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Posts Tagged ‘birdwatching’

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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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.

Blackcap?

Blackcap?

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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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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It’s always the way.  You wait for ages for one Red Kite, and then three turn up at once.

On  Sunday I got up early, packed up a flask of tea and some food, and went out for an early stroll and a picnic breakfast.  I sat under the big oak tree and looked across the valley, drinking tea and watching the antics of a Chinese Water Deer in the field below.

At 7.40am three Red Kites rose up from the woods on the other side of the valley.  They circled slowly, gaining height, and then soared away in different directions.  Within five minutes the valley was empty again.

It was as fine a view for breakfast as you could hope for.  The Red Kite is now definitely ticked off my local species list.  I need to find something else to focus on.

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