Sunday 22 February 2015

Back to the Forest 21st February 2015

I travelled to the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire this morning to see a Green winged Teal at a place called Ashleworth Ham. Alone on a bright and cold morning I found it on the marsh just as the sun rose above the reeds, flooding the hide with light. It was displaying with a group of male Common Teal, a compact group of small ducks striking exaggerated poses, swimming in circles, bowing breasts and elevating tails with excited whistles, then stretching their necks and tipping their bills to touch spotted breasts in a frenzy of ardour. Spring is not far off now.

The damp pungent smell of rotting leaves permeated the hide as I watched, whilst outside two Great Spotted Woodpeckers rattled the dead boughs on the trees above the hide, the staccato drumming being the woodpeckers proclamations of their territorial aspirations. It was too lovely a morning to remain in a hide so I left and headed for The Forest of Dean. My destination in the forest was Parkend Church where if I was lucky I could get close to Common Crossbills coming down to the puddles by the church to drink. 

Parkend Church with the 'crossbill puddles' in the foreground
This location is now widely known to one and all and is rarely without attendant photographers, birders and just interested people passing by on a walk through the forest. So it was today as I drew up, with two photographers and their huge lenses ready and waiting for any crossbills coming to earth to drink from the puddles.

My attitude to photographers is ambivalent. Like many aspects of human life it is easy to be more outspoken when generalising about a subject or someone than when it is more intimate and specific. In situations such as this an open mind is an advantage which at times requires some thought and application, or at least it does with me. My mild antipathy to photographers is based on the fact that some show little understanding or knowledge of their subject when it comes to birds and indeed sometimes cannot even adequately identify what they are taking a photograph of. The image seems to be all, nothing else really matters.

So I stood somewhat defensively a little way off from the two photographers but one of them, a large bearded Welshman came over and started talking with me. He was friendly and open and we talked quietly for some time. Eventually he went back to his colleague and I fell to thinking. Here was a prime example of what I have just written about in the paragraph above. I progressed the thought process further and mused that photographers such as the man I had just conversed with perfectly amicably, indeed pleasantly, have as much right as me, primarily a birder, to enjoy their subject. They know much more about their cameras and lenses and the technicalities of taking a good photograph than I will ever know and conversely I know a lot more about birds than many of them ever will do. We are each specialists in our own way but seeking a mutual enjoyment from a common subject. Birds. Each of us can point to excesses of unacceptable behaviour in our ranks and it really requires some cerebral discipline from all of us to understand that with this overcrowded island and the burgeoning interest in birds, there is never going to be a time when the potential for conflict and mis-understanding is not likely to be present or possible. 

So a minor epiphany came to me outside Parkend Church. Of crossbills however there was no sign. After an hour and a half the two photographers left to go elsewhere and I was on my own. It was not an unpleasant location to be left alone with one's thoughts. In fact you could say it was scenic and uplifting. Various people came and went, tending the graves of their departed loved ones in the peaceful cemetery behind me. At various times walkers, cyclists, dog walkers and joggers passed by on the track that snakes down into the depths of the forest. 

The track from the church leading down into the forest
Siskins fluttered high in the Alders along the small cemetery's perimeter as they fed on the tiny cones, their wistful single note calls descending to earth on the cold wind. A lone Hawfinch, so distinctive in profile, settled at the very top of the highest tree beyond, before dropping into the woods. Nuthatches with their irrepressible cheery calls ringing out from the oaks, ran up and down their gnarled, mossy boughs. 

European Nuthatch- the only British bird that can run down a tree as well as up
The church clock rang out the hours. I had been here three hours already but still no crossbills came to drink although the puddles were being constantly visited by Blue and Great Tits, Chaffinches and Dunnocks. Four more Hawfinches flew up from the woods, perched on high and then slipped through the branches and away. 

Hawfinches can be seen when they perch in the tops of the distant large trees
High in a sky of billowing white cumulus clouds and sunshine a Common Buzzard wheeled on broad wings and above it another large raptor with a much different profile was a Goshawk. A Raven's guttural calls heralded the sight of a lone bird flying high and away over the church whilst the rattling calls of Mistle Thrushes came from the churchyard Yews. Redwings and Song Thrushes fed in the paddock by the church and throughout a friendly Robin regarded me, often singing quietly from the adjacent hedge, in between fighting territorial battles with its neighbour across the road.

I was joined by another photographer and we got talking. In the ensuing conversation I learnt a lot about photography techniques and he learnt a lot about bird identification. He had never seen a Hawfinch or a Crossbill nor knew how to identify them or where to look. His real preference he told me was taking images of the Peregrine Falcons at Symond's Yat.

At last I heard the distinctive, metallic chipping calls of crossbills coming closer and four landed in the big oak above the puddles. One, a young male still in yellow green plumage commenced singing while the others nibbled at buds and bark. Then a single bird flew down to the puddles and was quickly followed by the others. They drank swiftly, lowering their heads briefly then raising them to allow the water to slip down their throats, each crossbill mirror imaged in the still water of the puddle.

Apart from one, a possible female, they all appeared to be males of various ages and in various stages of plumage. All of the males appeared to be immature with one showing traces of orange sub adult plumage and another showing faint wing bars on its wings, whilst a third was still in the yellow green plumage of a very young male. Crossbills can nest, depending on the cone crop, at anytime from August to April so their plumage shows tremendous variations dependent on when they were born. This makes matters difficult when it comes to ageing and even sexing at times.

Male Common Crossbill in almost adult plumage but still showing some
vestiges of  the orange yellow immature plumage
Probably an immature male showing the yellow green plumage adopted
after moulting from juvenile plumage. Note the narrow pale wing bars
Possible female Common Crossbill with male Common Crossbill
Possible female Common Crossbill with male to the right
Above them is an immature male moulting into adult plumage and showing two
distinct but narrow wing bars
Probable immature male Common Crossbill less than twelve months old
In a matter of two minutes it was over. The crossbills flew up into the tree and then back into the forest. I waited for another hour and a half but there was not to be a second appearance. The Welsh photographer arrived back and my erstwhile friend commenced chatting with him about focal lengths and various camera bodies. Fellow enthusiasts. 

Time to leave. 


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Very enjoyable reading both your FOD blog entries.

  3. A wonderful blog, as a keen photographer and amateur birder your words resonate with me. We can all learn from each other, as in all human activities there are a few individuals that will go too far..I hope to go this Saturday and if I experience a quarter of what you described here..I will be a happy man. Regards