The 2009 Nestbox Diary

January to March

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A look back at 2008   

Great Tit chicks being fed, 12 April 2008As we head into the tenth year of nest box diaries, I do so with fingers crossed after a very mixed 2008.

The Great Tits had a moderately successful nesting. Two of their nine eggs failed to hatch and one chick died in the first few days. However, the remaining six looked healthy as they fledged on 18 May.



Starling chicks being fed, 6 April 2008


Our Starlings too had mixed success. There was only one brood last year, and although they had five eggs, only three chicks made it to fledging. We had a hot spell with temperatures hitting 30C and it was at this time when the two chicks died, despite the box being on a north-facing wall.

At least one Starling continued to use the boxes as a roost through the rest of the year.


Last year's nestbox diaries contain detailed diaries of both the Great Tit and Starling nesting.

The big disappointment was the failure of our House Martins to return. During the whole of the nesting season I only saw a few Martins in the skies over us. Their camera-equipped boxes are ready, and I have my fingers firmly crossed that some will find their way back into the neighbourhood this year, along with the Swifts that did appear. One pair nested once again in my neighbour's roof space while our Swift nestboxes continue to wait for their first customers - I intend to use a CD of Swift calls in an effort to attract them this Spring.

Away from the prying eyes of cctv cameras our House Sparrows nested successfully once again, continuing to use their nestboxes throughout the year for roosting.

Elsewhere in the garden, Blackbirds tried unsuccessfully to nest, being thwarted by a Magpie and a cat. I believe they did succeed eventually, although not in our garden but in the conifers just beyond.

2009 - Looking forwards

As readers of my garden diary will have seen, preparations for the 2009 nesting season got under way in December after I saw a Great Tit male being territorial at the bottom of the garden. Although Great Tits have nested here previously this is the first time that I have seen them as almost resident in the garden in the Autumn and early Winter.

I have made some alterations to the camera arrangements that I have in the area behind the box to improve the scope for the still photography that I carry out during nesting, and on 27 December I switched on the two cctv cameras installed to monitor the nest. There are  some more details of what changes I've made in my December garden diary and won't repeat them here.

However, for the sake of continuity I will repeat the sequence that I recorded when the Great Tit pair made a characteristic inspection visit in the late morning of 30 December.

Great Tit nestbox - Pair makes an inspection visit, 30 December 2008 Obviously with the cameras only running since the 27th I cannot be sure that this is their first visit, however what I saw was absolutely characteristic of such visits, with the male hesitating at the entrance for several minutes before entering; being followed by his partner a short while later; he then remains crouched in a corner with his beak open while his partner starts her inspection; then leaving as the female continues making her own inspection for a minute or so before she too leaves.

As often happens after one of these visits, a short time later one of the pair returned to the entrance to look in a couple of times.


There was no repeat visit on the last day of 2008. Early in the process, these visits more often than not occur on bright sunny days, as it was yesterday 9even with the temperature just 0C at the time). Today has been overcast continuously, with the temperature staying below 0C. In those conditions it doesn't surprise me that they Great Tits showed no interest in the box, although they were both been feeding here throughout the day.


2 January - Nothing new to report in the Great Tit box as yet. I had wondered if the hazy sunshine that broke through the cloud cover in the middle of the day may have encouraged the Great Tits to peep in, but the sunshine wasn't long-lasting.

I took advantage of the conditions to take a look at the Starling boxes. The cameras in these boxes suffer very adverse conditions as the nests inevitably become heavily infested with mites, fleas etc, and the mites are attracted to anything warm, including any lighting, and more importantly the cameras. In the past I have had to dismantle the cameras to clean out infestations, so last year I took more time over resealing the cameras.

Last year's Starling nest - a first lookThis afternoon, when I switched on the cameras, this was one of the  images that greeted me. It shows the right-hand of the two boxes, the only one to be used for nesting last year, and with the nest still in place. With Starlings permanently in residence, and because of the levels of infestation present I had decided to leave the nest in place until cold weather made the mites etc less active.

It was the state of the image that most concerned me. However, a wipe of the lens confirmed that the contamination was on the outside and I wouldn't need to open the camera.

Likewise, the camera in the left-hand box also provided a clear image once the lens had been cleaned.

I went on to remove the old nest and clean the boxes. To do this thoroughly I would need to remove the boxes from the wall to clean them at ground level. However, this wasn't going to be practical, especially as I wanted to get clear of the boxes before a Starling returned to roost. Rather than using any chemicals I decided to remove as much as possible of the dry debris before using a hot air gun to scorch all the surfaces and joints.

A Starling inspects the nestboxes



At 3.45pm, about half an hour after I put the ladder away, the beak of a Starling appeared in the entrance of the left-hand box (box L), and over the next quarter of an hour both boxes were visited repeatedly.



A pair of Starlings settle down to roost

Then, just after 4pm two Starlings followed each other into box L.

As the light levels dropped they settled in the corners as seen here. However, all was not peaceful between them as kept watch on each other -  the slightest beak movement by one prompting a violent prod by the other's beak.

Eventually, as darkness fell they settled down and tonight  they are side by side, facing the wall rather than each other (for most of the time!).



3 January - It has a very pleasant, sunny day but it didn't encourage the Great Tits to visit, so no report from that box today.

The Starlings were gone by 7am this morning.

Female(?) Starling returns to roost


There were a number of visits by just a single bird during the morning and then nothing until the first of the pair returned for the night at just after 4pm again.

This one has quite bold white flecks, something that was characteristic of the female last year.



Second Starling returns to roost

It wasn't long before she(?) settled down into the same corner that she used last night.

Six minutes later there was a crash as the second bird hit (or landed on momentarily) the aluminium screen positioned just outside box L and then entered the box.

There followed a noisy greeting before he moved with a flurry into his roosting spot. Its behaviour reinforces my thoughts that this is the male.


Click here to listen to a recording of the arrival. It only lasts about 10s , and has a file size of 164KB.

Starlings settle for the night

Once the pair were side by side they settled down quite quickly, with fewer clashes of beaks than I saw last night. They were more or less ignoring each other by the time darkness fell.

Looking at the pair, as well as having slightly larger white speckles on the feathers, the right-hand bird has a beak with a shorter dark tip.

I'll be counting on these visual differences in the months to come.


4 January - For another day there was no inspection of the Great Tit box, although one of the pair turned up at the entrance at 9.25am and spent a minute or so there.

A very cold start to the day (-5C at 8am) seemed to be an excuse for a slightly late start by the Starlings who left together at 7.21am. They visited the boxes numerous times over the next few hours, before 'disappearing' at around 11 am.

I took advantage of their absence in the early afternoon to investigate why the IR LEDs were performing badly. The LEDs are high power components, but pointing them down into the box produces an unacceptably bright 'hot spot'. As an experiment I've stapled a piece of shiny white plastic to the roof of each box and directed the LED towards it. The image is somewhat better tonight, but sometime over the next few days I will be getting another couple of similar LEDs to double the light levels.

Today the light levels were never very good, and it became especially gloomy this afternoon. Perhaps it was this that encouraged the Starlings to return to their roost early, and they were settled into their 'usual' positions, and with little fuss by 3.45pm.

However, just after 4.30pm the female must have done something to disturb her partner.

Male Starling puffs out his chestThe male stepped back, puffed up his chest (you can just make out his spiky breast feathers in the large version of this image) and produced a series of quite quiet calls.

Unlike the amazing song that the male is capable of this includes relatively simple calls, each repeated several times, and ends with a very different, rasping call.

The recording that you can hear by clicking here, lasts just over 43 seconds (file size - 676KB). I have cropped about 10 seconds of the silence that preceded the final call.

I didn't mention it yesterday, but when I record sounds from microphones inside nestboxes there is a great deal of background noise which seems to be emphasized by the nestbox acting as a sound box. I use Audacity to reduce the noise level to what I hope is a more acceptable level.

Starling pair move apart in their roost


As this dark image shows, tonight the pair have moved apart - at least they won't disturb each other now!

It's the quality of images like this one that I hope to improve when extra LEDs are added.



5 January - By the early hours of this morning the Starling pair were back in their more usual side-by-side roosting positions.

By 7am the male was looking out. His partner became active a couple of minutes later and they left the box at 7.06am. Perhaps it was the snow, but there were none of the usual visits to the boxes between 8 - 9am. However, the female reappeared twice just after 11am.

She next appeared three times around 1.50-1.55pm. Her next visits was at 3.23pm. After that she visited a dozen times over the next half hour. During all her visits she spent time pecking at the floor of box L - there were no visits to the right-hand box today.

When the female entered box L at just after 4pm she stayed, and was joined by her partner a couple of minutes later. The pair took about five minutes to settle into their side-by-side roosting positions, and haven't moved since (written at 7.30pm).

A Wren visits the Great Tit boxThe Great Tits stayed away today, but at just after 3pm the nestbox did get a visitor - a Wren!

It was a very brief visit, with the Wren not actually leaving the safety of the entrance. It just took a quick look around and left in a couple of seconds.

It was one of those times when I wished I had been recording full-screen images of the nestbox (That was being done for the Starling box L). These images are just quarter screen images produced by a multiplexer.

I must watch out in the garden for a sighting of the Wren.


6 January - A bright, cloudless day didn't encourage any activity at all at the Great Tit box.

In the Starling boxes the pair started to move about by 6.40am and were out of the box by 7.05am. It's worth noting that sunrise did not occur until almost an hour later, and it was -5C outside!

After 8.15am they started visiting both the boxes, and several times both birds were in one or other of them. Then, at 10.14am the female (I think) appeared in box L with something in her beak which she dropped on the floor.

Four minutes later she reappeared, this time taking two leaves into box R.



There was then a gap of five minutes before the process was reversed.

Female Starling removes leaf from box L



First, she removed the small bit from box L,


Female Starling removes first leaf from box R



after which she almost immediately went into box R and removed one of the leaves.


Female Starling removes second leaf from box R


Then she waited another five minutes before completing the task, leaving the boxes empty once more.

Why would she bring in things only to remove them again after just a short time?



At the end of the afternoon the female arrived back in box L at 3.55pm. The male returned five minutes later, and with the sun setting at 4.05pm. However, with the clear skies remaining bright there was a lot of squabbling, and they took over twenty minutes to settle down into their roosting positions. However, I'm writing this at 9pm and they haven't moved since 4.30pm.


7 January - Another day with nothing to report from the Great Tit box.

The Starlings left at bang on 7am this morning, under cloudy skies, and with the temperature around -2C. There were several visits between 8.30-9.30am, and again between 10.30-11am.

Starlings back in box ready to roost


By then, the postman had delivered the infra-red LEDs, and this afternoon I installed them. The results are dramatic. This picture shows the pair just after they returned at 4.03pm.

Each box now has two of these high power LEDs, each pointing upwards at the white plastic rectangles that are stapled to the roof. They produce a good level of very even light which will be great for seeing details more clearly.


Male Starling preens before roosting



This afternoon they took even longer to settle down than they did yesterday. There was lots of squabbling, and as 4.30pm passed the male was still busy preening.



Starling pair roosting this evening


There was more squabbling before they finally settled down back in their usual positions, and with their heads tucked under their plumage just after 5pm. You can see a 'halo' of downy plumage around the female's head.

With these LEDs in action you have to look at the darkness of the entrance now to remind yourself that it is actually dark (both outside and inside the box)!



8 January - On a day when the temperature crept up to over 3C(!) and with some brightness, the Great Tit box had an inspection.

Great Tit female visits nestbox, 8 January


It happened at 11.08am, although there had been a face at the entrance two minutes earlier. It was only the female that entered the box today, and she stayed in there for about two minutes.



The Starlings were active by 6.40am, but didn't leave their roost until 7.17am. Today I decided to record the number of visits that were made by the pair, starting at 8.12am -

8 - 9am: 28 to box L, 3 to box R (including one by the male while the female was in box L)

9 - 10am: 16 to box L, 3 to box R

10 - 11am: 7 to box L (plus one just looking in), 1 to box R

11 - 12am: 3 to box L, 1 to box R

12 - 1pm: no visits

1 - 2pm: a bird looked just once into both boxes without entering

2 - 3pm: no visits

3 - 4pm: 1 visit to box L at 3.55pm

Starling cleans floor of nest box


Most of the visits involved the female attempting to clean bits of debris that are attached to the floor of the box. This task was achieved by putting her head to one side so that her beak could grasp both sides of the object.




There was an interesting incident at just after 11am. The male had entered box L and a second bird approached the entrance. The behaviour of this second bird, and the male's reaction suggested to me that it was probably not his partner.


Male Starling resonds to a bird at the entrance

The male's response was to take up position below the camera and produce a long sequence of calls.

You can hear his performance here - be warned, the sequence last 1minute 23 seconds and has a file size of 1.28MB.

He stopped as soon as the intruder disappeared from the entrance


After 4pm there was one visit to box L at 3.03pm before both birds arrived together to roost at 4.13pm.

Starling pair roosting


They spent the next half an hour of squabbling before they appeared to settle down in their usual side by side positions. However, by 7pm the female had moved to the other end of the box where she is as I write this at 10.30pm.

At 11pm the male appears to be wide awake, and is preening vigorously.





Great Tit female visits nestbox, 9 January9 January - With the temperature remaining below freezing today, and with a freezing fog this morning, I was surprised to see that the Great Tit box was inspected again, this time at 9.13am.

There was another bird at the entrance at 11.19am, although this time it didn't get close enough to the opening for me to make out any detail against the bright background.



The Starlings obviously decided that the early fog wasn't inviting as they didn't leave until 7.20am. Although the male was the first to look out, the pair then spent more than five  minutes waiting next to the exit before it was the female who pushed past her partner to leave first. He followed close behind.

I repeated yesterday's exercise of counting the day's visits, and this is what I saw -

8 - 9am: 13 to box L, none to box R

9 - 10am: 14 to box L, 2 to box R (including one by the male while the female was in box L)

10 - 11am: 5 to box L, none to box R

11 - 12am: 5 to box L (including both birds at the same time on one occasion), none to box R

12 - 1pm: no visits

1 - 2pm: no visits

2 - 3pm: no visits

3 - 4pm: 3 visit to box L, 1 to box R

4 - 5pm: 3 to box L (before the birds returned to roost), 1 to box R

- A total of 47 visits, compared with 63 yesterday.

This evening the female arrived to stay at 4.11pm, with the male not arriving for another 7 minutes.

Starling pairAs usual, there was some squabbling before they settled down, but all was quiet by 5pm.

I thought I'd include this image of the pair as it shows them fairly clearly. You can see that the male's breast feathers are puffed out slightly although he isn't actually making any audible sounds.

At 9pm they are in the middle of a serious quarrel!

Yesterday I mentioned the method used to clean the bottom of the nestbox(es). Today the process continued during the reduced number of visits.

Starling female shufflingHowever, today I saw her carrying out an action that is more characteristic of the nesting season itself - she shuffled!

That is, she lowered the front of her body to the floor and used her wings to propel herself along in the way she will use to organise nest materials. I think this is the earliest that I've seen this done.

She had been pecking the floor in that corner before hand, and after shuffling she pecked the area again - she was obviously not satisfied that the surface was smooth enough!


At 11.03am there was a repeat of the vocal encounter that I recorded yesterday.

Starling male with intruder This time, the male entered the box and started calling as the second bird looked in. Today, that bird entered the box so I had a chance to look at it, and I don't think it is the female.

You can hear the encounter in its entirety here (51 seconds, 801KB). It starts with the male entering, and the second bird enters 28 seconds into the recording. The metallic sound you hear at the end is it leaving again.

A couple of particular harsh calls were made when that bird turned towards the male, although neither bird made any aggressive movements.

- Click on the images to see larger versions -

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