Thursday 26 March 2015

Bandits in the Bulrushes 24th March 2015

Clackers and myself had, last week, made an abortive trip to Devon with the primary motivation being a pair of Penduline Tits, residing in some bulrushes surrounding a small pond that formed part of the RSPB's Darts Farm Reserve near Exmouth, which is attached to a large upmarket Outdoor Clothing Centre and contains the RSPB Visitor Centre, plus a huge farm shop, delicatessen and cafe.

We failed to see the tits that day even though waiting for the best part of a whole morning and indeed subsequent reports evidenced they never showed up at all that day. Much to our chagrin the reports every day since told us they were being seen daily and not only that but being seen very well for extended periods.

This was galling to put it mildly. True, on our abortive visit we had gone on to see some Cirl Buntings but the Penduline Tits had been our primary objective and now the metaphorical salt was being rubbed into the minor wounds to our pride and competitiveness. I resigned myself to this being one of those things that all birders occasionally suffer. It happens to all of us from time to time. Birds are unpredictable, not beholden to our constraints and desires and every so often one has to accept that things will not go according to plan. In popular twitching parlance this is called 'dipping'.

Monday and Tuesday of this week were a joy. Sunshine accompanied by a chilly light wind brought Spring to my door and senses, and life suddenly took on an extra impetus.  I was sat at my computer on Tuesday morning at around eight o' clock dealing with some work emails when a thought came to me. A moment of spontaneity. There were no constraints so why not? Let's give it another go. The lack of Penduline Tits had been rankling with me all week and the beautiful morning before me urged me to get out and about and do something about it.

I finished my emails and called Clackers just before nine to tell him I was going back for another go at the tits if he was interested in coming. I half expected him to decline at such short notice but no, he was definitely interested but was currently birding his local patch at Rushy Common near Witney. 

We arranged to meet at his home in around forty five minutes time and then after our rendezvous headed west down the sunny roads towards Exmouth. The long and tedious M5 inflicted its usual frustrating Average Speed Checks as we left the outskirts of both Bristol and Taunton but at least the traffic was relatively light as we were travelling after the rush hour.

Well into Somerset, near Bridgewater, we passed the Willow or Wicker Man, created by the sculptress Serena de la Hey to celebrate The Millenium, the sculpture looming huge beside the northbound carriageway of the Motorway and forever caught in full stride heading West. 

When it first appeared it filled me with a sense of awe and wonder. A living sculpture, standing forty feet tall, heroic and diminishing the hurtling traffic on the Motorway, transcending the mundane and visiting an almost spiritual moment on me and possibly on others who passed on their car journeys, bound to the tedium of work and human existence. Then, the sculpture was surrounded by open fields and the only man made edifice impacting on the scene was the Motorway but now the Wicker Man is surrounded on both sides by a new housing estate and on the other by a huge Morrisons Logistics Centre and his majesty and mystery are gone forever, subsumed by encroaching human artefacts and brought low as a consequence. As I drove onwards I mused that this situation is almost an allegory for the direction life is moving in this land and the world in general. Not good. Not good at all

I fell silent for a while, contemplative and slightly deflated by the diminishing of the Wicker Man but eventually after driving past miles of deserted cones guarding a non existent workforce we thankfully came to our turnoff from the Motorway and I concentrated on completing the subsequent short distance to Darts Farm. 

A brief stop at the Outdoor Centre for a loo break and then we knew exactly where to go from our previous visit and took the stony track to the Reserve's small car park, before walking a short way to the pond. Around ten or so birders were already there, most with cameras and we could see they were looking at something. Clackers put on a surprising burst of speed and I followed. Would our gamble pay off this time? We joined the others and there, tiny and beautifully camouflaged in the bulrushes were the two Penduline Tits. We had done it.

At first the tits remained at some distance across the pond, feeding on the fluffy tops of the bulrushes.They were both females, so not quite so brightly coloured as a male but still very attractive with their grey heads, black highwayman's mask and chestnut backs. Surprisingly inconspicuous amongst the beige dead stalks and frothy candyfloss plumes of the bulrushes they were often almost obscured by the fluff as they searched the bulrush heads for what we assumed were seeds but subsequently learned were small grubs. 

As can be seen the tits were extracting small grubs from the
heads of the bulrushes. I only deduced this once I had time
to examine my photos in detail back at home
Vigorously they would tear away the fluff so that clouds of it would sail away in the wind and this was often a good way to locate them. Dwarfed against the fat velvety brown bulrush heads they fed avidly before dropping low into the tangle of bent dead leaves below to have a quiet moment, sheltered from the wind and to indulge in some preening. Then it was back to the serious business of feeding.

This went on for about forty five minutes before, suddenly, one flew to the Blackthorn bushes close to us, now in their full glory of white flowered bounty and commenced hopping amongst the twigs and flower heads feeding on we knew not what. Clackers postulated that maybe they were seeking liquid or sap at the base of the flowerheads and shoots.There again maybe they were seeking invertebrates just as they did on the bulrush heads 

The Penduline Tits were now very close to us. No more than seven or eight feet away at times. Every detail of their plumage was immediately evident as were their tiny tack like pointed bills. The bird still in the bulrushes started calling to its companion, a thin almost imperceptible, repetitive seeeeeeeeee seeeeeeeeee and the other responded, resulting in the other bird also flying to the Blackthorn. It was a struggle trying to photograph them as they nimbly threaded their way through the tangle of twigs, flowers and leaf buds but occasionally they would show themselves without a twig or flower obstructing them. We all watched, enthralled. They in turn seemed totally unphased by our close proximity and just carried on with their activities.

Apart from the aesthetic joys of watching two rare and beautiful birds it was instructive to watch their behaviour. They acrobatically foraged through the twigs, ensuring they always maintained loose contact with each other. They appeared unhurried, indulging in regular bouts of preening and there were occasions when they both would just stop, sitting silent and still, almost as if taking time out to consider their situation before recommencing feeding and picking at the branches. In the Blackthorn they did not display the hyperactive behaviour of Great and Blue Tits, both of which also visited the Blackthorn nor were they intimidated by a feisty Robin. 

Eventually they flew back to the bulrushes and energetically began stripping the fluffy heads or dropping down the stems to prise open the brittle outer casing in search of sustenance within. 

We had arrived at eleven thirty and now it was almost two in the afternoon. Time had seemed to slip by un-noticed as we watched the tits. Now I gestured to Clackers. Enough? I silently queried. He nodded in assent. We headed back to the car. 'I feel we should indulge in tea and cake Clackers.'  'Splendid idea'. So we repaired to the cafe and did just that.

Friday 20 March 2015

Words are superfluous 20th March 2015

                                   1015 this morning in Kingham Oxfordshire

Thursday 19 March 2015

Cyril Buntings on the English Riviera 18th March 2015

Of course they are not really called Cyril but Cirl Buntings. Birders though, love to give silly names to birds and this one really is irresistible. Nor by any remote stretch of the imagination can the area of Devon where the buntings are found be called The English Riviera but such is the perceived power of marketing it is still referred to as such by overenthusiastic local tourist offices.

Go to southern France if you want the real thing!

Cirl Buntings used to be commonplace in our countryside, spread across southern England and Wales and formerly found in no less than 39 counties. Now they are only found in two, where they are confined to just a traditional small strip of coastal south Devon that is managed sympathetically for them and latterly, since 2010, also southern Cornwall where a re-introduction scheme has been implemented. The combination of these two schemes has had some success and from a nadir of 118 territories in 1989 the population had risen to 862 pairs in 2009 and by now it is probably even more but is still pitifully small compared to former times and the species is unlikely to ever return to its former population size and distribution. Sadly there appears little chance of the bunting re-colonising any of its former territories in England or Wales now and it looks destined to be localised for evermore in the two westernmost counties of Britain. 

The primary cause of the Cirl Buntings decline and restricted range in Britain is attributed to changes in farming practices, resulting in a loss of suitable habitat for them due to the lack of winter stubble or fallow fields on which to feed, as farmland is now rarely allowed to remain unused for long due to the ever increasing demands for crops to feed the growing population of this country. The loss of 'set aside' since 2007 has also exacerbated the loss of suitable habitat and climatic changes bringing cooler  wetter summers have probably had a negative effect too. 

In those European countries less intensively farmed it is still a common  and even increasing species and its preferred habitat, just as in Britain is usually southern facing slopes of rough grassland, hedgerows and scattered trees close to cultivated land, and in mainland Europe it is often found in orchards, vineyards and even larger wild gardens. On a holiday in Greece a couple of years ago we regularly saw them in the garden of our rented villa.

So it was that on Wednesday Clackers and myself found ourselves driving to Broadsands which is near Paignton in Devon, parking in the deserted open spaces of the large public car park behind the beach and wending our way to stand by some derelict beach huts in order to view a thick and unkempt hedgerow with scattered trees that bordered the car park. The farmer who owns the fields sloping up behind the car park is recompensed to keep the fields and hedgerows suitable for the buntings and he is also subsidised to put seed down for the  buntings where the hedgerow joins the car park. 

Many birders know about this and make an annual pilgrimage to Broadsands to see the Cirl Buntings which regularly come down to feed on the seed. It is virtually guaranteed to see them at this spot at suitable times of the year although in summer the car park is undoubtedly crammed with cars and holidaymakers, especially on weekends, so it is unlikely the buntings will put in an appearance then.

A day of hazy sun but with a chill east wind blowing found us sheltering in the lee of the huts awaiting the appearance of a Cirl Bunting or two. At first it looked a bit grim with not a bird in sight but then a couple of Dunnocks flew down to the seeded ground. We waited. A curious birdsong commenced from the trees in the hedgerow although the singer went unseen. The song was like the beginning of a Yellowhammer's song but without the  'and no cheese' ending. 'That's one, its singing now,' Clackers told me. I had never heard one sing so this was a new experience. Seconds later a superb looking male flew into a small tree in the hedgerow in front of  us and commenced singing again before flying down to the seed. 

He did not remain long but was there long enough for us to enjoy his beautifully patterned and coloured plumage. A face of yellow and black bands, a thin lemon yellow necklace with an olive breast and rich chestnut band lower down and chestnut upperparts evidenced he really was beginning to look at his very best in his Spring finery.

Then he was gone, flying back into the thick tangle of the hedgerow running uphill at the side of the field to join two others, more distant still. We waited and after some time another male appeared and commenced singing. Maybe it was the same male as before and this was his territory? In winter up to fifty have been seen here feeding on the scattered seed but now in early Spring we only saw a single male at any one time and latterly one female who did not hang around. But one was enough and the views were as usual, excellent.

The sun was still shining. We were by the seaside. We had partaken of fish and chips for lunch earlier. It had to be done. 'Fancy an ice cream Clackers?'  'Good idea'. We wandered over to the Real Dairy Ice Cream Stand advertising gluten free ice cream. Well at least it sounded healthy! A Honeycombe Special for me. A much more exotic sounding and looking Blackberry and Double Cream for the Clackmeister.

We drove up the hill and headed for home. 

Tuesday 17 March 2015

Where's Tullibody? 14th March 2015

Another long drive to Scotland was necessitated this weekend to combine having dinner with my daughter in Glasgow on Saturday and then, on Sunday, attending an Osteopath's acupuncture training day in Edinburgh before driving home again. 

I took this opportunity to also try and see a Ross's Goose that has been frequenting a place called Tullibody just east of Stirling, as this would not involve a huge detour from my route to Glasgow. Having left my home comparatively late at 4am on Saturday morning I consequently found myself crossing the border six hours later in unaccustomed daylight, and being a Saturday the traffic was refreshingly light on the Motorway as I headed northwards through the bleak snow topped Lanarkshire hills towards Glasgow.

By the time I got to Stirling Scotland had woken up and I found myself in the unusual situation of negotiating comparatively heavy traffic as people went about their Saturday morning business. I passed the huge Wallace Monument and headed east towards the Ochil Hills and the unprepossessing and totally unremarkable former mining town of Tullibody. A place I had never heard of in an area of central Scotland I had never visited before.

The morning was depressingly dull, grey and damp entirely matching my feelings after my long drive and finding myself in such a dour and uninspiring place as Tullibody. I stopped in a layby to consult my RBA app. and conveniently it announced that the Ross's Goose had already been reported this very morning as frequenting a field with around one thousand Pink footed Geese just southwest of Tullibody and right by the road I was currently parked on. It was to be found in a field just behind 'The Gulf Service Station'. Finding a pure white goose amongst a thousand grey geese should surely not present too much of a problem. 

A mile or so down the road some Pink footed Geese flew across and I passed the Gulf Service Station which came upon me faster than I expected. Naturally it was on the opposite side of the dual carriageway so I  had to carry on until I could negotiate a roundabout and return on the other side of the road and gain access to the service station.

I pulled into the service station and parked in the far corner of their huge deserted car park which overlooked the fields and got out. A scan across the fields found the Pink footed Geese scattered across the rough wet grassland but there was not a sign of a white bodied goose amongst them. I slumped with tiredness and disappointment as I felt sure it should have been here.

A cycle path led a short way back from the service station, parallel with the road, to a small bridge spanning a river which would give me an elevated view across the fields. A signpost announced that the bridge spanned the River Devon. Maybe the Ross's Goose was hidden by the undulating contours of the field and the bridge would be a better vantage point? I walked the short way to the bridge and even before looking through the scope could see an all too obvious white shape amongst the grey brown bodies of a group of previously obscured Pink footed Geese. There it was, the desired Ross's Goose, white and so very obvious, a really dinky little thing compared to a Snow Goose but similarly all white with black wing tips, bright pink bill and legs.

I watched it for fifteen minutes, standing on the bridge on a raw morning, the air sharp and refreshing, happy to be free of the soporific constraints of the car. A female Goosander floated with two Mallard by the edge of the river bank below me and a straggling flock of fifty plus Fieldfare passed overhead working their way northeast.

It was too distant for me to take an image of the Ross's Goose but I could see that an industrial estate backed onto the far side of the fields. I decided to investigate. Maybe I could get closer to the goose from there? I drove back up the road I had come down and took the turning off the roundabout that led onto the industrial estate and parked at the far end where an alleyway conveniently led off down towards the fields. The buildings around were heavily fortified and the smell of hops and yeast plus a huge sign announcing BELHAVEN told me unequivocally this was surely a brewery or distribution centre for alcoholic refreshment. Currently it was deserted with not a sign of life but something was definitely brewing judging by the not  unpleasant beery smell emanating from the fortified buildings.

I took the alleyway through the buildings and found myself beside a small field which led down to the River Devon. On the other side of the river was a much larger field full of geese. I slipped along the edge of the small field and managed to get close enough to obtain a passable image of the Ross's Goose in amongst its temporary companions. Being geese they were typically ultra wary and certainly would not allow close approach.

The provenance of any Ross's Goose in the UK being fully wild is usually dismissed by those who adjudicate on such matters but if a Ross's Goose can be considered to be legitimately wild this one surely is as good a candidate as any.