Friday 7 February 2014

To the Woods 7th February 2014

Well to the Forest to be precise. The Forest of Dean. A modest little jaunt in Terry's car from my home in northwest Oxfordshire, traversing the northern Cotswolds, across the River Severn and into the Forest of Dean, where time seems to come to a halt in a huge area of woodland betwixt England and Wales.

The weather was not good as we left Kingham but  crossing the Cotswolds we could see the retreating edge of the weather front and by the time we arrived in the forest the rain had gone and the sun was high in an azure blue sky with just a breath of wind. We knew it would not last as yet another weather front of torrential rain and winds was heading our way from the wastes of the North Atlantic but thankfully for today the weather was going to be pleasant. Personally I blame the Tories and that disgrace of an Environment Minister and global warming denier Owen Paterson. Greenest Government ever Mr Cameron? I don't think so but as long as one has gone to Eton who gives a toss.

Our first destination was Serridge Ridge near Brierely. This is an area of Larch trees with a woodland track running along the top of the ridge and from which it has been possible for some weeks now to see various numbers, estimated from three to seventeen, of Two barred Crossbills feeding in the tall larches beside the track. Well that was the theory but the practicalities were somewhat different today. 

The short walk up to the ridge from the car was pleasant enough. Three Jays, one after the other flew across in front of us whilst a Raven went cronking over the approach road and away above the trees into the forest. We turned onto the track and walked down it and then back again and back down it and back and ... well I guess you get the picture. It was not an unpleasant stroll back and fore but there were no crossbills.

The track atop Serridge Ridge looking West with larches on the left
The track atop Serridge Ridge looking East.
The Two barred Crossbills were feeding in the tops of the larches on the right
Over an hour or so later it was not looking good. We had seen a few Chaffinches, assorted tits, a Tree Creeper and I even heard a flock of Two barred Crossbills briefly, flying around above the trees calling but then frustratingly they disappeared into the distance. The words highly mobile used in previous reports to describe the antics of the Two barred Crossbills were now beginning to haunt me. There is an awful lot of forest in which they could be and some people have been several times and still failed to see them. A Nuthatch went through its entire vocal repertoire and a Great spotted Woodpecker volleyed out its explosive alarm call, clinging to an impossibly thin twig at the top of a tree. We split up. Terry walked up and down the track. I stood half way along the track and just waited. A couple of lady runners in lycra provided a brief interlude of distraction and fantasy. A lone Brambling flew over me, calling just once, and Coal Tits occasionally moved in the tops of the larches. A couple of Goshawks were calling loudly but intermittently, a short way off in the woods below the ridge. 

Two and a half hours had now dragged by since our arrival. I persuaded Terry to come off piste with me and we walked down a mossy ride into the depths of the wood. The Goshawk called again. On soft, spongy, bright green moss we cautiously trod our way through the obviously thinned out and spaced larches towards the call. Another call came from further away. The Goshawk had clearly moved. We followed more in hope than expectation. Then a huge accipiter took off from one of the larches and winged its way across in front of us. A female Goshawk. No doubt about it. It was huge. Greyish brown above and barred white below. We followed it as it circumvented us and disappeared from view.

This partial success raised our spirits and we ascended yet another mossy ride and back onto the track. Still nothing and certainly no crossbills. Terry suggested we go and look for Hawfinches at Parkend and come back later to try our luck with the elusive crossbills. Three hours had now elapsed. I agreed that this might be for the best. We set off down the track and as we passed some larch trees I could hear a subdued singing coming from some invisible birds high in the larch trees to our right. 

Hang on Terry! I can hear a flock of small birds singing in the trees. 

Follow me, they are up there somewhere but I cannot see them from here. 

I don't think they are the crossbills. 

I don't know what they are but would like to find out. 

We went back a few metres and off the track into the wood. 

"Damn it they have stopped singing. 

We stood for a moment under the larches. The singing started again. Where were they? Which larch were they in? I walked a few paces right and saw two birds perched high up on spindly twigs on the left hand side of a larch tree. 

Two barred Crossbills
Bins up. The first one I saw was bright cherry pink with two huge white wing bars. 


They're here! 


Hurry! There's a male Two barred up on the left of that tree! 

Terry promptly joined me and quickly saw it too and he in turn alerted another forlorn birder wandering the track of shame who also quickly joined us. No wonder I could not recognise the singing as it was a male Two barred Crossbill that was singing. I had never heard one sing before. A male with its red flank feathers fluffed out, sat on high in the sun, a picture of contentment, singing away as a green female fed on tiny larch cones just below him. Occasionally he would stop singing to preen and then recommence singing. Others previously un-noticed joined them from the tops of adjacent larches. It was incredibly hard to pick them out in the tangle of branches and cones. We counted four, five, then no, six at least. Five males and one female. We circled around beneath them to try and get some photos but they were too high up so we were mainly looking at their undersides. I went back up to the track and managed to get some not very good images as they fed avidly on the larch cones. 

Always they were at the wrong angle or obscured by branches and cones but I did my best. It was however just great to see them, especially after such a long wait and the males in the scope were simply magnificent in their pleasing combination of  pink, white and dark brown. We watched them for around fifteen minutes and then, as is the way with crossbills, loud, excited metallic chipping calls signified their imminent departure and they flew as one flock out of the tops of the larches and away. 

Another lone one followed a few seconds later which made a total of seven. We tried to follow where they went but despite searching they had clearly travelled some distance and we could not find them again. No matter we had achieved our aim. I recollected that there had been no calls to alert us as to their arrival and but for the pure chance that the male was briefly singing as we passed we would never have known they were there.

Thrilled with our success we headed for Parkend for a try at the Hawfinches. Perceived wisdom was that to see them close, if at all, it was sensible to remain in the car. You could park relatively close to the Yew trees below which the Hawfinches would feed if undisturbed. My heart sank as we arrived at the Yew trees to see a small line of very obvious birders standing out in the open scanning fruitlessly for Hawfinches, which being the ultra shy species they are were remaining well hidden in the trees if they were there at all. Eventually all these birders left and we were alone in the car with just one other person insisting on standing under a tree out in the open on the other side of the Yew trees. Needless to say no Hawfinch came down to feed under the Yews. We did however have the satisfaction of seeing no less than five or six Hawfinches arrive and perch, as they do, at the very tops of some high trees under which the annoying person was stood and noting that he was totally unaware of their presence. 

Distant Hawfinch cTerry
After some thirty minutes he disappeared and we thought no more of it. Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Blue and Great Tits, a Nuthatch and best of all at least one male Hawfinch, immediately started to come down under the Yew Trees to feed. Imagine our dismay when he then appeared behind us and boldly walked up to our car and asked if we had seen any Hawfinches. It gave me immense pleasure, despite seething inside at his inconsiderate behaviour to tell him we had seen at least six. 

Where were they? says he, to which with even more pleasure I told him 

They were in the tall trees over there "

Not the tall trees under which I was standing?

Yes those trees. 

I didn't see them 

"No" I said.It is best to remain in your car as then they come down to the ground. 

I left it at that hoping he got the message. But no. He then stood behind our car having effectively scared off the commoner birds we were looking at in the Yew tree near to us. I was about to get very cross when he walked off and went back to standing where he was before. Some people never learn. 

Needless to say he saw nothing. Nor would we with him now back in his former position. While he was around no Hawfinches would show themselves so we resigned ourselves to the fact the day was to all extents and purposes over, congratulated ourselves on having seen three very good and elusive species of bird and headed for home.

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