The 2008 Nestbox Diary

January to March

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An Introduction   

We are looking forward to another interesting year of nesting by one or more of the bird species that frequent our garden. There are bird boxes in place for Blue/Great Tits, Robins, House Sparrows, Starlings, House Martins and Swifts, with only the Swift boxes still waiting for their first customers. I have cctv cameras in all but the Sparrow boxes - the nature of their domed nests makes it difficult to use a camera in those boxes

Last year saw mixed fortunes. While the House Sparrows and Starlings were successful, the Tit box remained unused despite early interest; The Robins abandoned their clutch of eggs; and the House Martins, producing a late brood, abandoned their chicks just a few days before fledging was due. The weather had turned bad and there was no food being brought into the nest.

Apart from that disappointment there was also an interesting and worrying interaction between the Starlings and Swifts that arrived just before the end of April to nest in my neighbour's roof.

The Starlings' first brood had hatched by now and the female parent regarded the Swifts to be a threat, attacking them whenever they approached their usual nest site in the corner just above the satellite dish in this picture.

I tried putting up an aluminium screen (seen on the right in the picture). This seemed to work for a while, but the Starling continued to harass the Swifts. It didn't help that she seemed to be a single parent for most of the brood.

Fortunately, the Swifts managed to move in despite everything.

This picture shows the positions of the nests on the north wall of the house as they were last year, with the (so far unused) Swift boxes at the front corner, the Starlings half way along, and the Sparrows near the rear corner.

It would have been tempting to remove the Starling boxes completely, but with the species being under threat though loss of nesting sites I have decided to try a different tactic for this year.


On Boxing Day, I swapped the Starling and Sparrow boxes, putting the Starling boxes as near to the back corner as I could.

Hopefully the new arrangement will put a suitable gap between them and the Swifts, and just in case, I have retained the aluminium screen.

At least the Sparrows seem to be happy with the new position of their box.


9 January - A few days ago I switched on the first of the cctv cameras, to monitor the Tit box at the far end of the garden. The box is also equipped with a radio microphone, and this morning the sound of activity outside the box signalled the first inspection of the box that I have seen this year.

After looking in briefly the Great Tit flew to the bird table, fed and then returned to the box, entering it for an inspection which lasted less than half a minute.


It's interesting to see that it is a Great Tit again. While I only ever see one or two Great Tits in the garden each day, at the moment we have up to half a dozen Blue Tits in the garden for most of the daylight hours, and I had hopes that one of these would make an appearance in the box. It's very early days yet, so I will be watching with interest between now and when nesting gets underway in April/May.

Perhaps I should explain the dark area that appears around the entrance in the cctv image from the box. The entrance faces east and, especially in the mornings, the difference in light levels between the bright exterior and the dim interior causes problems for the camera. In an attempt to compensate for this I position a neutral density filter between the camera lens and the entrance. At the moment the box is illuminated by a small tungsten bulb via a resistor to greatly reduce its output. This is permanently on so that any visiting birds will get used to the presence of lighting in the box. As we approach the nesting season itself it will be supplemented by the use of white LEDs which are controlled by a timer to operate only during daylight hours.


18 January - There has been no activity in the Tit nestbox these last nine days - not surprising considering the miserable weather we've been having. In contrast, today I confirmed that the Starlings are using their nestboxes for roosting, so they have clearly adjusted to the new box position. I have yet to replace the cameras in the Starling boxes so I can't post any images yet.

Today, a reel of video cable was delivered which I will be using to improve the video links between the nestboxes on the house and my computer corner in the dining room. I hope to do this job over the next few days. Once that is done then I can get the Starling cameras operating again.


19 January - The new cabling has been prepared and I hope to get it threaded down through the house's cavity wall tomorrow.


23 January - The cabling is now in place, with eight video and eight audio links now available between the loft and my computer.


1 February - An update to start the month, although there is actually very little to report. Although the Great Tit pair, and at least half a dozen Blue Tits come to the garden regularly I haven't seen any further visits to the Tit nestbox. The Starlings continue to roost in their box, as do the Sparrows.

Yesterday I sealed the two cameras that will go into the Starling boxes, using silicone sealant to prevent a repeat of last year when one camera was invaded by mites, rendering the image almost useless. Once the cameras are installed next week (hopefully) and the connections to them are all checked, I will also be sealing the  cameras that are in the Swift boxes.


The Starling nestboxes5 February - This morning I got on with refitting the cameras to the Starling boxes. The job wasn't quite finished ( threat of rain, and I had enough of going up and down the ladder!).

The cameras are now connected, although I still need to make adjustments to their alignment, and I still need to connect the audio cables in my loft.

This year I've added a red LED to each box. These will remain on permanently unless I see them causing problems at night while the Starlings are roosting.

The Starling pair outside the nestboxes



By 4pm the pair were spending time perched outside the boxes,


A Starling in the left-hand box



but it wasn't until just before 5pm that one of them ventured inside the left-hand box.



The Starlings roosting in the right-hand box

Ten minutes later and both birds were settled down for the night in the right-hand box.

I think that the bird facing away from the camera is the male. While I don't have sound connected, I believe he was singing - you can see his throat feathers sticking out in the way I often see when he perches and sings on the Hawthorn.


This camera needs tilting down a little bit more. However, I can already see the improvement in image quality after replacing the old cables with proper video cable. Also, the pair don't seem to be at all worried by the red light, which is very good news.

I continue to see no action at all in the Great/Blue Tit box!


6 February - A largely bright morning meant that I was able to make the necessary adjustments to the cameras in the Starling boxes so unless a problem occurs I shouldn't need to interfere with them again until after nesting is complete.

I don't intend to do an extended report on the Starling every day until nesting commences, but I was interested to see how things went in the box with the red light present for the first time, and I am very pleased with how well they worked.

The pair spent the night tucked up against the wall below the camera. After 6am they started to get a bit restless and by 6.30am the occasional bit of preening went on (or at least, dealing with itches caused by the many creatures crawling around in there!).

The Starling pair squabble before dawn


This increased activity caused the male to move towards the middle of the box (picture 1), and at about 6.45am the female bumped against him with her tail as she dealt with another irritation (pic 2). His response was to spin round and peck her on the back of her neck (pic 3).

She immediately retaliated (pic4), and raised her body as high as possible to look down on him (pic 5).

The Starling female dominates her partner



He made a half-hearted attempt to peck at her again, but his partner held her ground and he became passive.

This position was held for about half a minute before


The Starling female dominates her partner - 2



he turned away and she lowered herself down.

It was a little while longer before she relaxed and her puffed up chest feathers settled again.



The Starling pair greet the dawnAfter that bit of tension, everything went quiet again between the two, and as the first light of dawn appeared outside they waited side by side (pic 1). Even the occasional wing stretch was ignored by the partner (pic 2).

Soon after 7am the male moved close to the entrance for the first time, but instead of looking out he appeared to  listen (pic 3) with his head side-on to the opening for a while before looking out for the first time (pic 4).



The Starling pair leave the box


At 7.10am he finally hopped up into the entrance and, encouraged by a peck on the backside from his partner (pic 2), he left.

The female paused for just a few seconds before following him out.

Over the next couple of hours they made brief visits to both boxes before disappearing from the garden until the early afternoon when I spotted them feeding.

This evening the female around 4.30pm, popping into the left-hand box briefly before heading down under the Hawthorn to tuck into some mealworms.

Afterwards she visited both boxes several times, picking up some of the numerous droppings that litter them, taking them out.

The Starling pair roost in separate boxes


By 4.50pm she entered the right-hand box and finally settled down for the night after about a quarter of an hour.

In the meantime the male arrived, just before 5pm. Rather than joining his partner, he went straight into the left-hand box, did a bit of preening, and then settled down for the night!

It will be interesting to see what happens tomorrow morning!


7 February - Before dealing with the Starlings, a bit of news from the other end of the garden.

I had just gone upstairs at around 9.15am and when I looked out I spotted a trio of Long-tailed Tits visiting the tall peanut feeder. It turned into one of those special moments when I realised that could see not just the Long-tailed Tits, but also several Blue Tits, the pair of Great Tits and a single Coal Tit all in the garden at the same time - a combination I can't recall seeing here before.

Great Tit inspects nestbox (poor cctv image)


Just as I was enjoying the sight, I realised that one of the great Tits was heading for the nest box. I got back downstairs in time to see it spend well over a minute in there, giving the box a thorough inspection.

The poor image is down to the very low light levels maintained in the box through the Winter. Sometime soon I will start to turn up the daytime brightness.


Back to the Starlings -

The Starlings before dawn


By 6am the female was already restless, and engaging in occasional preening and wing stretching (pics 1& 2). The male, on the other hand, hardly flinched until nearly 6.40am when he shuffled across to look out (pic 3).

After that both birds settled down to wait for dawn, with the male noticeably nearer the entrance. Pic 4 was recorded at 7.04am.

The Starlings leave after roosting overnight



At 7.15am the male suddenly hopped up into the entrance, his partner reacting to the noise in the other box (pic 1).

He remained perched, most of the way out, for almost two minutes before leaving (pic 2), followed immediately by the female (pic 3).


The Starlings - courtship or mating?The most significant happening to note took place at around 7.45am when the female entered the left-hand box with a bit of debris (leaf?) in her beak (pic 1). She flung it to the far end of the box and as her partner entered she went to the corner of the box (pic 2).

As she adopted a submissive posture with her head down, he took a quick look out and then approached her (pics 3 & 4). The he climbed on top of her, staying there for no more than a second or two before turning back to the entrance (pics 5,6,7 & 8). They both left (pic 9).

My (inexpert!) guess is that at this stage it might be a 'practice' mating, possibly to reinforce the bond between the pair.

The Starlings roosting tonight

Tonight they are roosting separately again, in the same arrangement as last night.

The female was in the right-hand box by 4.30pm, and her partner arrived in the other box at just before 5pm.



The Starlings - before dawn8 February - The female Starling was the first to retire last night, and this morning she was the first to become active again.

She was active by 6am, and was looking out occasionally by the time her partner started to stretch at around 6.20am.

As early morning light started to show at the entrances both birds were waiting for the right moment to leave.



The Starlings leave after roosting

As the external light levels improved, the wait continued for another ten minutes before the male jumped up into the entrance at 7.05am.

This morning the female seemed anxious to leave. Again, she had waited for her partner to make the first move, but soon as she heard him move she followed suite, and they disappeared out almost simultaneously.


The female returned to the right-hand box briefly at 8.20am. Over a twenty minute period around 9am she visited both boxes frequently, each time pecking at the floor and taking out a bit of debris. During one visit the male arrived and appeared to try to mate, but the female didn't cooperate and he left. A few minutes later I saw him perched on top of the Hawthorn in the sunshine, looking around and calling.

For the rest of the day the boxes remained unvisited, until the female returned at 4.35pm. She went out again for a short time but was in her 'usual' right-hand box by 4.45pm. The male entered the left-hand box at about 4.50pm and they both settled for the night.

There were no visits to the Great/Blue Tit box today.


9 February - Just a brief entry today - The Starlings' day started , as usual with them leaving the boxes (male first) at around 7am.  Between 8-9am there was a prolonged session of box cleaning, mainly by the female, but also by her partner, with the floor of both boxes receiving attention.

After that, there was a long gap before visits were made around 3.30pm. The end of the day was a bit more complex than previously, with both birds moving between boxes. The pair of them were together in both boxes at some stage before the status quo was regained by 5pm as the female ended up in the right-hand box and her partner next door.

Again, the Tit box remained unvisited.

This morning, I also noticed that some moss has been torn up on the slope leading up to the West Wing. This is usually a sign that the Blackbird is nest building


A Great Tit inspects the box again10 February - A Great Tit inspection took place at 8am, at the same time that the female Starling was going through her morning session of cleaning both Starling boxes.



A Bumble bee inspects the Tit box



Around noon the box had another visitor, this time a bumble bee which stayed for a couple of minutes before it found the way out again!.

Difficult to see in the stills from the cctv image, it has a white tip to its abdomen, and is quite small (>2cm) which suggests that it is a Garden Bumblebee (Bombus hortorum).

I must change the glass tonight, and improve the daytime light levels in the Tit box.

This evening it was 4.45pm before the first of the Starlings (the female) entered the right-hand box (I'll call it box R from now on!), although she left again almost straight away.

An encounter in the left-hand Starling box - 1She was back in at 4.55pm (pic 1), but after a few minutes left again (pic2). Almost immediately the male entered Box L (pics 3, 4) No sooner had he got to the back of the box before the female entered (pic 5).

His immediate response was to lunge at her (pic 6) - a mistake as she retaliated and he was force back across the box (pic 7).

An encounter in the left-hand Starling box - 2



The incident was over quickly and the two just stopped still for a minute or two (pic 1).

Eventually, the female stepped over to the entrance and looked out (pic2) before returning to Box R (pic 3).


The two birds spent the next few minutes preening. The female looked out a couple of times before then returned to the end of the box furthest from the entrance.

An encounter in the right-hand Starling boxThen, just when it looked as though they were settling, the male headed out of box L (pic 1) and joined his partner, raising his head, puffing out his chest feathers and singing (I think - I must get the microphones connected tomorrow!) (pic 2).

The he made the mistake of letting something by his left foot distract him. As he pecked at the floor (pic 3) the female stabbed at his neck (pic 4). He attempted to retaliate by she lunged again (pic 5) and he headed for the exit (pic 6), returning to the other box (by 5.10pm).

The relationship between Starling pairs seems to be a very volatile affair!

Composite (quad) cctv image at 5.30pmAfter those encounters, both birds settled down for the night. These images, recorded at 5.30pm show their positions and at 7.45pm they are in the same places.

I've included this 'quad' image that I was seeing on my monitor at 5.30pm to try to suggest that the bright entrances are deceptive. It was actually quite dark outside, and the Tit box image shows it more accurately from a human eye's point of view.


The image of the food tray under the hawthorn is provided by a very high sensitivity colour camera, but even that struggled to record the colours present in the scene. Looking out of the window (from a room with no lights on) I simply could not see the tray at all unless I kept moving my eyes about the area under the tree.

Click on the images to see larger versions -

2008 Nestbox Diary Index........... ..........  .........January-March (part 2)