Tuesday 8 March 2022

Back to the Forest 5th March 2022

The Forest of Dean has always been my first choice to see Hawfinches, that most charismatic of  birds. In previous posts I have explained what it takes to see them see here and why I do it but today, on another visit to the forest, it was not Hawfinches that I hoped to see but Bramblings.

Bramblings come to Britain from Scandinavia and Russia, fleeing the harsh conditions of winter there to spend their time in Britain and other European countries where the winter is milder. Some years they are present in greater numbers than others and this winter has been a good one for them in Britain. In my home county of Oxfordshire they have been widely reported and in Surrey a flock of one thousand or more has been recorded from a weedy field earlier this year.This pales into insignificance to flocks of millions that have occasionally occurred  in winter in various central European countries but sadly not in Britain

I think it is fair to say that most birders find a sense of fulfilment on seeing a Brambling, Scandinavia's version of our Chaffinch.They are a bird worthy of comment as they can be scarce and elusive, often found in flocks of Chaffinches where they are always in the minority. Combine this with the fact they are pleasingly colourful, more so than our Chaffinch, whose muted colours are less striking, and you can understand the attraction. So it is that Bramblings are unreservedly welcomed with their bright and variegated plumage, which  slowly becomes ever brighter as the days lengthen and we move into Spring.

At this time of year they are adopting their breeding plumage and the male Brambling in particular shows a combination of bold colours; bright orange breast and flanks, orange and black wings, a grey/black head and white underparts. The fringes to all the feathers but particularly the head will soon wear away leaving a finch with a black head and mantle and underparts of orange and white.The female is similarly patterned but is very much more muted in her colouration and never attains a black head, which remains grey throughout the year. A female Chaffinch is positively dowdy in comparison being  dull olive brown with only white wing bars, outer tail feathers and a moss green rump as a relief to her overall drabness. On flying, both Brambling sexes display a distinctive white rump which makes them instantly distinguishable in a mixed finch flock.

Female Brambling

Male Brambling

I arrived in the forest half an hour after dawn as the place I had in mind, Parkend Church, is well known to birders and photographers alike and it is essential to arrive early to secure the optimum viewing spot. As with The Green at Parkend where I go to see the Hawfinches, it is essential to remain in one's car in order to not dissuade the birds from coming down to the seed that is scattered by one and all to attract them.

Parkend Church is situated at the top of a small hill overlooking the former industrial village of Parkend and is situated in a quiet and rural wooded area at the furthest reach of a dead end road with a turning area and a small cemetry on the opposite side to the church. This is where you park, at the side of the road, to scan the turning area and verge by the church wall, both scattered with seed to attract Bramblings and if you are very lucky, one or more Hawfinches. A series of shallow puddles formed by worn away holes in the turning area can sometimes also tempt down Crossbills, thirsty from eating the dry seeds of fir cones, to drink from them.

I brought with me a bag of sunflower seeds, peanuts and smaller grains and after positioning my car under a mighty Oak, cast an assortment of seeds on the ground a few metres away from the car and sat back to await developments. I like this time, when anything can happen or just as likely not.The sense of anticipation about what species of bird could arrive at any moment is akin to seawatching except it is land birds that one awaits.

I had come prepared for a long vigil and dressed accordingly in warm clothes.Thankfully the car would protect me from the worst of the cold wind and it was therefore not a hardship to sit with the car window wide open and camera at the ready.  

A few minutes later the first birds arrived from the surrounding trees and bushes, a Robin, as ever truculent and feisty and the customary Blackbirds. 

They were soon joined by a mix of male and female Chaffinches, busily bobbing along in short hops, nibbling tiny seeds in their bills as they progressed.The avian equivalent of food to go. 

A female Brambling with a male Chaffinch

A Jay was next to arrive, moving in giant bounding hops across the tarmac to collect peanuts, amassing  them in its bill, its arrival scattering the smaller birds. 

I could hear a Mistle Thrush, that like a wandering troubador was singing from somewhere near the church. It would undoubtedly be perched high in a tree, singing a song so ruminative and laconic it seemed to meander through the still bare boughs of the trees around me and dissolve into the cold morning air.

As I waited in the car my thoughts took me on a journey through time and space, far from this tranquil almost idyllic rural scene to a distant country suffering tyranny and horrific violence, inflicted upon its innocent people by a psychopathic monster of a human being, a bully and braggart consumed by hatred, jealousy, greed and a sense of inadequacy. I considered what the populace of Ukraine must be suffering at this very moment while I sat here in quiet and peaceful surroundings, comfortable in the knowledge that I and my loved ones live in an environment safe from threat and extreme fear. My emotions veered between anger and frustration that I was impotent to do anything  to help my fellow humans in their time of anguish, apart from send donations to charities and boycott Coca Cola and Costa. It seems so feeble but what else can one do? What madness is this that all the destruction and killing is to grab more land to subjugate when the world is spiralling to disaster through climate change and it will all be for nought. The futility of what is happening in Ukraine is just incomprehensible but then that is what hatred does, leading one beyond all reason.

Let us return to Parkend and the birds for now..................

Thankfully my depressing thoughts about Ukraine and a bloodthirsty tyrant were put on pause by the arrival of what I had been eagerly anticipating. A Brambling. A female admittedly but still enough to send a jolt of adrenalin through me. I raised the camera but at the same time the church clock chimed seven and the bird took alarm, and along with several Chaffinches fled into the surrounding bushes and trees. This was to be a regular feature of my stay, the birds descending from the trees but for only a few minutes before something, anything, alarmed them and they fled for shelter.It could be the church clock, the arrival of a crow or Jay, even a Goshawk overhead, the occasional dog walker or something unseen or unheard by myself cocooned in the car. All contributed to a continuous stop start presence and then absence of birds.

Their absence never lasted long though and the Robins were always first back, giving confidence to the Chaffinches whose presence on the ground in turn re-assured the Bramblings. I was on my own for the first hour, then another birder arrived and positioned her car behind mine.We waited. A female Siskin  dropped down, for seconds only, to drink from a puddle and a pair of Nuthatches began to visit, selecting choice sunflower seeds to fly off with and stash in the bark of the surrounding trees.

The sun began to creep up the hill, illuminating the tops of the trees lower down and finally reaching the church spire. The Mistle Thrush sang on, an endless rambling of mellifluous notes. 

Finally another Brambling arrived to join the Chaffinches. A male this time, distinctively orange amongst the darker pastel hues of the male Chaffinches, although not as obvious as you would imagine. It was joined by another two and this time there was to be no sudden departure, so I got my images although it was not long before another dread sent them hurrying back into the trees.

And so it went on, the Bramblings descending with the Chaffinches for a few minutes and then flying off in alarm. 

It only takes one individual to panic and the rest immediately and instinctively follow, before flying down again. The church clock tolled the hour and it was only ten in the morning.

I vowed that I would enjoy one more Brambling experience and then would leave. The Bramblings duly flew down ten minutes later, this time there were four, each bird distinctive, by way of subtle differences in their plumage, the various males especially identifiable by the degree of black or grey on their heads. In total I think I saw six different individuals, four males and two females, possibly there were more.

I cast a glance at the church clock. It was 1015. Then came a complete surprise. A shock even. I was photographing a male Brambling amongst a mix of Chaffinches, his golden flanks in stark contrast to the dark ground he was feeding on, when a Hawfinch suddenly dropped to the ground, presumably from the huge tree above me.  Its descent was so close I could hear the sound of its wings brrring the air as it came to earth. no more than two metres from my car. 

So unexpected and, totally enthralling, it stood on the ground four square, facing away and displaying that familiar bull neck and huge head, while taking a second or two to check all was well before commencing to feed on the sunflower seeds I had scattered on the ground. My camera of course went into overdrive and for once there was no need to worry about undue disturbance with no dog walker in sight or any other potential annoyance imminent.

The bird dwarfed the surrounding finches and fed continuously, hardly moving from the spot it had landed on. It was, for a Hawfinch, remarkably at ease in the open. I presumed it was emboldened by all the other birds feeding on the ground around it but when they took alarm at some perceived threat and fled, it crouched low to the ground but did not budge.The other birds soon came back and then, having gorged itself on sunflower seeds, it flew up and was gone. It was all over in two or three minutes. 

Of course any thoughts of leaving were summarily banished in the hope it or another Hawfinch would return. I waited until just before noon but was out of luck although I had many more close encounters with  the feeding Bramblings. 

Having had nothing to eat or drink for seven hours I drove downhill to the village to revive myself at Dean Forest Cycles cafe, an alternative to another favourite, The Postage Stamp Cafe, literally a few hundred metres further up the road. The Dean Forest cafe is a somewhat rustic affair and none the worse for that and although the establishment is primarily for refreshing bikers, selling biking gear and hiring out bikes to ride around in the forest, the very friendly staff make any visit very pleasurable and on a cold day they always have a wood burning stove to warm oneself by. What more can you ask for?

Recharged with a coffee and pasty and a warm  by the stove I decided to leave the forest and make my way home via Slimbridge. I fancied another chance to renew acquaintance with the long staying Glossy Ibis, which spends most of its time in a wet field by the beginning of the entrance road to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust.

When I arrived the ibis was conveniently feeding very close to the road and I joined a couple of others papping away at the ibis and got the images I desired in double quick time. They are such outlandish looking birds, almost prehistoric in appearance and with ever increasing numbers are now virtually resident in Britain. It surely cannot be long before they attempt to breed here.

If I am honest, although it was nice to see the ibis I felt that I had fallen under a spell at Parkend Church, my world restricted physically to the view from my car window and no more. I had, in my mind, retreated into  that small quiet area visited by the birds  and the busy environment around the ibis with a popular pub, many cars and a well used canal, all adjacent to the ibis, just did not seem to fit my mood.