22 May 2021

This month I Spotted Flycatcher

The patch has been wet - very wet - for most of May. And when it hasn't been wet, it's been cold and/or windy.


I definitely underestimated the cold (just 3 degrees centigrade) when I set off at 6am on 1st May for a walk around the full perimeter of the village patch - down to Whitnash Brook, past Crown Hill to the Fosse, and back again. 

But if the weather conditions were in in stark contrast to those of a year ago, the birds didn't seem to mind much. My morning haul was pretty much the same as it had been 12 months earlier, a mix of year-round farmland birds (Skylark, Yellowhammer and Linnet) and the newly returned warblers (Chiffchaffs, Whitethoat and a single Lesser Whitethroat). 

The only less regular sightings were a Red-Legged Partridge and a Roe Deer, although pleasingly there did seem to be more Swallows around this year. I counted 7 in all, so fingers crossed that the wet weather we've had since then hasn't set their breeding season back too badly.

By contrast with that cold and grey morning trudge through some very muddy fields, Leam Valley nature reserve was looking glorious when I visited on 16th May. A welcome break in the weather, however brief, meant I got to see the site in its spring best - hawthorn bursting into blossom, red campion and speedwell joining the late bluebells, and the meadow a riot of yellow with buttercups, dandelions and cowslips.

Here's one I snapped earlier (2010 in fact)...
a Spotted Flycatcher at Napton Church

Some days are just good birding days, and this was one. As well as the decent weather, I found myself in just the right frame of mind to take my time, check out every sight and sound, and properly savour the day. 

As a result I probably watched as many birds - not species, just individual birds - as on any trip in recent memory. 

The morning started with a line of Canada Geese swimming towards the Radford Road bridge, mum and dad front and back, casting careful glances around for anything which might harm the two goslings lined up between them. It finished with a handsome male Reed Bunting singing atop a stem in Radford Meadow.

And in between there were highlights aplenty:a Nuthatch low on the riverside willows; a male Bullfinch feeding and whistling softly in the hawthorn scrub; a pair of Swallows criss-crossing a paddock; some obligingly showy Reed Warbles in good voice; and a Little Grebe teaching its chick to feed with constant diving, first one, then the other, then both together. 

But my favourite find was real testimony to the benefits of slow birding, thoughful birding or, as one book suggests*, mindful birding. Because today, in a reserve full of blackcaps and blackcap song, I didn't simply chalk a little brown warbler-sized bird down as a female blackcap and move on. 

Instead I watched it for a bit until it emerged out of the shadows, revealing first a streaked chin, then two-tone marking along the primary feathers and finally, as it turned towards me, a streaked crown. It was a Spotted Flycatcher, a bird I've seen in various parts of my patch before (albeit in depressingly reduced numbers in recent years) but never at Leam Valley. 

These characterful little birds are always late returners to the UK, often as late as mid May, so this bird could still be on passage northwards, or it may have settled here for the summer. Either way, after a few 'nothing special' trips it was a welcome reminder to take time to appreciate every individual bird and to take nothing for granted.  

*The Art of Mindful Birdwatching by Claire Thompson, a lovely book about the aspects of birdwatching which I think are probably the most important (and often, sadly, the most neglected).

8 May 2021

Special places

Wherever you are in Britain, you are unlikely to live far from a nature reserve.

These vary dramatically in scale and ambition, from tiny local reserves on the outskirts of towns and villages through to major sites of global significance. The creation of reserves has been the backbone of conservation work in the UK for many decades, and together they form a precious patchwork of protected sites across an increasingly nature-depleted country.

Warwickshire Wildlife Trust (WWT) manages more than 65 reserves, several of which form part of my regular patch - Leam Valley, Ufton Fields and Whitnash Brook. But a few days of fine and dry (although far from warm) weather at the tail end of April gave me a chance to explore a few of those reserves which I'd not yet visited, despite their being within a few miles of home.

Bishops Hill is one of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust's newest reserves, acquired in 2018. At 16 hectares it was ideal for a late afternoon walk in the sun. 

The signature habitat is the hill itself, an expanse of unimproved grassland already bursting with early season wildflowers but soon to erupt full of life with butterflies and other invertebrates (a passing Orange Tip was a hint of what is to come).

But beyond the hill is also a fabulous mosaic of scrub and mature woodland, plus the mysterious and beautiful Blue Pool. Even at this time of the afternoon there were plenty of birds around, most notably a good number of Willow Warbler which we heard as we toured the site. 

The next trip was to a trio of sites which have in recent years extended the already magnificent Brandon Marsh nature reserve, the jewel in Warwickshire Wildlife Trust's crown on the outskirts of Coventry.

Brandon Reach
The ancient woodand of Piles Coppice
is the newest of these, acquired in 2019. A mix of rough grassland, scrub and woodland, this land links Brandon with two other reserves - the longer established Claybrookes Marsh and the ancient woodland of Piles Coppice.

Claybrookes Marsh is a great example of a post industrial site turned good, having for most of the 20th century been the railhead for Binley Colliery. Once it fell into disuse and started to return to its natural marsh and grasslands, the discovery of 49 species of nationally and regionally scarce insect species saved it from redevelopment and secured its designation as an SSSI. Now it sits squeezed between a housing estate and the busy A45 as the unlikely home of a remakable diversity of wildflowers, amphibians and insects (including up to a dozen different dragonfly species in the summer).

There's nothing quite like
a spring carpet of bluebells
Finally we finished at Piles Coppice, a world away from the post industrial. This is ancient woodland of great beauty, the bluebells and celandine resplendent at this time of year. Despite being just a few miles from the centre of Coventry (as the Nuthatch flies), it is hard to imagine being anywhere more beautiful and tranquil.

These special places are just a few of the many sites already protected and managed for nature by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust. Excitingly, having acquired and protected more than 65 such sites across Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull over the last 50 years, the trust is now moving into a new phase in its work. 

This new strategy will see it acquring and managing places which aren't necessarily special for nature yet, but have the potential to become special. Habitat creation offers the chance to not just manage the decline in nature in Warwickshire but reverse it, with huge benefits not just for nature and the environment but also the well-being of all of us who live here.

The potential to grow these fragmented jewels into larger reserves, with sufficient scale and connectivity to make a real impact on Warwickshire's natural environment and biodiversity, underlines once again why it has always been so important to me to be a supporter, a member and now a volunteer with the trust.

Warwickshire Wildlife Trust's Nature Recovery Fund appeal is aiming to raise £3m towards this ambitious and exciting programme of land acquistion and habitat creation. You can find details at www.warwickshirewildlifetrust.org.uk/appeal and I have no hesitation in encouraging anyone with a love of Warwickshire's natural environment to consider giving something towards this vision of what this fabulous county of ours could become in the not-so-distant future. 


24 April 2021

Comings and goings at Napton

Napton, with its small reservoir and locally significant hill, has proven itself over many years to be the most productive part of my patch for migrating birds.

The reservoir in particular acts as a magnet for new arrivals, as well as those gathering to leave or  simply passing through on their way to somewhere else. 

My two April visits, while contrasting in conditions, both lived up to this billing.

A low single figure temperature and biting NE wind made my first trip, on 2 April, a demanding one. Fortunately, it was immediately apparent that some early summer visitors hadn't been deterred. 

A flock of 50+ hirundines swooped low over and around the water, mainly Swallows with a handful of Sand Martins and at least one House Martin.

Three Chiffchaffs sang out around the reservoir, these having been back in the area for a good couple of weeks (this year's first being on 14 March at Leam Valley reserve).  

Perhaps best of all, in a patch not noted for its wading birds, was a Common Sandpiper (or possibly two), bobbing and darting from bank to bank as it made its way around the margins.

A fortnight later (14 April) and it was all change. The weather was transformed to warmth and calm, and the hirundines no longer swarmed across the water (having no doubt dispersed in pairs to their local breeding territories). 

In their place, at least two Willow Warblers had arrived. This was a welcome surprise, since I don't hear the beautiful call of this bird anywhere near enough on my patch, it's numbers having declined markedly in the 20 or so years I've been here.

Another bird which should be much more common than it is is the Yellow Wagtail. Decades ago this would have been a reasonably reliable summer sighting across Warwickshire's farmland, but the few that we have left now are best spotted during spring and autumn migration in hotspots like Napton and (especially) nearby Draycote reservoirs. A single bird running along the bank here was enough to remind me why these sparkling little yellow and green gems are such a favourite of mine. 

The final sign of the twice-yearly wonder that is bird migration came not in the form of a new arrival but as preparations for a mass departure. As if from nowhere 100+ Common Gulls descended on the reservoir, wheeling over the water in a tight ball for 10 minutes before heading off. These are birds which have overwintered inland (perhaps on this very site) and are now on their way back to the coast for summer breeding - almost certainly the last of the patch's winter visitors to begin this return trip.

Aside from the comings and goings of migration there have been plenty more sights and sounds to enjoy at Napton in early April: a Red Kite soaring eastwards to avoid the attentions of mobbing Jackdaws; three pairs of elegantly courting Great Crested Grebes; a small flock of Meadow Pipits; pairs of Grey Heron and Cormorant; and handsome male Reed Buntings in and around the reservoir's substantial reed bed.

16 April 2021

We're all patch birders now...

My last birding challenge – to see 200 species in a year – came to ‘a juddering halt’ in April 2018 as a result of a few changes in my personal and professional life. My latest birding challenge was triggered by changes of an altogether more global and profound nature – the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown. 

The first UK lockdown began on 23rd March 2020 and continued, in one form or another, for much longer than any of us ever imagined. The consequences were vast and varied; in many ways this was a shared and common experience and yet, at the same time, everyone’s lockdown was unique and personal to themselves. One thing which did seem to bring people together was nature, as increasing numbers used their daily one-hour allowance for outdoor exercise to connect with the world around them as a refuge from these strange and frightening times.

On a personal level, the lockdown meant my birding world shrunk from the county, the country and occasionally even the world, right down to the core of my local patch – only those areas which could be reached in a walk of an hour or so. In practical terms this means the mid-Warwickshire village of Radford Semele; the fields and farmland to the south and west; the Whitnash Brook local nature reserve; a short stretch of the Grand Union Canal; and, as restrictions eased a little, Newbold Comyn and the Leam Valley nature reserve. 

Kestrel, Radford Semele
A churchyard Kestrel
Remarkably, these restrictions were to prove instrumental in one of my most interesting and enjoyable birding years of recent years. As the family walk became a pivotal part of our daily routine, every detail of the natural world around us was noted and savoured, day by day, week by week. As a result, my birding diaries now have have page after page of local records where they might normally have held just a few sections, dotted among the accounts from further afield. 

The result of all this extra attention was a total of 72 bird species found on this little modest patch of land in just 12 months. This may seem to you a lot or a little, depending on your own local patch and experience. In my case, it was many more than I would have thought possible. I’m not going to try to capture here the day-to-day experience of building this list, but I will include just a few highlights. If nothing else, these might serve as an illustration – and perhaps a reminder to my future self – of what can be achieved on the most ordinary of local patches, away from the big and popular birdwatching sites. 

This selection of highlights in no particular order, but starts with the first surprise of lockdown, way back in March 2020. 

1. Golden Plover: I have in the past caught distant glimpses of Golden Plover flocks in winter fields around Warwickshire, but never near the village. Within days of lockdown starting we found a flock of 40+ birds in a stubble field less than half a mile of my home. 

2. Red Kite: Another bird that I have occasionally seen in Warwickshire but never very close to home. The first flew across the Radford Road early in lockdown, following the line of the Grand Union canal. As the year wore on we spotted others even closer to the village – culminating in the one that flew slowly outside my bedroom window just a couple of weeks ago! 

3. Mandarin Duck: It would have been a long shot to have anticipated this bird in Whitnash Brook or Leam Valley, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to be astonished to find a glorious male parading for several weeks along the Grand Union Canal near Sydenham Drive. 

4. Grasshopper Warbler: This was definitely a bit special – not just a lockdown treat and a patch first, but a lifetime first! Having eluded me on nature reserves up and down the land (not enough early starts perhaps), this fabulous little bird was found ‘reeling’ (the name for its high-pitched, insect-like ‘fishing reel’ song) and occasionally hopping up into view on scrub less than a mile from my house. This was a great example of the benefit of reduced traffic noise – who knows if I would have heard it at all if the nearby road had been full of traffic? 

5. Mistle Thrush: This bird is real favourite of mine, which sadly hasn’t been at all regular around the patch in recent years. But 2020 was the year in which a pair decided to nest near my garden and spend a lot of highly visible and noisy time patrolling a vast territory (typical for the species) which seemed to cover at least half the village plus nearby fields. 

Close to home -
a garden Sparrowhawk
6. Lapwing: With such a limited amount of standing water on my patch, wading birds were always going to be short supply. So I was pretty chuffed when half-a-dozen Lapwing flew lowish over my garden in early June. You can imagine that I was even more pleased the following February when I found an excellent winter flock of 66 birds feeding in fields at the farthest end of the patch.

7. Raptors: Birds of pretty are always thrilling, but encounters are often fleeting. As well as the aforementioned Red Kites, the increased amount of time I’ve spent on the patch has belped be connect not just with our ubiquitous Buzzards but also a pair of churchyard Kestrels, Sparrowhawks dashing around the village (and occasionally my garden), a Peregrine Falcon making its way towards Leamington (where we watched via webcam a pair successfully nesting and raising chicks on the town hall), night-calling Tawny Owls (although still none sighted), and a first-ever patch Hobby, flying low over nearby farmland. 

8. Starling, Fieldfare & Redwing: To underline the fact that many of my best birding moments haven't been about rare or uncommon species, this triumvirate of common winter birds were thrilling right the way through the darkest, coldest and most difficult months of the year. The winter gathers of Redwings (300+), Fieldfare (200+) and Starlings (well over 500 at some points) in the fields, hedgerows and treetops of Crown Hill were noisy, chaotic and marvellous to behold.

So these are just a few of the birding moments which have helped brighten a challenging year, but I could equally have picked others: the Whitnash Brook Little Egret; the nesting Lesser Whitethroats and Little Grebes; the lone Siskin; the ever-increasing number of Ravens; and even the village’s first Ring-necked Parakeet. All are birds I suspect I would have missed at any other time and in any other circumstances (except perhaps the parakeet – to be fair, that one made itself typically conspicuous to the entire village).

It hasn't all been birds!
There hasn’t been much of celebrate over the past 12 months, but ‘patch’ birding has been a continuous source of comfort, escape and inspiration to me. My aim now is to keep this love of local alive and, through that, to refocus this blog back on its original purpose (set all the way back in 2004) as the notes and diary of an enthusiastic, if occasional and very-much amateur, patch birder.

29 June 2018

A last hurrah

Plans for a big year of 200+ bird species came to a juddering halt in April with a substantial change in my working arrangements and obligations. Plus ca change, plus ca meme chose...

No matter, there will be other years. And while very little has happened since my last post, I did at least manage an Easter trip to Titchwell RSPB in Norfolk where a handful of species were added to the year list - Cuckoo, Greenshank, Med Gull, Little Gull, Sanderling, Brent Goose and Ruddy Shelduck.

The year total at the end of that trip stood at 124, with no further progress since.

200 for the year now looks unlikely, but the whole excercise has already proved more than worthwhile for the Winter and early Spring experiences alone.

8 April 2018

Plan B

Sometimes the best birding days are the ones which start the worst.

With rain threatening later in the morning, I resolved to rise early and attack as much of the Draycote Reservoir site as I could before the cyclist, joggers and dog walkers arrived.

Oversleeping until 8am wasn't a great start, but arriving to find a fun run in its early stages was significantly worse. I didn't care how many avian riches the site may have been holding, I needed a Plan B.

I chose nearby Napton Reservoir in the hope of one or two Spring migrants, but I arrived to find it apparently barren of birds and also shorn to within an inch of its life by an overzealous chainsaw attack around the margins on two sides. I'm sure there's a good reason for this (it's happened once before in recent years) but I'm at a loss to see what it is.

Anyway, on with the birding. It was painfully slow to start with, but I perservered with a full circuit and eventually dug out my first Sedge Warbler of the year, skulking in the reeds at the very back of the site.

A good sized group of Swallows, perhaps a dozen in all, arrived shortly after, their ebulliant clicks and chirps the most welcome sound imaginable. 

With the arrival of an early Common Tern things were clearly picking up, and although rain was now threatening I resolved to hang on a bit longer and see if I could relocate an unidentified wagtail I'd glimpsed half an hour earlier. Patience was soon rewarded as an immaculate Yellow Wagtail landed not 20 yards from me, and then proceeded to show well for the next 10 minutes or more.

Add to all of that some great views of a female Sparrowhawk, a Bullfinch pair, a singing Blackcap, Reed Buntings right across the site and some gorgeous Skylark display flights, and you have a wonderful day forged from the least promising of beginnings.

Four year ticks take my 2018 total to 113.

Bird of the day: Yellow Wagtail (Motacilla flava), a bird I absolutely adore. Absolutely immaculate at this time of year, with its breast and underparts a brilliant yellow that puts even a Yellowhammer in the shade. Can be hard to find around here as a breeding bird, but slightly easier during Spring or Autumn migration. Nearby Draycote is a favoured site, this is my first (I think) at Napton.

25 March 2018

Goodbye GMT, hello GWT...

Middleton Lakes continues to take top local honours in my search for 200 species in 2018.

It seems that this relatively new (to me, anyway) RSPB reserve in the far north of Warwickshire (and far south of Staffordshire or course) scores most regularly when I scan Twitter on a Saturday night looking for interesting prospects for a Sunday morning trip.

This week was no exception, with a report of a Green-winged Teal on the Jubilee scrape being a real eye-catcher. It has been at least a decade since I last saw a GWT and it would be a great one to get 'in the bag' for the year list.

With the clocks 'springing forward' overnight I arrived later than I might have liked, only to hear the dread phrase: "The Green-winged Teal was just there until about 10 minutes ago; then everything went up."

"Should still be here somewhere though," said someone else, encouragingly.

In the end it took a good half hour to relocate, but then I was able to enjoy great views of this Nearctic visitor in bright sunshine, along with a spread of waders including six recently returned Avocets, three Black-tailed Godwits, a few Redshanks, Oystercatcher, five Dunlin and a Little Ringed Plover (the latter another year tick).

With a roadside sighting of Red-legged Partridge on the journey, plus the sudden realisation I hadn't yet added Reed Bunting to my year list, the 2018 total - like the clocks - sprung forward. It has now reached 107.

I'm still not convinced 200 is a realistic target, but it's definitely keeping things interesting. And with all the summer regulars except Chiffchaff still to come, the total should see some further leaps forward over the coming weeks.