Jun 042009

Adult blue tit bringing food back to hungry chicksWe live in an old schoolhouse, and bisecting the garden is a six-foot stone wall — effectively separating what were once the boys and girls yards. It’s a charming throwback to a bygone era, a lovely original feature of the property, and this spring it’s also home to a family of blue tits. They’ve chosen to nest in a small hole between the stones about a third of the way up, the entrance secreted behind the leaves of a young pear tree that’s fanning across the wall.

I first noticed the parents coming and goings a few weeks ago, but thought I’d keep it to myself until I was sure the eggs had hatched. The girls love nature and wildlife, but their enthusiasm they can get the better of them sometimes, and the last thing I wanted was an abandoned nest. Once both parents were busy feeding their hungry chicks the likelihood of that happening was pretty slim, and so when I could hear the insistent cheeping that told me they’d arrived I showed the girls the adult birds’ comings and goings, the caterpillars and grubs they were bringing, and, in between the parents’ visits, I showed them the nest itself.

In the darkness of the hole you could just make out the bright yellow gapes of five hungry little mouths. The excitement was palpable.

We’ve been watching the blue tits with interest ever since, the girls enthralled by every little detail.

It all ties in rather nicely with the start of Springwatch on the BBC this year. It’s a nightly weekday programme that charts the progress of birds and animals through one of their most dramatic times of year — spring and the breeding season, when the entire animal Kingdom is racing to rear its young before the seasons change again. The fact that regular presenter Bill Odie has been replaced by Chris Packham this year is something of an added bonus. While Bill Oddie is a real wildlife enthusiast, and nobody could fault his energy, I found his off-the-cuff puns, inuendo and insistance on anthropomorphism irksome.

Packham, on the other hand, while much younger, really knows his stuff and though he’s obviously shoehorning his presenting style into the formulaic pattern of the show, which is designed to appeal to a broader audience than the avid wildlife enthusiast, he acts as a much more authoritative foil to co-presenter Kate Humble’s somewhat forced nievite. The other lead presenter, Simon King, is on location in the wilds of mid-Wales this year, and as always is absolutely impeccable in both his wildlife knowledge and his presenting style.

But of course the real star of the show is the wildlife, not the presenters, and it’s a joy to sit with the girls watching the blue tits, swallows, lapwings, stoats, otters, goshawks, badgers, foxes, warblers, harriers and myriad other creatures featured on the live show. There’s also a great website to accompany the programme with lots of superb wildlife content on www.bbc.co.uk/springwatch. Unfortunately if you’re accessing it from Ireland you can’t view either the video footage or the live webcam feeds because of licensing restrictions or some such nonsense. It’s still well worth a look though.

Getting children to engage with nature has all sorts of benefits, both for the children and for the future of our rich natural heritage, and Springwatch is a great example of the positive side of television. It brings the family together and promotes more engagement with the natural world around us for children and adults alike. We’ll certainly continue to watch with interest over the coming weeks, and will be keeping a close eye on the Springwatch dramas unfolding in our own back garden.

Springwatch is on BBC2 at 8pm Monday to Thursday.

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