Sunday, 26 March 2017

Jewel of the Woods 25th March 2017

A cold wind blew today but it was impossible to feel downbeat as the sun was shining from an unsullied blue sky. To avoid the worst of the wind I went to some woods near to me that were a mixture of dark conifers and still bare limbed, deciduous trees. The sunlight shone bright and strong from on high creating ripples of light on the floor of the wood as it permeated through the green fronds of the conifers and the skeletal boughs and twigs of the deciduous trees. A lemon yellow, male Brimstone flew in a fast, flickering flight, threading its way through the tree trunks and passed across the bare earthen brown and occasionally green brambled  floor of the wood. Looking up through the trees the intense blue of the sky showed as random patches of bright colour in the spaces between the wind disturbed tree tops and the sun's intensity created a hard white light that caused me to shade my eyes,

This morning it was as though the dark heart and hidden recesses of the wood that had laid dormant through Winter were now being laid open by the streaming rays of the sun welcoming Spring and the chilling wind was banished to the very tops of the trees. It was consequently quiet and undisturbed underneath the trees and only the sound of invisible birds came to me from high above in the tree tops. On a corner of a green ride bejewelled with the star like yellow flowers of celandines in the grass, the sound of finches came from some large Alders, their upper reaches heavy laden with a confused jumble of tangled twigs and small knobbled cones. Looking up I could at first see nothing, as the finches were tiny and hidden in the tangle of cones but every so often a bird would fly to another branch, changing its position and as it did so betray its presence.

Looking up in the binoculars I would find it and almost certainly I would then find its companions all busily feeding on the seeds of the cones. Lesser Redpolls, Siskins and Goldfinches were amicably sharing the tree tops keeping up a constant conversational twittering in the case of the Goldfinches whilst the Siskins communicated in that melancholic whistle of theirs and the Lesser Redpolls responded with a dry rattling trill. Each call distinctive and making it un-necessary to see the bird if one knew the various calls.

I moved onwards and the faint, high, sibilant calls of a pair of Goldcrests came to me from the conifers. Tiny, dull moss green and grey birds with a golden yellow crown in the case of the male and a plain yellow crown for the female. Their song and calls are of such a high register that they are often impossible to hear after we reach a certain age but although I am a fair way beyond the age when it is considered beyond my powers, I can thankfully still hear them. There were today, however, two very similar songs coming from the trees and to my delight I realised that the other song was that of a Firecrest.

It took some time to find it, as it is no easy task finding a bird less than the size of my thumb in the dense spiky green needles of the conifers and I only located it when it flitted from a dark conifer onto the bare twigs of a spindly deciduous tree growing in the understorey. 

Often one only sees Goldcrests and Firecrests for a brief moment, as minute silhouettes against the light or as tiny scraps of life easily mistaken for a falling leaf as they  move high up from one tree to another but occasionally they will come lower and can be seen at head height and exceptionally even lower in the low growing bramble leaves that grow under some of the trees.

They are constantly on the move, never ever still, as they endlessly search every leaf and conifer frond for food to sustain their hyperactive life. Today I was very fortunate as a pair of Firecrests gradually  came lower and lower until they were just above my head and flitted around on some bare twigs before one descended almost to the ground, hunting through some bramble leaves growing around a tree trunk.

Firecrests are beautiful, in fact they are breathtakingly beautiful. Similar to a Goldcrest in size but there the similarity ends as although the patterning of the two species is superficially similar the overall colouring of the Firecrest is so much more intense, with the green on their back suffused with yellow and unlike the plain faced Goldcrest, the Firecrest's face has a strikingly smart combination of white above and below the eye with a black stripe running through the eye, and possessing a black crown in the centre of which is a crest that really is on fire, being bright orange yellow with a centre of burning red. They are the crown jewel of any wood they inhabit. Always eagerly sought after and like any elusive bird, they require dedication, a considerable amount of luck and some perseverance to see them well.

Today I found my feathered jewel and although I could not keep it at least I managed to capture it on camera and so keep the memory alive.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Hunting the Buntings 23rd March 2017

On the RSPB's large reserve at Otmoor in Oxfordshire there is only one Hide, The Wetlands Hide which lies just fifty metres along a wide footpath come track leading off from the main bridleway that crosses the reserve.

The footpath seen from The Wetlands Hide
The footpath is relatively undisturbed and the RSPB and its volunteer wardens have spread seed along the footpath by the Hide to attract finches and buntings which has been very successful and consequently this allows visitors to the Hide to get close up views of, at peak times in winter, a flock of several hundred buntings and finches that come to the seed. Naturally the seed also attracts other species and this afternoon a male Pheasant and some Stock Doves were also taking advantage.

Today was a day of mixed weather, with periods of cloud and then sunshine accompanied by a strong, blustery, cold northeast wind and after a rather strenuous and over ambitious session in the gym this morning, it seemed a good day to sit in the Hide and observe the comings and goings of the finch and bunting flock now somewhat diminished in numbers from its peak in mid winter

By far the most plentiful species making up the flock were the Reed Buntings, there must have been in excess of fifty, the majority males with just a few females present. Why this should be so I have no idea but have noticed this phenomenon before and sometimes the roles have been reversed and there are more females than males.

Female Reed Bunting

The feeding flock regularly took alarm and would fly off, sometimes for good reason, as a female Sparrowhawk flew fast and low along the track hunting for any unwary bird to seize but as far as I could see on the three passes she made while I was around she was unsuccessful. The Reed Buntings were always the first to return, landing in the small hedgerow hawthorns or on the barbed wire fence along the edge of the track and would sit nervously with tails flicking open to reveal their white edges until one of their number would take courage and descend to the ground to feed, whereupon the rest would follow. Many of the males were now in almost full breeding plumage but on closer inspection it could be seen they were still showing a bit of brown or grizzled white winter feathering in the black of their heads and chins, some more so than others.

Male Reed Buntings
With the return of the Reed Buntings the other species would eventually follow, in order it was usually the Chaffinches, then the Goldfinches, a flock of Linnets which kept very much to themselves and did everything together and finally the Yellowhammers. Last but by no means least and the main reason for my going to the Hide in the first place.

Male Chaffinch
It was instructive to note the difference in bill shape of the Yellowhammers compared to the finches, in that the Yellowhammers display an upper mandible that is rather flat on the top giving a distinctive slightly asymmetrical shape to the bill. I have also noticed this in Snow and Lapland Buntings too. The finches by contrast have a convex shape to their upper mandible giving the bill a conical satisfying and symmetrical look.

The Goldfinches were an absolute delight, landing as a small flock of around ten or more birds on the thin topmost twigs of the small, budding hawthorns, twittering and tinkling their rapid conversational notes to each other. Their demure size only serves to accentuate their innate attractiveness. When seen so close the mixture of lovely colours in their plumage makes me wonder why I so take them for granted.Their face a combination of red, white and black and their wings flashing golden yellow with prominent white spots at the tips of the black wing and tail feathers.


The Linnets were by far the most nervy and least inclined to settle of all the birds feeding here. Maybe it is because they are so used to being in a tight flock and it only takes one bird to be alarmed for the rest to immediately follow and disappear into the wide windswept sky, their hard contact notes urging each other on. Towards the  end of my two hour vigil in the Hide only a few Linnets were coming back to the seed and then they seemed less nervous than when in a flock, although still very wary. A male perched on a hawthorn twig, unsure of whether to descend to the ground and sat for a minute or two. He was well into acquiring his breeding plumage with a breast heavily suffused with rose pink but his grey forehead had yet to acquire a similar colouring, being still obscured by the grey brown fringes of the feathering which will now rapidly wear away to reveal the pink. Here is another bird whose subtle beauty is only apparent when seen close up. The white in the wing and tail feathers bringing variety to the brown upperparts, streaked buff underparts and grey head of the more dowdy female.

Male Linnet

Female Linnet
The Yellowhammers were very much in the minority and as befits the brief interludes when they were present, very much the stars. I could only see two males and two females, possibly they were two pairs. After a general alarm resulting in the flock of finches and buntings dispersing they were always the last to return and would perch for a considerable time in the bushes, the most wary of all the birds, unsure, and often would fly off again without feeding. On one occasion only, a male did descend to the ground and feed with the other birds and this was my opportunity to get some images. The males are in my opinion one of the more unappreciated when it comes to beauty of plumage.The bright yellow of their head and upper breast positively glows in the sunlight and often when you see them sat at the top of a bush in spring and summer it is their bright yellow head, almost disembodied, that gives them away in the fresh green leaves which hide the rest of their body. Their upper body is rich brown streaked with darker brown but their rump is a much brighter and rich, orange brown. Quite beautiful.

Male Yellowhammer
As a species they are, like so many of our birds associated with agriculture having a hard time of it and their numbers are declining alarmingly. This may be why they are so few in number at Otmoor and today, although I realised there was little I could do about this, at least I could enjoy the beauty of the two males that graced this little corner of Otmoor. So thank you RSPB, once again.

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Old Frank 17th March 2017

A morning of sunshine was made less enjoyable by a strong, bitingly cold westerly wind as I commenced walking with Dai up the Causeway of Farmoor Reservoir. A Little Egret stood close to us by the water's edge. its all white body dazzling in the morning sun and now showing the delicate, long aigrettes on its lower back that appear during the breeding season and from whence its name comes. 

At the furthest end of the Causeway it was calmer, more sheltered from the wind and a flock of some fifty Sand Martins, newly arrived, hunted insects in twisting roller coaster flight  over the water but soon moved on, flying indominantly into the wind.

Dai and myself parted company and I made for the Hide at Pinkhill which would afford shelter from the cold wind. Ensconced in the Hide on my own, I relaxed and looked out on the familiar scene of Pinkhill Reserve with its sedge and reed periphery that encompasses a small expanse of clear water in its centre.

Reed Buntings, Great and Blue Tits were busy below the feeders that are situated just by the hide, picking up fallen seed on the wet margins. Four Gadwall were pecking at a large patch of weed out on the water. Three males and a female, two of the males trying it on with the already paired female whose partner fended off the amorous rivals with the occasional lunge, voicing its objection with a ridiculous duck decoy call that substitutes in a Gadwall's world for the traditional quack. The drakes in their breeding plumage and seen from a distance look drab and it is only on closer examination of their plumage that the subtle beauty and complicated vermiculations and matching of colours and patterns becomes apparent. The female is very much like a female Mallard but has an orange lower mandible and a grizzled, less strongly patterned head, similar to the drake

Male Reed Bunting

Drake Gadwall

Gadwall pair
Two other ducks near to them, dull brown and unremarkable had me looking closer only to find they were two female Wigeon which are unusual here. Tiring of the disturbance from the ardent Gadwalls they swam languidly away before finding some quieter water where they put their bills into their scapulars and went to sleep.

Female Eurasian Wigeon

It was going to be a quiet day on Pinkhill. There was no sign of any of the Water Rails which have been such a feature here for the last few weeks but are now much more circumspect about coming out into the open due to recent conservation work having removed a large proportion of the encroaching sedge that they loved to hide in.

Why is this blog entitled Old Frank? Well that is an old country name for the Grey Heron and is onomatopieoc in that 'frank' sounds a bit like one of the heron's commoner vocalisations. Most of us are familiar with the Grey Heron as they are not inconspicuous and come into contact with us in varied situations be it in  parks, on rocky seashores, raiding garden goldfish ponds, roosting like grey statues in grass fields or rising unexpectedly from lakesides or ditches in which they have been hunting. They nest colonially in trees and can be very obvious as the nest is built and eggs are laid well before the leaves have come out on the trees.There is a nesting colony on the main island at Dix Pit at Stanton Harcourt, not too far from Pinkhill and probably that is where the heron that regularly visits Pinkhill comes from and of which I am going to relate an encounter.

Looking idly at the dead reeds on the far bank illuminated by the sun and reflecting golden on the water, my eyes focused on a Grey Heron that stalked into view, up to its belly in the water, wading slowly but with purpose, before coming to a halt opposite the Hide. It stood absolutely still, could it see me or was it looking for its prey? I dared not move and for a minute or two it was in the balance but then the heron allayed my concern by craning a long sinuous neck and pointing its bill at the water. It was clearly intent on fishing, a picture of concentration and focus, still as a statue with its long neck and narrow head projecting its formidable bill towards the water's surface. 

They are large birds, almost the size of a Golden Eagle and  fly slowly, in almost stately fashion, on broad, bowed and rounded grey wings contrasting with their otherwise angular and thin body, all neck and legs. The neck, sunk into the shoulders in repose uncoils like a snake and at its fullest extent can extend the head and bill a considerable way out over the water in readiness to make a lightening stab at any unfortunate fish that should swim too near.

The heron was not having much success as a series of unsuccessful lunges, where its entire head was submerged before being retracted and shook free of water evidenced, but its persistence was eventually rewarded when, with another unleashing of neck and bill it hit the water with a splash and its head re-emerged with a fish in its bill. The unfortunate fish was very unlucky in that it had almost evaded capture as the heron had only just seized it by the tail but there was no escape from the mandibles grip and there would be little doubt about the inevitable outcome.

The fish was a small Perch, its red fins, olive body with dark bands, distinctive and clearly visible in the sunlight as it hung from the heron's bill and no amount of writhing and twisting was going to save it. The heron stood for a while, as if contemplating how to get the fish into its throat without dropping it back into the water. It moved a few tentative steps in the water towards the sedge and reeds, as herons will often take a fish such as this to dry land so it cannot escape and they can deal with it more easily. But this was not an option here as there was no suitable dry land, just water, sedge and reeds.

It stood for a little time more looking slightly ridiculous with the fish still hanging from its bill, a baselisk eye in its narrow head, pitiless and devoid of  expression, staring bright yellow in the sun before suddenly, with a dexterity that belied its size, released the fish but before it hit the water caught it again sideways and not without some difficulty swallowed the fish whole, moving the fish down its throat and neck with a series of jerking gulps.

The passage of the fish down its neck was clearly visible as a slowly descending bulge before it was gone. The heron stood motionless in the water for a minute, no doubt savouring the fish and then resumed fishing, its hunger still not abated despite the size of the fish it had swallowed.