28 September 2014

Ufton Pools - normal service resumed

Having really enjoyed yesterday's return to patch birding I was keen to get out again today, if only for a short while. 

In the event I could only find an hour or so mid-afternoon; hardly the best time of day for birding but sufficient for a quick stroll around one of the sites I missed yesterday, Ufton Pools.

Marsh Tit - you can look for the two-toned cheek
panel all you want - but you'll only be sure it's not a
willow tit once it sneezes 'pitchoo-pitchoochoo'!
Photo: Neil Cheesman
I like Ufton, or at least I admire it - if only for its stubborn refusal to easily offer up its secrets. In theory it should be full of great birds, and I'm sure it is. But in practice it's damned hard to find them. The trees and scrub are close-packed, the perimeter path leaves a lot of the interior out of range, and the number of walkers and dog-walkers seem to encourage the birds to stay out of sight.

As ever then, this was a pleasant stroll without too many birds. Plenty of coots and moorhens on the Horseshoe Pool, a welcome grey wagtail, a few chiffchaff working around the edges, and across the rest of the site large numbers of highly mobile small birds in flocks.

Blue tits were very much in evidence, three marsh tits were kind enough to call when an identification was required (the call being the only reliable way to ensure they weren't willow tits), and finally I was delighted to add treecreeper to my weekend haul.

The whole weekend was great, and served to remind me of patch birding's great paradox: while doing it I spend virtually every moment hoping and straining to find an unusual, rare or otherwise 'special' bird; but whenever I reflect afterwards on why I continue to do it, I come to the conclusion that it's because I enjoy the way it grounds me in my normal everyday surroundings, helping me find joy, uniqueness and wonder in even the most ordinary finds - the wood pigeons, the house sparrows and the blue tits.

Bird of the weekend: None of them, and yet all of them. Nah, that's not true - it was definitely those sky-dancing ravens ;-)

27 September 2014

Back on the birds

The birding bug has been gently stirring in me of late; today I gave it free rein with my first full day of patch birding in a long, long while.

My patch, should the occasional reader (unsurprisingly) need reminding, comprises a mosaic of sites strung broadly along the two main watercourses which run east out of Leamington: the Grand Union Canel and the river which gives the town its name, the Leam.

While most birders would probably say that the ideal patch should be based around a single site, I suspect they would also add that this site should have as wide a range of habitats as possible. The fact of the matter is that individually none of my sites quite has everything I would want in a patch - but together they pretty much have it all.

A quick tour

Leam Valley, Newbold Comyn and the neighbouring Offchurch Bury Estate are at the heart of things. Not only are they closest to home but together they offer the widest variety of habitats within the scope of a single walk, albeit a long one.

A few miles east you'll find Ufton Pools, a unique patchwork of dense scrubby wood and shallow pools. North of there is a different kind of wood altogether - a rare surviving example of ancient Warwickshire woodland at Cubbington. Go further east again and you'll arrive at the furthest points of my patch, Napton Reservoir and Napton Hill. The former provides the deep water every good patch should have; the latter a distinctive geographical landmark which often serves as a migration marker for birds on the move.

Those of you who know the area will notice at once that this selection seems almost perverse in missing out the two best birding sites in the area: Brandon Marsh and Draycote. Both are of course brilliant sites; I could happily call either my patch and not want for much else. But there is something about choosing less popular spots which appeals to me: there seems more value in keeping an eye on them when few others are; there's generally more peace and quiet to be found; and if the day-to-day birding experience can be a little 'understated' from time to time, that simply serves to make anything unusual all the more exciting.

Early at Leam Valley

The Leam Valley scrape: not much water, but just enough
water rails!
It seemed to make sense to begin at Leam Valley, walking the circuit from the car park, through parts of Newbold Comyn, along the river to the scrape, and then back via Offchurch Bury.

The first thing that became apparent was the amount of birdsong in the air at 7am; the second thing was how rusty my birdsong identification skills were. I picked the hard tack-tack-tack of the robin and the fast trill of the wrens quickly enough, but everything else was slow going at first. As was the birding, with little showing itself at first. There were aforementioned robins and wrens aplenty, and regular groups of 20+ black-headed gulls headed south / south-west overhead, but it was half an hour before I found the first head-turner - a marsh tit foraging its way along the banks of the river. Moments later my first three redwings of the year flushed and flew away from me and I felt properly 'back in the game'.

There was evidence of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust's excellent management throughout the site, and nowhere more than at the hide, recently restored after some infuriating vandalism. The hide looked great, some scrub had been cut back to allow better views from the screen - and a patient 20 minutes at the scrape was rewarded with not one but two water rails scurrying across gaps in the now substantial reed beds. These may well be a first for me at Leam Valley; certainly I can find no record of any on this blog or in my notebooks.

I headed back via the Offchurch Bury estate, my long detour rewarded with a pair of grey wagtails, a kingfisher and, foraging on paths alongside some very mature hedgerows, a pair of yellowhammers. A nuthatch called from ivy-covered trees near the car park as I finished, making it a tidy if unspectacular 30 species for the morning so far.

The Napton One-Two

If Leam Valley is the closest part of my patch, Napton is arguably the best - certainly it offers the best prospect of rarer birds. So it seemed the obvious next port of call on this 'back on the patch' day.

The reservoir seemed quiet at first, with very much its standard offering; 80 coot, 11 moorhen, 12 tufted ducks, a great crested grebe, two mute swans and some mallards. But as is so often the way, further investigation was rewarded: three snipe flew while I was there, a pair of grey wagtails flashed by, and I spent a very enjoyable 20 minutes in the far corner watching sedge warblers and chiffchaffs flitting through scrub and reed.

It was while I was sat there that a raven flew towards Napton Hill. It turned out to be an early indication of how my day would end. For having trekked across the hill and down the other side with little to show for my efforts apart from three bullfinches, I was stunned when I reached the quarry side. Not one, not two but 20 or more ravens were in the air - I say 'or more' because counting was impossible. The ravens were highly mobile and acrobatic, flying in twos and threes with rolls, somersaults and sudden dives; the air was filled with their distinctive 'cronk-cronk' calls.

In January 2007 I watched a similar number of ravens in fields close to Radford Semele, but had long-since dismissed that as a freak one-off. And although I had seen reports that the numbers of birds locally had been steadily growing, I was total unprepared for this. I was a brilliant encounter that helped remind me just what thrilling birds ravens are to watch.

It was a fitting end to a long day's birding back on the patch.

23 September 2014

Five seasons in one day

The curse of the blogger remains the recap post. You know the one I mean: the 'I've been so busy doing the thing that I've not had time to write about the thing' post. Or else the 'I've been so busy with the family / DIY / job that I've not even had time to do the thing, let alone write about it' post.

When you do finally find yourself sitting down at the keyboard after a time away, what you end up doing is a quick recap of the last few days / weeks / months - sketchy at best, and inevitable full of missing bits as the memory fails.

It's bad enough after a few weeks, so just imagine how bad this 'it's been a busy old year' post is going to be. I probably wouldn't bother reading on if I were you.


Despite a lack of time to sit down and write about it, the last 12 months or so have had some real fishing, birding and general outdoors-y highlights, some of which I want to record here for my own benefit as much as any other - this being the longest continuous record of such activity that I have. So if you'll excuse the inelegant listing format:

1. My first fish on the fly - four of them to be precise, all rainbow trout from a super-productive day at Bushyleaze fishery (the day after a super unproductive day of course fishing at a very stormy Lemington Lakes, but that's another story). Superb sport, great eating, a great day, and all thanks to my highly-skilled friend Richie. Full report and picture here.

2. My first barbel. At 5lb 5oz, it looked (and felt) bigger, taken alongside the bonus of my first 'decent' chub - 2lb 10oz - on a River Wye trip organised by my friend Howard (who out caught me 3-1)

3. A change of River Leam approach. Having been unable to find the time, skill and inclination required to properly tackle the new (to me) upper Leam, I relinquished for now that card and tackled the slow town waters for the first time. My sole trip to date resulted ina gutsy little tench, one of my best Leam fish to date. I'll be spending more time on these convenient waters in the future.

4. Getting a lure into the sea at long last, having had the spinning rod for the job for nearly four years. No bass, or indeed anything else, but a start was made on the Dorset coast and I shall be back. Oh yes, I also returned from a mackerel trip with a BBQ full of fish, which was nice.

5. Settling back into commercials after a long spell focused on the rivers. The realisation that I fish for relatively short periods of relaxation has led me inexorably back to the more comfortable and assured surroundings of the commercial fisheries at the expense of the fun, but often demanding, river banks. Now I just need to stop apologising for it :-)

6. Father and son fishing. As challenging as any fishing I've ever done, but definitely among the most rewarding. A hyperactive eight year old takes some settling down, but a few 45 minute sessions have produced plenty of small roach and perch, some nice small carp and a cracking tench - not too mention the odd smile and some welcome time away from video games.

7. Father and son and mum, birding. If you think fishing might be a hard sell to an eight year old, try birding. But with a bit of encouragement, and some well-timed chocolate bribery, we've managed a few good family trips this year and C is developing a good eye for how to tell one bird from another.

8. Bird song from the saddle. A growing interest in cycling means that I hear as many farmland birds as I see these days. Skylarks, yellowhammer, bullfinch and linnet are all reasonably regular sounds as I flash by at (as close to) 20mph (as I can managed).

9. A definite leaning back towards birding. After three years in which fishing has taken up most spare moments I am gradually finding my leisure time being more evenly once more between my various interests - fishing, birding, cycling and photography. We've had a couple of good family trips to Brandon lately, and I even popped into Leam Valley briefly today to remind myself what my patch looks like. So perhaps it is safe to expect more birding posts over the coming weeks... assuming I don't just disappear without trace for another 14 months of course.