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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

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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.

Teal

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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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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