Monday, 29 February 2016

Larks, Pipits and Wagtails

My first job this morning was returning to the river to fetch a part of my camera I'd left on the waterside after a failed vigil for kingfishers last night. It was a brighter morning than forecast and as I walked through the trees, the wood snapped, crackled and popped as the frosted branches thawed in the sunlight and dripped onto the dry, leafy floor.

The woodland is appreciably noisier each time I visit as the birds begin to jostle for territory, having spent the coldest months grouped together. The great tits are by far the most vocal, but I also heard treecreeper, goldcrest, blue tit and blackbird. A strange call grabbed my attention, so I followed the sound and was surprised to find redwing deep in the wood. Three or four birds were working the ivy-clad tree trunks with a  pair of mistle thrush, scaling the dark green spiralled staircase and picking the cloudy indigo berries. I also noted green sandpiper, goosander, cormorant and snipe (my first at this site).

Back in Thrintoft, I was tipped off by Nick Morgan's blog that meadow pipits had been present yesterday at the edge where our patches intersect. I soon caught up with them and also had good views of skylark, pied wagtail, grey wagtail and six more snipe.

In fact it turned out to be a very good day for snipe; I turned up three more as I completed the river loop. As I followed the river, I was alerted to a predator by the explosion of small birds behind me. No sooner had I realised what was going on, a crow chased a steel blue raptor into a thick hawthorn thicket in front of me. Merlin? I inched closer and was soon able to make out the distinctive shape of a small bird of prey plucking it's victim in a low branch. Branches concealed its features and I couldn't make out whether it was a sparrowhawk or the merlin that's taunted me this month. When I got too close, it dropped from the tree and flew low over the field and river and out of sight. Alas, it's white rump and short wings meant sparrowhawk and my quest for merlin continues. In better news I turned up yet another woodcock, this time at a third location the locals call 'the black hole'... I really must have my eye in for them this year!

The cold got the better of me and I headed inside. I offered to take the wife out for coffee and as we returned from town I spotted a large bird in the sky that dwarfed the crows that mobbed it. Red kite! My first one locally, but a very familiar bird to me thanks to the time I've spent in the Chilterns with family. A very pleasing footnote to an interesting day.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Patch Update - Day 57

It's all a bit quiet at the moment. Last weekend I caught up with my first oystercatcher and today there were five on the river.

A little owl in the garden yesterday evening kept the list ticking along; I really can't believe it took until the end of February to find one. The garden is proving to be the best place for close encounters, with yellowhammer, tree sparrow and great spotted woodpecker gracing the feeders and lawn every morning.

Predicting that finding anything new was going to be difficult, I decided to spend the day trying to get a bit closer to some of my patch favourites. There have been three green sandpiper hanging about this year; one at the very bottom of the patch on a gravel beach adjacent to a wooded island; one in a muddy field grazed by sheep by the ox-bow lake; and the third at the very north of the patch, on the river beneath the thin strip of woodland opposite the church.

I filled my feeder at the church this evening and sat in plain sight to see what would turn up. The marsh tits are very bold and getting more boisterous and noisy. Great tits too tolerated my presence, but the other birds refused to come and take any seed. The trees erupted in screeching and alarm calls and a rabbit flew from cover. The culprit? A lovely fox that allowed me some fine views before it finally sensed my presence and bolted. Alas, the tangle of twigs and branches foiled the cameras autofocus and I wasn't able to get the shot.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Do Not Disturb (Unless you have kids)

The parable of the good wildlife photographer:

  • Don't trample the plants
  • Don't disturb nesting birds
  • Keep as far from your subject as you can
  • If you think you're going to do damage going for the shot; don't go for the shot
and above all...
  • Don't touch the animals!
This I maintain is a good set of rules to follow. The internet is awash with photographs I suspect have been staged: maybe an adder has been caught and placed somewhere more photogenic; perhaps that grasshopper has been placed in a refrigerator so that it won't jump away. All of these 'cheats' challenge my cardinal rule and I sniff at this trophy-hunting nature and the disregard for wildlife that can create, let alone the reduction in skill it requires. Naturally then, these rules are never broken.

My son Joe is six and mad about animals. He's acquired an encyclopaedic knowledge of hundreds of animals, both extant and not. Each day, he paws through the same volumes and magazines and begs me to take him to see them. 

Dinosaurs were easy; a trip to the NHM and his appetite was sated (at the second time of asking - poor planning on my part meant that a five-hundred mile round trip was wasted due to the dinosaurs being cleaned the first time).

Creepy crawlies are a doddle... a routine search each day under the tiles he's laid out in the garden satisfies his yearning to get close to the woodlice, spiders, beetles and if he's lucky, toads and newts in his Collin's Book of Garden Wildlife.

But I've struggled to fuel his interest in seeing larger animals. He loves them in print and spends hours role-playing imaginary games; collecting snakes with Steve Backshall, or filming predators hunting their prey. But there's something about the reality of watching these animals that doesn't deliver.

We went through an 'owls' phase, so a dusk drive of the local lanes was planned. A barn owl that turned and dived in our headlights had my heart racing... but for him, nothing. 

"Will it come back?" he asked.

A trip onto the moor delivered two beautiful basking adders, just 5 or 6 meters from the footpath.

"I can't really see them, Dad" he complained.

A chance encounter with a fox on a drive home from swimming briefly piqued his interest, but soon lost out to the imaginary fishing game he was playing with a stick and butcher's string. And so it went on.

Then in Dorset last summer we explored a heath together; I expected the paucity of encounters you experience in North Yorkshire, but promised him a reptile safari. Remarkably, I delivered for him and we found hundreds of slow worm and dozens of common lizard, with the odd adder and grass snake thrown in.

"Can I pick one up?" he enquired innocently as we lifted the metal corrugated cover away from a dozen slow-worm. I paused. I looked around for other people; there was nobody in sight. I tried to persuade him that looking was best because they're so rare and fragile.

"They're called anguis fragilis because their tails easily fall off" I explained. 
"But we've seen lots" he argued "so they're not rare, and Steve Backshall picked one up."

Reluctantly I gave in and reached for one, carefully picked it up behind the head and placed it in Joe's hands. What happened next was extraordinary. I could almost make out the neurons connecting in his brain as his eyes sparkled, lit up and his cheeks tightened into a painful smile. Bouts of uncontrollable laughter and excitement flowed from him, bringing me to my knees. I matched his grin and dabbed at the tears he'd brought to my eyes. Before that moment (he was 5) I'd genuinely never seen him so happy.

A grass snake followed that summer; the reaction was even greater. Last week a fishing trip landed a big chub, which he gripped tightly standing proudly for a photo, uncontrollably beaming with delight. After each of these experiences the effect was the same and his love for wildlife set a little firmer.

So now I say... if you're a grown up and you really don't need to touch the animals, don't. But if you have a child, then let them carefully reach out and connect. That connection is fragile if limited to television and books, but strengthens so much when made for real. 

That child will share this experience with their school friends and inspire all of them that wildlife is special, as Joe has.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Sunshine and Snow

The sunshine has been warm enough this weekend to be felt uncomfortably through my multiple layers, but still it snowed for the first time this year. It wasn't 'snowman, sled and skiing', flaky snow, more the round polystyrene crumbs that fall gently and vanish into their own puddles as they collide with the earth. Mostly though the weather has been appreciably brighter... my camera's faster exposure readings a give-away to the increase in available light.

The garden has been the most pleasing part of the patch this week. When I woke this-morning, the lawn was covered in birds feeding on the seeds the fussy tree sparrows discard in favour of millet. The cold weather often brings unusual birds to the garden; I was pleased with a stock dove, a dozen yellowhammers and as many tree sparrows.

Out on the river in Thrintoft things continue to be quiet. I've not seen kingfisher or egret this week, but was pleased to find green sandpiper so close to home. A black-backed gull flew over, but I couldn't discern which species it was for the patch-list.

At the ox-bow lake the finch flock is starting to dwindle away, as are my hopes of finding a brambling stowing away with the chaffinches. Beside the water, the moorhens call to one another more frequently and the wren acts as sentry, preventing my sneaking up on the teal.

At the north of the patch, the fields still hold some flood-water and there were golden plover and lapwing out in great number. A huge lesser black backed gull stood proudly in a puddle, compensating a little for my earlier identification failure.

Buntings and buzzard are especially numerous this year.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Wrong Falcon

Today's weather forecast promised rain, but the sun was out first thing so I slung my things together and headed out round the long river loop. It was blustery this morning and the river was swollen, so I feared that activity would be limited; I was right. Winter thrushes continue to be present in huge flocks, but the odd one chooses a solitary existence.

Other 'highlights' were little egret (which is almost guaranteed these days), goosander and teal. Just before the end of my walk, I decided to try out a new area of the patch, Thrintoft Ings. As its name suggests, this was once wet meadow, but now the pressures of agriculture have criss-crossed it with sedgy drains and dykes. I soon disturbed woodcock (only my second ever sighting locally, and the second in two weeks!) but like everywhere else, there were few birds about. However, it wasn't a fruitless venture; I discovered some cracking habitat to check out in the Spring for sedge warbler, water rail and other patch exotics.

As I set out on a trip out with the family over lunchtime, I checked in with neighbouring patch rival Nick Morgan to see if he was having a dry a time as I was. He wasn't, with both peregrine and merlin sighted that morning, with merlin heading my way! Alas, as ever when Nick points out something special, I'm never close to home! Merlin is a bird that (despite my hours spent on the moors looking for reptiles) has eluded me my whole life.

With the incentive of a tiny chance of catching up with a lifer, I headed out as soon as I was done with family business. I set out on foot for the ox-bow lake; I figured the huge finch flock would be a draw to a small falcon. On the way, I came across yet another pair of mistle thrushes.

At the south of the lake, the finches were abundant again. Interestingly, they were about 40% chaffinches, so while the flock remains at a size fluctuating between 100-200, the composition of species seems to change quite regularly. It had started off as a large flock of redpoll, quadrupled in size with linnet and now most of the linnet and all of the redpoll have gone.

I sat quietly and watched hopefully for a falcon. The birds were agitated more than usual and rarely alighted, swirling around the stubble field in groups of 30 or 40; I was sure that this indicated the presence of a predator. After 20 minutes I got up and moved further along the hedgerow to look over the crest of the hill towards the river. As I approached the gate between fields, I disturbed a kestrel feeding off carrion; a rabbit I presume was killed by the buzzard that frequents the area around the lake. I'd not witnessed kestrels feeding on carrion before and she seemed quite keen to carry on feeding, refusing to fly far and watching me from a nearby post.

As I stood watching her, a male then female sparrowhawk  lunged through the finches without success. I took a route home across the fields and came across a redshank feeding in the water-filled gunnels left by a tractor. A hundred yards later, I kicked up a woodpecker from the ground... I couldn't make out it's size or colour as it flew towards the sun; it settled in one of the trees around the ox-bow lake some 300yards away. I will investigate further tomorrow; its alarm call was VERY lesser spotted.

Friday, 5 February 2016

Nuthatching a Plan

Hopefully I'll run out of puns soon; they're beginning to annoy even me. That said, nuthatch is a glaring omission from my patch-list this year so I came up with a plan to change that. Having the day off, I also planned to sit and take some proper photos rather than chancing an encounter on the fly.

Here is a simple trick to create a feeder to both attract birds, but also give yourself a good chance of photographing them in natural circumstances. For me, there's nothing worse than seeing an artificial bird feeder in a photograph:

  1. Drill out a staked fence post so that it will hold a reasonable amount of seed. I used a 32mm drill bit and made a hollow about 30cm long.
  2. Make sure you drill right through to the back at the top so that you can fill with seed.
  3. Tack 4mm wire mesh over the hollowed area
  4. With a smaller drill bit (I used both 12mm and 18mm here) drill through the top of the post a few times at various angles and pitches. You will insert your natural looking perches through these holes.
This is the finished feeder in situ:

 This morning I filled the feeder, set a mossy perch and left it to attract the birds. In the meantime I walked the short river loop from the village. The river was quiet and the fields were empty; there was very little activity at all. A nice pair of missile thrush rattled at me from a telegraph wire and I crept up on a little egret, which was spooked by something unseen and took to the air.

After lunch I returned to my feeding station and set up a simple bag hide 5 metres from where I hoped to catch nuthatch. Within minutes, my target showed up and was joined by marsh tit, coal tit and blue tit in taking sunflower seeds one by one to devour in the surrounding branches.

Monday, 1 February 2016

When Nature Accepts Us

I've finished my first month of completing the patchwork challenge and I'm not sure whether it was a good one or not! In some respects I've done very well, recording common gull and woodcock for the first time ever on the patch. Whooper swan too is a good bird to strike off early in the year, as is green sandpiper, by no means a common bird locally.

I'm surprised to have reached the end of January and not struck off nuthatch, little owl and either of the partridge species, all of which I encounter fairly regularly. I was also hoping for some winter visitors too, like siskin and brambling, but these too have eluded me. So, when the count was in, I had 65 species for 67 points.

However, I'm already learning that 'listing' like this is a dangerous pursuit. I spent this weekend covering a lot of ground desperate to get my January count up a few more points and in doing so nearly forgot why I like being outside... just to enjoy the diversity of animals and plants and observe their charming behaviour.

I came across a number of treecreeper on Sunday (birds I find let you closer than most) and a wonderful marsh tit at a site I used to put food out for them. I'm sure it recognised me, and as I stood watching her, talking to her, she came within 4ft of me and I became completely enchanted with the experience. So much so, I completely forgot that I had my camera slung over my shoulder. She disarmed me and I remembered; "that's why we brave the cold and blustery weather, for those moments that nature accepts us and everything else is forgotten".