Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

Walking through Woburn Deer ParkWoburn Abbey is not very far away from where I live.  Every now an then I like to go for a walk through the deer park.  I know they’re not real wild deer, but the park is a great place to watch deer at close quarters and in fairly natural surroundings. Put another way, it is 3,000 acres of grassland, trees, small copses and lakes – although it is managed habitat it offers a chance to see all manner of wildlife.

If you look back at previous years you’ll see that I make a point of visiting the Deer Park in October for the Red Deer rut, and this is truly a spectacle to behold.  I recommend it to anyone if they’re able to travel to Woburn.  But actually, the park is a good place to visit at any time, especially with the attached safari park and zoo.

It is perfectly possible to visit the Deer Park and see plenty of deer without even having to leave your car.  There is a public highway that crosses the park – you can drive through (carefully, mind) and the deer are there either side of the road.  But this isn’t the best way to see it.  There is a whole network of public footpaths that means you can leave the car in one of the neighbouring villages and stroll through on foot.  You can even work out a big circular walk on the paths that takes you well away from the road and into some lovely hidden spots.

Scarlett and I took a walk through the park to visit the monthly farmer’s market in Woburn village.  I like doing this, as it gives me a chance to combine a bit of wildlife with some local shopping, although the highlight of the day is usually in the crypt of Woburn parish church, where they serve tea and home-made cakes.   What more could you ask for in a walk?

The park is home to Red Deer, Fallow Deer, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer, the last three species having inevitably escaped and become naturalised in the local area.  A fifth species, Pere David’s Deer, have so far remained in the park.  They have the distinction of having been made extinct in their native China but were preserved in Woburn and a few other places, so successfully that they have now been re-introduced back in their homeland.

Pere David's Deer at Woburn Deer ParkPere David’s are slightly odd-looking, vaguely cow-like deer.  They can be identified quickly by their backward-pointing antlers (the points of Red Deer antlers face forward).  In their breeding season they gather foliage on their antlers as a display, which is quite a distinctive feature.

Pere David's Deer in a pond at Woburn Deer ParkWhen we visited, the Pere David’s were congregated around and in one of the ponds, standing up to their knees in the water.  I’m not sure why – it wasn’t that hot.  Perhaps it is another of their odd behaviours.

Red Deer Stags at Woburn Deer ParkThe Red Deer are almost ready for the rut now, but the stags are still in groups.  Soon they’ll separate and start calling to attract their own ‘harem’ of females.  The ones in the picture above are still quite young.  As they grow older they will develop more points on their antlers and lose their spots.  There are some real monster stags at Woburn.

Fallow Deer at Woburn

Fallow Deer, like the ones above, were introduced to Britain by the Normans.  They are easily identifiable by their ‘palmate’ antlers (which are flat, like the palm of your hand, I suppose).  Colour is not an absolutely reliable feature for any species, as a rule, but Fallow Deer are typically much lighter than other species, being spotted or even entirely white (a pure white deer was frequently seen running wild around our village a few years ago, a bit like a deer version of Moby Dick).

The deer were the main feature of our walk, but there was plenty more to be seen.  Scarlett enjoyed seeing ducks on the ponds and rabbits on the grass.  I enjoyed finding a wasps’ nest dug out by a badger (so there are badgers about even here, in this managed park!)  But the church in Woburn deserves a mention too, from a naturalist’s point of view (and not just for tea and cakes).

St. Mary’s church is relatively modern, being built by the 8th Duke of Bedford in the 1860’s to replace the older church in the village.  It is handsome enough though, with some fantastic gargoyles.  The vicar, Steve, is a nice chap too.  For me, though, one of the most interesting features is inside: a window commemorating Mary, the ‘Flying Duchess’.  Mary is a fascinating character.  She was a noted aviator, hence the name, and she was lost without trace in a flying accident over the sea in 1937.  During the Great War she set up a hospital for servicemen at Woburn that still bears the name ‘Marylands’, although it is now in the process of being converted to luxury flats.  For more information on Mary, see Wikipedia.

OK – fascinating history lesson, BWM, but where is this actually going?  Well, in addition to her other interests, the Duchess was also a keen birdwatcher.  After her death, she was commemorated with a large stained-glass window in the church depicting St. Francis of Assisi (“Whose work was in the hospitals, whose delight was in the birds” – very fitting).

The St Francis of Assisi window in St Mary's Church, WoburnAnd this is the point I’m slowly getting to.  The artist of the window decorated it with birds found in Woburn Abbey and the park.  An idea is forming in my mind – the ‘Flying Duchess Challenge’.  If all these birds are local, then why don’t I set myself the target of seeing them and ticking them off a list?  Following in Mary’s footsteps, if you will.

This is where it gets tricky.  The picture above is a big, hi-res image so you can zoom in on the birds.  Some are common enough – magpie, tawny owl, heron and so on.  Some are much more challenging.  That looks like a chough in the top right.  I’ve seen these on Anglesey, but they vanished from southern England a long time ago.  Some birds are downright difficult.  There’s a hoopoe in there, and they’ve been recorded in Bedfordshire fewer than half a dozen times since the 1940s.  It will definitely be a challenge, firstly to identify all the birds on the window, and secondly (and more difficult still) to actually see them, particularly locally.

I like the idea of it, even if it is nearly impossible.  I’ll keep you posted.

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I’m on parenting duty again this weekend, so no badger watching.  But there’s always something wildlifey to be seen out there.

Take these tracks for instance.  They appeared overnight in Scarlett’s sandpit (yes, I really have used my daughter’s plaything as an impromptu tracking box.

Possible Mouse Tracks

The scale is in centimetres, so the tracks are small.  I’m thinking they’re from a mouse from the size and the trail pattern.  These tracks have alternate footprints and an obvious tail-drag.  The guidebooks are a little unclear on mouse tracks: some say that a tail-drag is present, others not, and the gait of a mouse can be either walking (alternate tracks) or jumping (parallel tracks).  Since I can’t think of anything else that could have made them, I’m going for mouse anyway.

I’ve spent most of the day laying the paving on the new play area in the garden, but since it was a nice evening I took Scarlett out for a short stroll.  It occurred to me that it’s been a little while since we’ve been for a walk, so I took the opportunity.  It’s a longer business now, walking with her, but fun.  She alternates walking and being carried, and she insists on stopping to pick up interesting sticks and stones (where did she inherit that habit from, I wonder…?)

We were accompanied on the walk by a Green Woodpecker that kept flitting ahead of us, from treetops to the ground and back again.  I’ve seen these in the garden a few times, but oddly, I’ve never seen one in the wild, even though I hear their distinctive ‘yaffle’ call most times I visit the wood.  This one was obliging enough to pose for a long-range photograph.

Green Woodpecker

The highlight of our little walk came as we headed back home.  A sparrowhawk flew past us along the lane, swooping below the level of the hedgerows on either side.  Gripped in its talons was a sparrow-sized bird – it had obviously just caught it and was taking it to secure place to pluck and eat it.  A splendid sight, and one that made me glad I’d got outside, even if it was just a brief walk.

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Return of the Owl

Remember this post from last year?

A Very Regular Owl

Every summer we get a visit from the local tawny owl.  We have a lot of tawny owls in the area.  For the last three years there has been a nest in a small copse about a quarter mile from our house.  You can year the young owls (owlets?) calling as they start to fly from the nest.

Tawny Owl on the RoofThis is a picture of the owl that sat on our roof on June 12th.  Looking back through the archives, I note that I had taken similar pictures of the owl on June 12th 2008 and June 2nd 2009.  It isn’t a very frequent visitor, and it only seems to come in early June.  Clearly an owl of very regular habits!

So why does it only visit the house at this one time of year?  Is it something to do with having young in the nest?  Or is it that I only see it in the long evenings of June?

Well, I’m pleased to say that our tawny owl turned up again at 10.00 this evening, a year and a day since it last arrived.  We’ve just been outside watching it.  This makes it four years of visiting the house in early June.  It’s astonishingly regular.  If it had been around earlier in the month we’d have seen it, I’m sure.  I don’t know why it comes at this time (assuming it’s the same one) but it does show the value of keeping records, if only for curiosity value.



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More Waxwings

A few days after I went to see the waxwings in Woburn the flock finished eating the berries on that particular tree moved on, so I saw them at just the right time.  Mind you, there have been reports of waxwings from all across the UK, so this definitely seems to be a ‘waxwing winter’.  I came across another flock myself a couple of days before Christmas, 30 or so birds in a tree by the industrial estate on the A507 in Flitwick, Bedfordshire.  Unfortunately the snow and ice made it impossible to stop (and it is a busy main road), but it gave me a quiet sense of satisfaction to have found my own flock.  Following the paparazzi is one thing, but finding your own flock of waxwings is somehow better.

On the same subject, one of my fellow watchers in Woburn found the post and got in touch.  Richard has taken some absolutely stunning pictures of the Woburn waxwings, and with his permission I’d like to post them up here.  Click on the pictures to see the larger versions – you won’t be disappointed, these really are excellent photographs of truly stunning birds.  The copyright of these pictures belongs to Richard Gleave.

Waxwing by Richard Gleave

Waxwing by Richard Gleave

Waxwing flock in Woburn by Richard Gleave

Waxwing flock in Woburn by Richard Gleave

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Tawny Owl in the Snow

Look at this.  You wait ages for a post and then three come at once…

I’ve just driven home from the station after a particularly bad commute on the train from London.  I’m driving Mrs BWM’s Ford Fiesta at the moment while she uses the executive motor (she has further to drive).  How come a little car like this can cope with the snow perfectly well, yet the full engineering resources of First Capital Connect trains are utterly overwhelmed?

Now I’ve got that off my chest, what I wanted to say was that my journey home was brightened up when I arrived home.  There, on the hedge by the driveway, sat a tawny owl.  We have a lot of tawny owls around here but you hear them much more often than you see them.  I drove my car right up to this one, so we sat looking at each other for a minute from a distance of no more than three feet until I pulled into the drive and it flew away.  What a magnificent bird to see up close on a dark and snowy night.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be too pleased though.  This was obviously not normal behaviour, otherwise I’d see owls on the hedge much more often.  It got me thinking about how owls cope with the snow and the cold weather.

We feed the birds in the garden.  Mrs BWM and I regularly sit on the sofa and look out at the bird table – it’s better than the TV a lot of the time.  We have three robins (Mrs BWM knows each one by sight – they have some territorial issues but they seem to have come to a truce to share the bird table at the moment), blue tits, great tits, the odd greenfinch and chaffinch and a regular ‘charm’ of goldfinches.  The bird table is popular at the moment, and so it should be – the birds seem to get more expensive food than I do!  But we’re happy to feed them and happy to watch them, and they’re happy to eat the food we put out, so everyone benefits.

But what about owls?  Tawny owls mainly eat small mammals.  When there is four inches of snow on the ground these must be hard to find.  They’ll either be keeping underground or, like voles, they may spend their time tunneling under the snow.  Either way, with their main prey out of sight a prolonged period of snow must be a lean time for an owl.

If I put out food for the other birds, can I put out food for owls?  And what would this be?  Would I need to get hold of some mice and leave them on the bird table?  Is this ethical?  And where do you get mice from anyway?

It was good to see the owl this evening but it has got me thinking.  If anyone knows anything about feeding wild owls, please do let me know.

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Waxwings in Woburn

Waxwings in Woburn

So the snow fell yesterday and it’s still here today.  The warmest it got was minus 4 degrees at midday, so the snow is still crisp and powdery.  I took Scarlett for a quick walk to the field behind my house this morning.  There were the usual rabbit tracks and quite a few fox tracks, but the main thing I discovered was that hauling an all-terrain baby buggy through 4 inches of powder snow really is as difficult as it sounds.

In the afternoon, despite all the warnings not to travel unless it was absolutely vital, I got in my car and went for a drive along the snow-covered, icy roads to the village of Woburn.  I was risking life and limb to witness a great wildlife spectacle: the Woburn waxwings.

Waxwing flock

A small part of the waxwing flock

Waxwings are birds, related (I think) to larks.  They are residents of Scandinavia but sometimes come to Britain in winter, to feed on berries.  These invasions – ‘waxwing winters’ have apparently been recorded since as long ago as 1679.

For a week or two now the birdwatching grapevine has been humming with reports of waxwings in the area.  The biggest flock is in Woburn, where 350 birds have been reliably counted.  This is a big number of waxwings.  Now, you must understand that I don’t class myself as a twitcher.  I’ve always made a point of sticking to the area around my house, looking for birds and animals but not travelling far from home just to tick off a species.  For me, understanding my local patch has always been the important thing.  At least, I did until we got a huge flock of unusual migrants a few miles away.  This was enough to get me skidding my way along the treacherous, icy roads.

The waxwings were easy to find.  A small gaggle of birdwatching paparazzi was gathered to watch and photograph them.  My RSPB Pocket Birds book says of that waxwings are “exotic looking and very tame”.   The book is very accurate on this.  Firstly, waxwings are very handsome birds.  Dark pink, with black and white bars on the wing tips and a charming crest.  They do look exotic.  To see a whole flock – hundreds together – was a fantastic sight.

Watching the waxwings in Woburn

Waxwing paparazzi - the birds are in the bush in the centre

Secondly, the main waxwing flock in Woburn was concentrated in a berry bush in the front garden of a house by the main road.  This was very convenient for birdwatchers as it meant we could get a real close view.  Every now and then the flock would scatter a little but they’d come back almost immediately.  They were not in least bothered by the passing cars, the photographers, or even people walking past on the pavement a few feet away.  It made for a great spectacle.  In addition to the hardcore birdwatchers, many people stopped walking or even stopped their cars to find out what everyone was looking at.

I’ve crossed a line today.  I’ve gone from a casual local-patch birdwatcher to a proper twitcher.  But for the experience of seeing a whole flock of such good looking birds I was quite happy to make the journey.  Besides, if the waxwings have come all the way from Scandinavia to visit our corner of Mid-Bedfordshire, it would be rude for me not to welcome them in person.

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Today we had a village get-together as part of the Big Lunch; and a very nice lunch it was too.  The food was excellent and the company even better.  We sampled the cider we made in the village last year (see Cider and Autumn Strolls) and it ranged from feisty but almost drinkable (the scrumpy) to quite horrible (the perry).  Still, it’s given the cider collective some ideas for this year’s brew.

I was talking to a neighbour and the conversation turned to owls.  He gave me a tip that there are barn owls living in a specific location on the other side of the village.  Now, I’ve not seen a barn owl here in Bedfordshire yet.  We have a lot of tawny owls (difficult to see but easy to hear as they call at night) and the occasional little owls (tend to sit on fence posts during the day) but I haven’t seen a barn owl.  This is a shame, as they’re spectacular birds, and they tend to come out in the evening while it’s still light.

I didn’t have time for a proper badger-watching session this evening, but it was clear and warm and I felt I could spend an hour or two looking for barn owls.  The location is near a small lake, actually a dammed stream – the last remnant of parkland from a long-vanished country house.  It’s a great spot for wildlife, particularly birds of different types, and one that I haven’t given the attention it deserves.

I arrived at about 9.00pm and – to my delight – there was the barn owl, quartering over the fields.  I followed it from one field to another as it patrolled, occasionally swooping down to get a closer look at something.    I sat down at the edge of the field and ten minutes later it flew low overhead, big but perfectly silent.  It was a sight worth the walk – as I said, a spectacular bird.

I took a couple of pictures.  I confess that these are probably the worst pictures of barn owls ever taken – blurred, out of focus and badly composed – but they’re the first I’ve ever taken of a barn owl so I’m sticking one up here.  If you stand some distance away and squint at it, with the eye of faith you can just about believe that it’s an owl.

Embarrassingly bad picture of a barn owl

I know, it’s embarrassing.  Now I know where to go, I’ll be back to try again soon.  And Simon, if you’re reading, thanks for the tip.  It’s rare for me to go out in search of a particular species and actually find it, so this was a good evening for me.

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I’ve been busy lately – working in the garden and down in Wiltshire for the solstice – so I haven’t had a chance to get out to the woods for a couple of weeks.  However, I’d like to get a few minor experiences on the record.  They aren’t really enough for a post on their own, hence I’ve brought them together into a collection of short tales.

A Very Regular Owl

Tawny Owl on the RoofEvery summer we get a visit from the local tawny owl.  We have a lot of tawny owls in the area.  For the last three years there has been a nest in a small copse about a quarter mile from our house.  You can year the young owls (owlets?) calling as they start to fly from the nest.

This is a picture of the owl that sat on our roof on June 12th.  Looking back through the archives, I note that I had taken similar pictures of the owl on June 12th 2008 and June 2nd 2009.  It isn’t a very frequent visitor, and it only seems to come in early June.  Clearly an owl of very regular habits!

So why does it only visit the house at this one time of year?  Is it something to do with having young in the nest?  Or is it that I only see it in the long evenings of June?

A Family of Wrens

I was walking through the wood the other day when I disturbed a family of wrens.  They were obviously nesting in an ivy-covered tree stump.  As I walked past, three of the tiny birds flitted out and perched on nearby trees, apart from one of them which perched on my arm.  It was only there for a few seconds (long enough to poo on my sleeve!) but it was fantastic to have one of these delightful little birds so close.  Thinking about it afterwards, I was in a fairly remote part of the woods and the wrens had quite possibly never seen a human before.  Truly a new experience for both of us.

The Bedfordshire Red Kites

Regular readers may remember my quest to see Red Kites in our village.  I haven’t seen them for a while.  I don’t know if this is because they haven’t been in the area or because I haven’t been out and about so much since Scarlett arrived.  Anyway, I was pleased when my wife came home last week to say that she’d watched one of the kites as it glided low over the end of our road.  I’ll have to make an effort to get out more and try and get a photograph, but at least I know they’re still in the area.

Graveyard Hedgehog

I have a soft spot for hedgehogs.  We still get one coming into the garden occasionally (I see the poo on the lawn) but I don’t see them very often out in the wild.

I was walking through the churchyard in the village the other evening.  It was about 7.30pm and still very light.  There, sitting on the path in front of me was a hedgehog, large as life.  Before I could take out my camera it had raised itself up on its little legs and trotted off to a gravestone by the path.

This gravestone dates from the mid 19th century.  It’s a large horizontal stone slab, raised up on blocks on each corner like a low stone table, about 4″ off the ground.  Without pausing, the hedgehog ran straight underneath it.

I lay down on the ground and peered in.  There was a clear run worn into the grass, and under the stone was a wide hollow space, clear and dry.  The hedgehog obviously has its home there, and a perfect home it is too.  I don’t know what the rightful owner of the grave (one Mr John Francis) would say about having a lodger, but the urchin isn’t doing any harm so I hope he wouldn’t mind sharing too much.

Incidentally, I was walking through the churchyard the day before and a kestrel flapped up from where it had been perched on the grave next to this one.  I assume that kestrels don’t hunt hedgehogs, so perhaps it was just a coincidence.  It seems that even in a pretty rural village like ours the old graveyard is still a haven for wildlife of different kinds.

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House Martins

Here you go.  Here’s another one of those short diary posts.  At the weekend, my wife and I were discussing the House Martins that nest every year in the eaves of our house, and trying to remember when they usually return from migration.  Neither of us really knew – an unpardonable gap in our knowledge – so I said I’d make a note of the date when it happened.

Well, we were out feeding the chickens yesterday and there, flying around the garden, were the House Martins.  The plucky little chaps have made it all the way back from southern Africa where they overwinter, all the way back to our own corner of Bedfordshire.

Are they late or early this year?  I have no idea.  But at least I’ll know when to expect them next year.

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Goldfinches - adult on the left, juvenile on the right

Goldfinches - adult on the left, juvenile on the right

Just a quick note to say that my birdwatching efforts are progressing nicely.

Ever since we started putting out niger seeds for the birds last year, we’ve had a regular gang of Goldfinches visiting the garden.  They’re very good-looking birds, and they have an amazing capacity for sitting on the feeder and eating steadily for up to half an hour at a time.  Well, I’m pleased to say that we have some new additions to the Goldfinch flock.  This week we’ve had at least two juvenile Goldfinches coming to the feeder.



I’ve added two new species to my list.  The first caused me some difficulty.  I first heard its song, which was very striking, but the bird itself was perched on the top of a tall tree on a foggy day.  After much poring over photographs and field guides, I’m now pretty sure that it was a Blackcap.  If anyone knows differently, then please do let me know!  It won’t be the first time that I’ve been embarrassed by an obvious blunder…

I saw the second new bird on Sunday.   I take a walk early on Sunday mornings.  I usually take a flask of tea and stop for breakfast with my back to a small copse and look out over the fields.  On this Sunday I varied my routine, and sat inside the copse for a change.  It was quite remarkable how many small birds appeared after I had been sitting still for ten minutes or so. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a good look at most of them, but one was unmistakable.  It was a smallish brown bird with a thin, longish beak.  It would fly to the bottom of a tree and then walk up the trunk, spiralling round it as it climbed.  It was a Treecreeper, no doubt about it.

Again, not especially rare birds, but I’m enjoying identifying them, particularly as they’re no more than half a mile from my house.  Who says you have to travel miles to tick off birds?

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