A FROSTY morning and the sun is yet to rise sluggishly over the horizon. Outside, though, already snippets of chirping bird song ring out from the pitch blackness. In my mind’s eye, I imagine little groups huddled high among the branches of the trees. Waiting and watching.

The cacophony steadily builds and, by the time a pinkish blanket of light spreads over the garden, they can wait no more. The outlines of their wings and bodies seem to almost shapeshift as they flit back and forth in search of food.

A robin perches on a fencepost, its orange-red breast resplendent and feathers fluffed up against the winter chill. The great tits are making light work of a peanut-filled feeder, while a pair of chaffinches have descended on the sunflower hearts with gusto.

There are blue tits, coal tits, house sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, collared doves, magpies and a rotund woodpigeon that swaggers around like Tony Soprano.

A sudden commotion ensues as my favourites – a large family of long-tailed tits with their adorably cute faces – come bustling in en masse to dine on fat balls.

When the Big Garden Birdwatch 2020 takes place next weekend, I’ll be pulling up a pew by the kitchen window, checklist in hand, ready to tally the avian visitors that stop by.

Organised by the RSPB, it is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey and regularly attracts almost half a million participants, its findings providing an important snapshot of the UK’s birds each winter.

The Big Garden Birdwatch started in 1979 when the RSPB joined forces with BBC television’s Blue Peter. Hundreds of children around the country took part in the debut event, resulting in a hefty 34 postbags to be sifted through and catalogued by the RSPB team.

In the decades since, the survey has produced fascinating year-on-year data, not least charting the decline of song thrush in our gardens. The species was firmly in the top 10 in 1979, but by 2019 numbers had declined by 76 per cent, coming in at number 20.

It also highlighted a similar predicament for house sparrows and starlings, which have dropped by 56% and 80% respectively, across the UK since the survey began.

Fans of the Big Garden Birdwatch include TV presenter and naturalist Chris Packham, who has described it as “one of the greatest pieces of citizen science that’s done anywhere on earth”.

My own passion was stoked when I took part in the 2019 survey. I had not long moved to my first home with a garden after more than two decades of living in flats. After years of seeing mainly pigeons, city-dwelling seagulls and the occasional crow, it felt like stepping inside a kaleidoscope.

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The joy of garden birds should not be underestimated, particularly amid the grey gloom of January when their bright plumages bring much-needed colour.

During the shorter winter days, when the worst ravages of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) threatens to engulf me, spending even a few minutes watching the comings and goings of our feathered friends helps salve the soul.

As the year progresses, each month brings a fresh spectacle to enjoy. Among the most memorable moments was in late May when the starlings descended with their boisterous, vocal fledglings, all puffed up, downy feathers giving them the roly-poly appearance of puddings on legs.

Rising early one Sunday morning in June brought a wonderful surprise: a pair of jays pottering at the end of the garden. Their eye-catching electric blue wing stripes were stunning. I haven’t seen them since but live in hope of a return visit.

During last year’s Big Garden Birdwatch a bullfinch popped by in the final minutes of my observation hour. I’ve only seen it a couple of times since. A lone greenfinch was another fleeting visitor a few weeks later, so striking in colour I did wonder briefly if it was a budgie escaped from a cage.

Sadly, there have been casualties too. A juvenile great-spotted woodpecker collided with our living room window on a sunny summer evening. Its attempts to fly off were hampered by a broken wing and we had to call the Scottish SPCA rescue team, who arrived swiftly to whisk it away.

As the injured bird was carefully coaxed from a hiding place behind some old logs, it emitted an unearthly, blood-curdling scream. Afterwards, as much as I wanted to, I couldn’t quite bring myself to enquire how it fared for fear of bad news.

My hope is that the woodpecker has recovered and is happily living life to the full, re-released into a bountiful wood where it can dine on insects and conifer seeds to its heart’s content.

Thankfully, not all bird strikes ended in melancholy manner. One afternoon a young sparrow collided with the spare room window with a sickening thump. I feared the worst as it lay stunned on the ground, making no signs of movement.

I placed an old tea towel beside it and stood back. The little bird gratefully shuffled on. I then – without touching the bird itself – gently lifted the towel into a shaded area atop a nearby ledge. After some quiet respite, the sparrow rallied and was able to fly away.

There have been jaw-dropping moments too. One morning, while traipsing out to the bins in my slippers, I witnessed a buzzard swoop low and attempt to carry away a collared dove in its sharp claws. I froze. The buzzard made a banking turn and landed, crouched low over its prey.

A beat. I stood stock-still and held my breath. While part of me wanted to intervene and shoo away the buzzard, I felt it best to channel my inner Sir David Attenborough and let nature play out.

Thankfully the buzzard made the decision for me. Perhaps unhappy with a lumbering human in mismatched pyjamas at such close quarters, it relinquished its breakfast and flew off. The feathers of the collared dove were strewn halfway round the garden. It moved tentatively at first as if not quite believing its good fortune.

A few seconds later it flew off too, slightly stunned, unmistakably balder but otherwise apparently none the worse for its ordeal other than some scratches. The collared dove returned in the days that followed, and I’ve continued to see it in the months since.

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Part of the fun is not knowing what to expect. The Big Garden Birdwatch has recorded an American robin in London, a black-throated thrush on Bute and a common rosefinch in Yorkshire. A yellow-rumped warbler, which usually spends winter in South America, turned up in Durham.

In 2017, there was a boom of waxwing sightings. Usually found feasting on berries in Scandinavia, these winter visitors come to the UK when there is a lack of food in their native countries. In 2017, waxwings were seen in about 11 times more gardens compared with the past couple of years.

Changes in our climate may also be having an impact. Blackcaps have been spotted increasingly during the winter months. Primarily summer visitors to the UK, some are spending the milder winters here rather than migrating further south to France, Spain and Portugal.

Other curiosities include recent records of non-native, ring-necked parakeets. Believed to be the descendants of escaped cage birds, they are spreading out from what was once a London stronghold and could become less of a novelty further afield in coming years.

Last year, there were widespread news reports of “the most northerly flock of parakeets in the world” having taken up residence – an estimated 20 to 30 birds – at Victoria Park in Glasgow.

Since 2014, the RSPB survey has expanded beyond merely counting birds and has asked participants about other wildlife visiting their garden. Last year, about two-thirds said they had spotted a hedgehog, with three-quarters seeing a frog and just over half recording a toad sighting.

I’ve set up a wildlife camera that has captured footage of foxes, deer, a hedgehog, rabbits and an owl. The most common non-bird visitor, however, is the bold band of grey squirrels that lives in a wooded area just beyond the garden wall.

There has been an ongoing turf war that has seen them chew half a dozen bird feeders beyond repair and hide nuts in my flowerpots (or bury them leaving a ragged, pockmarked mess across the lawn).

I did invest in a “squirrel-proof feeder”, which was about as much use as a chocolate teapot. Granted, the squirrels can’t squeeze through the narrow bars. Instead, they simply pop the lid up and help themselves like they’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

So, what do you need to take part in the Big Garden Birdwatch 2020? Here are some top tips from RSPB Scotland to get your patch primed and ready:

How do I attract birds to my garden?

The quickest and easiest way: put out some food. Particularly when the weather is colder and natural food sources may be scarcer. Nor do you need a sprawling garden – a feeding tray on a windowsill can do the job.

What should I feed them?

According to the RSPB, blackbirds mostly feed on the ground and will eat everything from fatty nibbles to mealworms. Blue tits and great tits prefer to use a feeder, eating seeds as well as suet and peanuts.

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Finches, including chaffinches and greenfinches, will use both a feeder and a bird table, and are particularly fond of sunflower hearts. Top tip: look for good-quality food that doesn’t include “fillers”, such as dried peas and beans, that birds rarely eat.

Leftovers, including small amounts of bread, fruit cake, dried fruit, unsalted nuts, apples and pears, can be fed to birds. Take care to avoid anything mouldy or salty, and don’t put out dried fruit such as raisins if you have a dog as these can be toxic.

How do I choose a location for my bird feeder?

Find a quiet spot where the birds won’t be disturbed, that is safe from predators and ideally sheltered from the wind. Don’t get too disheartened if there’s very few visitors initially; it can take time for birds to get accustomed to a new feeder.

What else should I consider?

Water. You don’t need a swish, dedicated bird bath – a large plant pot tray will do the job. Keep it clean and put out fresh water every day. If this freezes over, gently pour warm water onto the ice letting it thaw so the birds can have access to water.

It is important to keep feeders clean to prevent a build-up of bacteria or fungal spores, which can be harmful, spreading infections among garden birds.

The RSPB recommends wearing gloves and using warm soapy water to scrub the feeder inside and out with a strong, long bristled brush. Do this in a bucket, not in the kitchen sink. Use a mild, non-toxic disinfectant. Make sure the feeder has dried thoroughly before refilling it with food.

I find the many types of bird seed confusing. Any advice?

There are different mixes for feeders, bird tables and ground feeding. The better varieties, say the RSPB, contain plenty of flaked maize, sunflower seeds, and peanut granules.

Small seeds, such as millet, attract the likes of house sparrows, dunnocks, finches and collared doves, while flaked maize is taken readily by blackbirds. Tits and finches favour peanuts and sunflower seeds. Pinhead oatmeal is ideal for many bird species.

Fat balls are excellent winter food. You can make your own bird cake by pouring melted fat – suet or lard – onto a mixture of seeds, nuts, dried fruit, oatmeal, cheese and cake.

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Use roughly one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. Stir well in a bowl and allow it to set in a container. An empty coconut shell makes a great feeder. Or simply tip it out onto the bird table when solid. Voila. Instant feast.

The Big Garden Birdwatch 2020 takes place from January 25-27. Visit rspb.org.uk/birdwatch