25 January 2015

Big and biggerer - birding back on track

The RSPB’s Big Birdwatch is undoubtedly A Good Thing. Not only has it been gathering important data on urban / suburban bird populations for 37 years, but with more than half a million people taking part it must also create more than its fair share of interest in birdwatching, and perhaps even sparked some scientific curiosity here and there.

It’s certainly a bit of an institution in the Hornet household. Come 10am Saturday morning we had our feeders full, our scopes and binoculars lined up at the French doors, and the RSPB's fancy new iPad app ready to go.

Goldcrest (credit: Cliff Watkinson)
Boy Hornet and myself were quick immersed in counting the fast-changing numbers of starling, robin, house sparrows, blue tits and more. During the allotted hour I think all our regulars made an appearance, plus a bonus goldcrest in the willow at the end of the garden.

Thirteen species in an hour with a goldcrest as the highlight bird is hardly the cutting edge of British birding, but I wouldn't want to spend that particular morning every year doing any but the Big Birdwatch. If you didn't this year, do make a date for next.

Sunday morning was a more traditional patch session, in fact my first proper one of the year. With only 90 minutes to spare I decided to work Napton Reservoir for the duration.

A quiet start left me with little more than 3 gadwall and a male pochard as standouts among the coots (c80), tufted ducks and mallards (c30 each). It was also good to see a pair of great crested grebe in a few moments of courtship dance.

But things really brightened up when I left the bankside and walked the nearby fields. Here I was able to answer the question: ‘where are all the redwings, fieldfare and finches?’

In fact the answer lay pretty much in one field, which held easily 100+ redwings, with 50+ startling and 20+ fieldfare dotted throughout, all feeding furiously on the recently unfrozen soil. A biggish goldfinch flock was the standout among the remaining mix of finches, sparrows, tits and other regulars. It was a vibrant and exciting place to stand for 20 minutes as birds moved hither and thither around me – the only disappointment being again my inability to turn any of the finches into a brambling (despite a bullfinch’s white rump, which did its normal trick of momentarily raising the heart rate while scanning a small chaffinch flock).

After weeks away from the patch, this was an engrossing interlude. Nothing stellar turned up, but a morning total of 35 species is far from shabby for a single site visit on my patch.

So, after last week’s slow-start moan, this week sees things a touch back on track – a total of 48 species hardly makes it a stellar January (let’s be honest, it doesn’t even make a stellar morning), but I’m back and at it and that’s what counts.

Bird of the weekend: Goldcrest (Regulus regulus), the UK’s smallest bird. A common enough species, but can be hard to track down, due to its tiny size and its fast-moving habits. A welcome bonus on a garden birdwatch.

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