Saturday 24 November 2012

Before the Rain 24th November 2012

I managed to sneak in a couple of hours birding at Balscote Quarry before the rain set in. A lovely little understated reserve as many of the Banbury Ornithological Society reserves are. This one gained fame when in the next door field a Dotterel spent a few days with some Golden Plovers last Springresting on it's northward migration.Today was very different with everywhere wet underfoot and a dampness and raw feel to the morning. Up to twenty Tree Sparrows were visiting the feeders in little groups and sharing them with Greenfinches, Chaffinches and Goldfinches. 

Thirty plus Common Snipe were resting or feeding in the sedge and grass around the small lake. Very difficult to pick out at first but when one 'got one's eye in' more and more became apparent. Superbly camouflaged and always ultra alert, freezing immobile at the slightest hint of danger. Yellowhammers chizzed away on the top of some nearby bushes and a Green Woodpecker showed it's exotic colouring as it hunted ants in the grass. Stock Doves with heads snuggled into bulging breast feathers sat as if sunk in contemplation. On the far side in the surrounding hawthorn hedge a large flock of around a hundred and fifty Fieldfares chakkered away as they gulped down hawthorn berries. A few Redwings had also joined them and there were four Roe Deer in the next door field

No it's not a Ferret 23rd November 2012

Setting out on Friday night from Kingham for the Oxonbirders Curry night in Cowley I was just passing the entrance to Kingham railway station when a couple of small eyes in the middle of the road shone in the headlights. They looked at me and I looked at them. The headlights of the car then illuminated a mustelid, sporting greyish brown fur above but darker underneath with a black and white panda face. It was a Polecat! 

It stood in the middle of the road and hesitated before running back the way it had come into the vegetation by the road. This is only my third sighting of this ever so secretive and elusive of British mammals. All my sightings have been within a radius of five miles from my home in Kingham and the last time I saw one was quite some years ago, again by the side of the road, in the dark just before dawn. It is impossible to predict where they will turn up which makes these brief but enervating glimpses all the more special. I recall Simon King filming a couple for Springwatch that came to a reserve for a few weeks somewhere in the south of England. This was the first time he had seen them in 46 years!
Oh by the way. The curry was pretty good too!

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Wet and Waxwings November 2012

Thoroughly depressed by the gloom and grey of this benighted land and now with heavy rain to contend with I found myself on business in Aylesbury. I was mindful of the regular appearances of Waxwings for the last few days on the Gateway Industrial Area- a large industrial estate in that town. Driving down the road I saw them briefly flying into some tall trees at the back of the estate. There was no way I could stop or even park the car safely. I found myself playing dodgems with courier delivery drivers, container lorries and sundry sales rep Mondeo's. A weekday here is not the best place to cruise around looking for Waxwings. Everyone and everything seemingly impatient and intolerant. I finally found the favoured berry laden tree standing in splendid isolation, almost overwhelmed and somewhat diminished amongst all the metal buildings, security fencing and opposite to a mobile food van dispensing industrial quantities of cholesterol to all comers.
I parked the Black Audi downwind of the van from which emanated an all pervading smell of fat and grease and fearlessly wound down the window to await the arrival of the birds. Huge lorries and delivery vans thundered past. For half an hour the tree remained devoid of anything remotely ornithological and then the Waxwings descended from the grey sky. In fact I heard their distinctive trilling first. Five minutes at the top of the tree and then one after the other they descended to scoff berries as fast as their little throats would allow. 

Typically it was all over in a few minutes and then they were off, trilling frantically and presumably back to wherever they felt secure and could digest the berries they had plundered. I can only guess they flew to the higher trees surrounding the industrial complex. It is a paradox. Such beautiful birds coming from distant northern lands and endless pine forests but when they get here they always seem to be attracted to the most unappealing and unattractive of locations such as industrial estates and superstore car parks.

Sunday 18 November 2012

WeBS and Webbed Feet in West Sussex 17th November 2012

The 17th November 2012 marked a landmark for me in that I completed twenty five years to the month of WeBS (Wetland Bird Survey) counting. Recording heaven knows how many wetland birds over the years as a counter at West Wittering and East Head, my sector of Chichester Harbour in West Sussex. This was a bitter sweet day as I have with heavy heart notified Chichester Harbour Conservancy that I am resigning  as a counter with effect from March 2013, when the final high tide winter count is made. 

What will I do with my time? I will miss it but it is time to let go. The counts over the years have given me in equal measure joy, despair and all shades in between and were always looked forward to but now a change has come about and I no longer find the same enthusiasm. So I am accepting the inevitable, that it is time to go and let someone else take over. 

Today John Reaney, a bird artist friend who has accompanied me on many of these counts joined me for this anniversary count and I arranged to meet him at Chichester Railway station at 8.30am. As high tide was not till 1335 we would go a birding at various hotspots around West Sussex before making our way to West Wittering. First stop was Amberley Wild Brooks to look for the Common Crane which I saw on Wednesday. It was still there and we made our way down a very soggy and muddy footpath to get relatively close to the crane, viewing it from behind a hedge. It was striding about in some marshy ground, lording it with a herd of Fallow Deer. 

The morning was clearing but was still overcast and now the air was still with expectation after a heavy rain shower. Brightness was coming slowly from the East. A Peregrine passed overhead and flocks of Lapwings took to the air, spilling around in a panic like black and white leaves as they wheeled and turned in tight unison to confuse the falcon. It went into a steep dive anyway, having seen something else that took it's fancy.We lost it in the gloom of distance and the dark oaks of Rackham Woods. A lone Fieldfare chackered its way across the wide open spaces away from Rackham Woods and Reed Buntings, tails flicking in anxiety, fluttered to the top of the hedge to see what was going on. We watched the crane for thirty minutes and then  slogged our way back up the footpath to the car.

 "Seen any Mandarins this year John?" 'Can't say as I have'. "Come on then, I know just the place". 'Where's that?' "Arundel".  We arrived at Swanbourne Lake by Arundel Castle, scene of my triumph on Wednesday. Needless to say not a single Mandarin duck was in sight. We walked along the path beside the wooded environs of the lake looking in the tangled branches growing in and over the water's edge. Nothing. We started back and in the densest tangle of wood and water I could see a white spot in the depths of the branches. I looked closely in the bins. It moved. This disembodied patch of white was part of a Mandarin drake and as it moved further, more of it became apparent until a full frontal vision of his loveliness appeared and on espying us just as rapidly disappeared. John failed to see it. Then, as is often the way, another drake showed itself really well, stood on a branch low over the water accompanied by a female and John got really good views and my credibility was restored. A Marsh Tit flew within a few feet of us, perching and then hanging upside down, vocalising like someone with a stammer who finally gets the word out. Buoyed by these successes I was now lurching towards insufferable birdtour guide. "Fancy seeing the Hooded Merganser?" 'Have we time?'. "Sure, let's go". We walked back to the car with John still looking for a Coal Tit for his year list. We found instead two Tree Creepers and then two Grey Wagtails. Thirty minutes later we were at Pagham North Wall and looking with others at a distant Hooded Merganser. It was, as it always seems to be, fishing, and did not look like it was going to come close as the tide although on the way in was still not high enough to entice it close to the wall. Wigeon whistled and swam about in little groups. 

The drakes surely are one of the most beautiful of ducks.The Brent geese were feeding as per usual in the fields behind the wall with others coming off the sea in chevron formations to join them, calling and maintaining contact with their conversational, nasal, contralto murmurings. I find their constant chatter strangely re-assuring and comforting as no doubt do they. Yep, it's definitely time to give up WeBS counting. 

I looked at the flock almost instinctively and found an adult Black Brant towards the right hand end of the flock. I have counted Brent geese for so long that Black Brant really now jump out at me. It's not just the huge white necklace and white and black flanks but even with their heads down and flanks obscured the much darker upperparts compared to the Dark bellied Brent really stand out. Other birders overheard us discussing it and came over. "Where is it mate?" A long and convoluted verbal exchange about bushes, fence posts, buildings on the horizon and number of geese from one end of the flock or the other then ensued but the random birder could not get onto it.  "Have you got in it your scope" 'Yes' "Can I look through it?" 'Sure'. While he was doing this I found it in his now unattended scope and handed it over to him. Happy birder. 

"Come on John time's up, we need to get the tide at West Wittering." A lunchtime WeBs count is very late as they are usually much earlier in the morning. I was dreading the anticipated hordes of dog walkers and sundry disturbance that would be at West Wittering but we were pleasantly surprised to find hardly any people there when we arrived. The tide was now coming in fast and by the looks of it was going to be a really high one. The fields were a mass of Dark bellied Brent. In fact there were 2200 of them, exceptionally numerous for this time of year. "There must be a Black Brant in this lot John" but there wasn't. What there was however was something much rarer in West Wittering Brent goose annals. An adult Pale bellied Brent Goose. Underwhelmed? Not us. A Chris Packham frisson of thigh rubbing and suggestive leering almost ensued as I salivated over this beauty.  Believe it or not these are rarer in the Brent flock at West Wittering than a Black Brant.  

Pale bellied Brent Goose
If only the Red breasted Goose had joined them from nearby Farlington my fantasy count would be complete but it was not to be. Some Golden Plover joined the geese on the fields along with a scattering of Lapwing and Oystercatchers. The East Head wader roost was a mass of Dunlin, Ringed and Grey Plover, constantly flying further up the shore as the tide rose. The Dunlins even started swimming to shore as if they could not believe the water was getting so high on their normal roost area. Eventually the waders were driven so far up the shore by the high tide they were mixing with the Skylarks feeding on the saltings. Their constant agitated chatter sounding  like distantly escaping steam. John was just about to complete his count of Ringed Plover when a jogger oblivious to us and the birds put them all up. Start again. Thanks. Really helpful and considerate.  

Then off to Snowhill Marsh for the final part of the count. The sea defence work has now finally finished so all is now peace and quiet here and the birds have returned. Walking to the hide, what I initially thought was a large brown dog shot out of the brambles. No dog this but a Roe Deer. It was confused and startled and even more so when a Little Egret took umbrage to it's presence and set about it, chasing it off into the surrounding trees. One of the more bizarre sights to go into my memories of WeBS counts here. A good selection of waders and ducks fed in the shallow water or rested in the juncus. One patch of juncus caught my eye and as I looked a long red bill poked out of it and was followed by a brown head, grey breast and barred flanks. A Water Rail.  Black tailed Godwits did their jack hammer impressions as they fed in the shallows and five Little Egrets, taking alarm, flew off like wind blown washing. Many Common Redshank roost on the marsh and as we counted them one appeared frosted around the face and body. A closer look. It was a Spotted Redshank and then we found another. This species wintering here is a recent and welcome phenomenon. An even paler wader fast asleep was a Common Greenshank, yet another species that has recently begun wintering here. So the count came to an end. Back down the lane past the Coastguard cottages, now affordable only for millionaires, to the car. A flock, yes a flock of Goldcrests flitted and flickered through the sallows, endlessly active but there was no Firecrest with them. 

"Come on John let's have another look at the Hoodie. The tide's well in so if it performs as usual it will be close in to the sea wall and we will get stunning views." 


We arrived back at Pagham North Wall and found a group of birders not looking at anything apart from a sea devoid of a Hooded Merganser. Our WeBS count entails a walk of around five kilometres, much of it over sand or mud. Our feet were telling us enough is enough, so we sought the sanctuary of a bench away from the crowd and surveyed the tide filled harbour. 

"Oh thank the Lord, that's better, my feet are killing me". 

"Me too"

"No sign of the merganser. Let's just sit here and contemplate for a while and then go back to the car" 

"Fine by me." 

We sat, quite content surveying the flat calm water and groups of Wigeon. A small duck came with rapid wing beats in from the sea. It was dark above with a prominent white belly. 

"Here it is". 

"What is?"

"The merganser". 

It landed not fifteen feet away from us. 

"Bloody hell. Look at that". 

"I am, I am!" 

The merganser then put on a show right in front of us. Snorkelling after small fish in the shallow water and diving properly in the deeper water, fishing, heedless of us or anyone else. 

We admired it for a long time before it slowly worked it's way out from the wall with the receding tide and fussing Wigeon. It was now very gloomy and an idle rain spot heralded the forecast showers. 

"Hungry John?" 


We had not eaten all day. There is a traditional bakers called Endicotts tucked away on a depressing housing estate in nearby Selsey ( 'Selsey - twinned with Atlantis' as some wag had proclaimed via a sign on the town roundabout). Endicotts is our guilty secretThe pasties, cheese straws, pies and cakes are to die for and if you eat too much of it you probably will but to indulge just once a month is a just and honourable reward for our WeBS toils. 

We entered the hallowed doors. John eyed a chicken and mushroom pie. In fact he eyed two. I went for a pasty and throwing caution to the winds followed up with a Belgian Bun. The young girl behind the counter chatted to us, relaxed, laughing and giggling. I asked her 

"Why are they called Belgian Buns?" 

"Cos' they are the shape of Belgium"

Of course they are.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Sussex by the Sea 14th November 2012

Reports of a female Hooded Merganser at Pagham Harbour for the last week or so had me taking advantage of a day off in lieu from work and heading down the A34 to Sussex. The merganser was to be found off Pagham Harbour North Wall, which currently is a Local Nature Reserve soon to be incorporated in the wider RSPB reserve encompassing the whole of Pagham Harbour, and being one of my former haunts I had no worries about finding the location. 

There has been much speculation concerning the origin of this individual. Is it truly wild or has it escaped? It's behaviour does not seem like that of an escaped bird but then Sussex is an unusual place for such a vagrant to arrive but there again a Paddyfield Warbler spent last winter in this very location, and who would have predicted that? Ducks are a nightmare concerning their origin as so many are kept in captivity and so many escape. I guess one just has to decide for oneself how to treat each one and this is only the latest in a long list and by no means will be the last. Me? Well all I can venture is that it is free flying, behaving normally and to all extents and purposes living free and wild in its natural habitat albeit on the other side of the Atlantic to that which is normal. It is also a very nice bird to see regardless. 

Leaving Kingham in the dark and joining, even at 6am, a large amount of traffic on the A40  and A34 I got to Pagham at 8.30 by which time the sun was up and beginning to shine. Normally this would be good news and very welcome but not for photography, as due to the position of the North Wall the sun would be shining straight into my camera lens as I went for what I imagined would be those stunning close ups of the merganser. Various reports said that at high tide it could come very close but it could also go missing for long periods. High tide today was at 11am.  So I could only hope it would follow it's previous pattern of behaviour. I walked down the lane to the North Wall noting there were already a large number of cars present for this time in the morning. I got to the sluice which is the beginning of the North Wall reserve and adjacent to the main channel which apparently was it's favoured location. 

The main channel from Pagham Sluice
Another birder said it had just flown in but was distant. No sooner had he spoken than three huge bangs emanating from the fields behind me set my nerves on end  A bird scarer with a noise volume of which any army would be proud. I have never heard a louder one. Nor apparently had the bird population of Pagham Harbour, with every wader on this side of the harbour taking alarm and heading skywards when it went off. They soon settled however but the whole process would be repeated every time the gun went off which thankfully was not that frequently. Scanning up the main channel I soon made out the distinctive head shape and profile of the merganser. It was diving and fishing energetically but despite the tide coming in was not getting any closer. I studied it at long range for half an hour but eventually got tired of doing this and started to check the myriads of birds shifting from one mud bank to another as the encroaching tide slowly covered the exposed mud.

I scanned through the flocks of Dark bellied Brent Geese moving in on the tide. One distant individual showed a huge white necklace on its neck. Interesting. It turned on the sea and the white rear flanks shone brilliantly in the sun. It was a Black Brant. I watched it swimming around, somewhat detached from its cousins, until it was lost to view in one of the rapidly filling channels. A flock of around five hundred Golden Plover wheeled around and settled briefly before they were up again and flying in formation around the harbour. They seem to be amongst the most aerial of waders, seemingly happier and in their element when airborne. A flock of Black tailed Godwits all neck, legs and beak elegance stood alert and wary, carefully segregated from a flock of Lapwings sharing the same rapidly diminishing area of mud bank. Grey Plovers pootered in the mud, calling mournfully and Common Redshanks gathered into grey huddles by the water's edge. Suddenly all the waders went up into the air in one milling mass of feathers and cries before carefully separating themselves into their respective flocks. A Peregrine swept in high from the outer harbour, accelerating faster and faster, over the wall and inland over the marsh and fallow fields beyond. It stooped at a flying bird but missed and careered off out of sight behind some trees. The waders floated back to earth, settled and the merganser was fractionally closer. It teamed up with a pair of Mallard eventually flying off with them out into the harbour and out of view. There was now quite a crowd of birders, many like me hoping to get some photos, others closer views but it seemed we were to be thwarted. The noise levels and chat inevitably increased with the merganser's absence. The Brent Geese flew to the fields behind the wall to feed and I walked west along the wall to check them out and see if the Black Brant was among them. It wasn't. Looking back to the sluice I could see birders looking downwards onto the sea close in. The merganser had obviously not only come back but had also come very much closer. This was my chance. I got back pronto and it was really close in. I took some photos but the light was very much against me with the sun shining almost directly into the lens but I had no option. It was this or nothing.

Then a lawnmower started up in a large garden backing onto the harbour by the sluice and the merganser took fright and swam well out and away into the harbour, moving parallel to the wall. Damn. All my fellow birders followed it by walking off down the footpath on top of the North Wall. I stayed put. I had seen the merganser well, got some photos and did not fancy the crowd. There was a nice secluded bench nearby out of the wind and in the sun. I claimed it and sat in peace and quiet, dozing in the sun with the intoxicating scent and quiet hum of bees in the flowering ivy behind me. A Red Admiral cruised by. I rested my head on my hand and only half awake contemplated life for an hour. No one disturbed me. A rough week at work and likely to get worse tomorrow but this pleasant day was re-energising my spirit and was much needed. 

The secluded bench overlooking the main channel
The merganser flew off the sea over the wall onto the Breach Pool behind and swam into the reeds never to be seen again while I was there. It was now noon. Two calling Greenshank flew over my head their mellifluous tones ringing out over the sea and a flock of Common Snipe whizzed around above the reeds like a formation of low flying fighter jets. 

The Breach Pool behind the North Wall.
The merganser was last seen here having flown in from the harbour
I was reluctant to leave my sunny spot but finally stirred myself and returned to the car. I had another planned objective and that was to see a Common Crane that had been reported from Amberley Wild Brooks now part of RSPB Pulborough. Local knowledge came to the fore and I drove through Amberley Village turning onto a minor road that rose up above the village with the brooks down below on the left.

There is an unofficial viewpoint on this road where you can stop the car and gain a panoramic scan of the  huge expanse of the brooks. This would be by far the best option to look for the crane. Five minutes was all it took and there was the crane on the far side of the brooks.  Elegant. Huge. Pale grey in the sun with a red and white head. An adult. Walking sedately around, feeding in glorious isolation. Two other birders joined me. They had never seen a crane before."Blimey its huge. It's as big as a Dodo" 'If you say so.' Another birder who I had not seen for over twenty years joined us. 'Long Ed.' At least that is the nickname my pal John gave him all those years ago. He is/was to put it mildly a bit strange and somewhat annoying, constantly talking to himself but his main characteristic is possessing the strangest looking head you have ever seen. It looks like it has been squeezed very hard making it go vertically long and thin. I made a note that I must call John and tell him he is still around. 

I had not expected to see the crane quite so quickly and easily so now had some time on my hands before making the journey home. I decided to spend an hour at nearby Arundel to see if I could finally find one of the Water Voles that live in the stream beneath the walls of Arundel Castle. Not exactly a quiet spot and certainly not an obvious place to look for Water Voles. This is tourist, day tripper, let's feed the ducks land with many people wandering about but the voles are there. The stream in question is not very wide and is bang slap next to the footpath along which everyone walks. I parked the car and walked along the footpath by the stream checking the banks. Plop! and something brown was swimming the few feet across the stream. Yes? No! It was a Brown Rat. I walked the length of the stream until it joined Swanbourne Lake but found nothing apart from some very fat Mallards and two more rats all no doubt attracted by the bread. Walking on over the bridge to Swanbourne Lake I looked for Mandarin Ducks. Here I was more successful, finding in total fourteen, the males resplendent in their courting finery and displaying to the females. I wandered back and found two Grey Wagtails feeding in the lake's outflow.

I strolled back along the path by the stream checking the banks again. A Brown Rat was feeding on my side of the stream apparently oblivious to all the human traffic passing. By the opposite bank with some overhanging brambles a small rodent swam close in to the bank and then climbed out and sat there facing out under the brambles. Bins up. Close focus. Two beady, black currant eyes in the cutest little brown face you could ever wish to see and there it was. A genuine, full frontal, Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows Water Vole. Ratty! I watched as it crouched by the water, whiskers aquiver, alert but motionless. Just time to get some photos and some strange looks from passers by and then a Moorhen swam up to it and too close. With an audible plop it was gone, swimming underwater below the bank. I followed the bubbles and watched as they disappeared into a submerged hole. Gone.

It has been so long since I have seen one. In my youth I never gave them another thought as they were so common on our local river but now they are endangered and a truly worthwhile find. My day in Sussex, as always lifted me, especially encountering 'Ratty' and I headed home into the setting sun

Sunday 11 November 2012

A Trip to the Caspian 11th November 2012

Adult Caspian Gull c Gnome
Late afternoon on Sunday, sunny but cold, found me venturing out onto Port Meadow in the company of many other of my fellow humans enjoying the sunshine. My aim was to see the adult Caspian Gull that Gnome had discovered the evening before. At first I tried looking from the 'usual' spot by the entrance to Burgess Field but the sun was now quite low on the horizon making viewing difficult. So there was no choice but to schlep round to the other side of the flood by the river, where viewing the gulls would be much better with the sun behind me. It was a bit of a trek and the ground by the river was much waterlogged, churned up by animals and in places was sheer liquid mud underfoot. 

Needless to say I had not bothered to don wellington boots. Too late now. No turning back. I was on a mission. I eventually made my way out to opposite the gull roost by way of the boardwalk alongside the moored boats, then crossing a small stream with a hazardous 'sink up to over your ankles in mud' feature on both banks. Amazingly there were other people out walking here with normal shoes on and even people jogging, seemingly oblivious to the mud and water splattering up their legs and soaking their feet. I set up my scope and scanned the small flock of gulls and bingo, virtually the first large gull I looked at was the Caspian. A real beauty of a gull with it's long, dull yellow, parallel sided beak, black, boot button eyes in it's all white head and showing the diagnostic white tongue on the underside of the outer primary to good effect. I just stood and enjoyed looking at it in the sunshine and because there were relatively few roosting gulls present at this hour it was not obscured and I got to see it clearly and very well. 

Perhaps because of the regular procession of people that are attracted to Port Meadow the gulls here also seem less wary than usual and allow a comparatively close approach. An attractive Eastern European lady asked to look through my scope and what was I looking at? Irresistible. I acquainted her with the diagnostic features of a Caspian Gull. Well she did ask! Her eyes started to glaze over. 

"Zank you so much. You are most kind" she stuttered as she slithered off as fast as possible across the morasse. 

Jarrod sensibly clad in wellington boots joined me and I pointed out the Caspian to him. Five Dunlin flew past and two Common Redshank fed on the edges of the flood. Lapwings and Golden Plover wheeled around before coming back to earth and Common Snipe crouched like brown divots on the exposed mud. Gnome called on my mobile. 

"Can you see the Caspian?" 

'Yes it's showing really well. We are over on the far side.

Gnome eventually joined us across the muddy wastes and together we watched the gull roost slowly build up in numbers, finding three possibly four Yellow legged Gulls also in the roost. The light slowly faded and we headed back for the sanctuary of dry land, slipping and sliding through mud and pools of water.

Saturday 10 November 2012

We are so lucky 11th November 2012

Badge of the Seaforth Highlanders

Lest we forget

My Grandfather came from a village called the Muir of Ord in Ross and Cromarty which is in the north of Scotland. He worked for the Highland Railway at Thurso station, which lies right at the end of the line in the very far north of Scotland but was highly thought of and was transferred to the head office in Inverness. In 1914 with war looming and patriotism running high he joined the 1/4th (Ross Highland) Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders based at Dingwall in Ross and Cromarty. When war broke out in 1914 they were mobilised for full time war service on 5th August. They moved south, first to Bedford and then onwards to France on 7th November. My grandfather was bayoneted in the stomach during the offensive at Ypres and lay out all night between the lines, gravely wounded but miraculously was rescued the next day, horribly maimed but alive. He was operated on immediately in a field hospital which saved his life, then transferred back to Scotland where he recovered from his wounds and then, almost unbelievably, considering what he had gone through, was sent back to France with the Royal Flying Corps due to the fact he could use morse code. By way of explanation, my grandfather was skilled at morse code because that was the main form of communication utilised by the Highland Railway before he went off to fight for his country. 

When he returned from France for the final time was he given a hero's welcome or even token thanks? Not a bit of it. He went back to Inverness to carry on working for the railway but was told he had no job as he had volunteered to fight and he had been replaced with someone else. His situation was by no means unique. 

I am enormously proud of him and what he sacrificed for his country. Despite his severe injury he lived into his late eighties and for most of his life back in his native Ross and Cromarty, working in the Royal Naval Dockyard at Invergordon. He was wonderfully kind to me as a wee boy and frankly was my hero and still is all these years later. I am grateful to him for the legacy that grants me the luxury of peace and comfort while I think back to what he must have suffered and endured. 

My story is not that special in the grand scheme of things but just a tiny contribution to the huge sadness at such waste and inhumanity, and similar stories can probably be told a hundred thousand times or more by those with personal memories such as mine. We should never forget them and what they did for us. Thank you to all those who fought and especially those who never came back.

Saturday morning at Farmoor 10th November 2012

A little groggy from a virus that has been troubling me for the past week I got it together to amble around Farmoor I Reservoir on a gloomy and chilly, mid morning Saturday. The incentive was to try and see the Greater Scaup that had been reported from here throughout the past week. First there had been one, then two and yesterday three were reported by Dai. This is one of my favourite ducks, as you can see from the number of images on this post, although it is difficult to be specific as to why. 

Adult female Greater Scaup
I like their scarcity but it is more than that. The bulk of their head and body. The broadness of their bill and the subtleties of the immature and female plumages, all seem to strike a pleasant chord with me. A birder's bird maybe? All birders know this feeling where for no apparent reason a particular species is more appealing than another that is similar. Tufted Ducks? Nah, not for me. 

I commenced walking up the Causeway and it was not long before I found an adult female Greater Scaup feeding with the Tufted Ducks, pleasantly close to the Causeway. I spent some time admiring her and the huge white blaze around her bill and forehead as it is not that often one gets this close to a mainly maritime duck. Finally I moved on and passed the new Hide which  is now open again as Thames Water have finally found the key that unlocks the door. I understand the door will be left permanantly open from now on. 

Just after passing the Hide a duck with a pointed profile flew high overhead, circling the reservoir and disappearing towards the Thames. Up with the bins and the welcome sight of a female Goosander greeted me. Up to four Little Grebes played hide and seek as I progressed to the far end of the Causeway and turned right around the top end of the reservoir. A blaze of autumnal colour greeted me from the bushes by the path down to the Pumphouse. It could almost be New England, the colours were so strikingly orange and red but these were not the famous Maples but pyracanthus bushes. 

Nevertheless their colour was very welcome but totally incongruous on such an overcast day. Half way down the top end of the reservoir I came upon another group of Tufted Ducks. Many of the males are now regaining their black and white colours as they moult out their eclipse plumage. I checked the small flock and at first saw nothing to excite me but giving it a second go I found another Greater Scaup. This one was a first winter with much less of a white blaze around the bill, more like two oval, white patches each side of the bill with paler ginger markings on the ear coverts. It also did not have the grey suffusion on the upperparts that was very apparent on the adult female. This individual was much more wary than the other bird and at first kept it's distance but eventually as I stood motionless came closer.

First winter Greater Scaup
Again, I spent some time admiring it's plumage details, comparing it to the adult female I had seen at the other end of the reservoir. I reluctantly moved on and that really was virtually all the excitement for the day. The sun tried to briefly penetrate the clouds but thought better of it and the gloom seemed to permeate my surroundings even more and enter my very soul. 

A tinkling of cheery, conversational calls, in stark contrast to the mood, betrayed half a dozen Goldfinches feeding on some dead seed heads and two Grey Wagtails bounded along the wave wall in front of me before tiring of being flushed, flew back behind me, settling on a fence and pumping their long tails frantically. I completed the circuit of the reservoir and at the end came upon ten or so Meadow Pipits feeding on the grassy bank. As I approached they flew up into a hawthorn, calling peevishly. When looked at closely they really are quite attractive in an understated way. 

Two Goldcrests, their crowns glowing golden yellow in the overcast conditions, chased through a hawthorn nearby as I headed for the Car Park