THE MONTROSE Basin Visitor Centre opened in 1995 and during the first few winters grain was scattered on a grassy area in front of the Centre. This attracted the small local birds such as greenfinch, chaffinch, dunnock, house and tree sparrow. Others from the open countryside also joined in the feast including skylark, linnet, reed bunting and occasionally a small covey of grey partridge would appear.
I remember lots of yellowhammers coming in at this time and our records for February, 1998 show that over 20 were feeding on a regular basis, the highest day count being 35. This bunting, in its smart plumage of yellow and brown along with a rusty coloured rump, is a declining species in our countryside now. You can still see small flocks in winter sometimes accompanied by skylarks and finches. Numbers may be supplemented by Scandinavian birds spending the winter in the UK.
The scattering of grain was eventually stopped because of the arrival of unwelcome visitors in the form of a couple of rats which quickly exploited this food source and there was concern that they might come into the building itself. Pest control was called in and the rats were eventually eliminated.
When the rats were present, they were a great source of interest especially to children, many of whom would never have seen a live rat before. One rat in particular would scramble up on to a bird table and wind its tail around a supporting strut then, hanging upside down, would grasp a peanut bag below the table to nibble the contents. Many drawings in the kids’ corner section at the centre featured this rat’s agility on the bird table and obviously left an impression on the children who witnessed one of our most adaptable mammals in action.
Over the past 20 years there has been a steady increase in the number of gardens being stocked with bird food. As this trend developed, the bold and feisty greenfinch quickly established its place at the bird table as it was a larger and more numerous suburban bird than other finches. The Breeding Bird Survey counts showed that their numbers reached an all time high in 2005 quickly followed by a sharp two-year decline.
During this period a parasitic disease (Trichomanosis) was discovered in the greenfinch population and its spread was linked in part to overcrowding on bird tables and poor hygiene such as droppings contaminating food. Birds at the visitor centre were affected too, with the greenfinch going from our most numerous bird on our feeders some six years ago, to the present day where there are very few about.
Goldfinches on the other hand are now flocking to our gardens in ever increasing numbers having been seduced by the provision of the small, black, oil-rich nijer seeds which they love. This attractive finch with its bold red, white and black head and vivid yellow wing bar certainly brightens up the bird table and on a daily basis at the visitor centre we frequently see over 20 at one time.
Most of us have a soft spot for birds and we get a lot of pleasure from seeing and feeding them in our gardens. It also keeps the multi-million pound bird food industry happy too.