Tuesday 26 January 2021

A Winter Fieldfare 25th January 2021

I go to bed each night wondering how I will get through tomorrow but somehow I seem to manage to find something to occupy me each day and thus another day passes as I endure this current dispiriting restriction of my liberty, which I pray will end soon. 

Today it was the unexpected arrival of a Fieldfare that served to distract and delight me, a visitor from across the North Sea, hard pressed for food due to the current snowfall and as a result emboldened by hunger to resort to our neighbour's crab apple tree that stands but metres from our kitchen window, there to scoff the plentiful fruit, in reality each 'apple' no bigger than a cherry. 

Doubtless it found such an abundance of fruit on the tree a welcome and opportune source of nourishment that will now give it a strong chance of survival, as the snow that fell yesterday still lies extensively in and around the village. This morning it was a glittering sunlit carpet of frozen whiteness covering most of the ground and preventing any chance of finding food. All the hawthorn berries too, have long since gone from the hedgerows, consumed by roving bands of Fieldfares and Redwings in the preceding months.

The tree, being so close to our kitchen window, enabled me to use the kitchen as a ready made hide to watch and photograph the bird as it fed on the fruit. 

The local Blackbirds, used to having their own way and dominance over the smaller birds that also visit the tree, were in for a rude shock as they flew in to pick at the fruit, only to be given short shrift by the Fieldfare, which larger than a Blackbird, would seek to further impress with fluffed up feathers, partially spread wings and tail, chasing them around and out of the tree without ceremony.

The Fieldfare's aggressive demeanour probably meant it was a male and it had obviously decided that this tree was not to be shared if at all possible.What will happen if others of its kind discover the tree is anyone's guess but probably it will have to give way.

The local gang of House Sparrows which cheerily chirp away the day and live their communal lives for much of the time in the tangled twigs of the tree, were tolerated and they sat unmolested in the bright  sun, shining down from a sky of ice blue.

The Fieldfare was unable to swallow the small fruits whole, perching to look around until it found one to its liking. Then it would stab the fruit, tear off  a small chunk of skin and pulp and swallow the piece, leaving the fruit with a gaping wound of orange in its red skin. There were so many to choose from it rarely concentrated on just one but, like a child given run in a sweet shop, would move from one to another as if never satisfied with the one it had selected. Always there was one better to sample.

To see this normally wary bird so close was all the more thrilling as it was so unexpected. A thing of beauty, one of the handsomest of its family, possessed of an upperbody of grey and rich brown, its underparts true to its thrush heritage, a mixture of closely aligned streaks and spots underlain with shades of buff, yellow and white.

At intervals, gorged to a standstill on the surfeit of fruit it would perch in the sunlit tree, content on having found not only a plentiful supply of food but a safe and congenial place to rest until the urge of hunger prompted it once more.

When the snow goes it will seek the surrounding fields and join others of its kind, for they are sociable birds that relish company even when nesting. In the fields that normally provide an adequate winter home it will seek its prey of worms, forced to the surface and available once more in ground  made waterlogged from the snow melt and its life will once more become true to its name. Fieldfare.

Tuesday 19 January 2021

Brambling Therapy 16th January 2021

Now that I am confined by the covid lockdown to a small radius from my house, birding has become very limited for the foreseeable future. Fortunately there is a large mixed flock of finches, mainly Bramblings and Chaffinches, near my home that I can go and see each day and if I fancy some variety there is a long staying flock of Crossbills feeding in some conifers at another location that is even nearer. I suppose I should be grateful but even the sight of Bramblings and Crossbills can pall after seeing them day after day and I struggle to find something to fill my time and stop my mind entering dark places.

The weather has not helped as a succession of gloomy, fog shrouded days followed one another, the fog often not lifting all day. Today was different as, by way of change, a light dusting of snow arrived first thing with the dawn, before rapidly turning to rain. It could not get worse but consulting the Met Office weather forecast I found that the rain would cease during the morning and there was going to be a two hour window of sunshine from noon.

Determined to take advantage of this I decided on another visit to the Bramblings.The sunlight might even aid me to capture them adequately with my camera. Up to now it has been a struggle with the dull low light of the preceding days.

It is not easy to get close to these birds. Up to forty are mixed in with a larger number of Chaffinches and they are remarkably wary. I often find that a single bird can be more confiding than when in a flock, possibly due to it taking only one bird in the flock to become alarmed and flee which inevitably unsettles the rest and causes them to fly off too.

Today I slipped through the narrow gap in the hedge and stood by the edge of the field where the birds come down to feed. However they were not in the field but sitting up in a large hawthorn where the sun shone down on them. Presumably well fed, they were resting, content and feeling secure in the tree. At least ten Bramblings perched there, basking in the sunshine, occasionally preening or nibbling at emerging buds on the twigs but obviously intent on taking their ease. 

The orange breasts of the males glowed, the colour enhanced by the bright sun and contrasting with their gleaming white bellies. Some were now showing signs of emergent breeding plumage as the grey fringes to the black feathering on their heads showed varying degrees of wear, exposing more of the underlying black.

I tried to edge closer but they became instantly nervous, so I stood motionless, still some distance away. Most of them had sought to perch well inside the bush, bowered by the many twigs that undoubtedly gave them a sense of security but small birds are never still for long and occasionally one or two would move and expose themselves enough that I had a clear and unobstructed view. The opportunity never lasted for long, so one had to be quick off the mark before the bird concerned felt the urge to seek more cover.

For half an hour I stalked the birds but never got really close as they would take mild alarm at any movement on my part and in  company with the Chaffinches fly further along the line of trees to perch at what they felt was a safe distance from me.

An hour with the finches was however, all the diversion I needed to make the day become more bearable and my spirit as a consequence lightened markedly. 

Tomorrow it may be another dose of Brambling therapy or possibly a visit to the Crossbills.We shall see.These straws of hope are what I cling to now. 

One day at a time. Isn't that what they say? 


Saturday 16 January 2021

The Birds of Farmoor - New Publication 16th January 2021



As many of you will be aware from reading my blog I spend a lot of my time wandering around Farmoor Reservoir which has become my local patch in Oxfordshire. This resulted in my being approached by the Oxford Ornithological Society (OOS) to write a checklist of all the bird species that have been seen at Farmoor Reservoir since it was constructed in 1967.

I am pleased to announce that The Birds of Farmoor Reservoir has just been published and is now available.

The checklist contains 64 pages and provides an introductory brief history and background to the reservoir which serves as a guide to its facilities and the opportunities it provides for birding whilst the main part provides a list of all 250 species of bird seen at the reservoir up to 31st December 2020 including no less than 12 National Rarities

Each species listed has its own short account and for scarce and rare birds a comprehensive list of all sightings for each species is shown.

There are also over 100 full colour photos to accompany the text. 

For any birder visiting Farmoor it provides an essential reference to the birds that have and can be seen at the reservoir.

The price is £7.95 incl p&p for OOS members and £9.95 incl p&p for non members.

To order a copy and pay by bank draft please contact Barry Hudson on mobile 07788 496847/landline 01993 200790 or email secretary@oos.org.uk

If paying by cheque please make a cheque out to OOS and send to Barry Hudson c/o 4 Bushy Row, Bampton, Oxfordshire OX18 2JU.

Tuesday 12 January 2021

Scramblin' for A Brambling 11th January 2021

About ten minutes from my home is an area of neglected land almost too big to be called a field but that is what we will call it and unusually, this winter it has been left fallow and unploughed with the consequence that seeding plants abound and flocks of finches have not been slow in taking advantage of this now all too rare source of food. This is how it must have been before Britain's agriculture became so intensified and hostile to nature.

Beside this haven for the finches, bordered on two sides by roads, the one to the east the busier and leading to Chipping Norton, the other smaller, a quiet country lane of little consequence leading to Cornwell, lies an untouched neglected covert of emaciated hawthorns, elder and the occasional mature beech and ash tree, sheltered on its eastern side by a ragged stand of tall conifers. The covert is inconsequential enough that one can walk round it in about ten minutes. Bramble has been left to its own devices and the long exploratory shoots, some still bearing leaf, rest now after rampaging through the covert in the spring and summer of last year. They remain as a convoluted understory, dense and hostile enough to ensure that any encroachment into the covert is only for the most determined. Wild clematis doggedly clings to the outermost twigs of some hawthorns, bringing to reality its alternative name of Old Man's Beard, as puffs of grey seeding down cluster in a last despairing caress amongst the fretwork of twig and branch.

The disappearance of leaf cover reveals that before this tangle of bush, bramble and tree ever arose there were one or more small outbuildings here, their long forgotten brick foundations all that remains and still clearly visible amongst the brambles and moss. A less welcome sign of human existence manifests itself in various bits of long discarded scrap metal, thrown into the bushes to be forgotten. Styrofoam food cartons  and drink cans, have joined them, thoughtlessly thrown from cars passing along the road. At one end of the covert by a gate leading into the field a pile of overfull black polythene bags and other household waste, like some malignant growth, squats by the road. Whoever dumped it here too lazy and lacking in social conscience to otherwise dispose of it properly. Why bother when this quiet country lane will do nicely. No one will see. Out of sight, out of mind. Someone else's problem now. The council will clear it up anyway. I stand and stare at the pile, a jarring eyesore in this otherwise rural winter landscape of bare trees, fields, wide skies and the rolling contours of the Cotswolds, a testament to the times we are living in. The rubbish mocks the discrete stone I passed earlier bearing the legend 'The Cotswolds - An Area of Outstanding Beauty.'

The combination of a seeding field and the comparative safety and security provided by the adjacent bushes and trees grants the finches their two most pressing requirements, food and security. The hidden feeding flock flee in regular alarm from the ground cover of the seeding plants to perch high or deep in the tangled twiggery of the nearest hawthorns or the rigid upright stems of an elder, waiting until they feel secure enough to fly out and descend once more to feed in the field.

As a consequence of the field's neglect this unprepossessing corner of the Cotswolds has attracted finches in an increasingly large and mixed flock, the most notable of which are Bramblings, the Scandinavian version of our familiar Chaffinch, and joined in large numbers by Linnets and the aforementioned Chaffinches, many probably also from Scandinavia and northern mainland Europe.

The flock of Bramblings has increased steadily since a colleague discovered them in late autumn last year and as winter has progressed the flock has grown from around fifteen birds to one which some estimate is now in excess of sixty, the increase possibly as a result of the severe frost and snow of the preceding few days.  Personally I can attest to no more than forty or so Brambling but confess to finding it immensely difficult to assess the true number as the birds are flighty, and often do not show themselves as one flock but as random individuals or small groups. Mixed in with them, to add further confusion and doubt, are more than fifty Chaffinches, their behaviour bringing the same difficulties in assessing their number as with the Bramblings.

To add to this finch fest there is a roving flock of over one hundred and fifty Linnets that regularly rise from the ground to whirl around in the sky, a restless tight formation of twittering fuss but being united in one flock they are easier to count. It is noticeable that, unlike the Chaffinches and Bramblings, if they settle they choose the highest tree possible and sit out on the exposed topmost twigs.


There is something about Bramblings that sets my birding juices flowing. I like their bright combination of orange, black and white plumage, at this time of year obscured but not totally hidden by long feather fringes, creating a pleasing intricate patterning of spots, chevrons, bars and stripes, which will wear away by spring to reveal the underlying colours.

The female looks similar to the male but is less strongly coloured, a paler imitation and her head is noticeably greyer with little sign of underlying black. The variation of pale feather fringes on the heads of individual males is considerable. Some are advanced in wear, enough to show obvious black indicating they are without doubt males, but on others the black is still largely obscured. It all adds to the enjoyment of the occasion, trying, sometimes unsuccessfully to sort out the sex of each bird. The excitement when you spot the distinctive white back and rump of one or more Bramblings amongst a flock of fleeing Chaffinches is not to be underestimated either. 

I stood at a discrete distance on the edge of the field so as not to disturb the birds and to be able to regard the favoured hawthorns and elder where the feeding flock would fly to seek sanctuary on their periodic scares from the field. I could hear, every so often, the distinctive hard nasal tchaay call of a hidden Brambling coming from a hidden part of the covert. There were always birds to see in the favoured trees, a mix of Bramblings and Chaffinches  but it was not so easy to photograph them. Nine times out of ten the birds would be partially obscured by twigs as they sat deep in the tree but every so often I would find a bird unobstructed by twig or branch and then it had to be hoped it was a Brambling. Capturing them with the camera brought me to heights of exquisite tension when one would perch in the right spot but then, in the seconds it took to focus my camera, it would have moved position or flown off. But once or twice it all coalesced favourably and that was enough to retain my enthusiasm and engender hope for one more photo opportunity. 

Bramblings come in varying numbers to spend the winter in central and southern Europe including Britain, flying across the North Sea from their breeding areas in Scandinavia. In some years they can be scarce, remaining in southern Scandinavia and in other years much more numerous. It is thought this depends on their food source in winter. If it fails in Scandinavia the birds have no option but to migrate to survive.Their food of choice is beech mast which itself varies from year to year in availability. Here in my part of northwest Oxfordshire, bordering Gloucestershire, there are stands of beech trees and I sometimes see, while driving past, the flash of their distinctive white backs as they fly up from where they have been feeding by the road. Some years ago there was a large flock, the largest I have ever seen, feeding under beeches near my previous home in Kingham.There must have been over a hundred but this pales into insignificance when you consider flocks of fifteen million at Pau in France in the winter of 1964-65, four to five million at Lodersdorf in Austria in 2008-2009 and as recently as the winter of 2018-2019, five million were feeding and roosting at the Zasavje Valley in Slovenia. 

Some of the 5 million Bramblings in Slovenia
Photo courtesy of Ruj Mihelic

In conclusion I want to go back to one very personal experience involving Bramblings that brought the wonder that is bird migration to a place where the dead lay below me in the ground and the living, in the form of migrating birds, flew above me in a cold dawn sky. 

I was standing in Easington Cemetery which lies on the Spurn Peninsula in Yorkshire bounded to one side by the North Sea and on the other by the huge Humber Estuary. The cemetery is small, a walled square of tranquillity, isolated amongst the wide flat fields that surround it, the ancient grave stones and dark yews standing, for another autumn, under tall sycamores. It was early October and dawn had recently broken. Bitterly cold, my face was frozen to a rictus but the advancing day was promising to be bright as the wind from the northeast blustered across the fields to shake and rattle the dead leaves in the treetops. From high above in the sky came a distinctive scraping call, elemental as the weather and blown down on the wind. A Brambling and then others, the birds hurled on the bitter wind, from the sea and calling their relief or excitement as they finally made landfall after a night crossing the sea from their Scandinavian home. 

They dropped into the sycamores and clung to the twigs, the winter sun at this early hour so very low in the sky but sufficient that its glow illuminated their orange breasts to gold. 

Tuesday 5 January 2021

Best of British Birds 5th January 2021

Frustrated, bored, sick to the back teeth of a bunch of nodding donkeys led by an arrogant liar that masquerade as a Government and whose only quality I can recognise is one of ineptness, I now find myself as good as under a benign form of house arrest.

To while away the time I have decided to indulge myself and post a review of some of my favourite photographs taken over the preceding ten years, which is when I first acquired a camera. I should add that I regard myself as primarily a birder and any attempt at photography comes very much secondary to that. As such, some of my photos would not pass muster but I like them, especially the idiosynchratic ones, and do hope you will too.

My blog site arose from something entirely different, where I began to write up various twitches I had been on and the camera provided a useful resource to illustrate each tale. The trips were recorded as Word documents and it was only a casual conversation with my good friend Badger that prompted me to start a blog in February 2011.

Badger patiently guided me through the process which has resulted in the blog as it is today. I only ever intended it to be an illustrated personal diary of my thoughts and various experiences with birds both local, more distant and overseas. As with any diary the great personal pleasure is to be able to look back on various trips I have written about and in the process almost relive them. In doing so it is also remarkable to discover how one's memory can deceive, as on looking back I find what I always considered to be the facts very often transpire to be entirely different.

Even more surprising, humbling and gratifying, is that as the years have passed since commencing my blog, so many people have taken to reading it. I never considered this but am delighted if it can bring pleasure to those who do. Never comfortable with the limelight I try not to overtly publicise my blog but prefer the way it has grown, by word of mouth. Having worked in commerce and run my own company I know that word of mouth is the highest recommendation one can receive.

I am sure I could amass a larger number of followers if I put my mind to it but that is not my wish and so I will leave it there but not before thanking each and every one of you that read my blog and continue to do so.

Hopefully we will all finally come out of this awful current situation and life will slowly get back to be more bearable. We can but hope.

My best wishes to you all for the coming year and I hope you enjoy the images below..

Baird's Sandpiper Cuckmere East Sussex September 2017

Red necked Phalarope Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire September 2017

Parrot Crossbill Wishmoor Bottom Berkshire November 2017

Black Guillemot Eastbourne East Sussex December 2017

Barred Warbler Titchfield Haven Hampshire December 2017

Hume's Leaf Warbler Waxham Norfolk January 2018

Hawfinch Forest of Dean Gloucestershire January 2018

Hawfinch Romsey Hampshire February 2018

Black Redstart Leighton Buzzard Bedfordshire February 2018

Fieldfare Kingham Oxfordshire March 2018

Ross's Gull Weymouth Dorset February 2018

Water Rail Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire March 2019

Black Grouse Berwyn Mountains Wales April 2018

Eastern Crowned Warbler Bempton Yorkshire October 2016

Razorbill Isle of May Scotland May 2017

Puffins Farne Islands Northumberland June 2019

Sanderlings Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire August 2018

Wilson's Warbler Lewis Outer Hebrides Scotland October 2015

Harlequin Duck Bridge of Don Aberdeen January 2015

Spotted Crake Gibralter Point Lincolnshire August 2018

Common Snipe Slimbridge Gloucestershire August 2018

Bittern Calvert Buckinghamshire March 2017

Sooty Shearwater Isles of Scilly Cornwall August 2018

Great Shearwater Isles of Scilly Cornwall August 2018

Wryneck Bempton Yorkshire September 2018

Grey Phalarope Charlecote Park Warwickshire September 2018

Isabelline Shrike Thurlestone Devon October 2018

Water Rail Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire November 2018

Great Northern Diver Pangbourne Berkshire December 2017

Common Crossbill Forest of Dean Gloucestershire January 2017

Snow Bunting Littlehampton West Sussex January 2019

Kingfisher Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire March 2019

Northern Shoveler Weymouth Dorset March 2019

Lesser Yellowlegs Weymouth Dorset February 2019

Long tailed Duck Lerwick Shetland February 2019

Iceland Gull Lerwick Shetland February 2019

Mediterranean Gull Hayling Island Hampshire March 2020

Ring necked Duck Weymouth Dorset March 2019

Eurasian Teal Weymouth Dorset March 2019

Red spotted Bluethroat Unst Shetland October 2017

Great Northern Diver Isle of Arran Scotland May 2019

Gannet Hermaness Unst Shetland July 2019

Great Skua Lerwick Shetland July 2019

Sandwich Tern Ferrybridge Dorset July 2019

Kingfishers Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire August 2019

Little Stint Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire September 2019

Yellow browed Warbler Unst Shetland October 2019

Kingfisher Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire October 2019

Spotted Crake Isles of Scilly Cornwall October 2019

Blue winged Teal Isles of Scilly Cornwall October 2019

Hermit Thrush Isles of Scilly Cornwall November 2019

Arctic Redpoll Aldeburgh Suffolk December 2012

Crested Tit Loch Garten Scotland March 2015

Black throated Thrush Whipsnade Bedfordshire January 2020

Ivory Gull Patrington Haven Yorkshire December 2013

Eastern Black Redstart Skinningrove Cleveland March 2017

Grey Phalarope Charlecote Park Warwickshire October 2018

European Swallow Farmoor Reservoir May 2013

Common Goldeneye Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire January 2020

Eastern Black-eared Wheatear Pilling Lancashire September 2019

Rufous tailed Rock Thrush Brecon Beacons Wales October 2017

Red breasted Merganser Isle of Arran Scotland December 2019

Little Bunting Cardiff Wales February 2015

Knot Farmoor Reservoir Oxfordshire August 2018

Wilson's Warbler Lewis Outer Hebrides Scotland October 2015

Common Redstart Thursley Common Surrey June 2018

Lapwing Slimbridge Gloucestershire August 2018

Black necked Grebe Farmoor Reservoir May 2018

Parrot Crossbill Lerwick Shetland October 2017