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.

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