Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Woburn Red KiteI count myself fortunate to have witnessed the re-establishment of Red Kites in this part of Bedfordshire.  I saw the first one here only a few years ago, and it was a real event for me.  Now, while not exactly abundant, they are more common.  There have been times over the summer when I’ve watched a kite from the comfort of my sofa through the french windows.  However, we’ve recently discovered a spot not too far away where you can see the Red Kites almost on demand.  It’s only in one small localised area, and it’s a great example of how habitat and food availability shapes the distribution of a species.  I’ll explain.

We’ve recently got a season ticket for Woburn Safari Park.  It’s on our doorstep, they offer a good deal on an annual ‘toddler pass’ and Scarlett is old enough now to appreciate the animals (and the indoor play area).  It means I can go with Scarlett to the library on a Saturday morning and drive home through the safari park, just for the fun of it.  The carnivore enclosure is always a favourite, with bears, wolves, tigers, lions – and Red Kites.

Yes, the kites seem to have taken up residence here.  On my last visit there were three of them, circling and swooping low over the park.  Why do they gather at this spot, and not anywhere else in the vicinity?  Here’s a clue:

Wolf with meat

The wolf has just picked up its breakfast.  The animals in this part of the park are fed on meat – it’s the carnivore enclosure.  Red Kites are carrion feeders.  Obviously the wolves and bears and lions leave enough scraps for the kites to feed on.  They’ve found a regular source of food and are making the most of it, hence we’ve got a concentration of them in this small area, whilst my house (which is no distance at all away for a kite) gets relatively few.

It seems a bit odd to have to go to a safari park to see a wild bird, but it shows that nature finds a way, and it has helped me to get my best picture of a Red Kite so far.  I did have to take it through the car window though – getting out for a closer view wasn’t really an option…

Wolf - looking menacing

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Just a few quick notes to show that I’m still here, and I haven’t been killed off by bovine TB or a virulent disease caught from a dead animal by the roadside.  But another month has gone by and what’s the closest I’ve got to a badger?

Shaving Brush

That’s right, the nearest I’ve been to a badger is my shaving brush.  And even that isn’t very close (arguably the finest shaving brushes are made from badger hair, but mine isn’t – it didn’t seem right somehow).  Anyhow, suffice it to say that I haven’t been near badgers lately.

Actually, this isn’t strictly true.  There’s been a couple of road casualties, one of which I had to move off the road.  This was an adult female in the spot that I saw a live badger in February last year. The other was in the usual spot for road casualties around here, the big wood where there have been most of the deaths.  There must be a very substantial sett in this wood to sustain this number of road casualties over the years.

What else has happened?  I got an unexpected parcel through the door the other day.  It was a book – ‘Urban Mammals – a concise guide‘ by David Wembridge.  It’s published by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species and it’s a great book – a thoughtful and informed look at the common, and not so common, urban species, from foxes to bats.

Urban Mammals by the People's Trust for Endangered Species

Why did it come through my door?  Well, it wasn’t entirely unexpected, to be honest.  I was contacted by the Trust a few months ago who had found this blog and asked me if they could use some of my pictures in the book.  Of course I was happy to help a worthwhile charity, they used the pictures and in return they sent me a copy of the book.  I’m very grateful, and it is a very good book.

What else?  There have been a lot of buzzards flying over the house lately – I hear them mewing as I sit in our living room.  One day I looked out to see what looked at first sight to be a seagull, but on second glance seemed to be a very pale, almost white, buzzard.  It had drifted out of sight by the time I’d dashed in and returned with the camera.  There were reports of a white buzzard in the area a while ago, so perhaps this was it?

What else?  On the subject of birds, I took Scarlett to the lake at Woburn to feed the ducks today.  There’s a family of black swans in residence that are interesting to see.  Black swans are introductions from Australia, which fits with them being on an estate lake (and given all the other species the Dukes of Bedford have introduced…). The RSPB website says they rarely breed in the UK, but these ones obviously have done.

Feeding the black swans at Woburn

Anyhow, after throwing in bread for a good five minutes I looked to the side and there was a heron perched on a tree, quite oblivious to us.


There’s a lesson to me to be more observant next time!

I’ll be back soon – there’s a whole bunch of correspondence I need to catch up on too, so bear with me…

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Parakeets in the Office Car Park

Well well.  Here we are on March 21st.  The Spring Equinox.  Hasn’t the year flown by?  It seems like only the other day that we had snow and ice, and now the days are longer, the trees are in bud and the Blackthorn is in flower.  It seems that spring has well and truly arrived.

I’m conscious that I haven’t been on here much lately.  There’s a few reasons for this, but they all boil down to the fact that I haven’t done much.  You see, I don’t do things just so I can write about them.  People sometimes say to me that they couldn’t write a blog because they don’t think they could do enough to fill it.  To me, this is putting it the wrong way round.  The blog is simply a diary, a record of what you’ve done, and I haven’t done much.

Partly it’s because I’ve been busy at work.  I’ve just returned from a business trip to Saudi Arabia, for instance (sandstorms, and absolutely no wildlife!) and work does otherwise take up a certain amount of time.  Partly it’s because of Mrs BWM’s shift patterns, since when she’s at work in the evenings then I need to stay at home parenting.  A lot of it is because young Scarlett is getting more independent-minded.  In the old days I could carry her around the fields and she’d be happy with that.  She’s now got to the age where she’s less easily impressed and she has the language skills to say ‘No Daddy, I don’t want to go out. I want to watch Thomas the Tank Engine’. Which she does.  A lot.  Although I still take her out (for educational purposes) we tend to spend more time at the playground, or feeding ducks, or other, more fun, places.

So what news is there?  Well, there was a dead badger on the road a couple of weeks ago, in the same place I saw the polecat a couple of years ago (see https://badgerwatcher.com/2010/06/27/a-very-much-alive-polecat/).  It isn’t safe to stop and look closely, but I haven’t seen a badger here before so it’s a new spot on the map.

And talking of badgers, I saw a badger on our road yesterday evening, at 7.31pm to be precise.  This is good, partly because I like the idea of a badger being on the same road as me, partly because I’ve waited ages to see it.  This is undoubtedly the badger that I regularly track in the field behind my house.  I feel I know it already, so it was good to finally meet in person.  If only I could entice it a couple of hundred yards into my garden…

Finally, I’ve added a new bird to my life list.  I work in an office in suburban Surrey, near Surbiton, which is actually more leafy and wooded than you might think.  It turns out that our office car park is home to a small flock of a dozen or so Parakeets.  Now the days are longer and I’m in the car park in daylight I’ve started to notice them.  Parakeets are a naturalised species across a lot of London, and some people complain about them because they can be quite noisy, but I quite like them.  They add a bit of colour to the office in more ways than one.  I was told that they are descendants of birds that escaped from Henry VIII’s menagerie at nearby Hampton Court.  Not sure if I believe that one, but they’re interesting enough all the same.

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Birdwatching Update

Hi E J – that’s an impressive list you have now.  Good work!

By way of response, here’s my own efforts, which consist mostly of feeding the ducks at Woburn Deer Park.

Feeding the Ducks at Woburn

The Canada Geese are acting strangely, honking and hissing at each other.  I think it must be something to do with mating season.  Here’s what a Canada Goose threat display looks like:

Canada Goose Threat Display

And the swans are getting friendly too – being a protective Dad I kept Scarlett firmly behind me as this one came bullying me for bread:

Swan - getting a bit too close

Now, contrary to popular opinion, I don’t believe that a swan can break your arm with its wing.  But I still didn’t want it anywhere near my daughter.   Luckily they don’t move too fast on land.

So – still no Reed Buntings or Common Scoters, but at least it keeps me out of mischief…

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I went out with Scarlett to the lakes at Woburn Deer Park on Sunday to look for ducks.  She insisted that we bring bread to feed them.

There weren’t many birds – a couple of pairs of Tufted Ducks and Coots.

Tufted Duck

Tufties used to be a real scourge when I was fishing a lake in Kent, years ago, but they’re a new tick for me here in Bedfordshire.

Oh yes, and there were a few pairs of Mallards, who were very grateful for some old crumpets.

Feeding the ducks at Woburn

Throwing bread to ducks isn’t quite hardcore birdwatching, but do I have to admit that it was fun.

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OK – Scarlett and I did the hour-long birdwatch while enjoying a late breakfast.  The idea is record the maximum number of each species seen (to avoid counting the same bird twice).

I’ve submitted the results to the RSPB website.  The final score was:

  • Goldfinch 4
  • Blue Tit 5
  • Collared Dove 2
  • Blackbird 4
  • Sparrow 4
  • Starling 1
  • Robin 1
  • Great Tit 1
  • Dunnock 1

Disappointingly, the Greenfinches and Chaffinches we regularly get in the garden didn’t make an appearance, nor the more unusual species such as Woodpeckers and Jays that occasionally pop in.  But that’s how it goes with any sampling technique – the data all evens out if enough people do it.


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GoldfinchJust a quick note to remind you about the Big Garden Birdwatch.  If you haven’t done it today, there is still time tomorrow.  Scarlett and I will be doing it tomorrow morning.

It only takes an hour, it gets you closer to your local wildlife and you’ll be helping to monitor bird numbers across the country.

See http://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/takepart.aspx for full details of how to take part.

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Goosanders on the lake

Goosanders - female on left, male on right

I’m afraid I’m not a very good birder.

I started keeping my list of Bedfordshire birds about two and a half years ago (see Birds of Bedfordshire: No.45 – The Dunnock).  At that time the list stood at 45 species positively identified.  I totted up the list again today, and in the intervening time it has only risen to 54.  Some people see that many birds in a morning, so I’m obviously taking it slowly.

Ever since I visited Malltraeth I’ve had birds on my mind.  I had an hour or two free this afternoon, which wasn’t enough time for any serious badger watching, so I decided to head up to the lake to see if there were any birds around.  After a mere 45 minutes of enthusing, cajoling and finally bullying, I managed to get Scarlett into her shoes and coat and into the backpack baby carrier, and we set off.  At which point she promptly fell asleep.

For some reason I associate the lake with birds.  It may be because it’s a different habitat to the rest of the local area and so attracts different species than the usual hedgerows, fields and woods.  This was the case today, as there was a small flock (10 or so) of Goosanders in residence.  Goosanders are fish-eating ducks with long, thin and slightly hooked bills.  I’ve seen their relatives, Mergansers, in Wales.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get very close as they were quite wary, and I wasn’t helped by a pair of Canada Geese on the bank who seemed to have taken on the role of sentries and honked crossly at me when I tried to come near.

Now, my (somewhat short) list of birds represents only those species that I have positively identified.  There’s loads more that I’ve seen and not taken notice of or not known what they are.  For instance, there was a flock of small, sparrow-sized birds in the top of a tree near the lake.  I disturbed them by getting too close, at which point they flew off to another tree.  I’m not familiar with birds that flock and perch high like this (most that I know stick to hedgerow height), but they were too far away and the light too poor to get a good view.  They could be a great rarity.  They could just be sparrows.  If anyone has any ideas, based on the  photo, please do let me know…

Unknown birds by the lake

Unknown birds by the lake

This is what makes birding interesting for me.  I have need yet to go dashing off to places to see a rare visitor (though I perfectly understand those that do, and I’m certainly not criticising them).  No, there are still plenty of birds within walking distance of my house yet to find and identify, and I can have the pleasure of discovery within my local patch.  It’s an advantage of starting at the bottom – I have so much more work to do!

(Should anyone want to check my progress or have a go themselves, here’s a copy of the British Bird List I found/stole on the internet.  Note that it goes up to 591, but it does include some rare birds.  Lady Amherst’s Pheasant, for instance, is only found in Bedfordshire, but it is secretive and there are only about three left.  And what on earth is a Brown-headed Cowbird?  Anyway, it’s the official list if you’re interested.)

British Bird List

*Edit – I think, after playing around with enlargements, the unknown birds may be Greenfinches.  But I may be wrong.  I’ve never seen a flock of Greenfinches before, but they seem to be the best fit.

Unknown Birds Enlargement

Mind you, I’ve been wrong so many times before…

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‘Nature is lavish with her riches for those who have eyes to see’

Charles Tunnicliffe


Bedfordshire Sunrise - red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning

Bedfordshire Sunrise - red sky in the morning, shepherd's warning

It was as if Bedfordshire was fighting back, making a point about my birdwatching trips to other parts of the country.  It was saying ‘look – we have birds here too!’

I’ve had a thing about Red Kites for a while, ever since I saw my first one in Bedfordshire a couple of years ago.  They’re a real success story – a bird driven to the edge of extinction, clinging on as a few pairs in Mid-Wales, only to be re-introduced and make a real comeback in England.

The Kites we have here won’t be from the original Welsh stock, they’ll be outliers from the Chilterns, where they’re almost as common as Sparrows.  Nevertheless, it is good to see them spreading our way.  I can watch them as they re-colonise the countryside.

Bedfordshire Red Kite

Bedfordshire Red Kite

I’ve been trying to get a picture of one of our local Kites for ages, but they’ve always managed to elude me for one reason and another.  Until this morning, that is.  I took Scarlett to the nursery at 8.00am and drove home along the back lanes.  There, above me, a pair of Red Kites was cavorting on the breeze.  Now, as chance would have it I had my camera in the car – I’d brought it along to photograph the sunrise.  I pulled over onto the verge, wound down the window and got off a few quick snaps.

And there you have it.  My first picture of a Bedfordshire Red Kite.  You can just about make out the white bars on the wings, but the silhouette and the forked tail are unmistakable.  Maybe I should carry the camera in the car more often…

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Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest

Red Squirrel at Newborough Forest

Happy New Year!

It’s been a hectic Christmas, but I saw in the New Year in my own style.  While the rest of the world was sleeping off the excesses of the night before, I was up before dawn on January 1st, sitting in a forest waiting for Red Squirrels.

I was back in Anglesey and the weather was wild and stormy with a big south-westerly wind pushing waves up the beach.  Not the sort of weather for building sandcastles, but it gave the landscape a lonely winter grandeur that I like.

I’ve got the hang of the squirrels at Newborough Forest now.  The trick is to be there at first light, wait by the feeders at the Llyn Parc Mawr car park, and hopefully they’ll oblige.  It wasn’t an arduous wait: I was kept entertained by the range of birds that visited the feeder, including three Great Spotted Woodpeckers and a friendly Robin that perched on the wing mirror of my car and kept me company.  A pair squirrels arrived at about 8.30am.  The perfect picture still eludes me – the light was still poor and the wildness of the shot was compromised by the squirrel sitting on a picnic table – but I’m getting better.

I had another reason to visit Newborough.  I’ve been re-reading Shorelands Summer Diary by Charles Tunnicliffe.  Tunnicliffe was an artist and birdwatcher who came to live in the village of Malltraeth in 1947.  Malltraeth is only a mile or so from Newborough Forest, separated by a broad estuary and marsh.  Tunnicliffe watched and painted the birds he saw there.

Shorelands Summer Diary is an exquisite book.  It is a record of the first year that Tunnicliffe spent in his house by the sea.  The paintings are beautifully done, with a certain humorous charm (for instance, his sketch of a woodpecker in his garden includes himself in the background watching through binoculars), and it is easy to recognise the locations today.  The writing too is charming.  Tunnicliffe describes the birds he sees, from Shelducks to Peregrine Falcons, as real characters.  He was not just ticking birds off a list, he really saw them as individuals.  And he was an excellent birdwatcher.  He could recognise a Roseate Tern from a Common Tern at a hundred yards.  For more information on Tunnicliffe, and examples of his work, see http://www.thecharlestunnicliffesociety.co.uk/.  Should you find yourself on Anglesey, the Oriel Ynys Mon art gallery in Llangefni has a permanent Tunnicliffe exhibition that is well worth a visit.

Low Tide at Malltraeth on New Year's Day

Low Tide at Malltraeth on New Year's Day

So having enjoyed the book, I just had to experience the real thing for myself while I was in the area.  Malltraeth is an interesting spot.  On the landward side of the estuary is the grassy bank of a sea wall – the ‘cob’ – with a pool behind, so it’s really three habitats in one.

Now, I must confess that I’ve never really appreciated birdwatching on estuaries and marshes.  We just don’t have them in landlocked Mid-Bedfordshire, and the appeal of standing by a large patch of mud was lost on me.  But standing there in grey light of morning, with a gale blowing in my face, I was struck by the elemental combination of land, water, wind and sky.  This was no tame hedgerow or copse.  But it was when I looked at the birds that I really understood estuary birdwatching for the first time.

There were birds everywhere, of all kinds of species.  Lapwings, oystercatchers, redshanks, curlews.  A trio of little grebes dived in the river.  A heron flapped slowly away, mobbed by two gulls. Further out, on the mudflats, an immense flock of unidentified brown waders stood stoically in the cold wind.  It was an embarrassment of riches for someone used only to the birds of field and wood.  At that moment, I understood the attraction.

The Estuary at Malltraeth at Sunset

The estuary at Malltraeth at sunset - land, water, wind and sky

High tide on New Year’s day coincided with sunset.  I just had to come back again to see more, and I was not disappointed.  When I arrived a huge flock of Lapwings was wheeling and circling around the bay, breaking apart and coming back together, trying to land on a tiny island.  I couldn’t count the numbers, but a conservative estimate would be at least 300-400.

Malltraeth Cob with the flock of Lapwings

Malltraeth Cob with Lapwings

The Lapwings were quite a spectacle.  I sat and watched them, with a couple of hardy birdwatchers.  Even the locals walking their dogs in the chill evening stopped to look at them.

Flock of Lapwings

Flock of Lapwings directly overhead

I don’t know why, but I really like this picture of the Lapwings overhead.  They were strangely soothing to watch as they floated on the wind.

Out in the bay, Teal and Pintail ducks bobbed on the waves.  Beyond, in the distance, were thick dark lines – flock after flock of waders waiting for the tide to ebb.


Windswept Teal

It was freezing cold but I was enjoying being out in the fresh air and seeing new birds – and so many of them.  I may not have the talents of Tunnicliffe, but it was satisfying to be following in his footsteps, literally and figuratively.  I have no idea what half the birds were, but that didn’t matter.  I think I understand birdwatching by the sea now.

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