Friday 29 April 2016

Double take 29th April 2016

A text from Steve arrived just before 9am informing me of a female Common Redstart not five minutes drive from my home.

It was in a hawthorn hedge running alongside a public footpath at a place called Sarsden and being so close to my home in Kingham it was no hardship to make the short drive up there to try and see it.

The morning was bright with sun and a very strong northwesterly wind was whipping over the exposed fields. There is little to hamper the wind up here as we are at quite an elevation in this part of the Cotswolds. I followed Steve's instructions and soon located the redstart in the hedge which gave itself away by dropping down at frequent intervals from the hedge to the short grass to seize its prey and then flying back up to the hedge to resume its vigil.

A female Common Redstart is dull in comparison to the male but like the male is enlivened by an orange chestnut tail which when spread in flight can be seen in all its eye catching glory. I followed the redstart as it flitted from perch to perch along the hedge and then noticed that beyond it another brown bird was also flying down to the grass and then back up to the hedge. I assumed it was a Robin but thought it best to check anyway. The original redstart was still sat on its perch in the hedge so when the second brown bird dropped down from the hedge no one was more surprised than me to see a flash of orange chestnut tail as it flew down onto the grass. I waited for it to make one more sortie from hedge to ground and when it did there was no denying the fact that here was another female Common Redstart. Two in one hedge and only five minutes from my home. Fantastic. 

Wednesday 27 April 2016

Spring, the Sweet Spring April 2016

I just love this time of year as the relentless growth and vitality after the long winter takes complete control and the countryside comes alive with energy and birdsong.

The Elizabethan playwright, poet and satirist Thomas Nashe wrote a poem called Spring, the Sweet Spring, the opening verse going like this

Spring the sweet spring, is the year's pleasant king
Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring
Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing
Cuckoo, jug jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo

Well maybe 'cold doth sting' just a bit with these current northerly winds and even snow Thomas, but your message is received loud and clear. The composer Benjamin Britten included the poem in his Spring Symphony, the music and words sung by a choir with full orchestra expressing far beyond my means the sheer exultation of Spring and the promise of this time of year.

Out and about I find myself caught up in an excitement that I cannot quite explain. It's something primal that stirs deep within and each year it drives me outdoors to just be there, amongst it all.

At Farmoor I  first took myself around the vastness of the two reservoirs, its bleak uncompromising concrete structure now surrounded on all sides by many shades of green as the trees and bushes both near and far softened the landscape, and then later I diverted down to the grass path by the Thames at Lower Whitley Farm.

Despite the cold northerly wind whipping the waters of the reservoir into proper waves and the shards of sunlight dazzling my eyes, as they reflected off the dancing waters, the reservoir was busy with up to thirty terns swooping and dipping down to the water to pick off emerging flies or seize small fish. Common Terns outnumbered Arctic Terns by two to one. Both species are imbued with a lithe grace, sinuous, muscular and supremely elegant, as like ballerinas they float effortlessly in their true element of space and wind. They were flying into the wind to feed and on reaching one end of the reservoir turned and sped downwind only to face back into the wind and commence progressing upwind once more. Some of the Common Terns were already pairing, individual birds bringing offerings of small fish to their prospective mates accompanied by harsh strident calls as they strengthened their pair bond. The Arctic Terns possess a special grace, even more so than the Common Terns, for they are built to spend most of their life flying from one end of the world to the other, a bird of superlatives, undertaking the longest migration of any bird on the planet, moving from Antarctic to Arctic and back again, virtually constantly in daylight. When perched their legs can be seen to be so much shorter than other terns, a true indication of the large percentage of time they spend in the air.
Common Tern
High above me the first Swifts of the year, dark, sickle winged, aerial supremacists, even more so than the Arctic Terns, rode the air on stiff flickering wings, flying before a threatening grey rain cloud with a flock of House Martins, whose cheery conversational and excited calls came to me from on high as they flew with the Swifts.

A large number of Sand Martins, up to five hundred, were feeding on the other smaller reservoir, passing low over the water catching flies, flashing alternately brown and white as they sped back and fore. Such was the bounty of flies there was time to indulge in courtship flights which seemed to consist of many a menage a trois, each threesome consisting, probably, of two males hustling in churring excitement after a female.

The grass bank by the Thames Waterworks has been mown now but the Cowslips have been left intact. Their rich yellow flowers hang in tubular, drooping clusters on elongated stalks, their yellow and pale green colouration being matched today by a group of four male Yellow Wagtails which excitedly chased inumerable flies and invertebrates through the areas of newly cut grass.

Yellow Wagtail
I walked down some steps off the reservoir at Lower Whitley Farm to be out of the wind, stopping to admire the bluebells, which in a haze of blue now covered the grass below the leaning tree trunks and imparted, like an expensive perfume, a delicate, elusive aroma of hyacinth on air that was undisturbed in this sheltered part of the wood. Primroses too were here, the flowers pale yellow stars with a wide ruff of broad and ribbed green leaves, the yellow flowers twinkling above them like fallen stars.

Countless tiny flies had formed synchronised clouds where the air was still, rising and falling in unison, forming a discrete shroud around any moving object such as myself but with a wave of my arm they would disperse only  to form up, surround me and rise and fall once again in their endless dance. So many of them that the sum of the infinitesimal sound of each of their beating wings combined to form an audible whine. 

I carried on along the path that runs by the Thames. The river, although only rising in the next county, is already wide, deep and navigable to canal boats, its waters slow moving, currents, little eddies and whirls appearing and then mysteriously vanishing.

A female Mallard swam out from the bank followed by nine newly hatched ducklings. Slightly nervous and anxious she made quiet sounds, compelling the flotilla of ducklings to instinctively form up close to her for security as she swung across the slow moving waters of the river to the far bank and then, perceiving she and her family were secure of any threat from me, relaxed and with different gentle calls indicated to the ducklings they could spread out and feed again. She will do well to keep all her young as the threats and dangers to them are many and varied.

On either side of the path, in trees and bushes, there are hidden warblers constantly singing. The comparative silence of the winter woods and hedgerows has been replaced with constant sound from the songs and calls of both resident and migratory birds, all responding to the turning of the Earth and the increasing daylight.

Common Chiffchaffs strike out their monotonous two note song from high in the willow trees whilst their close cousin the Willow Warbler puts them to shame with its melodic, wistful, scatter of notes. It raises its head to the heavens and pours out a surprisingly loud song for such a tiny bird, just seven or so grammes of feather and bone that travels all the way here from southern Africa to unknowingly delight us with its song and presence.

Willow Warbler
A Blackcap sings from an ash tree, the loud, pure notes of its song distinctive but it is hard to see amongst the emergent leaves, the grey plumage merging with the similar coloured bark of the ash  tree's boughs, enough to disguise its profile in the tree, nor is the glossy black cap as obvious as one would imagine. Another Blackcap joins it, a female, similarly dull of plumage but with a chestnut brown cap. Listening to the Blackcap I fall into a temporary reverie about my childhood in rural Surrey and remember a time when I found a Blackcap's nest containing four eggs, all those years ago, in a small elder bush, a delicate woven basket of grasses with two basket handles, each woven round a stem of elder on either side of the nest, these being its only support.

On the other side of the path a similar song came from denser bushes and bramble. The notes less clear and pure than the Blackcap but still richly melodic and harmonious to the human ear. The song, slightly slurred and throaty announced the presence of a Garden Warbler, more nondescript in plumage than a Blackcap, with little variation whatsoever in its plumage of dull brown and fawn.

I walked on with the heady, sickly sweet smell of blackthorn blossom thick in the air, the white star like flowers blossoming in profusion, the earliest of the hedgerow bushes to come into flower, well before the pungent smelling blossom of the hawthorn, that other familiar prickly hedgerow resident. The white blossom covers the entire bush making it impossible to see into the centre and is beloved of the Lesser Whitethroat who, secure in the depths of the leafless black twigs and blossom laden outer edge of the hedge announces his presence with a distinctive rattling warble, volleyed from deep within the blackthorn.

I wandered on further, now passing a rough field bounded by an unkempt hedgerow of mixed trees and bushes untouched by chainsaw or axe. As I approached the hedgerow a perceived bird of prey flew low and fast along the bottom of the hedge only to swoop up and perch on the outside of a hawthorn.

At first its bluish grey upperparts and barred underparts had me thinking of a male Sparrowhawk but no, it was a Cuckoo. On landing it promptly confirmed its identity by loudly calling cuckoo cuckoo and carried on for fully a couple of minutes. Its hawk like flight and appearance not only duped me, for it was promptly mobbed by a Blackcap, which abandoning its attractive song, scolded the Cuckoo with grating, harsh calls. I suppose, if you like, the Blackcap equivalent of swearing.

The Cuckoo ignored the Blackcap and sank down onto its perch, letting its wings droop and tail swing slowly from side to side. It was in the lee of the wind here and the sun was warm, reminiscent no doubt of its winter home in the tropics of Africa. It was content and ceased calling, sitting silently and at rest. Perhaps the most fabled and written about British bird after the Nightingale I watched it with a feeling of immense privilege and no little sadness as I realised how much they are declining in our countryside. It commenced calling again, the pale grey throat swelling but the bill hardly opening as those instantly recognisable notes of Spring, surprisingly far carrying, proclaimed its presence and territory alongside the river.

Cuckoos have something about them which seems to attract and cause you to stop and look at them in almost mesmeric fascination. Perhaps it's the way they let their feathers hang loose and their wings and tail swing and droop unlike other similar sized birds. They also spend a lot of time quite low to the ground behaving, again, unlike any other bird of similar size. 

I remember keeping observation on a young Cuckoo in a Reed Warbler's nest in Sussex and feeling the strange pull and insistence of the relentless calling of the young Cuckoo, a monster that had taken over the nest and forever was demanding to be fed. Not only did the parent Reed Warblers constantly bring food but on occasions other birds found the calls irresistible and would divert to feed the Cuckoo. Maybe this is where the phrase 'One flew East, One flew West, One flew over the Cuckoo's nest' originated and became the children's counting rhyme. 'One flew over the Cuckoo's Nest' also formed the title and inspiration of Ken Kesey's famous and seminal novel of the 1960's which recounted one man's battle and ultimate heroic but tragic triumph over institutional tyranny. The institution, a mental home being the cuckoo's nest in the book.  As you can maybe guess this very much appeals to my inner spirit.

The Cuckoo, tired of its perch moved off and round the hedgerow pursued once more by the irate Blackcap. I followed but it had gone further than I thought and was nowhere to be seen. I returned to the path and looking across the river, in direct contrast to the rough field behind me there was a field of short grass full of sheep and yes, Spring lambs. If ever there was  an incentive to be a vegetarian the two lambs looking at me with such innocence across the river was the epitomy of rebuke for my ever considering eating meat.

Further on and I came to a ditch crammed with the yellowed stalks of last year's reeds, spikey, like giant knitting needles stood end on end, so closely packed that it was impossible to see more than a few feet into them.

From their base came the scratchy rhythmic call of an invisible Reed Warbler, hardly an attractive song but yet another harbinger of Spring and I tried to imagine and indeed marvelled at this bird travelling all this way through countless nights above great cities and over deserts and mountains, following the stars to find a home deep in this reedy ditch in a secluded part of rural Oxfordshire.

Sedge Warblers were also present in some numbers, many singing from bushes although some were also in the reeds. Their warble, similar to the Reed Warbler but less rhythmic and much more varied often includes mimicry of other bird calls such as Swallow, Common Whitethroat and Yellow Wagtail. In an ecstasy of passion they hurled themselves upwards, above the reeds or bushes singing with an added intensity and then descended on stiff outstretched wings and spread tail back into cover. I watched one singing from a blackthorn bush, its rich red orange gape wide open as it sang.

Sedge Warbler
I grew tired of walking and stopping by a small willow felt the yellow and silver, soft cats paw like flowers, their silky touch soothing, sensuous and gentle to my fingertips. Soon, all too soon, all this will be over but for now and the coming few weeks I will once again feel my heart sing and to quote a well used phrase 'Be full of the Joys of Spring'. 

                                  When proud-pied April dress'd in all his trim
                                     Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing

Sonnet 98  William Shakespeare

North for a Kentish 26th April 2016

At six am I was at the RSPB's Otmoor Reserve and standing alone on the track to the First Screen. My reason for being here this early was to try and photograph a Grasshopper Warbler which uncharacteristically was inclined to show itself quite well for a species of bird renowned for skulking habits.

Walking along the bridleway, Reed Warblers were grating out their songs from the base of the dead reed stems in the dyke as Sedge Warblers did the same from higher in sprouting green hawthorn or frothy white blackthorns. A Lesser Whitethroat rattled out its song as it made its concealed way through the dense blackthorn hedge by the track 

I heard the Grasshopper reeling as I arrived and soon found it perched low in a briar but it was always partially obscured by dead grass stems or small branches and did not remain on view for long. It also did not help that accompanying a freezing northerly wind the sun was shining almost directly into my face as I watched the warbler, making photography very difficult.

For the next two hours myself and the warbler played hide and seek with only partial success on my part. Maybe it was the strength of the wind that caused the warbler to sing and show itself only sporadically but there were long periods of waiting with nothing much to show for it apart from my body temperature rapidly lowering and my fingertips becoming numb to the point of pain.

This was not enjoyable and during the periods of waiting for the 'gropper' to sing I distracted myself from the freezing conditions by photographing a more obliging Wren followed by a Reed Bunting and a Goldfinch. The Grasshopper Warbler finally sidled up from hiding in the long grasses and perched on a briar stem but only gave me seconds in which to capture its image before slipping back into cover and so it went on, the process repeating itself ad infinitum.

Grasshopper Warbler 
Reed Bunting

Frustrated and very cold I looked at my watch and saw it was eight am. Two hours had passed. Ye gods! Last night my RBA app had informed me about a male Kentish Plover that had arrived at Audenshaw Reservoirs on the eastern outskirts of Manchester, heaven help it. Kentish Plovers do not breed in Britain but do breed further east and as far north as southern Sweden and when they do stray to Britain on migration from their winter home around the Mediterranean and further south they are usually present for one day only, and then not unsurprisingly hot wing it back on course for their breeding grounds.  I made a mental note that evening that if by some miracle it was still there the next day I would go for it straight away.

With numb fingers I fumbled my way onto my  I-phone and consulted the latest reports from RBA for today. It told me the Kentish Plover was still at Audenshaw Reservoirs @0739.  Right then. Next move was to call Clackers and invite him, via the motorway to hell, to join me on a sortie to Manchester in the Black Audi.  A somewhat  surprised Clackers agreed and we arranged to meet at Witney in an hour and 'go for it'. I have never seen a Kentish Plover in Britain and Clackers had only seen an immature some years ago so we were both enthused by the prospect of seeing a male Kentish Plover which is a pretty bird when in breeding plumage.

We hit the highways and with little delay arrived in Manchester at around twelve noon. Circumventing the intricate convolutions of the Motorway system around Manchester we soon found ourselves nearing our destination and hopefully an appointment with a much desired Kentish Plover. As I prepared to leave the Motorway Clackers looking to my right exclaimed 'There's some birders up on that bank peering over the wall. That must be the reservoir and they are looking at the plover!'

Up and over the Motorway we went, backtracking through some traffic lights and shortly found ourselves parking on Audenshaw Road with the reservoir bank on our left. Some departing birders gave us directions, advising that the bird had flown from the bank they had watched it from and it was now on the other side of the reservoir. Thank heavens it had not flown off altogether.

We took a short walk up the road before turning through the reservoir gates and then walking along the top of the grassed reservoir for quarter of a mile to join around ten birders avidly watching the Kentish Plover.

The Kentish Plover was feeding along the rocky edge to the water

I should add that the Audenshaw Reservoir complex comprised of  no less than three reservoirs and we were apparently on Reservoir Three. It was also different to our local Farmoor Reservoir in that there were no birds that we could see anywhere on the entire complex apart from six Mallard, a half  dozen Sand Martin which did not hang around and a lone Pied Wagtail - and, let's not forget, a male Kentish Plover. No Great crested Grebes or Coots were in sight which was remarkable. Possibly it had something to do with the close proximity of urban housing and an adjacent Motorway that the reservoirs were virtually devoid of birdlife. Still the one bird that mattered was here and very much present.

The Kentish was a small plover somewhere between Little Ringed Plover and Ringed Plover in size and with all the familiar plover actions of occasional head bobbing, short runs and frequent stops to tilt down and pick up prey from the stony shore. Its head pattern was an attractive combination of white and black forehead, orange crown and nape and a black line through its otherwise white face. Sandy brown upperparts and pure white underparts with black neck patches completed the ensemble.

At first it was a little distant but slowly worked its way along the shoreline until it was right opposite us and then going away. It then turned and came back, repeating the performance in reverse with a short spell of preening and a brief siesta in between.

We watched it for around an hour in the company of a small group of birders. Probably because it was a weekday there was not a big crowd and there was a pleasant and convivial atmosphere amongst us, helped I am sure by the sunny conditions.

'Had enough Clackers?' 'Yes let's go'. We returned to the car and were soon back on the Motorway and leaving Manchester well before the rush hour commenced and from past experience a wise move. Returning down the M6 we passed a huge tailback on the opposite carriageway that we had only come up two hours previously and thanked our lucky stars we had not got stuck in that.

Whilst at Audenshaw we had been very near Warrington and the verdict of the Hillsborough inquest into the 96 Liverpool football fans that died there was due this very afternoon and much on my mind. 'What news of the Liverpool 96 Clackers?' I enquired. 'Hold on I will check' and consulting his phone we were overjoyed to hear they had won their case of unlawful killing and the police were found to be liars and dissemblers and the dead were all innocent and had been shamefully libelled not just by the police but also The Sun Newspaper.

This set us off on a general rant about the Tories, the junior doctors strike and that really annoying Health Minister whose name rhymes with Hunt or is it the other way around and this was completed by a final blast  about Bernie Ecclestone as we approached the outskirts of Witney. Excellent, we both felt a whole lot better and the journey had passed in no time at all.

Home and a fulfilling day came to its conclusion lying in a hot bath with a glass of seventeen year  Old Pulteney malt whisky.

Simple pleasures!

Monday 25 April 2016

Cricket Teal 24th April 2016

Arguably my favourite duck is the Garganey, a small duck slightly larger than a Common Teal that visits us for the spring and summer only. The male in breeding plumage is attractively patterned with silvery grey flanks, long, drooping black and white scapulars falling across his back, stippled dark chestnut head and breast with prominent white stripes sweeping in  broad curves from forehead to nape across either side of his head. The female is much duller and can be mistaken for a female Common Teal apart from the dark markings across her  buff face as opposed to the Common Teal's more bland, open faced appearance. After breeding the male loses all his fine feathering and adopts a plumage much like the female.

I always look forward to their arrival here in late March or early April and Port Meadow is one of the best places to seek them out in Oxfordshire although they can and do turn up at other places in the county. They acquired the name cricket teal in times past due to the curious clicking, ratchet like call made by the male which sounds a little like a cricket.

Port Meadow, if the floods are right is visited by this duck almost annually in spring and this year was no exception with a pair arriving about a week ago and they are still there as I write this blog. They will eventually move on, no doubt to find a suitable breeding area but will remain for some days at Port Meadow feeding to regain their strength after their long migration from Africa. The shallow flood water on Port Meadow is ideal for a dabbling duck such as the Garganey as they can sift the mud, rich in nutrients, through their bills. 

Although primarily regarded as a secretive duck of inland marshes and secluded stretches of fresh water, on seawatches in March and April, when I used to live near Brighton, I have seen migrating flocks of up to twelve passing east over the sea  just off the coast. A Spring flock including a number of the attractively plumaged males always sent a thrill through my much chilled body and justified the hardship as I sat on the exposed breakwater with my telescope.

Garganey leave us in the autumn to fly south, covering prodigious distances, in the main part overland and in the case  of birds that have bred in Europe, Russia and surrounding states crossing The Sahara in a single flight to their winter homes in western Africa and occasionally much further to southern Africa. They have a very widespread breeding distribution throughout northern and western Europe and Russia. Further east ducks migrate south to spend their winter in India and Australasia often in very large numbers. The worldwide population has been estimated at just under three million individuals but the birds that come to us in Britain are small in number, varying year to year from around fifty to one hundred pairs and do not normally breed much further north than the Midlands with their main breeding areas being in the East Anglian counties of Norfolk and Suffolk.

So it was that early this morning before the runners, dog walkers and strollers took to the Meadow  I found myself walking out to the flood in search of the  latest pair of Garganey to visit. It was a cold, blustery northwesterly wind that greeted me, stinging my cheeks and ears but it had dispersed the earlier grey cloud and now a raw but brightly sunlit morning beckoned.

I had the place to myself with the only disturbance being the exhortations from the cox's of the various rowing eights that were cleaving their way up and down the brown waters of the nearby Thames. The flood itself was, in contrast  to the muddy waters of the river, reflecting the blue of the sky like some vast pale and rippled blue stain on the bright green of the emergent grass.

I found the pair of Garganey at the far end of the flood feeding avidly in the shallow muddy edges of the flood, sifting the mud with their bills as they worked their way through the  aquatic plantlife. Most definitely a pair and an absolute picture of harmony, remaining close together without rancour and the male assiduously keeping a look out every so often while his mate continuously guzzled and nuzzled her way through the shallows.

Garganey can be very tame at times but others can be quite wary and these two fell into the latter category, but due to the lack of any human presence and especially dogs, were confident enough to feed relatively close in to the shoreline by the path to Burgess Field.  By carefully stalking them and using the cover of a line of trees I  managed to get reasonably close but eventually a pair of undetected Mallard in a ditch betrayed my presence and they and the Garganey dispersed further out onto the flood.

No matter it had been a happy and fulfilling hour watching them and I made my way back to the car uplifted by this much anticipated and longed for annual encounter.