A few weeks before leaving on our trip to Iceland and Wales, I purchased a suet feeder and a good supply of suet cakes. I’d heard how birds go crazy for suet, and a friend had posted a video of his suet feeder with a lovely rose-breasted grosbeak feeding voraciously. Not only that, but his feeder swarmed with bushtits.
My feeder stood untenanted for two weeks, until one day a California scrub-jay found it and took a few tentative pecks. I’m not yet back in California, but my brother, who was dog sitting for us, reports that the scrub-jay was the only visitor and polished the cake off by itself.
It was with much delight, then, that we arrived at our vacation rental at Pensychnant, a wooded hill above the town of Conwy in North Wales, to find two suet feeders placed outside the living room window with a steady stream of visitors coming to feed. Last week, I wrote about the decline and disappearance of many British birds; I’m happy to report that, from my experience, this doesn’t seem necessarily true of all garden birds.
When you think of British birds, vivid colors are probably not what spring to mind, but the garden birds there are surprisingly colorful. The most common birds on the feeders at Pensychnant were blue tits, close relatives of the North American chickadees, but with a pleasing combination of blues, greens and yellows. There were blue tits present on the feeders from first thing in the morning till dusk, and they were the one bird that wouldn’t fly away when we stood in the window just feet away from the feeders. The most I saw at one time was a dozen.
Other members of the tit family that were regular visitors were great tits ? much larger than blue tits but still brightly colored ? and coal tits. As the name suggests, the latter are rather drab, but not without their charms.
I was surprised at the variety of finches that came to the feeders. On several occasions siskins were present; this is a different species from our pine siskin, the male being a brilliant yellow. Goldfinches were also regular. The European goldfinch is nothing like our familiar species. The adult is quite gaudy, with a crimson, black and white face, and broad yellow wing bars. A redpoll visited once but didn’t stay long. They are tiny, mostly streaky brown, but with a bright red cap and a neat black bib.
Of course, with all this activity there was bound to be some spillage, and species that didn’t have the right kind of feet to grasp on a feeder took full advantage. Another brightly colored finch, the chaffinch, was one such bird. The males are a riot of colors: blue, green, orange and gray. Other birds that helped clean up were European robins, dunnocks (also known as the hedge accentor), song thrushes, blackbirds and even the occasional cheeky jackdaw.
Most thrilling for me were regular visits by a pair of great-spotted woodpeckers, a bird that was one of my favorites as a youth. Most other birds would scram when the woodpeckers arrived; one look at the heavy chisel-like bill would tell you why.
Unsurprisingly, the feeders were empty after a couple of days, so I had to buy a fresh supply at the supermarket. The British are such avid bird lovers that there was a remarkable variety of bird food available.
I’m hoping that as fall approaches and our wintering birds begin to reappear, my suet feeder will begin to approach those at Pensychnant.
Hugh Ranson is an active birder with 36 years of experience in Santa Barbara County. His column appears Saturdays. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.