It seems that many of us have noticed that there seem to be more squirrels around this autumn, with individuals turning up at sites, like Lakenheath Fen, where they are rarely seen. According to correspondence and comments made in online forums, the numbers of squirrels using garden feeding stations across the county are also up, with individuals raiding bird feeders and hanging fat balls in a sometimes troublesome manner. Our personal observations are supported by data collected through the BTO’s weekly Garden BirdWatch survey (www.bto.org/gbw), whose systematic records also show a substantial increase in squirrels this year. According to their figures, the use of gardens by squirrels is currently a third up on the same period for previous years.
So what is behind this increase in sightings? Is it a case of the squirrels having had a good breeding season, such that there are simply more of them around, or is a shortage of tree seeds forcing them to travel farther afield, delivering more of them into our gardens and urban parks? It might be a combination of both of these things, the increase having started fairly early in the year but it certainly seems to be the case that seed crops have been poor this autumn, with beech mast in particularly short supply.
The lack of tree seed has been having an impact on other species too. We have seen many more Jays around this autumn, struggling perhaps to find acorns and having to cover more ground. It is even possible that some of these birds will be immigrants from the continent. There have also been some big movements of Woodpigeons (a species that makes good use of the autumn beech mast crop) along the east coast. Additionally, many people are reporting Nuthatch, Coal Tit and Chaffinch appearing in greater numbers in their gardens than is usual for the time of the year.
It is also worth mentioning those birds that feed on berries, since these also seem to be having a hard time this autumn. Included with these, alongside the more familiar thrushes and Starlings, are rare visitors like Waxwing, a species that has already begun to arrive in northern Britain in growing numbers this autumn and which is likely to push south in the weeks ahead. I would expect to see some of these stunning birds feeding on the berry-producing shrubs used as amenity planting in supermarket car parks and new housing estates later in the winter.
These birds and mammals may well be facing challenging times this winter and so any helping hand that you can spare may be particularly worthwhile. In return you might be treated to the sight of a garden full of visitors.