26 April 2010

A week of firsts

No 'proper' birding this week, but spring rolled on without me and I still had opportunities to snatch a few minutes here and find a succession of 'firsts' for the year.

Last Friday (16th April), I saw my first swallow in Radford Semele, a male who flashed low past my bedroom window. Within a week there were a few of them about, swooping regularly over my garden, and the first house martins had also arrived to join then (first noticed Saturday 27th).

The first pink blooms opened on the red campion in my garden on Saturday; and on Sunday I took a brief family trip to Brandon Marsh and found my first bluebells of the year.

Brandon itself was alive with bird song, the wood (New Hare Covert?) being particularly noiseome with blackcap, chiffchaff, willow warbler, wren and an active great spotted woodpecker. I also found my first whitethroats of the year, and heard my first sedge and reed warblers.

I'm guessing / hoping it will be the swifts next - I know there are a few around, but I've yet to spot one. Assuming this year follows the pattern of recent times, the air right over my work car park usually starts to deliver about now, so fingers crossed.

18 April 2010

It's a wonderful world

Just a lovely morning's birding and walking; I simply couldn't have asked for more.

The remnant of a late frost was still on the ground when I arrived just after 7am at Leam Valley, with mist rising from the river and a slight chill in the air. All of this quickly burned off as the clear blue sky and brilliant sun set about their work; by 9am I was in shirt sleeves.

The most notable change from a couple of weeks ago was the number of chiffchaffs calling - the one that greeted me in the car park was the first of five in all. The other notably 'spring-y' birds were a lone willow warbler and two singing blackcaps - the first of which gave me my first decent sighting of one for quite some time (see photo).

Aside from these classic spring sightings, there was bird song and frantic activity to enjoy right the way across the reserve: song thrushes in full voice; a sparrowhawk cruising overhead; a couple of treecreeper (nearly got a photo of one of the buggers at last, see attempt below); and a pair of snipe on the scrape.

A total of 31 species represents a good morning's birding at Leam Valley, but actually my favourite sighting of the morning wasn't a bird at all - it was a small cluster of fritillaries in a little clearing in the woods. These are stunning little flowers, and a huge favourite of mine that I rarely see.

So, a great morning, and set to get better. I went to Brandon for a quick walk with the family, and as usual I dashed off down to East Marsh for a quick look-see on my own. Half way down the track I was pointed in the direction of the day's surprise visitor - the avocet from earlier in the week had returned! I hot-footed it down to River Pool and sure enough, there it was. A wonderful bird wherever you see it, but all the more wonderful in Warwickshire (I might be biased here).

And there was plenty more on East Marsh pool including little ringed plovers (3), snipe (5), oystercatchers (3), a redshank, and a freshly returned common tern.

The grand total for the day reached 51 species, a pretty decent haul for a bit of gentle wandering round two of my favourite reserves.

Bird of the day: Avocet (Recurvirostra avosetta), it simply has to be. A symbol of hope for the conservation movement and a beautiful elegant bird to-boot.

Flower of the day: Snake's head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris); it is so unusual and beautiful it is hard to believe that it's a genuinely natural and native wildflower, rather than an exotic import or some specially-bred garden centre special. Rather rare these days, so a real gem of a find.

Oh, a just a word on the photographs. The usual hotchpotch, some OK, others little more than record shots. The treecreeper and cetti's warbler are included because I've been trying to photograph these little %^**&ers for years, and these are both the closest I've come - in both cases I couldn't get a clear focus because of intervening foliage (plus slow lenses plus no talent).

The willow warbler was at least clearly visible, if distant; but the award for obliging behaviour goes to the dunnock, who sat about two metres in front of me singing his little heart out while I photographed him. Thanks fella.

16 April 2010

Spring rolls out

Spring continues to bloom in Radford Semele, although I am only getting a few fleeting opportunities to see it unfold :-(

In the garden, the daffodils are gradually fading; in a matter of days they will be replaced by the few tulips that I have. Bird song still wakes me every morning, most notably our resident song thrush. He might be a bit early for my liking, but at least he is more musical than the house sparrows living in my loft space!

Meanwhile the two jays have become regular garden visitors for the first time ever (one pictured left), and there are signs that we might have breeding blue tits again, possibly in our bird box.

This morning saw a real spring landmark though - my first village swallow of the year, flashing past the front of our house at 10am this morning.

Bird of the week: Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica); agile, beautiful and a quintissential bird of the British spring and summer.

11 April 2010

A big spring morning

With the family away for the weekend, it was just like the old days today - an early start, five hours 'in the field', four sites, 50 odd species of birds - bloody marvellous.

I started at Ufton Fields, always a lovely walk if not always the easiest site for birding. I quickly found my first Willow Warblers of the year; they were showing well along with 4/5 song thrushes, a similar number of chiffchaffs and other favourites such as green and great spotted woodpeckers, three jays, two bullfinch pairs, a treecreeper and a reed bunting. As I packed up to leave, I was chuffed to hear my first blackcap of the year, singing near the car park.

I moved on to Napton Reservoir, which was rammed with fishermen (presumably taking part in a match; they all looked very serious). A stroll from one end to the other added the usual (tufted ducks, mallards and coots, two pairs of great crested grebes and a total of 11 mute swans) as well as at least one cetti's warbler, skylarks over nearby fields, two more bullfinch pairs and two swallows.

I drew an almost complete blank on nearby Napton Hill, adding only stock dove and kestrel to my morning haul. So I moved on to Brandon Marsh where there was plenty about for a big finale: scores of sand martins (my first of the year) buzzing around the artificial nesting bank; a pair each of ringed plover, oystercatcher and redshank; nine snipe; and good numbers of lapwings.

Bird of the day: Willow warbler (Phylloscopus trochilus), although it's a tough call between these and the sand martins, both favourite arrivals at this time of year. The soft floating call of the willow warbler carries the day though; from now until September this will be my favourite sound of the English countryside.

2 April 2010

Napton - fantasy vs reality

When I close my eyes and picture Napton in the springtime, I see a vibrant, bustling migration hotspot; a hillside and reservoir alive with opportunity. I see wheatear hopping on every quarry rock; whinchat bouncing on every fence post; bushes dripping with firecrest; and the water alive with the spectacle of a hundred dancing sand martin (with a few more wheatear and perhaps an early wader thrown in for good measure). Unfortunately, when I open my eyes and actually go there, it tends not to live up to this fantasy.

Not that it's a poor place to go birding: far from it in fact. Napton Hill has already thrown up one of the best birds of early spring; one of the aforementioned firecrests. It's just that... well, it's inevitable that if you get very few opportunities to go birding, then you invest each and every visit with the kind of wishful thinking that is unlikely to ever come true.

Having said all of that, and despite today's lack of firecrest and whinchat (not to mention passage waders, rare warblers and even sand martin), I rather enjoyed my little visit to Napton Hill and the nearby reservoir today.

First of all there was the sheer joy of being out and about in the springtime, even if it did feel a little autumnal at times. Second was the satisfaction of being safely back home by the time the forecast rain set in for the day. And third, there were enough birds around to at least satisfy, if not to truly set the pulse racing.

At the top of the hill there were plenty of goldfinch, greenfinch, chaffinch, blackbird and wren. There was loud birdsong all around, including several singing song thrushes (easier to write than to say). On the hillsides there were great tits, blue tits and long-tailed tits aplenty; a treecreeper scurrying through them; a male reed bunting down in the quarry; and a few redwing and largish flocks of fieldfare and starling, presumably preparing to set off 'home' for the summer. Not one but two pairs of buzzards circled overhead, and four singing chiffchaffs confirmed that this was definitely time to celebrate spring.

That sentiment was given a further boost when I arrived at the reservoir and found two male swallows criss-crossing the surface. For all the talk of a return to a 'normal' (i.e. later) spring this year, April 2nd equals my earliest sighting for a swallow across the six years I have kept records. Other birds around the reservoir included: ten mute swans (an unusually high number; I also found 24 in a nearby field); a pair of reed buntings; three lapwings in a neighbouring field; skylarks in the same field; two calling Cettis Warblers; and two pairs of great crested grebes.

Bird of the day: Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica); one of iconic birds of a British summer, newly arrived back from its south african wintering grounds.