28 October 2014

Deserted by the gods

Few gods desert one as completely, rapidly and without warning as the gods of fishing.

I don't know what angers them or otherwise incurs their displeasure, but it is impossible to miss the moment when it happens.

Just over a pound: before it all went wrong...
One minute you will be fishing tolerably well, catching and enjoying a reasonable session; the next it will be all you can do to look at your own shoelaces without creating a birds-nest tangle of epic proportions.

And once the gods have left you, there is no going back. All your casts will find trees, your knots will fail and whatever fish you do hook will find root, reed or hidey hole by which to evade capture (invariably snagging you at the same time).

Thus it was on Sunday afternoon, when an ill-fated attempt to repeat the pleasure of the previous weekend at Bishops Bowl started well (with a small tench, barbel, a couple of decent carp and a second 1lb plus perch in two weeks), and then descended into farce as fish after fish towed me to the reeds, snagged me or otherwise drove me to distraction. 

After that promising start I proceeded to land little more all afternoon; I lost hooklength after hooklength and trashed at least four pole rigs. My pole technique improved with every put in, I thought I held my temper and concentration well given the provocations, but it was to no avail - the gods of fishing had deserted me and nothing would entice them back.

With the first early nightfall of winter upon me I packed up and went home, offering as I left a tiny prayer for better luck next time. Just in case.

27 October 2014

Time for a chat?

I suspect my son's enthusiasm for Brandon Marsh might have as much to do with the tearoom milkshakes as it does for the wildlife, but I wasn't complaining as once again he chose it as the destination for a family trip :-)

East Marsh was lively, the lapwings and black-headed gulls being kept company by good numbers of teal and shovellers; with a handful of common and lesser black-backed gulls, a single cormorant and two snipe on the far bank.

The long-staying green sandpiper was on the Teal Pool, and of course there were plenty of other birds around (Charlie enjoyed particularly good views of a great spotted woodpecker on the feeders).

26 October 2014

Wild is the wind

The week started breezy and squally; by Tuesday we were seeing the tail end of Hurricane Gonzalo.

A showery Monday stroll around the Langley office turned up three new visitors - cormorants high in a tree near the lake. A kingfisher flashed by, and not far away I found a field full of skylarks.

The next day's lunchtime stroll from the Radford Semele office was carried out in the teeth of Gonzalo.

This made most sightings fleeting at best, as the birds either hunkered down or belted past with the wind at their tail. The biggest birds were, of course, easiest to see and ID - a grey heron disturbed near the pond, a buzzard on the return track, a sparrowhawk flashing low over the house.

A goldfinch struggled overhead near the highest point of the hill, but a small flock of finches flitting in and out of stubble fields proved harder to identify - my best guess is a mix of juvenile and female yellowhammer, pale and washed out in the poor light.

And talking of difficult ID, I was pleased to read in Birdwatching magazine this month the trials of birders trying to ID a particularly pale and grey buzzard in and around the Staffs / Leics border region - variously called as either an osprey or a rough-legged buzzard. Having had a virtually identical wobbly ID moment with a buzzard only couple of weeks ago (see here), it was nice to see that I'm not the only one to be fooled by the hugely variable plumage of Buteo buteo.

There was, however, no mistaking the one I saw on the Fosse Way on the following day: for a moment I thought I would hit it as it struggled to gain height from the verge. Fortunately it cleared the top of my car in time, and a long scaly tail hanging beneath confirming a freshly-caught rat as the reason for this unusual struggle for altitude.

Bird of the week: Cormorant  (Phalacrocorax carbo), once very much a bird of shore and sea, now a regular sight at lakes and rivers around the UK, particularly as autumn arrives.

19 October 2014

A short session on the long pole

Seized late in the day by an urge to fish, with no bait to hand or preparations made, and conscious that my crocked elbow would only cope with pole fishing, there was only one sensible answer - my favourite local commercial, Bishops Bowl.

I've already spent too many words debating the purity, or otherwise, of the fishing experience: wild vs stocked; free vs commercial; river vs lake (vs canal vs gravel pit etc).

The good news is that I shall try to do so no more; I have arrived at my conclusion. This - life is short, work is long, my fishing will be wherever I think will be fun.

And what fun I had at Bishops.

A big south-westerly wind called for somewhere sheltered, so having picked up a pint of maggots and a pole rig at the shop I settled down at the back of Marshes Two, one of the newer waters and absolutely perfect for what I had in mind. 

It was sheltered, it was beautiful, and it was packed full of nature. There were huge and pristine ink cap mushrooms by the side of the swim, jays squabbled bold and loud behind me, and passerines and water birds moved all around me.  

If pole fishing is to become a bigger thing for me, then I was keen to see if my carp pole could realistically be fished at its full 11m (if only to save me from the immediate cost of a new, lighter and longer pole). So rather than setting up a couple of lines I found a swim with an 11 metre reed bed projecting from the bank and targeted the tip of that.

I've never loved fishing the pole, but if I'm honest I reckon I'd have caught less than half the fish if I'd been on the waggler. With a pole pot I was able to feed with absolute accuracy, and then drop the bait right on top. The first single maggot produced a tiny roach, the second a better rudd. Another roach followed and that was three small fish brought in from 11 metres on a No.10 elastic in less than five minutes with  none lost. Things seemed to be going well.

Better still with the next few fish. First the elastic flew out, the tip of the pole arced round, and a lively 3lb tench came to the net. Then my first stillwater barbel came in; less than a pound but, in common with its river cousin, it didn't leave any fight in the water. It was followed by a further seven barbel, a couple of carp (the biggest close to 3lb), plenty more roach and, with perhaps ironically the least fight of the lot, a majestic 1lb 7oz perch.

Eventually something large and fast broke me; fishing so close to the reeds I was always at risk of something that could move faster than I could react. 

Then it was dark; I'd had fun; I went home.

Species of the day: Barbel (Barbus barbus): the king of the river turns out to be a real gem in still water too. 

Young eyes

OK, so I'm no Ian Wallace*. But I had thought my ID skills would remain better than my young son's for a few years yet...

So it was something of a surprise when, as I guided him around the view from Brandon's East Marsh hide with the words "...and there on the far island you can see three greylag geese...", I received the reply: "well that one's not!"

18 October 2014

Into the valley

A breezy, overcast but still very warm Saturday morning saw the family opt for a leg stretch along Leam Valley, with no complaints from me :-)

It was quiet on the outward stretch, so we passed our time finding moss, bugs and unusual fungi to amuse a young naturalist determined to use his new magnifying bug jars.

Not much seemed to improve when we got to the scrape, with just a grey heron and a couple of moorhens (plus of course countless wood pigeons) to watch from the hide.

But a move to the screen at the other end did improve matters somewhat - a pair of gadwall and two pairs of teal greeted us at the low water edge.

The gadwall in particular is uncommon on this site; indeed a brief search through notes suggests these may be a first for me at Leam Valley.

We picked up plenty of jays on the return journey, a pair of sparrowhawks displayed and danced around each other briefly, and the final treat was a biggish flock of goldfinch and chaffinches, feeding determinedly on thistle and teasel heads at the north edge of the meadow.

Bird of the day: Gadwall , resident in small numbers during the summer, but much more frequent from autumn through winter - though still by no means common. Most often found around the edges of deeper water than Leam Valley offers, so a nice surprise.

16 October 2014

Deer deer

The air was still, dry but not yet properly warm ; everything was recovering from what had felt like a week of rain.

Admittedly it had been much needed rain, but it had still come as something of a shock after such a long and dry start to autumn. If it rained at all in September, I don't remember it.

This suddenly-quiet weather was matched by suddenly-quiet trees, hedges and waterways as I nipped out for another lunchtime walk through the fields near my office.

At first almost nothing showed, just a small blue tit flock passing around me. Then, as I paused to consider which way to turn next, I noticed movement on the far side of a neighbouring field.

My binoculars initially picked up a handful of pheasants working their way along the edge of the field, but then I found something much more interesting.

Two deer were standing stock still. They were small deer, larger than a large dog but not by much, with heads just a bit too small for their body size. Both were dark in colour (reddish? hard to tell in what was still fairly gloomy light), and each had a pale patch around the tail and some white around the mouth.

Roe deer, one of the two native British species, and not a species I encounter as much as I would like. Both proceeded to pick their way along the hedgerow for a couple of minutes, clearly unaware of my presence, before finally slipping through a gap which was too small for me to even see.

I was still staring into the space they had left behind when the distinctive 'cronk' of a raven caught my attention. I turned and found it flying low and directly over my head. Satisfied with my lunchtime stroll I turned for home - only for a female sparrowhawk to join in with a slow and low flap-flap-glide across my path.

In case you're wondering about the image, I'm afraid the chances of me getting close enough to a wild roe deer to take a photograph are pretty slim. Where I haven't got a photo from now on I've decided to include whatever sketch I may have done during (and often completed after) the sighting. That I'm no artist you'll be able to work out yourself, but for me a birding notebook isn't really a birding notebook unless it's got pencil sketches in it - however good, bad or indifferent they may be.

Species of they day:  Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), a mammal natural to the British Isles but, in a wearyingly familiar pattern, needing to be reintroduced several times having initially been hunted to extinction by 1800. Now abundant enough in England and Scotland, but not always easy to find, particularly around parts of the Midlands apparently.

14 October 2014

Fish, no. Birds, yes!

Day two of the fishing weekend started predictably slowly: 6.30am is a hell of a start time when 2.30am was the previous night's finish time...

Coal titStill, not to worry. Lessons had been learned from the misadventures of previous years, so consumption had been, if not entirely quashed, then at least half-heartedly moderated. So, come Saturday morning, spirits were high, sausages were consumed, and fly fishing was on!

Or at least it was for the others. The elbow injury that had kept me off the waggler and on the pole the previous day certainly wasn't going to hold up for six hours of constant fly casting, so reluctantly I had to admit that this was nothing more than a social trip for me. A bit of internet research also proved that there were plenty of local opportunities for a quick bit of birding if I got bored with watching my friends cutting a dash in their fly gear.

And it turned out that this wheeze was a bit of a masterstroke. Because as my friends thrashed the surface of a sluggish lake to absolutely no good effect at all, I discovered Whelford Pools, a smashing local nature reserve in the Cotswold Water Park run by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.

Formerly a pair of gravel pits, the site has been carefully nurtured and now features a wonderful blend of wooded edges, tiny pools, deep water, shallow scrapes and islands.

Blue tit
Well stocked feeders at the first hide gave me an opportunity to get the camera out, and the second hide offered a splendid view across the main water.

A little egret perched amid grey herons and three cormorants on the far side; more than 120 lapwing called and wheeled around the site;, a shelduck slept on in their midst; four great crested grebes sailed majestically over the deeper water; and there were good quantities of some favourite winter wildfowl - 28 teal, 6 shoveller and 4 gadwall.

A quick walk round to a yet-deeper pool behind added a pair of wigeon to the haul.

Goldfinch young and oldIn all I found 25 species of bird, not to mention an amazing wasp's nest, in a visit lasting less than 90 minutes. A disappointing fishing trip had turned into a delightful birding one.

Bird of the day: Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) - an almost unheard of sighting when I started birding as a boy, still uncommon when I started again a decade or so ago, and still capable of raising the pulse rate after all these years, despite having become a far, far more normal sight at sites right across the UK.

12 October 2014

Clichés, carp and conversation

Men bond through shared activity; woman through conversation.

Yes, I know - that's a cliché. It's a stereotype. It's lazy writing and potentially prejudicial. Never-the-less it remains true. Or at least broadly true in my personal experience, and personal experience is, as I understand these matters, what a blog should generally be about.

It's why, I would contend, men the world over are invariably found in their spare time gathered in groups near chess boards, domino tables, sports pitches (playing or collectively cheering their sides on), pelotons, cliff faces, boats, classic cars, allotments and, of course, river banks.

It's not that we don't talk to each other. It's just that we prefer the talking to be a secondary activity. We get together to do something, and it is through that shared doing, and the conversations that take place around that shared doing, that we bond.

It's what makes fishing with friends so special.

Now, I should confess that this is a subject on which I am definitely no expert. Nine times out of ten I fish alone, appreciating after a week at work the opportunity for a little solitude and concentration - a moving meditation as my wife likes to call it.

But a few times a year I arrive at the river or lake with friends, focused on fishing but also greatly looking forward to the opportunity to catch up after many months apart.

And so it was that three of us spent a fine cool day at Stockton Reservoir this week, trying everything we knew to coax carp from the water on a surprisingly hard day.

Not many bites, not many fish, but still a blast from start to finish (the day starting at 9am with a lakeside brew and bacon sarnie, and ending at approximately 2.30am with the consumption of the very last drop of a 30 years old Edradour single malt which my friend and I have been sharing together, dram by dram, for many a long year).

Once the brew was boiled and the bacon fried, our sleeper rods went out first, a boilie and pva bag attack with balls of groundbait fired over the top. This combination secured Richie his two carp of the day, both around the 4lb mark.

His second rod was set up for the waggler while I, still suffering with a long-standing elbow injury which makes a problem of repeated casting , opted instead for a margin pole down the edge. This eventually secured me my one carp of the day, again around the 4lb mark - not huge, but perfectly capable of pulling a terrific amount of elastic from the pole and putting up one hell of a fight.

Finally, my brother, arriving late as ever but just in time for a beer-and-pie lunch, settled on the waggler attack, fishing luncheon meat just off a shelf about 10 foot out. Plagued initially by a series on unhittable twitches (there are plenty of crucian in Stockton, and lots of roach - either could have been responsible), he then hit into three successive big fish - each of which, to his enormous chagrin, did him in the fight.

He did finally manage to land one, again around 4lb. And then, fishing into the dying light after a short but fierce shower, he finished with a flourish, landing a second at almost exactly 10lb. Wet gear was thrown into bags, a dark lake was bade goodnight, and off we rode into the murk to find light, laughter, good food and ale.

6 October 2014

An autumn lunchtime

It's as if somebody pressed a switch marked 'Autumn'.

While the fields and waters around my office have been stuck in an all-too-dry post-summer lull for many weeks, today's wind and rain brought the whole area bursting into autumnal life.

First up, geese - and is there any sight more autumnal than 100+ geese grazing their way across a field of stubble? I scanned this flock of greylags for a good while hoping to pick up the odd straggler - a pink-footed or perhaps even a bean. Sadly, when I did find the odd-one-out he turned out to be a lone canada. Top marks for trying, and all that.

My thanks go to the nearby buzzard which had them constantly lifting their heads for my closer examination; a female kestrel was also in close attendance on nearby wires, although her attention was mainly taken by mobbing magpies.

On a neighbouring field, the wood pigeons and jackdaws were joined by a loose, mobile flock of 12+ skylarks. A few chaffinches, dunnock and blackbirds edged along the sides of nearby farm hedges, and a big flock of starlings flew into a nearby oak. Carrion crows criss-crossed, a few rooks called loudly from the tallest trees and, out on the lake, a couple of moorhens swam with one each of great crested and little grebe.

A kingfisher, heard by not seen, was a treat on a short but sweet lunchtime walk; an authentic autumnal experience in which only one or two late-calling chiffchaff struck a discordant note as reminders of a summer finally gone.

Bird of the day: Greylag goose (Anser anser), the classic British wild goose: widespread and common, but in flocks no less redolent of autumn than its scarcer cousins.

5 October 2014

Curlew Sandpiper and not-an-Osprey at Brandon

Today was a family outing to Brandon Marsh - a trip which often rewards and frustrates in equal measure.

Brandon is always a great place to be, and of course I'm delighted that my good lady and lad both enjoy spending time there. It certainly offers better birding opportunities than a morning shopping. 

What I have had to learn on family trips, however, is that I'm unlikely to ever be able to explore every inch, visit every hide or find every bird. Many is the time I have got home after a family trip to Brandon, logged on and browsed the blogs only to find I missed the weekend's star bird.

Not this time though. With everyone in the family team bright eyed, bushy tailed and enthusiastic, we walked into East Marsh Hide to be greeted by the words: "There's a curlew sandpiper over there." 

Marvellous - 30 seconds in and I'm on to a county tick, my first curlew sandpiper since some in 2005 (and those more predictably in Norfolk). A textbook juvenile this: smooth buff upperparts and chest, white supercillum, elegant black legs and slightly decurved bill - altogether longer and more elegant than the similarly-attired dunlin. It was giving great views on the nearside of the main island, at least whenever it wasn't being harrassed by some of the 60+ lapwing.

Also on East Marsh were good numbers of wigeon, teal, shovellers and black-headed gulls; some gadwalls, mallards, tufted ducks, a cormorant, a grey heron and a couple of greylag geese. A sparrowhawk twice put everything up.

On the Teal Pool behind us we had already enjoyed what I assumed would be the day's highlight, with everyone getting a full scope view of the elusive water rail. And back at the tearooms we added a host of feeder species including coal tit, reed bunting and the ever-welcome nuthatch. 

With 33 species in the bag, there was still time for a final dash right the way back to Newlands to investigate uncertain reports of an osprey. Well, I don't know what was there earlier in the day, but when I arrived I quickly clapped eyes on a largeish, greyish, pale and tatty raptor sitting atop a mid-distant bush. 

My head was full of thoughts of osprey, so I called 'osprey'... followed immediately by 'that doesn't look right'. It wasn't - too broad, too dark and with bright yellow legs and feet. Since I was now pretty sure it wasn't an osprey I spent a minute trying to convince myself it was a marsh harrier instead. It wasn't - unless I read reports otherwise I'm reasonably sure it was a young, pale and patchy buzzard (I should add that the horrible photo, taken via iPhone through scope, makes it look much more like a buzzard than it did in the flesh).

I added a male kestrel (with vole in claws), and left, happy with 35 species and just the one county tick for the day.

Bird of the day: Curlew Sandpiper (Calidris ferruginea), a passage migrant more often seen on the east coast than on an inland site like Brandon.

3 October 2014

Lost in the bushes

The penny only dropped a week or so ago that my new offices are just a couple of miles from Snitterfield Bushes, a Warwickshire Wildlife Trust reserve I'd not so far visited. Lunchtime presented an opportunity to put that right.

It was only a quick 40 minutes recce but it was enough to form an extremely positive impression of this little gem. 

The reserve straddles both sides of the Brearley to Snitterfield road, although I only had time to explore the north side. Damp clay soil below, a lush ground and field layer particularly rich in ferns, and a canopy above full of oak, maple and ash.

Birds were predictably hard to come by at lunchtime in such a heavily wooded environment. I heard the tap, tap of a great spotted woodpecker as I arrived, and some 15 minutes later got good views of him, or another like him, deep in the reserve. A large tit flock moved through, plenty of adults among the blue, great and long-tailed tit juveniles. I searched in vain for the oft-accompanying treecreeper, but did hear the explosive call of a nuthatch near by instead.

Fruit rich scrub was full of blackbirds and a couple of song thrushes, but no winter thrushes yet. A buzzard broke cover, plenty of jackdaws called overhead, and robins and wrens called all around. It was a lovely lunchtime walk, so no hardship at all to get slightly lost among the maze of paths. 

After work I swung by Napton Reservoir to see if I could find the apparently elusive whinchat. It proved elusive, but I enjoyed a quiet stroll as the sun went down, with 6 wigeon and a couple of female shovellers having joined the throng since I was here on Sunday. The tufted duck count had also risen considerably to 28. 

A couple of snipe took wing, a few quiet chiffchaff calls were heard, but most notable of all was undoubtedly the large flock of pied wagtails on the bridge as I arrived - well in excess of 20 here and around the reservoir, a highly mobile mix of adults and juveniles with the majority of them flying off to the west at sunset.