Birds in Winter

One sunny day in late January I set out to take bark pictures but, distracted by all the birdsong, ended up trying to get bird photos for an hour or two instead.

That was me hooked.

Tollcross corner maybe isn't the best spot for photography, given that the tops of the trees there are dozens of metres high, but the little glade here is a central haunt for the park birds. In winter, they tend to gather either where there are berries (rowan, hawthorn) and generous insect populations (e.g. sycamore), or where there are plenty of discarded crumbs and snacks (cafes, main paths).

Starlings have lovely speckled and iridescent feathers: people often wrongly assume they're just black.

If there's one near by, there's probably a flock.

You don't need a garden to spot goldfinches: these can be found in the Meadows, but you do need some visual assistance. I found them pretty shy and had to settle for pictures at a long distance.

Likewise the elusive chaffinch.

The female has similar black and white markings but without the red highlights: she's browner and her feathers are duller.

I also managed to spot a tiny blue tit at a great height (sitting on the tall bald trunk which is all that remains of the park's only white poplar, near the Tollcross corner).

A few weeks later I got a bit closer to a lively one snapping up insects on a sycamore.

On a good winter day, the grass will be carpeted with flocks of redwings (members of the thrush family who spend the winter in Scotland managing their UK offshore accounts, then return to Iceland all innocent as if butter wouldn't melt in their mouths).

Looking for the flocks on the grass is the quickest way to find them. However, my pocket camera found it easier to get slightly sharper pictures while they were in the trees. The first one here is trying a late haw on one of the Tollcross hawthorns.

Redwings are most easily recognised by the red patches on their flanks under their wings, and the stripe above each eye.

As the Council's page on the Meadows says, they're "surprisingly confident". This makes it easier to get a half-decent photo of them.  

I've had much more difficulty getting a clear picture of the lovely pied wagtails: they're easy to spot on the walkways and they aren't afraid of people, but they don't hold still for a microsecond. Some have a little black bib in winter because their chins turn white for the season.

From under a hedge occasionally appears the small, shy and well-camouflaged dunnock

There are a few mistle thrushes around

Blackbirds, like their other thrush relatives, are relatively fearless about humans. There are a couple that hang around the tennis courts and would probably approach if you offered them food

The female is much browner. Here's one fluffing her feathers

Robins can be bold among humans too, but there aren't many here. The best chance of spotting them is near gardens that border on the park. This one below was on some old wrought ironwork on the east wall of Middle Meadow Walk, up by the electricity substation, and the other was on a pathway. I imagine there are a fair number of bird feeders in the back gardens of George Square, just here.

One particularly elusive little bird is the treecreeper. If you listen carefully among the chirping and cawing, you may hear a faint tap, tap, tap. If you're lucky, that'll be a treecreeper pecking out insects. 

Spotting them and getting your camera pointed at them fast enough is near-impossible, particularly if you want a clear pic of the curved beak the treecreeper uses for gleaning, so you need to be prepared to spend daylight wandering about with a twisted neck and your evenings hitting the delete button on the blurred attempts. 

It took me about three exasperating months but I got there :) This lovely pair were flitting around an old elm and a gnarled whitebeam behind the croquet club by Leven Terrace.

The park isn't all that thronged with birds - maybe because of the behaviour of previous visiting ornithologists. Searching online for information about redwings in the Meadows, I came across this comment by 19th century birder William Macgillivray, author of A History of British Birds ...

Seriously, the greater problem (as the council notes) is a lack of berry hedges and long grass for insect supplies. So when you see areas of the park that look permanently unmowed, that's feeding the birds: human residents will have to get used to it looking a bit untidy.

The park is fortunately however well stocked with larger fish-supper-eating birds such as herring gulls (look for the red spot on the beak)

The quite cute common gull 

black-headed gulls in winter plumage

A quick flash of foot reminds you they're waterbirds

Other substantial regulars are stock doves or feral pigeons, which mate for life (as do the other doves and pigeons)

woodpigeons with their white collars 

magpies, which are great mimics. We were walking along the canal at Meggetland one winter's day when we heard a duck quacking behind the hedge, near the road. Worried that the duck might have got itself cut off from the water, we peered through the leaves to see a magpie amusing itself by not only talking like a duck but also waddling back and forth like one.

Contra Douglas Adams, we didn't "have a small aquatic bird of the family Anatidae on our hands".

Here's some in the Quartermile gardens and the cobbled roads behind the electricity substation, photographed from Middle Meadow Walk.

The other big scavenger birds of the Meadows are crows. This one has some white feathers: that might be leucism, a genetic feature. It's not uncommon in the bird world but of course is more obvious on a large dark bird such as this.

This one spotted on another day doesn't seem to be suffering socially. I wonder if that's its parents? Adult offspring of crows sometimes go on living with the family

Crows can put up a mighty fight for food possession.

I recently saw a pair trying to scare a squirrel out of his dinner

I was sure the crows were going to win

The squirrel wasn't having it, though

so in the end the humiliated crows had to flounce off, noses in the air.

While looking for birds in the park, don't forget to search out the Owl ...