Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Early Bloomers

It's really felt like Spring this week; five sand martins were bickering above the river today, the resident birds were more obvious in song and the weather (despite the occasional hail-storm) has had a clemency about it.

As the season develops, the colours progress through a spectrum. Green has been everywhere for weeks now and the strong yellows have begun to punctuate it in the woodland. Wild daffodils flower later than their larger and tougher cultivated cousins and the woodland floor was awash today with their sulphuric trumpets.

Joining them were the army of celandines, reclaiming the ground that optimistic scouts have dotted for the last month.

Amid the yellows are clues of what's to come next, with the leaves of bluebells pushing through the leafy carpet and the first spikes of ramsons daring to shoot in the cold early Spring sunshine. Soon feet will hesitate to prevent squashing the white blooms and the nostrils will be full of the scent of garlic. The floods and wind have washed much of the woodland into the river and created some interesting scenes. I love this root disc, all tangle and wren's nest on one side, and now island dwelling wild garlic on the other.

Indeed, lying to photograph the trapezoidal buds of dog mercury, the crushed leaves yield their familiar smell.

After the white comes purple, and the early sweet-violets provide a humble prelude to the symphony of bluebells that will follow.

Monday, 28 March 2016


I started at the North of the patch this afternoon to check whether there was activity in the nest-boxes I put up (there wasn't). There was plenty of interest in the hedgerows and I quickly noted robin, marsh tit, chiffchaff and goldcrest. As I watched the goldcrest I went through my normal routine of eliminating that it wasn't something else. Eye stripe? Nope. Yellow crest? Yep. It's definitely a goldcrest.

"How wildly optimistic am I that I go to such lengths each time?" I thought to myself. In all the years I've checked, not one has gone on to be a firecrest or yellow-browed warbler or any other 'exotic'. So when I set my binoculars on 'another goldie' I nearly fell over... I was only afforded a brief view before I lost it, but it was a firecrest! I was so excited that I had to share the moment with somebody, so excitedly texted Nick Morgan. Then I set about relocating it and getting some pictures.

As I followed it down the hedgerow, I came across another long-tailed tit nest and a male blackcap; my first of the year. I left it alone and completed my walk. A large bird of prey was flying high above the treetops... osprey! What a day!

Back at the South of the patch it was a bit quieter. The usual suspects such as goosander were on the river...

This reed bunting was hiding embarrassedly in the manure heaps while his full summer plumage develops...

He shared the manure with at least six pied wagtail, more than a dozen meadow pipits, a couple of snipe and what I'm 90% sure was jack snipe. It didn't fly high and away, calling like the common snipe, but low and quietly to settle 100 yards away. I glanced it had a shorter bill, but I was worried my eyes had tricked me so approached it again with camera ready. Alas, I couldn't focus on it and lost it from view.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Chat Show

I found stonechat today; my first ever locally. I dismissed it as a robin at first as my eyes caught it in silhouette flying to perch on a fence post. But a recent conversation I'd had with Nick Morgan reminded me to check every bird - it's really not an effort to lift the bins to your face! And I'm very pleased I did, a splendid first winter female.

Continuing my southern patch route turned up more signs of Spring. Reed bunting and dunnock provided the sound-track for the morning. The reed buntings in particular were in amorous mood with one male displaying to a pair of unimpressed females. He flew in a slow arc, flapping his wings furiously, recalling skylark in its characteristic low hover. I watched him for a short while, but was distracted by a warbler. It didn't call, but given the time of year I presume it was a chiffchaff.

A pair of kingfisher excavating a nest hole grabbed my attention, and I watched as they flew not along the river, but across a field to their feeding grounds. Presumably an adaptation to draw attention away from the nest? The river is sure to swell this week with the predicted rains, but once it settles I'll set up my hide at the feeding site and try and improve my woeful portfolio of kingfisher photos.

At home I completed my jobs in the garden before heading inside and heard my first confirmed chiffchaff of the year. Later this evening, the number of sightings doubled as a bird belted out its song in the wood around the oxbow lake.

At the northern stretch of the Swale, I flushed green sandpiper once more. The pair of grey wagtails were still present and subject to their nest not being waterlogged with the pending rains, are looking like a good bet for another photo project. As I stood watching them in the distance, I heard a splash a few metres away. I couldn't believe it; two moles had forced their way out of the bank and fallen in the river. I watched as within seconds they had both scrambled back up the sandy bank and into the hole from which they came! I presume they were two males fighting that lost their bearings.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Merlin and Grey Wagtail

I considered writing about the first day of Spring, but actually nothing remarkable happened in that respect today and I imagine others will do a much more accomplished job.

Today I was woken by the bright sunshine through the window and after yesterday's grey day, the thought of wasting a minute of sunshine was too much. I grabbed a coffee, then my things, and headed straight out. It was appreciably warmer and as I walked to the start of my daily route, it felt as though the birds were singing harder, sharing in my optimism that the worst of winter was behind us.

Meadow pipit, skylark, reed bunting and snipe were noted early on and I was sure today was going to turn up something new. I thought I'd pretty much checked off all the winter residents I was going to see this side of summer and instead had ambitions for the first African migrants. The sand martin cliff was still, the flooded wood quiet without chiffchaff or willow warbler and I became resigned to waiting one week more.

Then, the chaffinches changed their tune and three males dashed for cover. I looked to see what had spooked them and saw a small compact falcon flying towards me, 100ft in the air. Kestrel? No... something wasn't right; it was stockier and shorter-tailed. It was that blessed merlin at last! I watched it pass over me, just close enough to make out its mask, then followed it as it flew in a perfectly straight line South, along the river and over the rooftops of Morton on Swale. In the excitement, I completely forgot I had my camera slung over my shoulder and failed to get a record shot.

This afternoon I headed for the river with my hide hoping to stake out kingfisher. I found a pool with minnows and stickleback present and overhanging branches; perfect. I set up and waited. And waited. The calls of a passing kingfisher piqued my interest and I stuck it out for three hours on a backless chair. The pain was only eased by a chance encounter with two grey wagtail; I presume the pair that I saw gathering nesting materials yesterday.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

A Grey Day

Today was depressingly grey. The cloud didn't thin once, hanging over the landscape like a heavy, old duvet. Even the birds were grey today; grey partridge, grey wagtail, grey heron and greylag geese all made a showing at some point.

This morning I added shelduck to the year list; five birds were aggressively fighting each other. I couldn't discern whether they were all male, or a number of males vying for the affection of a female. The disputes were quite savage, with the birds taking each others wings in their mouths and flapping furiously. Heads held low, they chased each other along the waters edge sending the other birds up in to the air. Black headed gull (looking fine in their summer garb), little egret and teal all had to make way for the amorous ducks.

Along the river, a pair of grey wagtails were gathering nesting material and I watched a wren constructing its nest precariously in the root disc of a fallen ash, just 3ft above the surface of the river. One more deluge in Swaledale and the little troglodytes will have to start all over again!

Still no sign of the summer migrants, though there were other signs of Spring. The lambs are suckling under their mothers and oystercatchers have moved inland to breed on the river.

An unlucky teal (I think - it's a bit of a mess) on the river bank has come a cropper; probably to peregrine, and looking at the carcass, not long ago... fingers crossed I'll catch up with him tomorrow.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Between Times

Everton put sword to Chelsea on Saturday evening and as an avid fan, the anticipation of a semi-final at Wembley is going to make time stand still. For every day that elapses, the next game will feel no closer until one day it will suddenly arrive and pass. The anticipation leading up to that day will be forgotten and replaced with the outcome of that game.

I stood with Nick Morgan on Saturday morning watching whooper swans fly North. Small groups of fieldfare persist, rattling in distant tree-lines, but their redwing accomplices have already left. I've covered so much ground this winter, more than in any year since I moved here. Every encounter with mammal or bird has felt like a stroke of vivid acrylic paint against the canvas of a brown and grey, barren landscape. I've come to know this season inside and out and now am ready for the next.

Like that semi-final, Spring looms but doesn't arrive. Lambs in the fields, prim flowers and blushing hedgerows give hope that Spring is close, but as the wintering birds gather to leave there is no sign of those travelling from the South. Soon the chattering martins on the river, the metronomic chiff-chaffs and the nectaring tortoiseshells will wipe my memory of this time and my thoughts will be full of summer. In the meantime, there is much of winter to enjoy.

Patch Update

Nick saw merlin again on Saturday, shortly after we went our separate ways. He phoned me with directions and I changed my plans to try and intercept the elusive falcon. As expected, it eluded me once more. But all was not in vain; in the field where I stood waiting hopefully, both red-legged and grey partridge appeared adding two to my patch year-list.

Hares and rabbits are obvious in the fields now. Fox, mink, badger and otter prints can be found in the wet mud along the river and the shrill battle cries of shrews confronting each other sound from the long grass. The roe deer can be tracked down with some regularity now and a chance encounter with stoat added gloss to a good show of mammals.

In the churchyard, the birds continue to come to the food I put out for them and are increasingly comfortable in my presence, even without the hide. Bright sunlight brings all the detail out in the feathers of small birds such as dunnock and marsh tit.

I paused watching the tops of scots pine early on Monday morning, hoping for siskin. Goldcrest and long-tailed tit were plentiful and as I stood looking up, I was aware of a movement at my elbow. Two long-tailed tits were busy lining their soft, perfect nest in the hedgerow, I fear too much in view to avoid the attention of hungry magpies.

Sunday, 6 March 2016


The local woodlands are being slowly eaten by the river Swale. Beech, birch and scots pine dominate with alder, holly and blackthorn completing the under-storey. The fragile lick of trees that stand firm to the rivers annual flood and power hold animals not found elsewhere locally. Nuthatch, marsh tit and goldcrest live in the canopy year-round. In late summer, purple hairstreak flitter unnoticed in the stubborn few oak that remain. The mossy, mould-softened branches that lie on the ground, victims of the wind and water, harbour untold numbers of wood eating beetle grubs, with bronze tiger beetle being the most impressive and obvious.

The woods are burgeoning with life and in rude health despite their confrontation with up-stream rainfall and I have often wondered what other gems they support that remain unrecorded. At home in Shropshire a walk through riverine woods like these would almost certainly reward with pied flycatcher and the absence of this familiar bird here is consuming me. They nest in the summer months thirty miles up-stream through Richmond and I imagine they follow geographical features like the Swale to return to these nest sites from their African feeding grounds each Spring.

So, I decided I would increase their chances of sticking around (should they indeed pass through) and have erected a dozen nest boxes along the edge of the river. Here they are:

I don't really expect this to be a successful project, but at the very least I can look forward to observing the birds that do take up these boxes. I will try and monitor them with a degree of scientific rigour over the next six months and will report interesting findings here. I predict that they will be occupied as follows: 3 Great Tit, 1 Blue Tit, 1 Coal Tit, 1 Tree Sparrow, 6 empty.

Mistle Thrush, Chaffinches and Hawthorn

The sun shone brighter and longer in recent days and the signs that Spring is wrestling with the pervading chill are increasingly noticeable. Mistle thrush are paired and assembling nests; often the first diurnal bird to do so. Bands of bumbarrelling long-tailed tits number fewer birds as encounters with dancing pairs rise. Chaffinches chant their willow-warbleresque dirge from every tree and hedge-top.

Florally, the first hawthorn blossom hides in warm, sheltered hedgerows. Celandine is out but scruffy, wishing it had waited a week longer and holding its canary petals in tightly to keep warm. A pioneering primrose has broken the surface and flowered in the churchyard, giving a clue to the future of the emerging silver-green plants that surround it.