Monday 27 March 2017

An Iberian Chiffchaff near Bristol 26th March 2017

The clocks went forward last night and as a consequence of losing an hour of sleep I sat even more drowsily than usual on the side of the bed drinking a cup of tea and mulling over whether to go and see an Iberian Chiffchaff that had overshot its normal destination in southern Europe by some margin and was now singing its strange song, so very different to that of our normal Common Chiffchaff, in a small park at Yate near Bristol.

Whilst reflecting on this and trying to get myself together I looked out from our bedroom window at a view that never ceases to inspire, where the undulating contours of the southern Cotswolds stretch away into the distance. Above, the early morning cloudless sky was being crossed with the vapour trails of many jet aircraft, arriving from the west and heading south, no doubt to land at Heathrow Airport. Some of the trails were pencil thin, like a continuous shooting star, and you could see the shining aircraft at the head of the vapour but other trails were dissipating and broadening into amorphous, thick fluffy bands from planes that had passed over previously. I inwardly shuddered as for many years I too travelled the world as a salesman on just such aircraft and could imagine the passengers on the jets above, tired, dishevelled and weary from sitting uncomfortably for hours, maybe drinking too much and enduring the noise and artificially maintained atmosphere in the confines of what is no more than a metal tube hurtling through the air at hundreds of miles an hour, no matter how sophisticated or glamorous a gloss you try to put on it.

My thoughts went back to the Iberian Chiffchaff which had also travelled a very long way, but as a natural, instinctive part of its life with nothing more than some feathers and an internal compass that had gone slightly awry to allow it to accomplish its journey.The contrast at this moment could not have been more graphically illustrated.

I resolved to go and see the Iberian Chiffchaff, buoyed by the prospect of another glorious day ahead promising full sunshine and the fact it was not too long a drive to Yate. Iberian Chiffchaffs are recorded annually in Britain, usually in April and May and can and do turn up virtually anywhere when they do stray too far north. They are normally found in the French Pyrenees and south through Portugal and Spain to North Africa where they are restricted to northwest Morocco, northern Algeria and northwest Tunisia. Forty seven have been recorded in Britain up to the end of 2015 with normally one or two turning up each year, although the records seem to be increasing of late, culminating in 2015 when a pair successfully bred in the Gower, raising seven young. This, so far, is the only record ever of this species breeding in Britain and truly remarkable, in that a male and female of the same species should find each other so far out of  their normal range, let alone pair and successfully breed. Some vagrant Iberian Chiffchaffs are only present for a day but others tarry longer, for up to a week and sometimes for more than a month, the longest staying for 83 days in 2013.

So similar looking to our Common Chiffchaff are they, that it is considered they can only be safely identified by their call and by their very different song which is a series of variable notes delivered at speed with a trill at the end and is shorter in duration and quite unlike the monotonous two note song of our Common Chiffchaff. 

Iberian Chiffchaff
There are subtle plumage differences too, which make it look slightly brighter, somewhere between 'our' Common Chiffchaff and a Willow Warbler. Its supercilium is longer and yellower and the undertail coverts are also yellow whereas the rest of the underparts are almost white. Its bill is also finer, its tail looks longer and the legs are paler and certainly not black, but all these identification pointers can only be seen with close and prolonged views from a singing bird which is what I hoped to get this morning.

The drive to Yate was accomplished with ease on a quiet Sunday morning with roads free of traffic and just after 9.30 I was parking the car in Kingsgate Park, an unassuming, small suburban park surrounded on all sides by housing. Like many similar, the park must have been part of a large estate in long past times before it was sold and engulfed by housing as there is a massive stately home that was formerly called Stanshawe Court on the park's perimeter and the current park and lake were obviously part of the formal gardens that went with the house in grander times.

The Iberian Chiffchaff was frequenting a narrow island of small willow and sallow trees, hawthorns, bushes, ivy and brambles, surrounded by water allegedly containing Great crested Newts and which is separated from the main lake by a tarmac footpath. This area is apparently deliberately kept wild as a nature reserve and managed by Avon Wildlife Trust. The rest of the park and the greater part of the lake is maintained as a recreational facility for the surrounding residents and visitors, with expanses of mown grass, flower beds, swings and play areas for children and the main lake is also used by a model boat club at various times.

Looking over to the narrow island which is a Nature Reserve
The Iberian Chiffchaff frequented the scrub along the bank
of the island 
I stood with a half dozen other birders on a gravel track and looked over the narrow stretch of water to the edge of the island and immediately heard the Iberian Chiffchaff singing and not very long afterwards saw it feeding and singing in the tangle of twiggy vegetation spilling down the bank of the island into the water. It was difficult viewing as standing on the track we had to look through or over an impenetrable hedge of  small ivied hawthorns, and brambles that grew quite high and partially obscured one's view. 

The chiffchaff  kept low on the opposite bank as it was sheltered from the strong wind so this made it even more difficult to see. Eventually I found a small gap that allowed me to get down onto the bank beyond the boundary hedge and stand by the water's edge and my view across to the island was then much better.

The last three images above show three supposed diagnostic plumage features
The long, broad and yellowish supercilium, the yellow undertail coverts and
the almost white belly. Note also the fine bill
The chiffchaff was singing constantly and I could see it well as it mainly kept to a small sheltered area of trees, bushes and brambles that were in the sun almost opposite me. Occasionally it would move fifty or so metres along the island bank but always returned to its favoured small area of trees and bushes. An added difficulty was the fact there were at least two Common Chiffchaffs feeding in the same area but they were also singing so if there was any doubt, once they sang their identity was confirmed but you had to be careful when they were silent and one or two birders did mis-identify the bird they were looking at until it sang.

This individual, over the period of time I observed it, showed many of the generally accepted diagnostic features of its species. The brighter colouring compared to the Common Chiffchaffs caused by the greener upper-parts. the yellower saturation on its face and undertail coverts as well as the almost white belly became increasingly obvious as I got more and more views of it. Examining the photos I took of it the finer bill, longer tail and wing point and paler legs were also plain to see.

It was constantly on the move, singing and feeding with non stop enthusiasm and occasionally hassled by a pugnacious Robin but for the most part it was left untroubled. It indulged in brief, high speed aerobatic sorties out over the water chasing an insect but generally preferred to stay in cover in the dense tangles of vegetation on the bank of the island.

The morning progressed and I stood quietly on the bank and awaited opportunities to see it and finally satisfied after a couple of  hours of intermittent close views, I made my way back to the car but not before stopping at The Cakery, a cafe located in the former stables of the stately home and serving mouthwatering cakes of every possible description. I exercised supreme restraint and restricted myself to a skinny latte and a large chunk of Tiffin that set me up nicely for the hour's drive home.

Sunday 26 March 2017

Jewel of the Woods 25th March 2017

A cold wind blew today but it was impossible to feel downbeat as the sun was shining from an unsullied blue sky. To avoid the worst of the wind I went to some woods near to me that were a mixture of dark green conifers and bare limbed, deciduous trees. The sunlight shone bright and strong from on high, creating ripples of light on the floor of the wood as it permeated through the green fronds of the conifers and the skeletal boughs and twigs of the deciduous trees. A lemon yellow Brimstone flew in a fast, flickering flight, threading its way through the tree trunks and passed across the bare, earthen brown and occasionally green brambled  floor of the wood. Looking up through the trees the intense blue of the sky showed as irregular patches of bright colour in the spaces between the wind disturbed tree tops and the sun's intensity created a hard white light that caused me to shade my eyes,

This morning it was as though the heart and hidden recesses of the wood that had remained dormant through the dark of Winter were now being laid open by the streaming rays of the sun welcoming Spring, and the chilling wind was banished to the very tops of the trees. It was consequently quiet and undisturbed beneath the trees and only the sound of invisible birds came to me from high above in the tree tops. On a corner of a green ride where the grass was bejewelled with the star like shiny yellow flowers of celandines, the sound of finches came from some large Alders, their upper reaches heavy laden with a confused jumble of tangled twigs and small knobbled cones. Staring upwards I could at first see nothing, as the finches were tiny and hidden in the tangle of cones but every so often a bird would flutter to another branch, changing its position and as it did so betray its presence.

Looking up in the binoculars I would find it and almost certainly I would then find its companions all busily feeding on the seeds of the cones. Lesser Redpolls, Siskins and Goldfinches were amicably sharing the tree tops keeping up a constant conversational twittering in the case of the Goldfinches whilst the Siskins communicated with that melancholic whistle of theirs and the Lesser Redpolls responded with a dry rattling trill. Each call distinctive and making it un-necessary to see the bird if one knew the various calls.

I moved onwards and the faint, high, sibilant calls of a pair of Goldcrests came to me from the conifers. Tiny, dull moss green and grey buff birds with a gash of golden yellow on the crown in the case of the male and plain yellow for the female. Their song and calls are of such a high register that they are often impossible to hear after we reach a certain age but although I am a fair way beyond the age when it is considered beyond my powers, I can thankfully still hear them. There were today, however, two very similar songs coming from the trees and to my delight I realised that the other song was that of a Firecrest.

It took some time to find it, as it is no easy task seeking a bird less than the size of my thumb in the dense spiky green needles of the conifers and I only located it when it flitted from a dark recess of the conifer onto an isolated hanging branch of needles. 

Often one only sees Goldcrests and Firecrests for the briefest moment, as minute silhouettes against the light or as tiny scraps of life easily mistaken for a falling leaf as they  move high up from one tree to drop lower to another but occasionally they will come very low in their quest for food and can be seen at head height and, exceptionally, even lower in the bramble leaves that grow under some of the trees here.

They are constantly on the move, never ever still, as they endlessly and diligently search every leaf and conifer frond for food to sustain their hyperactive life. Today I was very fortunate as a pair of Firecrests gradually  came lower and lower until they were just above my head and flitted around on some bare twigs before one descended almost to the ground, hunting through some bramble leaves growing around the base of a tree trunk.

Firecrests are beautiful, in fact they are breathtakingly beautiful. Similar to a Goldcrest in size but there the similarity ends as although the patterning of the two species is superficially the same the overall colouring of the Firecrest is so much more intense, with the green on their back suffused with golden bronze and unlike the plain faced Goldcrest, the Firecrest's face has a strikingly smart combination of white above and below the eye with a black stripe running through the eye, and possessing a black crown in the centre of which is a crest that really is on fire, being bright orange yellow with a centre of burning red only revealed in display. They are the crown jewel of any wood they inhabit. Always eagerly sought after and like any elusive bird, they require dedication, a considerable amount of luck and some perseverance to see them well.

Today I found my feathered jewel and although I could not keep it at least I managed to capture it on camera and so keep the memory alive.

Friday 24 March 2017

Hunting the Buntings 23rd March 2017

On the RSPB's large reserve at Otmoor in Oxfordshire there is only one Hide, The Wetlands Hide which lies just fifty metres along a wide footpath come track leading off from the main bridleway that crosses the reserve.

The footpath seen from The Wetlands Hide
The footpath is relatively undisturbed and the RSPB and its volunteer wardens have spread seed along the footpath by the Hide to attract finches and buntings which has been very successful and consequently this allows visitors to the Hide to get close up views of, at peak times in winter, a flock of several hundred buntings and finches that come to the seed. Naturally the seed also attracts other species and this afternoon a male Pheasant and some Stock Doves were also taking advantage.

Today was a day of mixed weather, with periods of cloud and then sunshine accompanied by a strong, blustery and cold northeast wind and after a rather strenuous and over ambitious session in the gym this morning, it seemed a good day to sit in the Hide and observe the comings and goings of the finch and bunting flock, now somewhat diminished in numbers from its peak in mid winter

By far the most plentiful species making up the flock were the Reed Buntings, there must have been in excess of fifty, the majority were males with just a few females present. Why this should be so I have no idea but have noticed this phenomenon before and sometimes the roles have been reversed and there are more females than males.

Female Reed Bunting

The feeding flock regularly took alarm and would fly off, sometimes for good reason, as a female Sparrowhawk had taken to flying fast and low along the track hunting for any unwary bird to seize but as far as I could see on the three passes she made while I was around she was unsuccessful. The Reed Buntings were always the first to return, landing in the small hedgerow hawthorns or on the barbed wire fence along the edge of the track and would sit nervously with tails flicking open to reveal their white edges until one of their number would take courage and descend to the ground to feed, whereupon the rest would follow. Many of the males were now in almost full breeding plumage but on closer inspection it could be seen they were still showing a bit of brown or grizzled white winter feathering in the black of their heads and chins, some more so than others.

Male Reed Buntings
With the return of the Reed Buntings the other species would eventually follow. In order of appearance it was usually the Chaffinches, then the Goldfinches, a flock of Linnets which kept very much to themselves and did everything together and finally the Yellowhammers, last but by no means least and the main reason for my going to the Hide in the first place.

Male Chaffinch
It was instructive to note the difference in bill shape of the Yellowhammers compared to the finches, in that the Yellowhammers display an upper mandible that is rather flat on the top giving a distinctive slightly asymmetrical shape to the bill. I have also noticed this in Snow and Lapland Buntings too. The finches by contrast have a convex shape to their upper mandible giving the bill a conical, satisfying and symmetrical look.

The Goldfinches were an absolute delight, landing as a small flock of around ten or more birds on the thinnest topmost twigs of the small, budding hawthorns, twittering and tinkling their rapid conversational notes to each other. Their demure size only serves to accentuate their innate attractiveness. When seen so close the mixture of lovely colours in their plumage makes me wonder why I so take them for granted. Their face is a combination of red, white and black and their wings flash golden yellow with prominent white spots at the tips of the black wing and tail feathers.


The Linnets were by far the most nervy and least inclined to settle of all the birds feeding here. Maybe it is because they are so used to being in a tight flock and it only takes one bird to be alarmed for the rest to immediately respond and disappear as a flock into the wide windswept sky, their hard contact notes urging each other on. Towards the  end of my two hour vigil in the Hide only a few Linnets were coming back to the seed and then they seemed less nervous than when in a flock, although still very wary. A male perched on a hawthorn twig, unsure of whether to descend to the ground and sat for a minute or two. He was well into acquiring his breeding plumage with a breast heavily suffused with rose pink but his grey forehead had yet to acquire a similar colouring, being still obscured by the grey brown fringes of the feathering which will now rapidly wear away to reveal the pink. Here is another bird whose subtle beauty is only apparent when seen close up. Although lacking the pink patches the white in the wing and tail feathers brings variety to the brown upperparts, streaked buff underparts and grey head of the more dowdy female.

Male Linnet

Female Linnet
The Yellowhammers were in the minority and as befits the brief interludes when they were present, very much the stars. I could only see two males and two females, so possibly they were two pairs. After a general alarm resulting in the flock of finches and buntings dispersing they were always the last to return and would perch for a considerable time in the bushes, the most wary of all the birds, looking unsure, and often would fly off again without feeding. On one occasion only, a male did descend to the ground and feed with the other birds and this was my opportunity to get some images.

The males are in my opinion one of the more unappreciated when it comes to beauty of plumage. The bright yellow of their head and upper breast positively glows in the sunlight and often when you see them sat at the top of a bush in spring and summer it is their bright yellow head, almost disembodied, that gives them away in the fresh green leaves which hide the rest of their body. Their upper body is brown streaked darker but their rump is much brighter, being a rich, orange brown. Quite beautiful.

Male Yellowhammer
As a species they are, like so many of our birds associated with agriculture, having a hard time of it and their numbers are declining alarmingly. This may be why they are so few in number at Otmoor and today, although I realised there was little I could do about this, at least I could enjoy the beauty of the two males that graced this little corner of Otmoor. So thank you RSPB, once again.