31 May 2009

Sunny May days in Leam Valley

OK, so late May is hardly the top birdwatching season. In fact it can be a bit quiet. But it seems downright churlish to complain on days like today.

Our 'barbecue summer' is back with a vengeance, with the hot hot days making morning by far the best time to be out and about. 7am at Leam Valley was beautiful and a joy, just as long as you weren't looking for anything rare or remarkable (I wasn't).

The birds were in good voice, if a little elusive. Blackcaps and Garden Warblers both showed well, along with a couple of Chiffchaffs - but no Willow Warblers. A male Sparrowhawk drifted low and slowly overhead, while Swifts screamed on high and Swallows dropped down onto the scrape pool to drink. Reed Warblers and Whitethroat hopped around the waters' edge, taking advantage of reedbeds which have really started to come into their own this year.

And although my attention was firmly fixed on the birdlife, it was impossible to ignore the plants and flowers all around. Again, the water's edge was the place to be, with buttercups, oxeye daisies, red campion and bird's foot trefoil all intermingling to form spectacular splashes of colour.

Bird of the day: Sparrowhawk (Accipiter nisus), a relatively common raptor which doesn't often give good views (more often than not it'll be a low direct dash past you before you get binoculars anywhere near your eyes). This was was low, slow and gave superb views before it slunk menacingly back into the woodland to hunt.

27 May 2009

What's in a name?

Today's lunchtime stroll around Henley-in-Arden got me thinking about our very human obsession with naming, categorising and organising the world around us.

Why do I work so hard at identifying birds by sight and sound? Why am I starting to photograph and identify the plants I see when I'm out and about? And why am I so ashamed at my lack of knowledge on butterflies, moths and dragonflies?!

Well, today's first sighting didn't take much identifying - the brilliant flash of blue that darted away from me down the stream was clearly my first Kingfisher on this stretch of water for a couple of years.

But as I wandered further, I started to realise that my obsession with naming things was helping me see my surroundings much more clearly than might otherwise be the case. If I didn't know it was White Campion, would I have paid so much attention to the flashes of white along the riverbank? If I hadn't planted a few Flag Irises in my own pond, would I have stopped to admire the stand of yellow flowers by the small pond? And if I hadn't failed to find Ragged Robin on a so many recent outings, would I have even noticed the few whispy pinky flowers just a few feet away (pictured)?

I think not.

The act of naming, of knowing what we are looking at, fulfils many purposes and has many joys, but principal among them is the way it encourages awareness. The very act of putting a name on something compels us to stop and notice it, and in doing so to begin to value it. And that, in turn, makes our world a more joyous place.

Either that or I'm just justifying my own nerdy obsessions. Possible, distinctly possible.

Bird of the day: Yes, there is one among all this, the Kingfisher (Alcedo atthis), the unmistakeable flash of blue that enlivens any riverside walk.

23 May 2009

So, did I find a Nightingale?

With the option of spending part of my Bank Holiday weekend with family in Essex, I thought I'd dedicate myself to finally tracking down a Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos).

This legendary songster is now extremely rare in Warwickshire, so my chances of stumbling across one on home turf are pretty low. Fingringhoe in Essex, on the other hand, must surely be one of the UK's hottest hotspots, with 30-40 males singing there every April and May.

Knowing that the bird is an intensely shy skulker, the first precaution I took was to spend some time listening to an mp3 of its song, in order that I could pick it out when I heard it. The second precaution was to get up nice and early and arrive at Fingringhoe as soon as it opened - Nightingales, like most songbirds, are more vocal and visible at the start of the day.

So... did I find any? Well, I arrived to be told at the visitor centre that I was probably a week too late - not the best of starts. Then I wandered round for 20 minutes hearing nothing but Whitethroat, Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler and Blackcap song, interspersed with more common resident species like Wren, Blackbird, Robin and Chaffinch.

And then I heard it. Wow. No danger of not recognising that then. It turns out that the Nightingale is a bit like opera - nice to hear a recording, but absolutely nothing like the experience of hearing it live. It is a spectacular liquid bubbling call, a call that stops you dead in your tracks the moment you hear it. As long as you're familiar with the other loud songsters (notably Song Thrush and Cetti's Warbler), there is no chance of mistaking it for anything else.

So I heard one. I heard four or five in fact. But seeing them was another matter all together. I scoured, searched, loitered, stared, scanned and squinted at bush after bush, but all in vain. Until finally, after 20 minutes spent stalking one particularly vocal specimen, I found him. On the plus side I got a great view, full length from beak to tail. On the downside, it lasted for perhaps a second before the bird dived back into cover.

So, success of sorts, enjoyable but limited. I'll definitely be coming back for more.

Bird of the day: Nightingale (Luscinia megarhynchos), a wonderful voice but not much of a looker (which reminds me, Britain's Got Talent is on in an hour).

ps. I clearly didn't have long enough to get a photo. This one is courtesy of Sergy Yeliseev on Flickr.

18 May 2009

Nature notes - a quick update

This is just a quick post to fill in some gaps from various trips and sightings from early May.

May has generally been a lot less pleasant than April, with showers and blustery winds the order of the day. However, that hasn't stopped nature going about its business, and there's still been plenty to see while out and about on my day-to-day travels.

The first Swifts arrived back in Henley-in-Arden on or around 7th May, very much in line with previous years. While driving around the neighbouring countryside, there seem to be more Lapwings over the fields than in previous years, and I'm hoping this marks a return to wider spread breeding due to changing farming practices. Fingers crossed anyway.

On the subject of breeding birds, I put my first ever nest box up in autumn last year, and I'm now the proud steward of a family of Blue Tits. They're going through fat balls like crazy, but it's worth every penny - it's amazing to watch just how busy the parents are at the moment.

The photo is of a bracket fungus on a dead tree where my wife works. It's absolutely amazing and I have meant to photograph it every year it appears. I read somewhere that fungi are more closely related to animals than plants - is that true?

And finally, I missed one trip to Ufton Fields out of my regular trip reports, and it was an important trip for one key reason. I have often been told that Ufton represents my best chance of finding Turtle Doves locally, and while I couldn't actually see any last weekend (10th May), I did hear several birds, softly purring along The Ridge in between the Wood Pigeons. Ultra distinctive and ultra exciting, although I was gutted that 45 minutes of searching didn't throw up so much as a glimpse. Still, never mind - nice to know they're there.

Bird of the week: Turtle Dove (Streptopelia turtur), a beautiful elegant bird with a soft, distinctive purr. Sadly rare these days, and still in decline.

14 May 2009

Siskins in May (and in my garden!)

The thing about birding is that the unexpected rarely turns up when you're expecting it (stick with me for a moment, that's more profound than it sounds).

If I trek off to a 'hot-spot' reserve looking for something rare or unusual, I'm not often surprised - if only because someone else will invariably have found anything rare or unusual before I get there, and emailed / blogged / forum-posted / told me directly about it.

Tonight however, a quick glance out of my kitchen window genuinely surprised me when I was least expecting it.

My usual glance up from the sink might reveal House Sparrows on and under the seed feeders, Blue Tits on the fat balls, a few Starlings squabbling on the bird table, a couple of Wood Pigeons loitering suspiciously near the veg plot, and then the occasional Blackbird, Dunnock, Wren or Greenfinch to liven things up.

What I wasn't expecting to see tonight was a pair of Siskins on the niger seed feeder. These are relatively common passage or winter birds, but extremely rare (as far as I know) in Warwickshire as breeding birds during our summer months. The latest I've ever seen in the county before were on February 27th, so this pair is either extremely late leaving, breeding locally or... what? Any thoughts?

Bird of the day - errr, that'll be the Siskin (Carduelis spinus), a lovely little finch which should be a long way west or north of here at the moment!

13 May 2009

Napton Reservoir - Scalped?

I saw this article about Naption Reservoir, insects and biodiversity in the Leamington Courier and got very depressed.

I know that last year's cutting back of the water edge vegetation had a damaging effect on habitat for nesting Sedge Warblers and the like, but this article reports on the subsequent damage to insect life and wider biodiversity.

Napton could be a great little habitat if properly managed - let's hope British Waterways gets moving on trying to "encourage biodiversity while still ensuring compliance with the reservoirs act".

3 May 2009

An irritating pest in Cubbington Wood

Birdwatchers, like mosquitoes and many other irritating pests, favour watery habitats.

I think the logic goes like this: while it is usually possible to find non water-loving birds near water (in the hedgerows, fields and woods nearby for example), it but all but impossible to find waders, waterfowl, kingfishers or other water-dependent birds unless there is actually some water to hand. Thus, with the odds of a good morning's birding swung firmly in our favour, we flock like thirsty warthogs to the nearest water holes.

I like to think that a lack of watery habitats is my main reason for not not visiting Cubbington Wood more often. Sadly I think it may also be down to the fact that my (ir)regular route is quite a long walk - all too often my head and heart say "good idea" while my legs and stomach say "why not take a quick stroll rounds Leam Valley / Ufton / Napton Reservoir / Brandon, and then slope off for a quick fry up?"

Well, today my head and heart won. Spring is a great time to visit woodlands, so with the promise of warblers, wildflowers and wilderness, I set off on my stroll.

The walk starts at St Michael's Church is Weston-under-Wetherley and sets off towards the wood across farmland which is voluntarily managed for nature - broad and shaggy hedgerows, wide grass margins full of wild flowers, and permissive paths to allow everyone to enjoy the fruits of this enlightened regime. The farm in question has a sign at its entrance promoting Leaf - Linking Environment and Farming, a wonderful initiative that makes so much different to a simple stroll through the countryside. I've said it before, and I'll say it again - thanks guys.

So, from the church past the farm to the wood, through to South Cubbington Wood, up to Cubbington itself through fields of rape seed, turn right across more fields and a road to reach the edge of North Cubbington Wood, then back to the church via the road. A nice walk, and no more than 90 minutes of anyone's time.

And what did I see?

Well, the highlights of a rewarding walk were a bird, a flower and mammal. The bird was spotted early on the walk - a bright Yellow Wagtail in a horse / sheep field near the farm. This a wonderful little bird which I always expect / hope to find and then rarely do - in fact I've been successful only two or three times in my five or so years on this patch. I was thrilled.

Then into the wood, where I found myself surrounded by the most wondrous carpet of blue. These, of course, were bluebells, the original English variety and splendid to behold, whichever way one turned.

And finally the mammal. As I paused to read a sign near the north tip of North Cubbington Wood and rabbit darted to the edge of the wood, saw me, skidded, turned and darted back, pursued by a beautiful Red Fox. With respect to the rabbit, it was the Fox that wins my 'mammal of the day' nomination - what an animal.

So there you have it - a lovely walk, great flora and fauna, beautiful surroundings, and an environmental success story to boot. I really must get to Cubbington Wood more often.

Bird / Flower / Mammal of the Day: Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava) / Common (English) Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) / Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes), all brought great joy to my morning.