Monday 29 January 2024

Double Gloucester 28th January 2024


Sunday. Its been a bit of a week. My birthday was yesterday. Surely there is some mistake. That number does not look right. Can I really be that old?

January always gets to me. The dark, the grey, the short days and still with February to come and more than likely to bring yet more gloom..

However the sun was shining this morning and there were Waxwings in nearby Cheltenham to delight and inspire.They had arrived yesterday in that part of the town, that was a former village called Charlton Kings, feeding on mistletoe that covered a large tree by the road. A half hour drive would get me there and then another short drive would take me on to Rodborough Common near Stroud where another thirty or more of the Scandinavian invaders were still, by all reports, delighting one and all. 

A double dose of Gloucestershire Waxwings would be the ideal antidote to any low spirits.

I set off from home at just after eight, and half an hour later drove down a narrow lane to find the mistletoe tree. I found it on the right, you could hardly miss it, a very obvious large tree completely swamped by mistletoe, so much so it looked as if it was in full leaf. Great bunches of mistletoe obscured every branch. I have never seen the like before. 

I stood on a narrow footpath feeling a tad conspicuous and self conscious as the houses were very close to the narrow lane and I felt sure the residents would be scrutinising this strange possibly suspicious person with a camera, shivering in the cold wind and looking - well for what exactly?

The Waxwings had only been discovered yesterday so possibly the residents were unaware of their presence.At this precise moment there was no sign of them. Certainly not in the mistletoe tree for a couple of aggressive Mistle Thrushes were currently commandeering the tree and were undoubtedly the reason for the absence of the Waxwings. 

I sighed. Just my luck. As long as the truculent Mistle Thrushes were around there would be no Waxwings.

I would have to wait and hope. I scanned the surrounding larger trees, visible at the backs of the houses, and behind the house on the opposite side of the lane to me, what did I discover but eighteeen starling sized silhouettes with crests, high in the bare branches of a large tree. I had found the Waxwings.

I stood waiting for them to make a move toward the mistletoe and as I did a lady jogger came up the lane and stopped by her drive. She enquired what I was looking for. I told her about the Waxwings and pointed to the tree opposite but they were no longer there! They had flown while I was briefly distracted by her arrival.

Never mind. We chatted about the Waxwings and then she asked if I would care for a coffee or tea.

That would be lovely. Thank you. Coffee with milk please.

She disappeared and returned with a mug of coffee.

Just leave the cup on the wall when you have finished

She went back indoors.

The man in the house opposite came out to ask me what I was looking for and I told him about the Waxwings that had been in the tree in his back garden.

Sadly they are not there now but they should return and feed on those mistletoe berries. 

I pointed to the tree. He was amazed and went back indoors.

A car came past and slowed, the driver asked me what I was looking for. I told him 

Oh! he said. I thought there was someone famous and you were a paparazzi.

There's no money in Waxwings. I said

We laughed and he drove off.

The Waxwings returned, circled the tree and flew off again.The Mistle Thrushes were still in the tree.

I waited for another ten minutes and with rattling calls the two Mistle Thrushes departed the tree and flew far away. Twenty minutes later the Waxwings tried again and this time settled high in the mistletoe tree and commenced scoffing the white berries of the mistletoe. I rang the man's doorbell in the house opposite to tell him about the Waxwings and.he came to see as did his wife.

Ten minutes of intense, chaotic Waxwing action continued and then for no accountable reason they departed.

I gave it another fifteen minutes and with faith restored in humanity by the good residents of this part of Charlton Kings I headed for Rodborough Common.

After my visit there last week see here I was anticipating a similar experience this time but I was to be disappointed.Unlike last week, on arriving at the Common there was no sign of any Waxwings, just a lot of people standing about waiting. The birds had been here yesterday and showing very well but today for reasons unknown were much more elusive and had only been seen once when they came briefly to feed on the hawthorn berries, drink from a puddle and then promptly disappear. 

I saw Mark, a fellow Oxonbirder, approaching and joining him learned that despite his searching the Common the Waxwings could not be found anywhere. Oh dear, this was not looking good. Shortly afterwards they did return, to land in a large tree. People rushed towards the tree with cameras but a minute later the birds departed and were gone again. Based on my experience from last week I considered they would return but it was a very long time before they did. Without doubt they were feeding somewhere else, maybe on Minchinhampton Common that lies adjacent and to the southeast of Rodborough Common.

Eventually they flew in, as usual in a tight flock and circled in front of us before landing in a bare tree.They appeared settled and looked like they wanted to come down to a low hawthorn bush to feed but there were so many people anxiously taking their photograph and standing so close they remained where they were. I decided that rather than wait and hope the Waxwings might fly to one of the hawthorn bushes, the best course of action was to join the crowd who were currently taking as many images as they could of the birds in the tree. One birder sensibly tried to get everyone to move back but he had more chance of winning the Lottery. For fifteen minutes the Waxwings perched in the tree and then departed and were lost from sight.

We stood chatting and waiting but the Waxwings did not return. 

I felt somewhat at a loose end standing on Rodborough Common with not a Waxwing in sight and very little prospect, in my opinion, of them returning imminently. Even if they did return the numbers of people still hanging around on this part of the Common in the hope they would re-appear was sure to prevent them, as with their last visit, from having the confidence to come down to feed on the still abundant hawthorn berries.  It was obvious from the long periods of absence that they had found another place to feed nearby that presumably was less disturbed. Nevertheless the sun shone and the Common's elevated, windy location with a spectacular view away over the valley to Stroud made the Common a not unpleasant place to be but having stood around chatting to Mark and his friends for the best part of an hour I was getting fretful and wanted away.

My mind was set on going to a location east of Cheltenham which conveniently was only a very slight deviation from my route home. It was familiar to me from previous visits some years ago to see Short eared Owls but lately I had been deterred by its growing popularity with birders and toggers alike and reports that it now had become a bit of a circus. Maybe that is harsh but ideally it is not my kind of birding where the pleasure of communing with nature and one's own sensibilities is overwhelmed by sheer numbers of people and the inevitable encroachment on one's emotional privacy, however benign. 

But everyone is entitled to come and see the owls and provided the fields they inhabit remain sacrosanct and are only viewed from the adjacent narrow by-road that bisects the rolling countryside on this western extremity of the Cotswolds. there is no real harm.

It took forty minutes drive to my destination and turning off onto a similar by-road I parked around the corner from the road in question.Well I had no real choice as that road was lined with over thirty cars. Leaving my car I walked fifty yards to turn onto the by-road where I was fortunate that there was  a large gap between the first two cars I encountered, where I could stand behind the dry stone wall that forms a boundary between road and field and look out onto the large field of rank, dead, winter grass that gently sloped upwards and away from me.

It was approaching 2pm and the sun was still pleasantly bright, casting a benign light across the road and surrounding countryside.Behind me, on the other side of the road, was a smaller field of hawthorn scrub and beyond, the road I had driven up and that led to a busier road that when my visit was over would take me in the direction of home. 

I stood in quiet contemplation, looking out across the grass field. No owls yet but that did not matter I was withdrawing into my inner self and a thousand thoughts passed through my head but ask me what they were and I would be unable to tell you.Maybe reflections on the day so far, maybe anticipation of things to come in the future, maybe dealing with the anxiety that is currently my unwanted companion. Birding for me at times like this is a cerebral washing and rinsing of my emotional tangles and putting them out to dry, a process for coming to terms with whatever currently troubles me.

My concentration became focused on the matter in hand as a Short eared Owl took a brief flight and pitched onto a tussock where it remained clearly visible, although at some distance, stood in the grass at the top of the field.It remained there for the next twenty minutes and I grew weary of looking at it and willing it to fly.

It was almost 3pm and the light would linger for another hour and then it would be too dark for photos.The field remained stubbornly free of owls so turning to look across the hawthorn field, a sliver of white amongst the tangles of hawthorn branches was revealed through my bins to be a perched Barn Owl which soon commenced flying in its soft winged manner up, down and across the field of hawthorn scrub and the one beyond. 

It appeared as a shock of white against the dark, bare winter trees.  A front heavy looking owl due to its large bulbous head and slim tapered body supported by broad rounded wings of palest buff.

My relatively deserted end of the by-road  suddenly became rather more populated as others from further up the road who had also noted the owl's presence came at a fast walk to this end to take their photos.The owl continued its hunting, sweeping downwind before turning and flying back, scrutinising the ground all the while, stalling, hanging in the wind, slipping sideways, hovering to check on something then dropping to fly low in a halting haphazard progress but ensuring everywhere in the field was thoroughly checked at least once.

Occasionally it would ascend higher, perhaps for a more panoramic view and then drop lower, flickering beats of silent wings carrying it relentlessly back and fore. Sometimes so low it was lost amongst the hawthorns or appearing like some half seen ghostly apparition moving through them, teasingly visible and then not.

Eventually it landed clumsily on a small hawthorn, hardly substantial enough to support it, so that it had to use its wings for support and to balance on the thin perch it had chosen. Redwings fussed around it, instinctively startled into watchfulness although they had nothing to fear. It looked around as if in surprise, its large dark eyes a contrast to the surrounding white feathering on a face the shape of a heart.

It  was no good, the perch proved too insecure, the owl lost its balance, returned to flight and was finally gone.

I reverted to scanning the original grass field and a Short eared Owl was flying over where the sloping field rose to a gentle summit.The owl hunted along the ridge, the sun turning its plumage to the colour of old gold, its upperparts profusely chequered with brown and buff. Tilting in flight it dropped a wing to reveal a pale cream underside which on catching the sun became even paler, a dark semi circular mark at the bend of the wing the only blemish. It cruised along in a flight that once known is utterly distinctive, its long wings carrying it in glides that swing and sway its body from side to side as it passes low over the grass, persistently and diligently seeking its vole prey. Disconcertingly unblinking yellow eyes, the epitomy of concentration and intent stared straight ahead as it flew, the bright sun now low in the sky having no discernible effect on its sight.

They never come really close, doubtless with their acute senses they are fully aware of us stood behind the low wall and the coloured shining metal of the many cars parked along the road. Cock Pheasants crowed as they blundered across the road in laboured flight, then to land heavily in the field and hide in the long grass. A Skylark sang, persuaded into an evensong by the sun slowly sinking in the west, casting a soft gentle light that infused the owl's plumage. 

Another owl commenced flying and possibly a third, always remaining at a distance that was just beyond my camera and lens's comfort zone but I clicked away regardless and hoped. I was determined to enjoy myself regardless of the result.

A pre-dusk hush settled on the land, the sun now so low it was invisible behind the hawthorns. A Fieldfare, chackering in alarm, flew high overhead, making its way across the slowly darkening sky to its roost. 

I set course for home my anxieties banished.


  1. Belated birthday greetings Ewan. Really enjoy reading your blog and love the Owl photos.

    1. Thank you so much Pauline.i am gratified you enjoy my blog.It started out as an illustrated diary for just myself but a birding friend persuaded me to turn it into a blog and here we are! I still get enormous pleasure from re-reading my blogs from past years and enjoy writing my latest ones. Best wishes