Sunday, 11 March 2018

After the Thaw

The only snow that remains from last week lies sheltered behind the North facing side of a hedgerow, or compacted into piles of ice. The rapid melt has created dozens of pools across the parish so I headed out this weekend optimistic of finding something new or interesting.

A walk around the long river loop turned up nothing new, though I enjoyed watching spooked hares kicking up spray as they fled across the waterlogged fields. It might be my imagination, but fieldfares seem to be heading North already. Last year I had a small flock pass over on the 8th May!

With not much going on, I tested one of my theories... that singing loudly as you approach an animal causes it not to flee so willingly. The thinking behind this is that if I'm making lots of noise, I can't possibly be stalking prey. While I cannot say with confidence that my theory is correct, I did manage an unusually close encounter with this pair of yellowhammers as I murdered a Beatles classic.

In the North of the patch, the flash outside Great Langton was covered in birds. Wigeon, lapwing, curlew and pied wagtail were too numerous for me to be bothered to count. A drake and duck shoveller were my first on the Patch and a welcome tick for the year.

At the church, the finch flock had changed considerably. Originally chaffinch and brambling, the brambling had gone by last weekend and was replaced by a few linnet and greenfinch. This weekend it was predominantly linnet with one or two chaffinch thrown in, together with a lone bullfinch... a bird I don't recall seeing feeding on the ground before.

To my surprise, the flock was joined by completely white bird, which I deduced to be a leucistic linnet. Unfortunately, the camera was at home charging, so I vowed to return on Sunday and try again for this and the shoveller.

What a difference a day makes! To my surprise the flash was now almost devoid of birds. 30-40 lapwing and 3 green sandpiper remained but there was no sign of a single duck. Disappointed, I headed to the church to try my luck for the white linnet. Thankfully the bird hangs on... here it is photographed from some 100 yards away, hence the grainy image!

And some images of the linnet group...

As always... click on the images for full resolution versions.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

More Winter Treats

This snow can hang around as far as I'm concerned. Enthused by the number of birds on the river yesterday evening, I headed back down this morning. My first reward was a reed bunting under the water works. It was my first of the year, which is unusual as they're normally pretty commonplace. It's also probably the last of the common resident birds that I'd failed to see this year, so it's going to be tough going from hereon in. Bring on Spring.

On the corner where I'd seen dunlin yesterday was pretty quiet. Anglers were gathering on the other side of the river for a competition, and they spooked snipe and woodcock as they dragged their tackle along the bank here. I carried on following the river up-stream, hoping to reach the best stretches before the anglers did. On the way I disturbed The Major; a majestic old heron, wonderfully marked that I encounter frequently at the same pond. Most of the heron here are juveniles so this cleanly marked bird stands out a mile.

I relocated the dunlin at the spot I usually find one of my wintering green sandpiper. He hid from me behind a snipe.

As I stood watching the waders, a small group of long-tailed tits surrounded me, allowing some very close views.

The anglers continued to file along the river bank and ahead of me they flushed these wigeon; species number 80 for the year.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Dunlin and Teal

The heavy snow has driven many birds to behave differently. Twitter is awash with excited records of fieldfare and redwing in gardens... even little concrete squares in the city. I too have noticed an influx of thrushes to the food I've put out, but was amazed to find three snipe in the ditch that runs along the length of my garden. I'm a bit miffed, because I confidently predicted that the next unusual garden sighting would be curlew.

Any standing water has frozen, so birds that rely on open water or wet mud are forced to feed elsewhere (hence the garden snipe). The river can be a big draw during the big freeze and Nick messaged me on Saturday morning to say that he'd seen redshank and wigeon on the Swale at Morton. These are both birds that would add to my year-list so as soon as I was done with parenting duties, I headed out with optimism.

There were lots of birds about. Teal erupted from every ditch and the river was dripping with them. These are ducks that ten years ago were pretty scarce around here... I've no idea what's caused the recent increase in numbers, though there's no question that there is plenty of habitat for them.

At the South Western extreme of the patch I spotted a small wader in flight with some teal. It was short in the bill with no trailing legs or tail, so I got briefly excited that it might be jack snipe. I couldn't track it down to confirm so mindful of the fading light, I jacked in the search and wandered North along the river. I kicked up countless snipe, a green sandpiper, two woodcock, a dozen goosander and yet more teal.

I reached the point in my usual walk that would force me away from the river. I decided that today the river was turning up the goods and was my best bet for something unusual, so I turned around to trace my steps back to the beginning. I'm glad I did... the small wader had returned and this time settled in plain sight. I crept up as slowly as I could until I could take this picture... a dunlin! My first ever on the patch, though a bird I often expect to see in the flashes that persist though the winter.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

In the Beak Mid-Winter… or A Winter’s Tail…

I can’t think of a good name for this post. I seem to call everything ‘a round-up’ at the moment, which is indicative of how little I update the blog these days. I tend to find motivation if I’ve taken a good picture, or I’ve had an extraordinary find, but both have been thin on the ground.

It’s felt cold this winter; certainly colder than last. The kind of cold you cannot wrap up and protect against. It seems the only defence is to keep moving, so despite putting a hide up in my garden, I’ve only sat in it once.

I moved house last October and now have an acre’s garden to play with. It’s currently just a wet, grassy paddock, but I have plans to enrich it for wildlife over the next few years. At the moment, the bird feeder just attracts tree sparrow, goldfinch and the occasional yellowhammer, as well as the usual tits and robins, etc. However, I’ve had a few interesting garden sightings since we moved including reed bunting, red kite and little egret!

The little egret has been present in the field beyond my garden for a while, so it came as little surprise when I eventually photographed it working along the drain aside the hedge. The next ‘unusual garden bird’ I’m sure will be curlew as they come right up to the edge of the garden.

The red kite has been hanging about since early Autumn last year. Folk in the village have sought me out to ask if I’d seen it and I was beginning to think I was going to miss out. It finally appeared, flying low at the end of the garden. I was working from home at the time and had to call short a phone call so I could rush upstairs and try to get a better view from the bedroom window.

On the wider patch, things have felt quiet. The fields have all been seeded with grass and not left to stubble and so the usual winter flocks of finches and buntings are absent. Despite this, I’ve made good progress on the year list.

I’ve had all three common owls in the headlights of the car this year. Last year it took until May to find a barn owl, but I’ve spotted at least one bird hunting regularly just off patch and it was only a matter of time before we crossed paths inside the patch boundaries. Unusually, it was actually within the village limits and frustratingly I couldn’t stop and watch it as I was rushing for the train.

Little grebe (a patch first last year) can now be found with some regularity along two stretches of the Swale, so I was able to seek it out and tick it off early. On the same day I had repeated views of various pink footed geese, both on the ground and skeining over.

At the North of the patch, the over-wintering green sandpiper were easy to find, but ‘the snipe field’ has not yet given me the jack snipe it did last winter. However, it’s still a joy and a surprise to kick up sixteen or so snipe from nothing but short grass and some boggy pools, so I visit the site regularly.

A woodcock and a flock of twenty skylark at Poole’s Waste were my reward for the once I’ve walked around it this year. It’s tough underfoot but I’m sure when the surrounding fields dry out and access improves, this will be the year I find water rail or something truly unusual there.

The hedgerow that yielded a firecrest to me a couple of years ago acts like a magnet each time I go out. Indeed, it’s full of goldcrest like this one, so I can spend an hour or more checking every bird over a 200-yard stretch hoping that lightning will strike twice.

It was while checking along this hedge that I stumbled upon a large chaffinch flock. I’ve barely seen a single one this year, such is the miserable state of the fields, but Richard at Langton Farm always leaves areas for the birds to feed. There had been a few brambling reported by a fellow birder in Scruton among the feeding chaffinch so I inspected the flock in detail and lo and behold, there was one orange and pink male. Alas, the flock was very flighty so I didn’t manage a picture.

Later that morning, I had just finished walking the riverine stretch of my usual route and was just about to head home, when I heard an unusual but familiar call. At first I thought it was a kingfisher, as a small bird, silhouetted against the bright river, flew and landed on a submerged tree 30 feet in front of me. Even better, a dipper!

It’s a bird I’ve been predicting will turn up for a few years. This one was clearly here as it was displaced from it’s usual feeding grounds by the floods, but I’m convinced the Swale at Langton will support dipper in the long-term and it’s reassuring that they’re close enough already that they can spill onto the patch. In fact Nick had one even further downstream last summer.

So all in all, it's not been a bad start to the year. Three additions to last years list already and some tricky birds banked takes me to 77 for the year. By this time last year I'd managed 72.

Friday, 16 February 2018

2017 Round-Up & Highlights

I finished the Patchwork Challenge with a total of 104 species; 2 up on 2016. But that doesn’t tell the full story… I added 12 species not seen in 2016 and whiffed on 9. Notably, I missed out on osprey and tufted duck, two birds I would have banked on seeing at the beginning of the year. However, I recorded 7 patch firsts including jack snipe, waxwing and quail. See full table below.

Keep scrolling to see my 2017 highlights.

2017 Highlights

Without question the best bird of the year was quail, which I heard while playing quoits at the pub. It popped its jolly song all evening and into the next day; I even heard it from bed when I woke up the following morning.

The knowledge of my patch is improving all the time. I went from not registering a single siskin in 2016 to identifying a year-round colony in Langton Wood, changing their patch status from ‘common visitor’ to ‘resident’.

Birds that are doing particularly well seem to buck the national trend. Tree sparrows, lapwing and curlew are all increasing in number each year. The hedges drip with buntings and linnets during the summer, farmland song-birds that are under pressure elsewhere in the country.

Finding a ringed bird is always exciting, but usually requires getting them in hand to read the tiny letters and numbers. Not so with this little egret I photographed on 18th November. Nick Morgan managed to get hold of the original ringer and we find out that it was a bird from Hartlepool: “KZ was ringed this year at Rossmere Park, Hartlepool as a pullus on 24th May”

I spent a week in June following the fortunes of a pair of breeding common sandpipers on the Swale. I witnessed them luring a jay away from the nest, engaging in bond-building behaviour and feeding readily in front of my hide. Alas, in the week I spent with them there was no evidence of chicks and in the following week the river flooded after a spectacular summer storm, so they almost certainly lost their clutch. Better luck next year.

A bigger success story was a nest of spotted flycatchers I found in late May. These birds were doing very well and Richard Fife reported that he’d witnessed the birds had fledged in early June.

Sometimes the best moments are spent with fairly common animals that allow you a rare opportunity to witness their behaviour up close. Sparrowhawks are usually glimpsed fleetingly as they flush a hedgerow in the distance, but I was lucky to encounter this stunning male in March, fully occupied with taking a cold bath. I stood still and managed a reel of photos over what seemed like an hour, but might have been no more than 2 minutes.

Remarkably, on the same day I also stumbled across this mischievous stoat that seemed just as interested in me as I was in him. He eventually decided I was no threat to him and we shared a walk along a hedgerow in the field beneath St Wilfrid’s church and into the graveyard, where he near as ran over my boot!

My final highlight is a bit of a cheat. I got a call from Nick that waxwings were present in Morton-on-Swale in huge numbers. I raced there in my car and found the flock feeding low in an ornamental rowan tree. The trouble was, they weren’t on my patch! Nick suggested I might be able to see the flock moving from my patch if I went and stood on a high spot. I did exactly that, and armed with my ‘scope stood on the high field and watched the waxwings fly-catching above Morton bridge.

I hope 2018 turns out to be as fruitful. As I write this on 16th February, it’s already proving to be so! I’ll hopefully catch up with posts this weekend.