 6th, followed by a Green-veined White - an unusual garden visitor here. A peak of three Large Whites was recorded on the 10th. The Starlings fledged on the 3rd and over the next few days the garden was full of hungry House Sparrow and Starling broods. Up to three Pipistrelle Bats could be seen most nights, hawking insects around the large trees. Screaming Swift parties numbered up to six as the summer solstice approached. Much activity at the Blue Tits box on the morning of the 12th suggested that the eggs had hatched and a quick look below the lid confirmed this. In a more usual year the young would already have fledged by this time. Of the nine eggs laid, nine successfully hatched making this the first year that a 100% hatch rate had occurred!


Starling İFraser Simpson  House Sparrow İFraser Simpson


On the morning of the 1st the Blue Tits fledged from the nest with nine young counted leaving the box within a half hour period.  - an amazing 100% success rate for this pair of adult birds. The family party were present in neighbouring gardens for the next few hours before disappearing, perhaps to woodland. The first fresh second brood Small Tortoiseshell was recorded on the 16th and a single was noted on a few days throughout the month. A Red Admiral was seen briefly on the afternoon of the 24th. House Martins and Swallows could be observed hawking insects in the sky high above the garden during the month.


August was a warm month with most days above 18°C and many nights above 12°C. While much of the month was cloudy with just a few days of bright sunshine, there was little rain. Up to three juvenile Blue Tits fed in the garden from the 1st until the end of the month, particularly on an old coconut hanging in the mountain ash trees. Warbler passage was evident on several days with both Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler recorded. The morning of the 11th produced an adult Willow Warbler which departed around midday. Another adult was heard singing at 0700h on the 14th and was present until late afternoon. Overnight rain on the 20th may have contributed to the arrival of two juvenile Chiffchaffs and a juvenile Willow Warbler which were actively feeding and flycatching around the garden until late morning. A single Small Tortoiseshell was recorded most days with occasionally two until the 24th when a small influx of up to six appeared along with many Painted Ladies, Red Admirals and Large Whites. This corresponded with the thistle flowers in the immediate area beginning to seed. It was surprising that numbers were not higher considering their abundance in the surrounding countryside; 490 in  fields at the north end of Wardneuk (now under housing, 2006), 230 at Northcraig Reservoir, 170 along Kilmaurs Road. One or two Small Whites nectared on the buddleia throughout the month, even on dull days. The second record of Green-veined White of the year occurred on the 24th. The highlight of the month came on the 7th when a Small Copper was observed basking on the wall below the buddleia at around 1700h. A new moth was recorded at 0640h on the 15th when a Scalloped Oak was found on the front steps. On several nights there signs of wader passage. On the 7th and 8th, Oystercatcher and Redshank were heard passing over around midnight as was a Curlew on the 19th. A Dunnock and Blackbird were observed bathing in the sun-warmed soil during a brief period of sunshine on the 21st. A check on the buddleia with a torch that night saw many moths nectaring on the white flower heads. Large Yellow Underwing moths numbered eight and the more restless feeding Silver Y moths numbered three. A further three moths were not identified. A Robin returned after the breeding season on the 26th to establish it's winter territory.


In comparison to last month, there was little activity during September. In general the weather was mild with some very warm days and little rain. On the evening of the 1st a Robin could be heard begining it's winter song. The Lesser Black-backed Gulls were accompanied mid-month with their offspring, a single juvenile bird, indicating that they had successfully bred nearby. The first Great Tit of the autumn returned on the 18th when it was observed feeding on last winter's old coconut - time to start the winter feeding again soon. A female Sparrowhawk made a surprise visit on the 24th when it swooped through the garden. The first Chaffinches and House Sparrows began to flock to the seed at the end of the month. Single Red Admiral, Painted Lady, Small White and Large White butterflies nectared on the last remaining buddleia flower heads throughout the month.


Chaffinch İFraser Simpson  Collared Dove İFraser Simpson


October was a very wet and cloudy month although temperatures were around 12-14°C. although one notably warm day was the 25th at 18°C. The resident Robin was joined some days by different birds but they were quickly seen off. These birds may have been migrants from the continent or possibly just local birds from neighbouring woodland territories. A pair of Coal Tits fed in the garden daily from the 3rd. Three Blue Tits were observed feeding together on the red mesh peanut bags. Usually two birds were present at any one time each day. Great Tits were recorded less regularly with only a single bird on occasional days. A pair of Collared Doves were regular with three birds on the 18th and four from the 19th. House Sparrow numbers increased throughout October with a peak of 42 on the 19th. Similarly Chaffinches increased from two on the 1st to five on the 19th and seven on the 30th. In the surrounding countryside, Redwings were slow to arrive and large nocturnal passages were not heard over the garden until the night of the 14th. Large passages were also noted on the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th. Flocks of up to 100 passed overhead during these days as well. A Wren was heard calling at dusk on the 24th. On the 26th a Buzzard passed leisurely overhead at around 1300h and was possibly local bird from Moss Wood or Craufurdland. Silver Y moths were again recorded throughout the month with individuals buzzing over the garden on mild days with sunshine. Red Admirals were observed on warmer days with the last record on the 17th. These individuals nectared on the last remaining flowers in the garden and basked on sunlit trees.


As winter crept in, the penultimate month of the year saw some severe frosts and snow showers on the 18th, 19th and 21st. Species numbers increased as a result. Highlight of November was a female Blackcap which arrived on the 30th and fed in the company of Chaffinches at the ground-level bird table. This was the third record and the second consecutive year for this species. The last one, also a female, stayed for about three weeks. Magpies returned to feed in the area with a single bird on the 5th. These crows have shown a notable increase within urban areas in Kilmarnock in the last two years. Pied Wagtails came to the garage roof and patio to feed on small seeds and tiny pieces of food missed by other species. An adult was present on the 16th, 21st, 22nd and 23rd and a 1st-winter on the 20th. A Wren was present on the 20th and fed from the ground-level bird table, often in the company of two Dunnocks. The Lesser Black-backed Gulls were last seen on the 10th, leaving to winter perhaps on some Midlands reservoir or the south coast of the British Isles. Old sandwiches put out on the 19th attracted nine Black-headed Gulls, two Common Gulls, a Herring Gull, four Carrion Crows, a Rook and 33 Starlings. Collared Dove numbers increased with up to eight different birds feeding on seed. Peak counts of Chaffinches revealed and increase from seven on the 1st, 10 on the 19th, 16 on the 21st and 24 on the 23rd. Greenfinches numbered two or three throughout. The usual pair of Blue Tits were present all month with a third on the 28th being quickly chased off. Two Coal Tits were present most days although no more Great Tits were seen. A superb Peregrine was observed passing overhead on the afternoon of the 20th.


The first half of December was much milder than last month but it turned severley cold again mid-month with snow showers in the last week. The Blackcap remained until the 2nd and during this time it was observed feeding on small seeds, boiled and baked potatoes and lard cakes. Five Lapwings flew low overhead on the morning of the 2nd and a third Blue Tit was present again briefly before being chased off. Snow on the 3rd saw a count of 26 Chaffinches and up to four Greenfinches and hard frosts the following day produced a count of 45 Starlings. Joining the Collared Doves were two Feral Pigeons which gorged on the seed and peanuts. These birds were obviously loft pigeons judging by their plumage and rings and I wondered if the Peregrine would pass over again. A Great Tit was present on the 11th with two Coal Tits and three Blue Tits. A large passage of Skylarks and Meadow Pipits was watched overhead. On the morning of the 12th, 18 Whooper Swans flew over in a south-westerly direction and could be heard calling long before they were visible. Redwings were on the move again as the year drew to a close and many Fieldfares, Skylarks and Meadow Pipits continued to move south. A pair of Tawny Owls could be heard calling on still nights from Dean Country Park. The hard weather around Christmas saw a peak of 35 Chaffinches, five Greenfinches, four Blackbirds, two Pied Wagtails, and 40 House Sparrows and twelve months of garden patch watching were over.


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