Mat Bingham and his collie puppy spend the first half of the year getting to know the birds living in their garden:
It’s early January, there is a sharpness to the air and a clarity to the light. At dawn I let our dog out into the garden. She is a welsh collie called Skye, a three month old puppy born last autumn. She bounds down the garden on her extendable lead until it locks and pulls her to an abrupt halt just short of a flock of fieldfares that take flight. The fieldfares are a rowdy bunch and shriek their annoyance at Skye for being disturbed from refuelling on the last of the autumn windfall apples. The flock settles above us in the trees, and fluffed up against the cold they busily chatter to each other.
Skye is restless and investigates the bee hives, their residents lying dormant, keeping warm in the centre of the hive, waiting for spring.
Every morning the same routine. Skye tries to close the gap with the birds as quickly as possible, and they leave it right until the last minute before taking flight. From the safety of the trees they tease her. She doesn’t seem to mind though, with her tongue lolloping at the side of her mouth and her tail wagging. In early February the apples are all gone and with them the fieldfares.
The first signs of spring come and go. I have dog-proofed the garden as best I can so that she can run free when we are at home but not escape into the surrounding fields.
Early mornings in May are a riot of noise and colour, flashes of blue, red, yellow and green as birds visit the feeders in the garden. The dawn chorus wakes Skye up every morning. The world is too exciting for her to stay asleep. She yaps and rattles the side of her pen until we go downstairs and let her out.
There are a pair of blue tits nesting in the roof of our house near the back door. When I return from work each day I can hear the chicks making their peep peep call, encouraging their parents to find more caterpillars. Their appetite is insatiable and they beg for food from dawn to dusk. It’s easy to tell mum and dad apart, his feathers are much brighter than hers and he has tuft on his head, a kind of bird version of a racing car spoiler. The feathers on her chest are a bit ragged from the two weeks she has spent in the nest incubating her eggs.
In the mornings we often sit in the garden sipping steaming tea, the scent of honeysuckle drifting in the air as the blue tits feed their young.
Without visiting the nest in the ash tree I know the barn owls have chicks. The adult birds are out hunting in the hay meadow next to our house in the early evenings and are catching far too many voles to just be feeding themselves. I have cut the hedge low and strung some scrim net on rope across the opening. Skye lies at my feet whilst I take photographs of the hunting owls through the makeshift hide.
Eventually Skye has had enough of guard duties and wanders off, returning with a ball. Gripping it with her needle-sharp teeth, she nudges me repeatedly until I give in and play football with her. She doesn’t really understand the rules of this game yet. She grabs the ball, runs off down the garden and is reluctant to give it up to let me kick it for her.
Skye is still figuring out who is the alpha in our human/canine pack and sometimes she will give me a nip for not paying her enough attention. Or maybe she does it just to see how I will react. She’s part of our family now and I wouldn’t be without her.
See more of Mat’s stunning wildlife photography on his website.