I always say that getting ready for Big Garden Birdwatch starts at least 3 months (and sometimes 30 years) before the count itself. So, with six weeks to go (the count is always the last weekend in January), I thought I ought to get in the garden and check that everything is in order.

Now I'm sure I don't need to say that a big part of the preparations are about ensuring your feeders are filled, but a glance around the garden showed me why this is so important. Even though it is not yet very cold down here in the south, things seemed to have gone swiftly from autumn to winter in the last fortnight, and where recently there was still plenty of natural berries and seeds, now the cupboard is looking very bare. Look at the few blackberries left on the Bramble - hardly appetitising; hardly a meal!

I like to put out what I call convenience food - bite sized morsels that birds don't have to do much to prepare. So I mainly provide sunflower hearts, where the birds don't have to extract the nutritious insides from the stripy shells (this RSPB no-mess mix contains some kibbled maize, too - kibbled just meaning 'chopped coarsely'):

... and I feed fatty nibbles, which give the birds a different range of nutrients, but again in a handy little package easy to grab and swallow.

What I also like to feed, which tends to boost my Blackbird count no end, is windfall apples. They don't look particularly appealing, but you can see how my birds have sat there pecking away, hollowing out the soft flesh to just leave the skin. I've got over ten Blackbirds already in the garden, and I expect their numbers to increase.

It is very difficult for the birds to break through the skin so what I tend to do is cut the apples in half, and some I impale in trees for birds that prefer to feed off the ground.

Water is another must in the garden, so it was horror that I saw my birdbath was green with algae.

Time to get the scrubbing brush out and ensure the birds aren't having to sip what to us would be having to drink very old communal bathwater, without even knowing who had been in it.

So those were my short-term preparations today, but thinking longer term is just as important. For example, my Ivy 'tree' that has taken me five years to grow up an old tree stump is now smothered in thousands and thousands of berries, the first of which are ripening fast, but including many that won't ripen until late winter. Ivy berries are especially rich in fats, so hopefully will be the lure for many of the birds I count in that all-important last weekend of January

  • I know exactly where you're coming from, MParry. However, the good news is that the counts are incredibly useful because all they set out to do is measure how many birds of each species are visiting British gardens, and we can therefore see which species are doing well and which aren't. Gardens are by their very definition not natural, and we humans affect the natural distribution of birds by making gardens, whether we do so with wildlife in mind or without any consideration for them whatsoever. So my aim is to help people do more to encourage birds in their gardens, and if our combined efforts then result in more birds, then the survey will show that and we can celebrate it. (I would also argue that the 'natural distribution' of birds ended across most of the British Isles when people cleared the forests, ploughed and fertilised the land, coppiced the woods, drained the marshes, built roads and cities etc.) Hope that helps :)

  • you're entirely altering the natural distribution of the birds of course, so how much will your counts mean