North wind can blow, but trees give shelter

Evergreens provide a safe haven for garden birds, providing shelter and sustenance to help see them through the winter. Picture by Tom Pattinson.
Evergreens provide a safe haven for garden birds, providing shelter and sustenance to help see them through the winter. Picture by Tom Pattinson.

The north wind doth blow, And we shall have snow, And what will the robin do then, poor thing? O, he’ll go to the barn, And keep himself warm, He’ll hide his head under his wing, poor thing.

We don’t have a barn, but winter shrubs, especially evergreens, are worthy substitutes for all birds, providing shelter and sustenance.

The beech holds onto most of its spent leaves until the point of spring, offering just enough cover to filter the strongest winds, yet allowing sight of movement within. The relative warmth there supports invertebrates, which draws insectivorous birds.

Abandoned nests of blackbird, thrush, dunnock, chaffinch, et al, are left in place to decay naturally, for they attract invertebrates and the cycle continues.

A mistle thrush shuffles into the fork between two mature branches of an old birch just as daylight fades, and dense conifers provide other safe overnight havens.

Three slow-growing types, attractive to the eye and to bird life, are Thuja Rhinegold and two Chamaecyparis. One of these, lawsoniana Minima, is 1.5m tall, perfectly round and has dense green foliage. The other, pisifera Filifera Aurea, has cascades of golden yellow leaves. After two decades-plus of growth they remain below head height.

Roosting wrens always capture the imagination. Recent years have seen them crowd into an empty house martin’s nest, a blue tit box and the nest they raised a summer brood in. Two years in succession they set up home in a variegated ivy on the house wall. It was possible to observe from a window as they arrived to bed down for the night, a shared body warmth seeing them safely through.

It’s especially rewarding to track wren movements in the spring garden. I look for the male, carrying a bill full of leaves and moss. He partially constructs two or more domed nests, before inviting his lady to choose her favourite, after which the inside is furnished. No estate agents involved, but not too dissimilar to house-hunting.

It was clear that a wren was protecting something as it piped out a song daily from the tip of Viburnum Dawn near the vegetable beds. The call then moved to the tall winter cherry, Prunus subhirtella Autumnalis Rosea. The mystery was solved two weeks ago as the leaves fell from Dawn to reveal an almost complete nest. Next day, whilst weeding below the cherry tree, there it was, the finished item, woven into the base of the evergreen Viburnum tinus.

Of all the nests we find in this garden, that of the wren (Troglodytes troglodytes) is the most exciting architecturally.