BRR ... It is cold and wet at the moment. So how do birds manage and how can we help them? KATE CLARKE reports ahead of this weekend’s RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.
WITH just a lawn, no feeder, and few perches, to most birds the barren garden was hardly worth even a flying visit.
But after two years of green-fingered nurturing, it was transformed by Sally Rossiter into an avian paradise for a huge variety of species. Birds of all kinds of feather now flock to it.
As keen ornithologists, Sally and her husband Ian spent a couple of thousand pounds overhauling their little plot in Gowerton.
And such are the attractions of its distinct zones — including a flower area, pond and vegetable patch — that it is now a home-from-home for their feathered friends.
"It is lovely to see something we have worked so hard on give pleasure to our friends and neighbours," says Swansea school teacher Sally.
"The number of birds we see in the garden now is phenomenal."
The Rossiters will be among an estimated 30,000 or so bird watchers in Wales taking part in this weekend's RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch.
The annual event sees thousands grab binoculars and scan their bushes and branches for signs of feathered activity.
Regular watcher and West Glamorgan RSPB member, Maggie Cornelius, will also be part of that flock this year, in her garden in Loughor.
"I do it every year in my very small garden," she says.
"My neighbour feeds the birds and I have the trees they settle on. I don't feed them because I have a cat, but I like to see them visit.
"How many you see during the count varies enormously depending upon the weather, but I can see up to 30 different birds — blue tits, starlings. collar doves, blackbirds."
As well as being a restful way to pass an hour, the nationwide survey has an important scientific and conservation element, with the data collected helping to give the RSPB a picture of any areas of worrying bird decline.
Katie-jo Luxton, RSPB Cymru director explains: "Big Garden Birdwatch provides the RSPB with masses of valuable information about changes in numbers of garden birds in winter, and helps to alert conservationists to significant declines in UK garden species, like house sparrows and starlings."
The glossy, noisy presence of the starling used to be such a common sight in British gardens, but they are becoming a rarity, says Katie-Jo.
"Results from the 2012 survey showed us that starling numbers has hit an all-time low, and their numbers then sunk by a further 15 per cent last year.
"Numbers of house sparrows, which are of high conservation concern, dropped by 18 per cent in gardens compared to 2012, whilst greenfinches and dunnocks fell by 23 per cent and 5 per cent respectively."
It isn't all bad news though. Some of our most colourful and characterful garden visitors are thriving.
"Sightings of popular species like blue tits, great tits and coal tits have increased since the survey begun in 1979. Goldfinches, which were absent from the Big Garden Birdwatch top 15 in the early years, have featured regularly as a top 15 species since 2004."
Of course, this unpredictable weather we are being faced with in the UK has an impact upon wildlife of all shapes and sizes, including birds.
And the RSPB's ongoing campaign to encourage people to provide sanctuary and sustenance for birds and for wildlife, Giving Nature a Home, is sharing information about feeding birds during the coldest months, siting nesting boxes, and leaving patches of your garden untamed, to encourage insects and hedgehogs to thrive.
It is a scheme that has been taken up with enthusiasm by schools particularly, and Katie-Jo says encouraging young people to tune in to nature is one of the RSPB's big issues.
"We are very concerned that many children now have little or no contact with the natural world and wildlife. Last year results from a groundbreaking study showed us that only one in eight children in Wales have a realistic and achievable level of connection to nature, compared with 21 per cent across the rest of the UK.
"We believe this is one of the biggest threats to nature.
"Ensuring young people are connected to nature will mean they develop deeply-held feelings and attitudes towards wildlife and the world we all live in, and that they will care enough to want to help save it in the future.
"Looking at the birds and wildlife that visit your garden is fun and taking part in Big Garden Birdwatch with your family could be your first step to putting nature back into childhood."
Bird-watcher Martin Coles from Killay in Swansea says he enjoyed Birdwatch 2013 with his children describing it as "one of those memorable mornings when the family is captivated by nature".
He adds: "Garden birds are incredibly precious to us and connect us to nature every day."
"There are lots of organisations who go to great lengths to ensure that special UK habitats are given the right levels of designation and legal protection because of their role in supporting threatened wildlife. But what's very clear is that every one of our gardens, the places literally on our doorsteps, are important too.
"Gardens make up around 4 per cent of land area in the UK and their role as habitats for our wildlife is clear."
SEE the South Wales Evening Post for our guide to some of the most common birds you are likely to spot during the count.