Saturday, 30 April 2016

Lesser Whitethroat

I woke up in Melton Mowbray this morning (planned) so spent the best hours of today driving back to Thrintoft. My concerns that I was missing out on Spring migration through the parish were allayed by a message from Nick that things were very quiet, with just wheatear and common sandpiper of note.

As soon as I got home I felt the urge to go for a walk, so I headed North out of the village avoiding the usual route that would see me cross over into Nick's patch. I decided that I would explore the hedgerows and ox-bow lake for warblers; I'm determined to record grasshopper warbler and one of sedge or reed warbler this year, but realistically was hoping to catch up with lesser whitethroat, having seen many reports of them turning up on the coast.

Before I even left the village I came across a common whitethroat, and in just 200 yards again had picked up three more. Indeed, by the time I had reached the hedgerow that I photographed whitethroat last week I had already counted seven birds! I was confident that I was going to encounter at least one of my targets today.

At the lake it was very quiet, so I sat on my fallen tree and just listened. In the sky were increasing numbers of swallow, swirling over the thin tree-cover of the reed-bed, and in their number were two or three house martins, my first of the year. Another common whitethroat popped up in a hawthorn next to me and began singing; number nine of the day. Green-veined white brought the butterfly count to four for the year.

Across the road from the oxbow lake is a huge field, and along it's North and Eastern boundary runs a fantastic hedge, burgeoning with haw, blackthorn and bullace (wild damson). Linnet, goldfinch, willow warbler, chiffchaff and blackcap were present in number and I counted off another handful of common whitethroat. Then, half way along the Eastern hedge I heard a slightly different bird, finishing it's warble with a slow trill; lesser whitethroat! The bird wasn't very approachable, but I managed a few shots before I headed home to take the family out.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

The North Wind

Like boiled vegetables plunged into ice-water, the North wind has stopped Spring cooking. There are very few birds about; swallows are still a scarcity and some winter birds still hang on. So cold did it feel yesterday that I expected to look up and see whooper swans flying back South!

It was a very mild week though, so a walk around the patch was sure to turn up animals that had arrived or emerged during the week. My first orange-tip butterfly of the year visited the garden on Saturday and takes my annual butterfly list to three (the other two being peacock and small tortoiseshell).

Yellow wagtail are now present; Nick directed me to one on the muck heaps yesterday and another bird was seen along the river loop this afternoon.

Aside from the legions of willow warbler and chiffchaff, there are very few warblers about so I was pleased to hear garden warbler in Langton yesterday. Typically elusive, I failed to even see the bird let alone photograph it. However, with blackcap also singing it was easy to identify. I think blackcap have more lengthy phrases with thrush like tones while the garden warbler plays a greater number of shorter phrases with more scratching and warbling. It's taken me years to distinguish between the two in the field, so these differences are very slight!

Speaking of birdsong and warblers, I walked past a hawthorn hedge and heard a very quiet dribble of notes. Another bird 'sub-singing' and this time a common whitethroat. Sub-singing is a fascinating behaviour that also goes under the name of plastic-singing or whisper-song. It's typically associated with first-time breeding birds in the Autumn after fledging and is thought to be juvenile birds practicing the song that will attract them a mate the following Spring. However, I've heard it twice this Spring already from summer visiting warblers... maybe they keep a lid on it until they've established where they're going to settle?

I had my hide with me so covered up and sat waiting to see if I could photograph the whitethroat. The bird behaved exactly as expected and remained in cover for nearly an hour before it poked it's head out. Then, when it was sure the coast was clear, it popped out onto a branch for an even better view.

The colony of sand martins is fascinating me this year and I'm determined to get some good shots of these birds. They're quite obliging and will allow me fairly close, but the sheer speed of them makes it incredibly difficult to keep them in focus. I've dozens of pictures of them sitting outside their nest holes; it's the only time they stop moving! I like this picture of a pair 'kissing':

...and I managed to grab a shot of this bird as it emerged from washing itself off in the river... the water droplets can just about be seen dripping from it's feathers.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Terrific Birds, Terrible Photos

I had a busy day planned today what with taking the kids ten-pin bowling this morning and a quoits match scheduled for this afternoon. So I was only able to snatch an hour here and there to get out and explore the patch for arrivals and given the lack of time, was not optimistic!

However, an early start rewarded me instantly with this fine kestrel on the way to the oxbow lake.

I'd chosen to go to the lake this morning in hope of catching some 'wetland warblers' on migration. Sedge and reed warbler are rarely recorded in the parish but I have a suspicion that the large reed bed here will deliver. I sat on my favourite fallen tree trunk and just listened. The moorhens serenaded each other loudly but I never saw one. I kept my ears pricked in the hope of water rail but like the warblers, none were heard.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a dark finch fly up into a tree with the large group of linnets. The flock has been here all year and I've monitored it carefully in the hope that it will attract passing winter finches but until today it's frustrated. So seeing this brambling was an unexpected and welcome surprise; they've been very scarce in the UK this winter.

Returning from a successful jaunt at the bowling alley (I won hands down) and a trip to the cafe for a cake (white chocolate and raspberry muffin), I headed straight out again. Nick Morgan had spotted 4 obliging wheatear at the (now legendary) muck heaps and I'd missed out on photographs when I saw one a couple of weeks ago. They had already vanished, testament to the turnover of migrants at this time of year, but I was rewarded with an even better bird: redstart! The first live bird (long story) to be recorded in the parish in modern times and 50% of my 'wanted list' for 2016.

So in little more than an hour and a half, I'd added two terrific birds to the year list. Just goes to show that even a few minutes here and there can be rewarding.

Look at those photos though! Terrible. I spent a lot of money on a new lens when my son smashed my Sigma 50-500mm f/4-6.3 on our stone, kitchen floor (it was the excuse I needed to justify it). But, I wouldn't recommend one for just wandering around and grabbing record shots. At 300mm and with a 1.4x teleconverter it's still too short to get great shots of most of the birds I encounter, which tend to keep their distance. In fact, I believe that a modern compact camera with a 50-60x zoom is a much better companion for birding, being lighter and not requiring such heavy crops.

However, when everything is just right, the lens is definitely worth the money. Look at these shots of a confiding chaffy I took this morning... no crop, no adjustments, straight from camera. Look at that detail and those colours! Beautiful.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Little Owl

I was tipped off by a neighbour that a little owl had found a regular roost in a damaged tree in their paddock. I attempted to photograph it earlier in the week but the light was dreadful, so this morning in the sunshine I crept up to the tree and tried again. Success!!

A morning walk along the river loop confirmed the mass arrival of willow warblers with at least 5 birds singing in the small, scrubby patch I know as 'warbler wood'. I had hoped to find common sandpiper on the Swale today with records of birds coming in during the week from even further inland. I was not optimistic when I saw that the river was in flood... the usual sandy scrapes and gravelly beaches on which I find them in the summer were very underwater. However, my luck was in as I flushed a bird from under a row of willows.

Later today I came across what I thought was a second bird at Langton, but on inspection when I got home I found it was the green sandpiper that's been hanging around all year.

Alas there were few other arrivals; the number of swallows has increased but is still a long way short of the number that will dot the skies in May. There was still plenty to see though with roe deer and fox crossing my path this evening.

Finally, I took this picture of blue tits in the blossom. While it won't win any competitions, I like the 'japanese pottery' feel to it.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Early Bloomers Part II

"To a person uninstructed in natural history, his country or sea-side stroll is a walk through a gallery filled with wonderful works of art, nine-tenths of which have their faces turned to the wall." 
Thomas Henry Huxley
The first months of spring are good for the amateur botanist; there are only a handful of species of flower on show and it's a rewarding exercise to learn them all and in what order (roughly) they emerge. Any unidentified blooms can be quickly looked up in a book and added to the mental 'photoguide' and hence each year it gets later and later before the diversity overwhelms the ability to learn any more.

Marsh marigold has been around for just a week or so and yet already it is dirty and tattered; the victim of endeavouring bees. Indeed, it's bright yellow petals must shine like a beacon in the dark, brown mud of the wooded swamp where it grows, drawing in bees from afar.

As mentioned in a previous flower post, the flowers seem to move through a spectrum: yellow, through white then purple before the landscape explodes in a kaleidoscopic array of colours from which no sense or order can be derived. Here in this corner of North Yorkshire, yellow is still very much the colour with lesser celandine in its pomp.

However, the whites are on their way. Spikes of ramsons break through their broad, plasticky leaves but tease beneath their protective, green sepals. One or two have opened pathetically, disfigured and isolated. In just a few days they will all be in flower and the wood will look completely different. In the meanwhile, white dead nettle and the first wood anemones can be found among the yellow.

As I walked through the wood today I considered the quote from Huxley (above) and "Common Ground" by Rob Cowen. In one chapter, the author describes encountering detailed notes from another amateur naturalist that used to keep watch over his current patch. He contemplates whether he should be recording everything in minute detail; every flower, every fly, every spider, or whether it's enough to capture the essence of a place.

The wood today was buzzing with bees, flies and beetles I couldn't identify. I became aware of just how little I know, of how many artworks were turned to the wall. And while this bothers me, the thought of sitting down and collecting, identifying and recording every single species troubles me more. My love of nature started like this and was necessary to understand the general order of nature, to gain an understanding of who was who such that I could enjoy it. This basic knowledge adds characters to the stories I watch unfold. 

I'm sure that's why I love nature; to find my own story played out once and only to me; a one-time, exclusive show. The characters can be familiar or strange, but I can place them in the personal set and story of my natural world. I share my own experiences and read about others', all the while colouring the back-stories of familiar characters and introducing new ones. 

On the subject of new characters, a corner of my patch has exploded with these:

Butterbur. While I suppose I've always been aware of them, I'd never really had reason to find out what they are, but the sheer number of them was cause for interest. Apparently, when the flowers die back in late Spring they give way to leaves that can grow to one metre in diameter! I can't wait to see that!

Patch Update

Despite the fantastic weather, today was very quiet with just one notable arrival: blackcaps seem to be have settled en masse. I counted at least 6 singing males along the length of my patch and spied a skulking red-capped female too.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Spring Bounces On

Once the rain stopped this morning, I headed out on the long river loop to see what a week had brought to the patch. The infamous muck heaps were very quiet; there was evidence that the farmer has started spreading it over the bleached, nutrient-deficient field it lies on. The disturbance must have been too much for many birds and I counted just 2 pied wagtail, a pair of meadow pipits and a reed bunting.

Even the little flooded wood was quiet; I spooked just one mallard. However, I soon heard willow warbler calling 100 yards away in the little scrubby patch that always holds so many warblers in the summer. I followed the singing male to a willow tree, quite aptly, and managed some shots I'm very pleased with of this confiding bird.

The river was alive with sand martins, circling in the air between swooping en masse to the muddy banks to excavate a little more of their nests. I attempted some shots of them in flight and decided it was impossible!! Kudos to those photographers that manage such great shots of these rapid little fliers.

As I moved on I was aware there was a background noise, emanating from every inch of the ground. The wet mud sounded as though it was alive, wriggling and squirming and I imagined what it must be like to have blackbird super-senses and hear the earthworms beneath my feet. I reasoned that the noise must actually be air bubbling to the surface as the rain soaks away to level with the water table.

At the large ox-bow lake, I found a sheltered spot and lay on the trunk of a fallen birch. The sun was beating down and out of the wind I was comfortable in just a t-shirt for the first time this year. I sat and just listened for half an hour or so. The sun was drying the reeds, which crackled and snapped. Two moorhens called to each other from either end of the reed beds and a small group of linnet passed through adding a digital soundtrack to the very top of the trees.

On the lake itself were more moorhen, a dozen or so teal, one or two mallard and 3 tufted duck; my first of the year and another patch tick, taking me to 89 species for 95 points. I set myself a target of 100 species for the year and am confident now that I will reach it.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Friday Fliers

Friday's allow a little latitude when it comes to clocking out and with the sun shining it was too much to resist, so I came home, pulled my wellies on and went straight out.

Walking round the church and riverine woods revealed more than 20 chiffchaff. A staggering number really and I expect this number to fall by the time the birds have settled down to nest.

In a hawthorn tree in one of the surrounding fields I spotted about a dozen swallow resting up. By the time I pulled out my camera they were off again and hawking around the treetops, using the updraft from the riverbank to hang in the air snatching flies.

My nest boxes remain unused; I suppose it's still a bit early but I am surprised that not even a blue tit has shown interest in them in the month or so they've been up.

There were no signs of willow warbler and my ambitions of pied flycatcher and redstart will begin in a few weeks yet. So, I thought I'd chance the flooded field that marks the very northern point on my 3sqkm patch.

It was worth stopping off; I counted 24+ curlew, 12+ lapwing (including 3 on nests), 12+ teal, the first snipe I've seen this year that didn't see me first, and redshank. But top of the pile were a pair of little ringed plover, my first seen locally and a tick for this years patchwork challenge.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

First Swallows

It rained a half-hearted, dribbling drizzle for much of the day today, so I resigned to doing jobs I'd never bother with. I sorted my iTunes library (told you) and built a shelving unit for my daughter's bedroom. This was enough to drive me insane so despite the rain, I headed out to Little Langton for some air.

I started by scoping out the last remaining flood pools. There were plenty of teal, common gull and lapwing on and around the water, dotted with the odd curlew, lesser black-backed and black headed gull. A pair of oystercatcher flew in unusually close, but I'd left the camera in the car as the site is usually hopeless for photography. Typical!

At the church, I could hear a scratching call coming from the hawthorn shrubs next to the creek. I thought it was siskin and hoping for a year tick, tracked the singing bird down. To my surprise, it was a male blackcap (presumably the individual I saw on Firecrest-day, for which it will now be known). The surprise was how softly it was singing; it sounded as though it was humming to itself, perhaps practising for the day he begins his chorus in full. I've witnessed this 'muted singing' before from a garden warbler. I wonder whether there is a good reason this happens, and whether it only happens with warblers?

Moving on to the river, there was further evidence that the wood was slipping into the valley, with runs of orange mud streaking across the footpath and about a yard of exposed roots on trees at the very top of the bank. I became unusually spooked by the idea of being in the wood during a landslide, so was grateful to come out at the other side, covering the last twenty yards with a skip. As I emerged into the light, I was immediately aware of an hirundine bird in the fields opposite. It was my first swallow of the year, and as I stood watching it was joined by another.

I met the owner of the farm that surrounds the church for the first time. We shared stories of recent sightings; me regaling him with Firecrest-day anecdotes and he sharing a recent experience where he'd caught jack snipe in the hand right next to the church! I was sceptical but he was able to produce photographs to prove it. Unbelievable! I've now been granted access to the farmland and hope to find my own very soon. While we were talking the group of swallows had swollen to six birds; clearly this is the start of the influx. Roll on summer.