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Archive for the ‘Birds’ Category

It’s confession time again.

I’ve been guilty of occasional birdwatching for many years.  Nothing too serious – putting out food in the garden, listening to birdsong, watching the buzzards over the fields – the usual stuff.  I thought I could handle it.

But now I’ve crossed a line.  I’ve joined the hardcore of birdwatching.  I’ve become a twitcher.

There is something about birds that seems to affect men of my age (no 1970s sexist pun intended!), and we seem to get strangely obsessed by ticking them off lists.  There are people who take this to extremes, attempting to see every single bird species in the world (seriously), and many more that will travel across the UK to see a rarity that has been blown to these shores by freak winds or got badly lost while migrating.

I’m not in this category, but I have developed the list-ticking habit.  I’ve been looking at the birds in my local area, and idly wondering how many different species there are, and how many I’ve seen.  One thing led to another, and I downloaded the county bird list from the Bedfordshire Bird Club.  Birdwatchers keep many lists, so there are lists for each county as well as for the UK as a whole.  A bird that may be commonplace in one area may be a rarity in another, so there is a challenge to ticking off these county lists.

I’m not at the stage yet where I’m prepared to jump in the car and dash off to the other end of Bedfordshire to tick off a Siberian Lesser-Spotted Gronky Bird or some such rarity that has just arrived, but I am working my way through the list, ticking off the species as I see them in the course of my usual rambles.  As a very novice birdwatcher, the challenge for me is not so much spotting a rare bird, it’s identifying the common ones that are all around me.  There’s an awful lot of birds out there, and ticking off the list helps me to learn to recognise them, particularly the little brown ones that all look the same to me.

So how am I doing?  Well, I’m afraid I’m not going to have Bill Oddie knocking on my door any time soon.  There are 292 birds on the Bedfordshire county bird list.  So far, as the title of this post suggests, I’ve seen and positively identified 45 of them.  I have some way to go yet!

Dunnock

Dunnock in my garden

This is the 45th bird on my list – the Dunnock.  Not a great picture, but you get the idea.  The Dunnock is a small, brown bird that looks pretty much like a sparrow to the novice.  In fact, I’ve probably had them in the garden for years without noticing.  The defining features are the orange legs and the row of pale spots on the wings.  Dunnocks also tend to keep low, and they are happy to hop around the garden and flit from bush to bush.

You see, not only can I tick off number 45 on my list, but the list itself is encouraging me to learn more about my local birds.  Bird lists are good things!

Now, where was that Siberian Gronky Bird reported…

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Tawny Owl

Tawny Owl

On Tuesday I went to the wood and, as recorded below, I didn’t see any badgers. In the absence of badgers, I spent the evening watching birds, and I want to make some notes on these – hence the separate post.

It always amazes me what you can see if you sit quietly and unobtrusively somewhere for an hour or so.  I had a pair of bullfinches working the tree in front of me.  These are far less common now than when I was a lad, so it was good to see them.  There was also a pair of robins with a nest about 50 feet away, and they spent the whole evening going backwards and forwards with food for the young – it was a proper Springwatch moment.  I always find it slightly strange to see robins in the wild.  I am so used to seeing them in the garden that I tend to forget that they exist outside.

One of the most interesting things for me personally was the effect of a tawny owl on the local birds.  As it was getting dark, a tawny owl called from the deep woods somewhere behind me – kee-wick, kee-wick.  Instantly, a blackbird nearby started up its chattering alarm call – chink-chink-chink-chink-chink. Then another blackbird did the same a little further away, and then a third.

The blackbirds had obviously heard and seen the owl and they were raising the alarm.  What made it so interesting was that although I could not see the owl myself, I could locate its position and track its progress by the alarm calls of the blackbirds.

Some trackers regard this as a higher form of tracking – following a predator through the reactions of other species.  Jon Young discusses it in detail in Animal Tracking Basics (probably the least basic book on tracking I’ve ever read, incidentally).  I’ve noticed blackbirds responding to foxes in this way, but this was the first time I’ve really been able to follow the progress of a predator through alarm calls.  I was quite pleased with myself.

So although there were no badgers that evening, I still had a great time.  All of this happened in a little patch of woodland that 99% of people would drive past without a second thought.

If you’re interested in nature and wildlife then I strongly recommend you find somewhere outside – a wood, a field, a park, anywhere – and just sit there quietly for at least an hour.  I think you’d be surprised at what you see and hear.

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Blackthorn in flower

Blackthorn in flower

In Britain, the spring weather follows a fairly consistent pattern.  The warmer days of February and early March tend to be followed by a short cold spell at the end of March.  This cold snap coincides with the flowering of the blackthorn, hence its country name: the Blackthorn Winter.

This year has followed the tradtional pattern.  The last few weeks have been sunny and relatively warm, but yesterday we had squally hail showers and today there was a ground frost in the morning.  The Blackthorn Winter has arrived.

I’ve been working a fairly hectic schedule recently (as usual!) and I’ve also been on holiday, so I took the chance of getting out and about on one of my Sunday dawn walks.  Getting out of bed wasn’t so easy, as dawn is now about 6.30am, although because the clocks went forward this morning that translates to 5.30am in real terms.  Nevertheless, it was good to get out again.  It’s become quite a comforting routine for me.

Despite the cold weather, there are signs of spring everywhere.  The lambs in the fields are getting quite big now.

Aww, cute

Aww, cute

Frogspawn has started to appear in the pond – not much yet, but hopefully there’ll be more to come.

Frogspawn

Frogspawn

In terms of wildlife, one of the fields had been invaded by a gang of geese.  They were mostly Greylags, with a few Canada Geese joining in.  Not a rarity, but it’s the first time I’ve seen them in the village.

Greylag geese

Greylag geese

The badgers in the woods seem to be doing fine.  Judging by the quantity of dung in the latrines they’re obviously busy at the moment.  In fact, I was able to add a few more sites to my expanding map of badger latrines in the area.  This is starting to make some sense now, and I can get a rough idea of the different territories.  Perhaps come the autumn I’ll try the bait marking approach that Pablo mentioned, putting out food containing coloured plastic pellets so I can monitor the precise latrine sites used by different badger clans.  As I always say, there’s always more to learn about badgers.

April is nearly on us, so in another couple of weeks I’ll start proper badger watching again.  Watch this space for more details.

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More Sparrowhawks

In my post of the 20th October I predicted that having seen one one Sparrowhawk, I’d soon see more.

Well, I was driving through the village a couple of days ago and I saw another.  It flew out of a small wood and along the road, so I had a good view of it.

Two years of wanting to see a Sparrowhawk, and then I see two in less than two weeks!  It really is strange how this happens…

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