Saturday, 30 January 2016

Flocks and Herds

A couple of hours out in the patch today turned up nothing new for the patchwork challenge, but plenty of interest nonetheless.

At the end of winter the large flocks of birds tend to break into smaller groups or pairs - last weekend I recorded fieldfares seemingly in pairs and many solitary redwings. I don't normally observe this until March and wondered whether the clement weather was triggering pre-migration behaviour.

This weekend though, the opposite was true. Aside from one singing skylark hanging noisily in the sky like a tethered, floating music-box, the birds were behaving exactly as they should at this time of year.

A mixed flock of at least a hundred thrushes, a smallish group of ground-feeding redpoll and a group of twelve pied wagtails were all trumped by a herd of precisely 12 bullfinches.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Nocturnal Encounters

Having failed to see tawny owl on my night walk last week, I was pleased to illuminate one in my car headlights on the way home from work today. It was sat bold as brass in a low branch over the road next to the oxbow lake.

Indeed, this was exactly how I encountered barn owl on Sunday evening, just outside the village perched on a  fence-post. This bird is fairly predictable and on many occasions I've seen it there or thereabouts.

Of the other nocturnal birds, woodcock is one I was sure must be present locally, though I had no idea where to look. I had planned to seek advice from neighbouring expert Nick Morgan where to find them (Nick writes an excellent blog here, and writes the bird report for the Darlington and Stockton Times). However, luck was with me on Sunday morning as I walked through the riverside woods opposite St Wilfrids; my eyes were on the river scanning for waders when a bird burst from the leaf-litter at my feet, like a 12" ruler twanged on a school desk.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

Homing Mistle

I've heard tawny owl several times this week from bed, but it feels somewhat unsatisfying to add it to the patch list without a sighting. Last night, to put that right, I went on a night-walk round the short river loop. No tawny owl, but plenty of eerie noises and sightings of snipe, buzzard and fox. I think this approach will pay off with more than just owls in time, so I'm going to equip myself with a bright torch and keep trying.

Not on the list so far is mistle thrush. It's hard to plan to see mistle thrush (they just kind of show up) but I thought I'd explore a new route for me following the OS map marked footpath north out of the village. I was upstairs getting dressed ready to leave when I saw a reptilian bird descend on the tree in the field behind the garden. Tick; there it was.

I walked the planned route never the less, but it was pretty standard terrain and is unlikely to add anything new to my existing favourite routes. That said, it answered the question of where the roe deer (of which I'm constantly finding tracks for) go during the day. I sighted 6 at once, including this fine, dark doe and buck pair:

A walk along the river turned up nothing new, but little egret, goosander and these buntings were conspicuous as usual, as were another large flock of redpoll.

I always check the fresh alluvium the floods leave behind for mammal tracks and again found five-toed badger tracks. I'm surprised they're so active away from their sett at this time of year and it's a good reminder how unseasonal the weather has been this month.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

Mist Chances

Today I covered the same route as yesterday. My first encounter was with 4 diminutive finches which I'm sure were siskin, a local rarity for me. They sounded only once and then kept just out of sight in the heavy fog. Visibility was poor, so I wasn't confident I'd fill the gaps in my regular sightings list.

However, I soon caught up with 8 plump corn bunting, with their characteristic black thumb-print bib:

As I watched them float down from the tree and settle in the stubble field, I heard the noisy calls of whooper swan and I watched as two birds emerged from the fog, following the river down stream towards Morton. I came across another group of lesser redpoll; I've already seen more in 2016 than I did all last year. The gloom made a sharp photo impossible:

In the north of the patch, I set about finding the green sandpiper I'd heard yesterday and sure enough, this time I saw and heard it as it rose from the river and zigzagged upstream. Stopping off at the ox-bow lake, I came across an enormous flock of linnet, easily exceeding 200 birds. These images don't do justice to the number of these gregarious little finches:

Finally, I walked home through the fields, avoiding the road and hoping to kick up some partridge. Unexpectedly, a good day was topped off with 3 skylark, bursting from the set aside.

Saturday, 16 January 2016

River Regulars

At this time of year I don't get to see the patch at all between Monday and Friday, so I was very pleased to see that the sun was due out on Saturday morning. I set about my normal route out of the village and then north along the river with the sun on my back. I was hoping to tick off a few outstanding familiar birds and was optimistic that something else might turn up on the river while the floods lie frozen.

I ticked off snipe at the wooded pond, which I was nearly upon before the pair exploded out of the damp, long grass. Somebody should produce a bird ID guide for clumsy people like me, as 90% of birds I see are flying away and calling out in alarm; I NEVER see them first. This guide will just show rump shots in flight and detail their alarm calls.

Again at the river, the goosander saw me first and flew up and away, circling me as it did so. Pied wagtail was a bit more approachable and the wish to see a grey wagtail had barely entered my mind before one bobbed round the bend of the river and into full view. I walked as far as I could along the river before it becomes private land and turned up nothing new. 3 Little egret over, repeated wagtail and goosander sightings and a couple of teal pairs added some interest.

Reed Bunting and corn bunting were glaring omissions from my list so I paused where I often see them in good number. A scan of the fields and surrounding trees was proving fruitless as I heard the familiar creaking sound of swans flying behind me. Turning to see a skein of 15 birds, I was disappointed they weren't whoopers, but mute swans are not a regular bird here either so I was glad of the tick. Reed bunting, dunnock and song thrush were added on the way home.

After a cup of tea to warm up, I grabbed my camera and headed to the north of the patch. A walk along the river revealed the extent of damage the recent floods had caused, with many uprooted trees and the carcass of a drowned sheep filling the air with the smell of death. I was pleased to see these five-toed otter tracks alongside badger, heron, fox and domestic dog tracks.

I saw the first snowdrop of the year on 3rd January, but today they were much more evident; these ones right on the edge of the flood strand-line.

At the river, I added kingfisher and greater-spotted woodpecker before I heard what I'm 90% certain was green sandpiper. I moved upriver and sat quietly hoping it would emerge again but it didn't. I was joined by a large group of long-tailed tits, but shooting into the sun the best I could manage was this ethereal shot, with strange artefacts in the bokeh.

Heading home I stopped at the ox-bow lake again and ticked off moorhen which had taunted me last weekend. The reeds there are really looking promising for Spring and whilst I walked along them planning a location for my hide, I noticed 3 grey heron working the field opposite looking for worms.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Ox-Bow Lake

In the middle of my patch is a not insignificantly sized ox-bow lake. Embarrassingly, I've never really explored it. For 200 yards or so it runs next to the road and I've occasionally popped my head in to see what's there but have never been given reason to explore further. Much of the lake is overgrown and the main channel is obstructed with scores of fallen trees. In the summer with a full canopy the roadside view is of a dark, sterile place.

This weekend I made a concerted effort to know it better. On Saturday I walked to the far side of the lake and was surprised and pleased to find it much more open with what must be the most extensive reeds in the parish. Hopefully this will turn up something interesting this year.

This open area is separated by a flood defence embankment from fields and ultimately the Swale. The river breached the flood defence in the recent floods and all of the grazing sheep were lost. Now, the water is receding revealing a birdy looking mud-flat.

A scan of the strand-line turned up no waders but on Saturday the area was being exploited by 40 or so lesser redpoll. Alas, I didn't bring my camera but returned on Sunday. From a distance I could see what I thought was the same flock, but on closer inspection revealed itself to be a mixed flock of goldfinch, chaffinch, greenfinch and linnet.

I bumped into the landowner and he told me there had been 2 black swan on the flood all week! I tracked along the lakeside back to the road and turned up 3 or 4 small groups of teal numbering 20 in total. Walking back home I watched a large feeding group of long-tailed tit, with 2 blue tit and a handful of goldcrest in their number.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Getting Started

Here we go!

I've decided to join the patchwork challenge this year. Details of which can be found here. In summary, the challenge is to compete against other keen bird recorders and 'tick' the most birds within your 3 square km patch. Scarce birds score more points, but this does not adjust for local rarity.

In reality though, you're simply competing against yourself. In order to adjust for the differing biodiversity between patches, and hence the varying opportunity to encounter particular species, your in-year performance is benchmarked against your previous scores.

Family commitments and terrible weather meant I didn't get started until the afternoon of 3rd January, and even then the relentless rain kept my camera at home; I hope to include images in future posts. I set out from home and covered the south western area of my patch.

My expectation was that I would quickly tick off the commoner species and that I would finish the day with 40 or 50 birds, none of which would be very interesting. Indeed, that's how things started with robin, blackbird and crow taking the first few places. Quickly though I add golden plover and common gull, the latter I didn't see at all last year. Also making the list were treecreeper and little egret; I was happy to mark them off so early and so close to home.

By the time I got home after a good 2 hours, I'd only recorded 25 species and was missing a huge number of very common birds indeed! Frustrated, I jumped in the car and headed to the northernmost corner of my patch; the grounds and river that surround St Wilfrids. By now, the rain was coming down in sheets and I added just 8 species to the list before I gave up.

So at the end of day one, I have just 33 species and some glaring omissions: house sparrow, starling, tree sparrow, song thrush, collared dove, coal tit and black-headed gull to name but a few! But ever the optimist, I was thankful that my next trip certainly wouldn't draw a blank.