IT'S that time of year when we have to keep an eye out for the birds and ensure that we are helping them to survive the winter to come.

If you’ve been filling bird feeders through the summer, now is not the time to stop. The birds visiting your garden will have come to rely on the food you’ve provided, and they’re not very good at finding alternative sources if your buffet suddenly disappears. One day without food can make the difference to a small bird.

Now, more than any other time through the year, you need to keep those feeders clean and full, to help the birds see the winter out. The added bonus is a plethora of colourful, entertaining, and grateful winged friends in your garden through the cold and dismal days.

RSPB Saltholme, at Stockton-on-Tees, is a family-friendly wetland with hides for birdwatching and will attract species that you may not see in your garden, so it’s always worth a visit to catch sight of the odd merlin, or the lapwings, golden plovers and curlews, among others, that gather in their thousands to enjoy the reserve.

In order to attract a wide variety of birds to your own garden, Saltholme offers a few simple feeding tips:

• Site your feeding station out of a prevailing wind near hedgerow or trees, not in the middle of the lawn, so the birds can quickly hide if they feel in any danger. Little birds are very vulnerable to predators and will be less anxious, and more inclined to visit your garden, if they feel safe.

• But don’t site ground feeders near bushy cover where cats could hide and pounce. Give the birds a chance to fly away if they see a cat streaking across the grass. Ideally, scatter food on a tray that can be moved around and easily cleaned.

• Ensure that you provide a good supply of clean drinking and bathing water to avoid dehydration. This is as important during a hard frost as it is through a hot summer.

“The robin is not just for Christmas cards,” says Dave Braithwaite, of Salthome. “We love to see them in our gardens so we have to look after them, and other birds, by providing high-energy, high-fat food to help them keep warm.”

Dave has another warning about keeping the birds in your garden safe.

“While big, picture windows are lovely for watching the birds, they are a hazard if a bird should be startled and fly off quickly. They don’t see the glass, but might see a light behind it and think it is a safe escape route,” he cautions. “Either keep a dark background in the room, or apply some bird silhouettes to the glass to deter the birds from flying towards them.”

Impact with a window or patio door can result in a broken neck, but, if the bird seems stunned but still alive, Dave advises putting it in a box in a safe place until it comes round and can fly off.

You can help the feathered community in other ways, too. Nesting boxes may be redundant at this time of year, but if they are clean and warm, small birds will use them to roost.

“Small, insectivorous birds roost communally,” says Dave. “Tiny wrens, for example, benefit from the thermal effects of huddling up together, and I’ve known of up to 47 birds sharing one nest box!”

Hopefully, with these simple tips, you will enjoy the spectacle of a wide variety of birds visiting your garden this winter, and you may just attract a few unusual ones to admire.