25 March 2011

A sting in the tail?

Another lovely lunchtime stroll today, on a gloriously sunny March day.

Birds included a great spotted woodpecker, great views of a female kestrel on a telegraph wire, buzzards (plenty), chiffchaffs (now seemingly establishing approx. 3 territories along the stretch of canal from Preston Bagot towards Stratford), goldfinches, tits (blue, great and long-tailed), loads of wren activity and the usual mallards and swans.

So, a lovely 40 minute walk, spoiled only the the insistent lurking voice at the back of my mind. "20 degrees in March," it sneered. "It won't last. Winter's not done with you yet my lad."

And however lovely this week has been, history suggests the voice is right - winter normally has one last sting in the tail. Don't pack away the sweaters just yet.

22 March 2011

Who turned up the volume?

All new birdwatchers quickly discover that sound pretty much as important as sight in birding - you always hear plenty of species which you don't end up actually seeing, and even when you do see a bird, it was often the sound that helped alert you to them in the first place.

It takes a bit of practice to distinguish even the most common bird calls and songs, and sadly after many years I'm still struggling to be even averagely good at this (although it's a skill of which you don't need much to amaze non-birdwatchers, who nearly always seem to find it mind-boggling that anyone could tell a robin from a greenfinch by sound alone - and in case you're wondering, that particular task really is spectacularly easy).

So for most of us it's a case of practice makes perfect - and if you're going to practice, this is the time of year to get stuck in. Because, quite simply, it is around now that the bird volume gets cranked all the way up to 11.

Monday was a case in point. As I wandered along a stretch of Derby river and path not very far at all from the ring road, I was practically deafened - not by the passing traffic, but by the combined efforts of wrens, blackbirds, robins, a song thrush, goldfinches and greenfinches, all singing their hearts out (and there are some noisy buggers in that little list). Likewise, tonight in the garden was jolly pleasant, but you should have heard the noise from the house sparrows, collared doves and skylarks around me - I could barely hear the planes as they passed overhead! 

And tomorrow morning I will be woken, as every morning this week, by an enthusiastic blackbird or two at about 5am. Hmmm, a mixed blessing this birdsong.

20 March 2011

A couple of local notes

While fishing a private lake this morning, not a million miles from Southam, I was lucky enough to have a chiffchaff singing behind me, a song thrush singing in front of me, a noisy green woodpecker roundabouts, a raven overhead and a male reed bunting in fairly constant attendance throughout the morning. Plus a couple of decent tench, which means spring must really be here!

Back in Radford Semele, I went for a teatime stroll through the neighbouring farmland for the first time in ages, and was rewarded with four yellowhammers high in a mature oak tree, the males absolutely beautiful in the bright afternoon sun.

19 March 2011

Springing back to Leam Valley

OK, so I knew I'd been neglecting my patch a bit - but according to my records, it's been nearly 12 months since I was last birding in Leam Valley :-o

Now that's poor.

And ill-advised too, since - as I noted in my last post from the reserve - the place is starting to mature nicely. There's a huge amount of woodland management going on, and the three reed beds on the scrape in particular have finally taken hold in a decisive way, which should bode well for reed / sedge warblers this summer, as well as snipe, teal and perhaps water rail?

Well, today there were none of these on view, but there was a male shoveller on the scrape, my first for this reserve. A pair of reed buntings flitted around, the second pair I found on the day. Also on the scrape were six tufted ducks, in pairs.

Elsewhere, there was a single redpoll in the middle of a loose flock of tit species (there were four here at the same time last year). A few goldcrest were in the conifers near the hide, along with a single coal tit. A single chiffchaff sang near the car park, and a song thrush was singing near the golf course.

I strolled down to Offchurch Bury weir hoping to find singing yellowhammers, but there were none. What I did find were about a dozen chub (to 15 inches or so, decent fish), just holding their position by the footbridge. I was hoping to find the grey wagtails as well, and there they were, considerably bolder than any I have encountered before - hence the photos, which were taken on a 6x zoom pocket camera.

The kestrel was pictured on the same camera, having been similarly obliging.

Bird of the day: Lesser redpoll (Carduelis cabaret), if only because it was such a good find, high on its own in an alder tree.

18 March 2011

And the final tally is...

I finished up my week of lunchtime canal walks with not one, but three new ticks for the list.

I balanced up the week by walking for the second time down the stretch of canal running from Preston Bagot towards Lowsonford (but not going so far this time due to lack of time).

The sun was out again, although a chill will kept the temperature down to 10 degrees or so (Celsius, I mean - you won't often find me venturing out with a light fleece on at 10 Fahrenheit (which is -12 Celsius, I just looked it up)).

Alongside the blue tits, redwings and goldfinch that kept me company most of the way, a little side path bursting with wild garlic turned up the first new bird of the week - a goldcrest, flitting through some tree-bound ivy.

Shortly after I caught glimpse of a bullfinch pair that dashed madly in front of me before settling in still-bare hawthorns not too far away. And the moment I'd stopped near the end of my walk to do a mental tally for the week, I heard the tap-tap-tap of a great spotted woodpecker - a female just a couple of metres above my head.

So that tally is: mute swan; mallard; grey heron; pheasant; kestrel; buzzard; raven; carrion crow; jackdaw; jay; magpie; great spotted woodpecker; green woodpecker; nuthatch; blackbird; mistle thrush; song thrush; redwing; fieldfare; robin; dunnock; wren; house sparrow; starling; wood pigeon; collared dove; grey wagtail; blue tit; great tit; long-tailed tit; chiffchaff; goldfinch; chaffinch; siskin; bullfinch; greenfinch; and goldcrest.

That makes 37 (excluding the red kites I saw while on my London train, although that too was technically a lunchtime birding session). Not a bad total with some good birds included, and a useful (to me) reminder that you don't need a nature reserve, three hours and a £500 pair of binoculars to enjoy birdwatching - although the latter would have come in handy on more than one occasion ;-)

Bird of the day: Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), one of those birds which is common enough but which you can never guarantee seeing on any given trip - or indeed in any given week. Probably helped by the fact that it is Britain's smallest songbird.

17 March 2011

Windhover at Preston Bagot

...Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,        
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion        
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

- from The Windhover, by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

My week's 'lunchtime list' grew still further today with another stroll along the canal, this time back along the stretch from Preston Bagot towards Stratford.

First up were a pair of mistle thrushes, and then two infuriatingly elusive and thin-billed birds with very spotty flanks that just wouldn't show themselves properly (I just hope to God they were an obvious thrush species, even those same two mistle thrushes looking a bit too small in the gloom, rather than anything rare, because I never did nail down the id).

A raven flew low overhead shortly afterwards, and then I stood stock still to watch a pair of kestrels performing at close range around me for a good 15 minutes or so. It's far, far too long since I last took the time to watch these beautiful birds in detail, so I was grateful for this opportunity.

Bird of the Day: Kestrel (Falcon tinnunculus) - Gerard Manley Hopkins 'windhover' is a beautiful creature that should never fail to stir the heart. When I were a lad it was Britain's most common raptor; after 30 years of slow decline I suspect it has been long overtaken, round these parts at least, by the buzzard.

16 March 2011

Further adventures on the Stratford-upon-Avon canal

After a great start to my week of lunchtime bird walks near Henley-in-Arden (see Herald's of Spring, below), today took a turn for the greyer, the colder... but it still turned up the goods.

I spent much of yesterday on the train to London and back (red kites over the Chiltern, muntjac deer and hares in the fields of Oxfordshire), so I was looking forward to stretching my legs on a midday stroll along the two miles or so of canal from Preston Bagot towards Lowsonford and back.

The outward stretch turned up nothing much, but shortly after I turned for home I was stopped by the churring of two mistle thrushes in nearby trees. As they moved on, my bins moved past a superb male chaffinch and just caught a flash of movement - movement that was notable for one reason: it was down a tree trunk. That could only mean one thing - a nuthatch, the only UK bird that I can think of able to crawl down, as well as up, a tree trunk. Although they're common enough, I've not seen one for ages, so I was pretty chuffed.

Just a few steps on and I realised I was surrounded on all sides by a mixed flock of perhaps 200 fieldfares and redwings; another hundred yards or so and there were siskins high above me, in a mixed flock with goldfinches.

I finished with great views of a jay, and returned to the office in good spirits.

Bird of the day: Nuthatch (Sitta europaea), a stunning little woodpecker like bird, glorious in yellow and blue.

14 March 2011

Heralds of spring (the chiffchaffs are here!)

Inspired by a tweet'ed report (how appropriate) of chiffchaffs in Sheffield, I spent lunchtime on a birding walk to find my own.

From Preston Bagot I headed along the canal (Stratford direction) and within 10 minutes could hear my first chiffchaff of spring. It quickly fell silent but soon after I'd turned and started the walk back, I reconnected with not one but two birds, one calling somewhere near and the other feeding rapidly but gracefully in the trees lining the canal opposite me.

It's a moment that never fails to move me - the first of these beautiful, sleek little buff birds refueling, wagging their tails and singing their joy after a gruelling flight of several thousand miles from West Africa to here.

When added to a tally which also included a pair of grey wagtails, three displaying buzzards, a small flock of long-tailed tits, goldfinches aplenty, a grey heron and several calling green woodpeckers, I'd call that a pretty successful 40 minutes.

Bird of the day: Chiffchaff (Phylloscopus collybita), the one true herald of spring.

9 March 2011

The water rule

Where there's water there's nearly always nature - a rule of thumb brought home to me again on Monday as I took a lunchtime stroll along the River Derwent in Derby.

Pleasant surprise #1 was that a female goosander (probably one of the three I first spotted a month ago) had moved up from the edge of town and was now swimming opposite the Council House in the very heart of the the city.

Pleasant surprise #2 came just a few hundred yards further on, when I was able to watch my first ever american mink as it picked its way along the far bank for several minutes.

It never ceases to amaze me what you can find if you've got a patch of water and a spare 20 minutes to explore. Keep 'em peeled!

6 March 2011

Back at Napton

I'm told that confession (see below) isn't enough on it's own. Nor is the intention to change. One needs to prove the intention to change if one is to be absolved.

So, bright and early (ish) this morning I set off this morning for Napton Reservoir, determined to get my feet and eyes back into the swing of birding things. It turns out that a lot of things haven't changed so very much since I last went birding back in October.

Library photo
For a start, I only got about 100 yards from the car before I bumped into Richard and Dave, who confirmed that the year had got off to a slow start, and that nothing had dropped in today to change that pattern. Fortunately I have lower standards than either of them (!) and within minutes I was having a wonderful time, if only because it was good to be out again.

Alongside the regulars (c. 40 coot, 25 tufties, a dozen mallard, a few moorhens, a pair of mute swans and a couple of hundred gulls, about 40/60 common and black-headed) were 7 great crested grebes, 12 shoveller, 5 pochard, a few teal tucked into the edge of the reed bed, a snipe which flushed from a drainage dish, a couple of bullfinch near the entrance, plenty of jaunty chaffinches and, high in the sky to my right, a couple of skylark trilling high in the grey sky.

OK, it was hardly a mega haul, but the shovellers were (are) beautiful, the snipe was a nice surprise (thought it was going to take my head off as it flew out), and who doesn't enjoy watching great crested grebes in full courtship?

After a lovely stroll to all corners of the reservoir (and a chat to a couple of the fishermen - I shall be back for Napton tench this spring / summer), I headed up to the hill for something nice to finish the day. Apart from being reminded how beautiful blue tits actually are, there was little added from this short excursion.

Nice to be back though.

Bird of the day: Shoveller (Anus clypeata) - you have to say, that is one striking duck.

5 March 2011

Confessions of an absent birder

I am far from being a Catholic, but there is an air of the confessional about this post. Forgive me, readers (if any are left), for I have sinned - it has been four months since both I last went birding and I last wrote in this blog.

Not really sins of course, except that the cardinal rule of both birding and blogging is regularity, and in that respect I have fallen dismally short. Of my absence from blogging you will of course be in no doubt, since you can see for yourself the cavernous gap, the epochal time period, between this post and the last. But at least I can try to persuade you that I haven't failed quite so dismally on the birding front, and reassure you that my absence from birdwatching (in the formal sense) has been slightly mitigated by the number of bird moments I have enjoyed during that time.

Such as? Well, heading into winter  there were the vast flocks of fieldfare and redwing which followed me everywhere; the less common garden visitors such as long-tailed tits and a great spotted woodpecker; and the occasional 'gem' such as the siskins and the three goosander I found on a lunchtime walk in the very centre of Derby. As I sat fishing, and freezing, near Bishops Itchington not so long ago, I was joined by both a buzzard and a kingfisher in short order. On my journey, five lapwing had been tumbling over the fields near Ufton.

Moving into the very earliest part spring, my short lunchtime strolls have been punctuated by welcome sounds - the first great tit calls, then the song thrush, the chaffinch, the greenfinch and more. A male sparrowhawk flashed past me last week, a red kite swept low over my car as I drove through Oxfordshire, and a raven did the same in Offchurch one day. In significantly more peril were the red-legged partridge and the male pheasant which nearly ran under my car on successive days near Claverdon. And while lunchtimes have proved quite productive, working hours themselves turned up a pair of bullfinches outside one office window and a male great spotted woodpecker outside the other.

So, no birding but plenty of birds. Nothing rare but plenty to enjoy. But definitely no enough blogging. Sorry.

Bird of the winter: Goosander (Mergus merganser), definitely my favourite unexpected moment of the last few months. I could not have imagined that a short stroll along the river, just a few hundred yards from the main shopping area, would have turned up not one but three of these exquisite birds.