Birds of Marlpit Community Garden July 2016

A number of species of the crow family (Corvidae) have been prominent in the Garden recently.

Flocks of rooks fly over, and carrion crows and jackdaws have been feeding in the grassy areas near the lake.

crows_or_rooks_flyingRooks are difficult to distinguish from carrion crows, both being black birds of around the same size (about 45 cm) but if you get a good enough view you should be able to see the pale, bare skin on the front of the face of the rook. You will also see it’s ‘baggy trousers’, with the plumage looser where the legs join the body. One thing to beware of is juvenile rooks, who lack the pale skin on the face. The voice (kaaa) is slightly higher pitched and less guttural than the carrion crow (kraa) .

Rooks feed mainly on earthworms and insect larvae, but like most crows will take a wide variety of foods, including cereal grains, fruit, acorns, small mammals and birds and carrion. They can frequently be seen on motorways feasting on road kill.

One of the main characteristics of rooks is their sociability. They stick together in flocks, and breed together in tree top colonies known as rookeries. They are not always faithful partners in these communal nesting areas. Polygamy occurs, with older males mating with the females of younger males who are less able to defend them. Despite this, rooks usually pair for life, and pairs spend a lot of time together, vocalising, preening one another and even feeding one another.crows_feeding

Rooks are typically birds of arable farmland, and the population has increased slightly in the past few decades, indicating that it has adapted better to changing agricultural practices than other farmland birds, such as the linnet, yellowhammer, grey partridge and lapwing, whose populations have fallen dramatically. There are now about 1.1 million pairs of rooks in the UK.

crows_or_jackdaws_in_treeCarrion crows are less sociable than rooks, though the old adage that ‘a rook on its own is a crow’ is not entirely true, since non-breeding birds will form small flocks. However, crows always nest singly, building nests out of sticks, usually in trees, but sometimes on buildings, cliff ledges or pylons.

They take a wide variety of food, not just carrion, but also insects, worms, seeds, fruit and scraps. They will also harass birds of prey and even foxes to drive them from their kills.
Crows are amongst the most intelligent of all animals and in Japan they will drop nuts in the traffic at pedestrian crossings, wait for passing cars to crack them open, then go and retrieve them when the lights turn red.

Jackdaws are the smallest member of the crow family in Britain, and like rooks are very sociable. They nest in colonies and stick together in flocks, often feeding alongside rooks on arable land. They eat grains, seeds, berries, insects and other invertebrates, and eggs and young birds.

Like rooks, jackdaws pair for life. However, unlike rooks and crows, they nest in holes, such as chimneys or holes in trees.

Their scientific name, Corvus monedula, comes from the Latin for money ‘moneta’, referring to the jackdaw’s habit of picking up shiny objects such as coins and jewellery.

Even if you can’t judge the size, they are easily distinguished from rooks and crows, even though all three are black, by the grey nape of the neck. There calls are also distinctive, a high pitched ‘jack’, which some people suggest is the origin of the name, although ‘jack’ is also an old English word for small.

The population in the UK is 1.4 million pairs. It rose in the 20th century and continues to rise.

Chris Keene

Birds of Marlpit Community Garden June 2016

Summer migrants are now with us and members of the warbler family have been singing in the hedges surrounding the garden. Their fate is tied up with global warming. Blackcaps are now commoner in Britain than a few decades ago. Most of the British breeding birds winter in Spain and Portugal and don’t have to make the journey across the Sahara, which is becoming increasingly arid. A small number of Blackcaps from Germany and North East Europe have changed their migration patterns and now fly west south west to winter in Britain instead of going south to the Mediterranean. In winter Blackcaps feed on berries, and many of them rely on people feeding the birds in their gardens. In summer they feed on insects – I saw a female collecting insects for her young a couple of weeks ago at Titchwell in North West Norfolk. Only the males have a black cap, the females having an orange brown one.
Garden warblers are uniform brown birds without any distinguishing features. They winter south of the Sahara and their numbers have been declining, especially in Eastern and Southern England. As global warming increases their migration across the Sahara will become more and more difficult. Their song is very similar to that of the Blackcap, but is more even, subdued and hurried in its delivery – it is bubbling compared to the fluty Blackcaps.

Whitethroats winter in the Sahel on the southern edge of the Sahara and experienced a dramatic decline in numbers in the late 1960s caused by a drought in their wintering quarters linked to global warming. The population has since partially recovered but remains vulnerable.

Chris Keene

Birds of Marlpit Community Garden May 2016

A heron has been feeding in the lake at the bottom of the site, which is somewhat surprising as it is not connected to the river. It caught several fish, though it wasn’t possible to identify them, but they were larger than sticklebacks

A plasterer’s “hawk” and a pruning “handsaw”.

Herons can often be seen flying over the area, and are increasing in Britain due to the series of mild winters we have had lately.
The old Norfolk name for a heron was ‘harnser’, and this is the source of the line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet “When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw” – handsaw should have been written as harnser. The hawk in question was the goshawk, a favourite falconer’s bird which was often used to catch herons.*
A pair of goldfinches have been seen near the entrance to the community garden, and it is likely they are nesting nearby. They nest in small trees or tall bushes and the hedges around the edge of the garden provide good nesting opportunities, whilst there are plenty of wild plants to provide food in the form of seeds.

Read more on the web

Chris Keene

Pheasant family

A female pheasant flew up under my feet when I was raking back the undergrowth on 3rd May. Startled, I jumped back, and then checked among the long grass and stinging nettles.

pheasant_s_eggsThis is what I found …

I counted 12 eggs, then carefully raked back the undergrowth.

pheasant_maleHere are photos of adult pheasants taken at Marlpit Community Garden earlier this year.


Birds of Marlpit Community Garden April 2016

A Little Egret has been on the Community Garden, briefly alighting behind the lake on 22 March. These small white members of the heron family were extremely rare in Britain until 1989, when there was an influx in the autumn but have increased their numbers rapidly and there are now several hundred in the country. They first nested in Britain in 1996. The British population is the most northerly in the world and it is possible thEgret-at-MCGe northern expansion of the species is due to climate change
A number of different species of gull continue to visit, and a pair of herring gulls were observed paddling on the ground with their feet, a behaviour they use to attract worms, the worms coming to the surface in response to the paddling, possibly because it leads them to believe that a mole, their greatest predator, is coming, or because they believe it is raining and they are about to be drowned. The behaviour of the gulls appears to be innate.
A pair of mallard ducks were on the lake in March. These are our commonest British duck, and the ancestor of most of the varieties of domestic duck. They should now be nesting, with the brown coloured females incubating the eggs, when their plumage provides them with camouflage. The more brightly coloured males, with their handsome bottle green heads and grey backs, take no part in incubation, and may even desert the female to pair with another one whilst she is incubating.

Chris Keene

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Birds of Marlpit Community Garden March 2016

We have had a truly spectacular sighting on the Marlpit Community Garden in February, with a red kite spotted flying over on 21st . These birds nearly became extinct in Britain last century, with only a few pairs remaining in Wales, but the population has now recovered and since 1989 birds from Europe have been reintroduced at various sites in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. There are now 1600 pairs in the UK, including some breeding in west Norfolk. It is slightly larger than a buzzard, from which it is easily distinguished by its long, forked tail.
It nests in a deciduous tree, and often decorates the nest with things such as rags and plastic bags (even underwear!).

The lake at the bottom of the site continues to attract interesting birds, with a pair of Egyptian Geese being present in February. These birds were originally from South Africa, and kept as ornamental waterfowl, but some escaped and established a population in Norfolk in the 1960s. They are now spreading west across the rest of the UK, but Norfolk remains their stronghold.

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A heron has also been seen by the lake. It is unlikely to have found any fish as there is no connection to the river, but Continue reading

Birds of Marlpit Community Garden February 2016

Flood at Marlpit Community GardenThe wet weather we have had over the past few months (December was the wettest month ever recorded in Britain) has now resulted in a sizeable pool of water lying permanently in the eastern corner of the field, and a flock of gulls can frequently be found there, consisting largely of our commonest gull, the Black headed. The name is something of a misnomer, for the head is in fact a deep chocolate brown, rather than black, and this is only in summer; all that remains in winter is a dark smudge behind the eye. Continue reading

Birds of Marlpit Community Garden January 2016

We are now into the New Year, and more birds have started singing around the Garden. They are beginning to establish territories and looking for mates for the coming breeding season.

One of the first has been the Mistle Thrush, well known for singing in winter storms from the tops of trees, giving it its old country name of ‘Storm Cock’. Mistle Thrushes have been declining over the UK in the last few decades, having lost 45% of their population since 1969. They are named after one of their favourite foods, the mistletoe berry.

Turdus philomelos, Song Thrush

Turdus philomelos, Song Thrush (Photo by Tish, 6/1/2016 at MCG)

Song Thrushes have also been singing, and can be distinguished from the Mistle Thrush by the repetitive nature of the song, with each phrase being repeated several times. Song Thrushes also experienced a decline in population of 50% between 1969 and 2006, but have recovered slightly since then. They are very fond of slugs and snails, so should help to keep the Garden free of these pests. Thrushes are known from breaking open the shells of snails by beating them on stone ‘anvils’, and you may come across one of these surrounded by fragments of shell if a Thrush has been using it. The warm weather has meant no frost, which has failed to kill off the slugs and snails this year; we have just had by far the warmest December since records began, with temperatures in Britain averaging 9.7C, far higher than the previous record of 8.1C, perhaps more evidence of global warming.
Great Tits have also been singing lately. They are the largest member of the Tit family in Britain, and the first to begin singing. They sing a number of different songs, all variations on a two note theme, and it has been found that the more songs they sing the larger the territory they can hold, which is important for influencing breeding success. I look forward to the late spring, when they will be with their young in the hedges alongside the garden.

Chris Keene

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Birds of Marlpit Community Garden – December 2015

In November I saw the Rose Ringed Parakeets which first visited the garden in October, but haven’t seen them this month. They draw attention to themselves by their raucous screeching calls, which seem so out of place coming from such exquisitely beautiful birds. It remains to be seen whether they will survive this far north. There are now thriving colonies in the south of Britain; the royal parks in London hold large numbers, and they are increasing their range all the time, probably due to a combination of global warming and an increasing number of people putting out foods for the birds: they are frequent visitors to garden bird tables.

Alauda arvensis, Skylark on barbed-wire fence

Alauda arvensis, Skylark on barbed-wire fence

A skylark flew over the Garden yesterday. They don’t appear to be resident there, but are common a mile or so further along the Marriot’s Way. They are one of the many farmland birds whose population has declined thanks to the intensification of agriculture, and their survival in relatively large numbers here is probably due to the farmland being farmed sympathetically for wildlife, with large unploughed margins to the fields. The farmers are paid by the European Union for this environmentally friendly farming.
We have been planting a large number of trees which we obtained from the Woodland Trust over the last few weeks. They should encourage more birds into the Garden, especially the rowan and hawthorn, whose berries provide such an important source of food for thrushes such as the redwing in cold winter weather when the ground is too frozen to probe for worms and there are few insects about.

Prunella modularis and Troglodytes troglodytes: a Dunnock arguing with a Wren

Prunella modularis and Troglodytes troglodytes: a Dunnock arguing with a Wren

Yesterday, while we were out planting trees along the southern boundary of the site by the hedge we saw a hedge sparrow, or dunnock. These unassuming birds are not true sparrows, having a thin bill and eating mainly insects and spiders, in contrast with the house sparrows and tree sparrows which are the only members of the sparrow family commonly found in Britain, whose thick bills show that seeds form a large part of their diet, especially in winter. Dunnock have a beautiful warbling song, and a very interesting sex life, being polygamous, unlike most birds who are monogamous.

A pair of Goldfinches, Carduelis carduelis, feeding on thistle-seeds

A pair of Goldfinches, Carduelis carduelis, feeding on thistle-seeds

The beautiful twittering calls of goldfinches can be heard nearly all the time along the edge of the Garden, where the birds call from the trees and hedges before coming down to feed on the seeds of the various wild flowers which are common on the Garden. Their cheerful songs and colourful plumage nearly led to their extinction in Britain early in the last century, when they were extremely popular as cage birds and many were trapped to be sold as pets. They were saved by legislation outlawing the sale of British birds other than those which had been bred in captivity.

Waterlogged field with horses and gulls in February 2011 at Marlpit, Norwich

Waterlogged field with horses and gulls in February 2011 at Marlpit, Norwich

A few gulls were feeding on the ground in the horses’ field in the north of the Garden yesterday, and included a Lesser Black-backed Gull. These gulls are migratory; our breeding “LBB”s leave for the Mediterranean at the end of summer, and are replaced by wintering birds from Scandinavia. Five years ago, when Marlpit Community Garden consisted entirely of grazing for horses, a large pond used to appear at the northern end of the field every winter, and attracted large numbers of gulls. It will be interesting to see if our efforts to provide a marshy area and a pond there attract more of them.

Chris Keene


Photos by Jim

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Birds of Marlpit Community Garden November 2015

The autumn migration has now nearly completed, with a fieldfare being spotted flying over the Garden. These northern thrushes, about the size of a large blackbird, visit us for the winter, having migrated here from their breeding grounds in northern Europe. They can be recognised by their characteristic “chack chack chack” call.


Can you name these four thrush species? Click for the answer.

Robins are now singing from the hedgerow on the southern boundary of the Garden. Unlike most birds, robins sing all the year round, and in the autumn the females sing as well as the males, with the aim of the song being to warn off other robins, as robins are fiercely territorial, with the red breast acting as a warning sign, so much so that they will attack anything of a red colour, even a bunch of feathers. Robins will often come and pick up insects and worms which are disturbed by someone digging. This contrasts with their behaviour in much of continental Europe, where they are a shy woodland bird.
Wrens have also been singing from the hedgerow. They are another bird which also sings all year round, with their songs being surprisingly loud for so small

A Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes

A Wren, Troglodytes troglodytes

a bird. Although they are one of the commonest British birds, they are not seen all that often because they are so secretive. Perhaps you will spot one foraging in bushes close to the ground if you observe carefully.
Jays are busy collecting acorns to bury in the ground to tide them over the winter. The oak trees which produce the acorns are spread by animals such as jays and squirrels which bury them and then forget where they have left them, so the acorn can then grown into a new tree.

Magpies and jackdaws have been feeding in the horses’ field, often probing in the dung for beetles, for which the dung is a good source of food. The horses are a useful source of manure, which provides nutrients for the organic gardening we practice at the Garden as we don’t use any artificial fertilisers.


Chris Keene

Not Normal for Norfolk

Birds of Marlpit Community Garden Autumn 2015

Psittacula krameri, Ring-necked Parakeets, photo by Jim

Psittacula krameri, Ring-necked Parakeets, photo by Jim

A pair of Rose ringed parakeets (aka Ring necked parakeet) have been seen at Marlpit Community Garden. These brilliantly coloured birds have been popular as pets for decades, but in 1969 they started to breed in the wild in England, after having escaped, or having been deliberately released. There are now over 8,600 pairs in England and the population is rapidly increasing They are mostly found in the wild in South East England, and it is likely that the pair at the Community Garden had escaped from captivity. They hail from India originally, where they can sometimes cause damage to crops. In England they eat apples, pears, cherries and hawthorn berries, and also visit bird tables to feed on peanuts and sunflower seeds. read-more

Chris Keene

Visiting Volunteers 1st October 2015

Lily Pharmaceuticals send members of their world-wide workforce to perform volunteer work. On October 1st, four volunteers and their team leader came to the Marlpit Community Garden. They worked very hard all day, putting in the twenty five 3 meter posts needed for the fruit bed netting.DSCN1947 Holes were dug 1 meter deep, which is almost exactly the length of a Marlpit children’s green spade. (Alternatively, deep enough for the smallest team member to get soil in her armpit!) The posts were inserted, carefully lined up, wire stretched across their tops and sides, and secured with staples. The netting will go over in the Spring. The group worked with a good will throughout, and deserve a big “Thank You!” for a job well done.


Read more on the “Past Events” page read-more

Lunch Club Meeting

We met on Saturday 26th September at the Marlpit Community Centre, and discussed organising publicity and sharing communal work. This was followed by Lunch Club for those who joined in with the Bluebell Food Team’s Mediterranean Lunch. Mark’s notes are here read-more

Birds at Marlpit Community Garden

MCG is not just allotments, it has a Forest Garden with bees and a Conservation Area. Being close to the River Wensum and some water-meadows, it is wilder the Bluebell Allotments. Chris Keene has written a short piece about the birds there (and Jim has added some snaps)

Marlpit Birds

Magpies-P1000111Autumn is the time of year when flocks of tits, often accompanied by chaffinches and goldcrests, can be seen in the hedgerows around the Community Garden.  Tits flock together in autumn and winter, which helps them avoid predators, as many pairs of eyes and ears are better than one; they also benefit in hunting their prey of small insects and spiders as birds catch food disturbed by their neighbours. read-more

Chris Keene


Halloween at MCG

two-pumpkinsWe are hoping to organise some activities for children at Marlpit Community Garden for Halloween, Saturday 31st October. Plans have yet to be finalised, so look out for information on the blog.

Birds of Marlpit Community Garden October 2015

Autumn is the time of year when flocks of tits, often accompanied by chaffinches and goldcrests, can be seen in the hedgerows around the Community Garden.  Tits flock together in autumn and winter, which helps them avoid predators, as many pairs of eyes and ears are better than one; they also benefit in hunting their prey of small insects and spiders as birds catch food disturbed by their neighbours.  Goldcrests are the smallest British bird, and are usually detected by hearing their calls and songs before they are seen, though these are so high in pitch that many older people cannot hear them.

Also to be found in the hedgerows in autumn and winter are redwings, which feed on berries; we heard them yesterday as we tended the Forest Garden.  These thrushes nest in Scandinavia and Iceland and spend their winters here.  I have yet to see another member of the thrush family which visits us in winter, the fieldfare, but I expect them to arrive soon, so watch out for them.

Flocks of finches, such as greenfinches and linnets, can sometimes be found feeding on the weed seeds around (and sometimes in!) the allotments, whilst bullfinches can occasionally be heard calling in the hedgerows.

Falco tinnunculus, Common Kestrel

Common Kestrel, Falco tinnunculus, at MCG (photo by Jim)

We once saw a kestrel hovering over the Forest Garden.  These small birds of prey eat small rodents such as mice and voles, and the long grass provides them with plenty of food.  Another bird which feeds on the same prey is the barn owl, and although I haven’t seen one of these on the site, they may well appear as I have often seen them further along the Marriot’s Way cycle track towards Drayton.

Herons sometimes fly over the Community Garden making their way towards their fishing grounds on the River Wensum nearby, though I have yet to see a little egret there.  However I have seen one a few hundred yards further towards Norwich, feeding in a ditch in the grazing marsh between the chemical factory and the River Wensum, so if you are lucky you might spot one.  These small white herons were very rare in Britain until about 15 years ago, since when they have become increasingly common.  They are normally found in southern Europe and our milder winters caused by climate change are probably responsible for their spread northwards.


A family of Magpies, Pica pica, at MCG (photo by Jim)

Woodpigeons are very frequently seen here, and they will eat plants such as cabbages unless you net them for protection.  Piles of grey and white feathers are evidence that they have been caught by predators, possibly the cats which live on the Marlpit estate nearby and frequently hunt in the Community Garden, or possibly by foxes which are also found there; we recently saw one in broad daylight near the eastern boundary.


Male Pheasants, Phasianus colchicus, at MCG (photo by Jim)

Members of the crow family are commonly seen, with jays burying acorns at this time of year and magpies looking for food along the hedgerows.  Jackdaws and carrion crows often fly over.  I have yet to see any rooks, but keep your eyes open because I have often seen them feeding in the fields further along the Marriot’s Way.

Pheasants are often to be found; we saw two hen pheasants yesterday near the horses’ field and I have had some beautiful views of male pheasants here.

The wildlife friendly gardening methods, avoiding chemicals such as slug pellets, have led to a thriving community of birds living in and visiting the Community Garden; please report any of your own sightings to us by emailing

Chris Keene