Thursday, 30 December 2010


A great morning watching seals at Horsey Gap on the North Norfolk coast. Astonishing haunting calls between the adults in the fog with the background noise of the sea and the calls of geese and other birds. Pups completely trusting as they roll about in the dunes, and on the beach, as their mothers fish out at sea to return later to feed. Wonderful to watch with my own children and friends and to be able to listen to the seals and to witness them interacting at such close quarters.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Green shoots (2)

The thaw allowed me to get out to chop kindling this morning, having depleted our supply over this ice-bound holiday season. Though winter's a long way from gone, the very distant echo of new life can be discerned in the incipient hazel catkins and the tentatively stemming bulbs, and gives the merest hint of rebirth in the deadest corner of the year.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Green shoots

A slight thaw, and visitors from Claxton. Duncan and the kids walked over, reporting a Green Woodpecker in the field topping our garden. I've only seen a Great Spotted up there (he's made some serious inroads in the telegraph poles), so this was news. I strolled part way back with them, before heading for home,  where I disturbed said yaffle on the ground which, now thawing, may yield him some no doubt much-needed insects.

That my fellow 'hedgefinder' alerted me to this gives me immense pleasure for some reason; somehow the sighting of this bird and the sharing of such things increases my delight.

Thursday, 23 December 2010


Birds of prey see to continue to thrive. On the Christmas Journey between Somerset and Norfolk we saw a number of different species from within the chaos of our car packed with presents and excited children. On the A303, between Street and Stone Henge , we saw 4 buzzards either circling above the trees or sitting on posts at the edge of fields. Somewhere on Salisbury Plain we saw two red kites, one shortly after the other, low over the hedges and clearly recognisable with their sleek shape and distinctive tail . The second kite was flying straight towards the road using its split tail to trim its flight carefully as it slowly approached the field edge. This second bird was quite close and I was surprised at how large it was. We didn't see any barn owls over the snow but we did saw one tawny owl, sadly battered and dead in the snow slush at the road side. Once past London and onto the M11 and A11 coming into Norfolk we saw three kestrels, two hovering and one on a wire by the road side. All of these birds presumably benefitting from the seasonal roadkill buffet during this time of particular cold weather with the buzzards in the west country being replaced by kestrels in the east.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Snow on snow

Snowing for four days now, all very unusual in the West Country and especially so before Christmas, about 8 inches or so. Daytime dominated by taking straw, water and food to animals, cutting logs, clearing paths, drying clothes and trips out sledging around the village. There are lots of little birds, that are suddenly easy to see against the snow, all eating the chicken and duck food and I'm now generously accounting for this when I'm feeding, although I'm sure that rats are benefitting also. Seen many starlings, pied wagtails, blackbirds and sparrows (*and other small brown birds I need to identify ?) Jackdaws are the other main visitors, boldly striding about the chicken run eating everything. It's snowed all morning today and we're off to the big hill at the back of the village to sledge after lunch, once the bigger children have flattened the runs a bit. On Saturday we walked a long way only to have the sledge sink into the soft snow and not really go anywhere as the deep snow goes over everyone's boots. The robin in the Bridgwater Sainsburies has the right idea as it seems to be living inside amongst the fruit in the food isle and no one seems to mind too much, quite right too.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Beautiful silent morning

Snow overnight as predicted but I didn't believe it until the children started jumping up and down. Set off on my bike to work at 8, carefully making may way down the back road past Whitley farm. Silent, still and sunny. Road treacherous so I stuck to the new snow in the middle where I had at least some traction. Low bright sun with pristine white carpet covered in rabbit tracks and fields dotted with rooks picking at the ground in gangs. College closed at lunchtime as snowing heavily all morning and as we had a snowball fight in the village great sweeping clouds of starlings made their way back from feeding. A number of starlings find their way into the chicken run and are uncatchable but find their way out eventually, many of the little birds are making full use of the chicken and duck food in the cold weather. They are not alone as the mice have gnawed their way into the food sacks in the shed and I covered half the floor with trailing chick crumbs from the holes as I moved the bags this afternoon hunting for our lost wooden sledge. More snow predicted tonight and it all feels very seasonal with the fire roaring.

Winter will leave us...

As you can see from this morning's photo, we are snowbound once more. The strong sunshine with background of sky and snow combines for excellent birding.

In the hedge this morning the first Fieldfare I've seen here, gobbling down the last haw berries - in common with other thrushes they are voracious snafflers, and they wolf down berry after berry with what seems like greed. I suppose with this weather they need to feed well whenever possible.

A charm of goldfinches overhead is always a delightful sight and the 20 or so this morning scattered colour over the sky, while two blue tits hung upside-down from a telephone line, pecking at it. Seeing this behaviour in the past I have assumed they are gaining minerals off it, or conceivably small insects.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

The Sun returns

I finally manage to access the blog and can begin contributions from the 'West Country'. Duncan

Walk out into the village this afternoon, with the children on bikes, to photograph the church for a drawing. Stopped to regroup in the winter sunshine by Ashcott farm and watched the dairy cattle steaming in their yard. The thousands of starlings, that mass in bands across Somerset at this time of year, were all sitting in their hundreds along the food trough rails ambivalent to the periodic bangs of the bird scarers. In the trees above the graveyard their chatter almost drowned out conversation until as one they were silent and threw themselves into the sky in pursuit of some other diversion. By 3.30 pm they are sweeping overhead in massed bands heading for the reedbeds down on the levels at Mere and Shapwick Heath, their swoosh of wings your first warning. Moon high in the autumn afternoon sky, ice still on the pond although water sitting on top again now. Saw a fox last night in the village standing stock still in the road to look at me before slipping into a hedge, will our ducks make it to Christmas as they insist on sleeping on the ice and not in their duck house?

Monday, 6 December 2010

The dust of snow

As we slide into winter, the last fortnight's snow has not transfigured the landscape so significantly that it is a new one; it is more a decoration of a known one. Some impressions:
  • Robins squabbling in mid-air
  • A mouse, trapped and set in ice in a watering can
  • The pulsing of a barn owl over the top field
  • Red sentinel crab apples, glistening in frosty morning sunshine

Monday, 8 November 2010


As a youngster, I was very taken with the surname of the main protagonist of Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea novels, 'Sparrowhawk', though I had never actually seen the real thing, until this weekend. Actually it's no suprise that as a suburban child of the 80s I had not done so, as they were still recovering from a massive post-war population slump due mainly to agro-chemicals. This weekend, though, I had my first definite view of one; on saturday morning we were enjoying a cup of tea in bed, looking out at the comings and goings of tits, finches, robins and blackbirds to and from hedges and birdfeeders, when this cheery scene of bucolic charm exploded in speed and feathers. A pigeon was taken in mid-flight by a shattering blow from above, and all I could say was that the assailant was quick, orange and deadly. By the time I got downstairs, the lawn was a mess of feathers, and the hedges quiet.

I would still have had doubts about my identification, had not on Sunday morning a sparrowhawk flown through our garden gate and alighted halfway down the garden, scanning the scene of yesterday's slaughter. Larger, darker and more lethal looking than I had ever gleaned from film, this was a magnificent female, who clearly has worked out that we have opened a fine raptor dining experience through our courting of garden birds. If Ms LeGuin's character was in any way meant to resemble his namesake, she must have intended him to be most forbidding. I must admit to being quite excited by the presence of this species locally, and I hope to see more of the bird. I just hope that I can be as well-disposed should it choose robin over pigeon!

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Halcyon day

A dreach sort of a day, with squally showers driven through by a northerly, but we decided to head to Wheatfen to combat cabin fever anyway. Joyously, our recent luck with immediate sightings on arrival at hides continued with a scintillating display from a large-ish male kingfisher. The dart of blue across the old mill pond by the thatch signalled the start of a command performance; hovering, fishing, preening, cleaning and circling the pond showed the consumate command of aerobatics from this little fighter pilot.

I've seen them before - they are reasonably easy to spot on the broads, especially from river level - but this was comfortably the most prolonged sighting I've enjoyed. For several minutes it sat low on a reed stem, scanning the water for prey, before hovering for a moment triangulating the line of attack, wings a-blur, then arrowing directly onto a small fish which it wold then return to enjoy on its perch. With the martins and swallows now gone (it's been a fortnight since I last saw any here) this creature of sunshine and gentle zephyrs seemed out of place in grey, windy autumnal dusk, but was no less welcome for that.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Twice Shy

Having not been there for maybe 15 years, I was very happy to return on a warm autumn day to the gem of Strumpshaw Fen. Although as the crow flies it is a mere 3 miles from us, the intervening River Yare means a 20 mile round trip via bike and ferry. The journey was more than justified, however, when within literally seconds of arrival I saw my first ever Bittern. Having never seen one despite bird-watching in Norfolk since a boy and having heard how rare and difficult to see they are, this seemed laughably easy; no hours of waiting, cold and cramped in a hide or reed-bed to glimpse indstinct brown feathers between brown reeds, it simply flapped across in front of us, nonchalantly and in full view, before perching atop the reeds. It stayed there for a good twenty minutes, periodically stretching up its thick neck as if to sun itself, so that we could have no doubt of the identification; unmistakably a Bittern. Apparently such sightings are now not uncommon at Strumpshaw, owing to the reed bed management that ensures ideal habitat, but it still felt exciting and a special moment.

Above the reed beds, a flock of rooks mobbed a Marsh Harrier. This would hitherto have been a highlight, but as we now see Marsh Harriers quite regularly, lazily hunting over arable fields and at Wheatfen, it went almost uncommented. In fact, these are often probably the same birds as can be seen at Strumpshaw, the river being no barrier to them, making either side of the river one territory from the proverbial birds-eye view. So now, when will I see a Bittern south of the Yare...?

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Mastery of the Thing

Although it is our most common Bird of Prey, seeing a kestrel always excites me. I guess the comparative scarcity of predator species, predicated on the supply of more numerous and therefore more common species lower down the food chain, gives them a rarity value,  but there is also something primally exciting in the combination of talons, flesh-tearing beak and mastery of the air. Throw in the fact that they are so easily identifiable even from a moving vehicle and I still delight in calling out 'look - kestrel!'

A local pair hunt on fields between our house and Claxton, and I am learning to predict their movements. These ones seem to hover in their hunting less than many, by making use of a series of telegraph poles that give them a perfect vole-spotting vantage point - presumably less resource-intensive than hovering, no matter how impressive. 
I took these photos on my phone from the car (I pulled over - I wouldn't recommend driving and shooting), hence the quality. You can see the female here, but I have seen the more colourful male in the same place, swooping low to hunt before resuming his watching post. I shall attempt to get better shots over coming weeks.

I shall also aim to get shots of the barn owl that we saw hunting in the meadow opposite on our return to the cottage this evening, but that is for another day...

Catching the worm

A Monday morning at the beginning of a week off work. A lie-in may seem to be in order, but instead, we rose at 5.50am ( we were both awake anyway) and embarked on a dawn stroll. It was still dark as we walked up the lane from our house, but a lightness could be seen to the east. As we reached the top of the lane the dawn chorus was starting to find its voice. Not quite the full-on festival of spring and early summer but still a clear welcoming of the day by the locals.

This was soon outdone however by the growing croak of the rooks, spreading out in their dozens and hundreds along the valley. At this time of year they are starting to form their huge roosts, locally notably at Buckenham Carrs (see Mark Cocker's excellent 'Crow Country' for an examination of this huge annual Corvid mela of tens of thousands of rooks and jackdaws.) As the sky around gradually lightened they seemed almost to be commuters, readying themselves for a day of graft in their office of fields, seeking and grazing. One could hear their loud chatter before they materialised in packs out of the grey sky. The presence of the last bats of the night, and the hoots of nearby owls lent the whole scene an air of familiarity from our evening twilight strolls, but curiously reversed as the still, mild, autumnal day took shape.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Enjoy it whilst it lasts

Last night was a beautiful one in our little bit of the Shire. As we cycled back from work, the last of the martins and swallows swooped on sun-drowsy insects, and our dusk walk was soundtracked by the rooks starting their autumn roosts. A deer (chinese water?) was startled from behind a tree and raced across the stubble towards the watercolour sunset. The best was kept for last, however, with the local tawny owls seemingly vying to produce the most perfect 'twit' or 'twoo' to attend our brightly moonlit walk home.

The next couple of days are supposed to continue in similar vein, but such late summer cameos look set to be but a memory by the weekend. 'September man is standing near, to saddle up another year, and autumn is his bridle...'

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Another casualty

As a rural cyclist, roadkill is a constant in my life and in fact was so even as an urbanite. It gives a somewhat grisly insight into the local animal life and can be as close as one gets to some of our more nocturnal neighbours. When I lived in London it was mostly foxes, birds and the occasional hedgehog, but I can definitely report a greater scale and diversity in Norfolk as one would expect - so much that it makes local news. Over the last few months, I have encountered the usual suspects of hedgehogs, pigeons and rabbits by the score, but also muntjac, weasels, red deer and badgers.

This evening, for the second time in the exact same place I came across a grass snake that had clearly been run over. As it is a reasonably quiet road which runs along an embankment between woods, I would speculate that they may be coming out onto the road in order to bask in the sunshine on the warm tarmac, where four-wheeled death awaits. The first one was reasonably well preserved so I passed this on to Duncan for inclusion in his art work, but tonight's specimen was almost completely eviscerated, yet it retained the quintessence of green encircling its neck that even in death remains startling.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A hawker from a handsaw?

Norfolk's wetlands are so rich in fauna and flora, that even a simple bank holiday stroll can yield something scintillating. We found these dragonflies sunning themselves on a fence around a marshy paddock. Intermittently one would break from its basking to catch a passing aphid, which would then be audibly crunched back on the wooden sun-lounger. Supremely indifferent to our presence, even settling on my head, they seemed almost to pose for these photographs (superbly taken by Chris Stokes), which allow for a tentative identification as Aeshna Isosceles, the Norfolk Hawker.

Juxtaposed with their late summer presence, the stirrings of autum could be seen in what seems like a prolific amount of fungi bursting forth all around us. This bleeding of seasons, one into another, enriches the snapshots I had as periodic visitor.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Swift Passing Time

I have measured out my life in many ways, but as a recent re-settler in the country, the natural calendar takes on a new salience. Today in Norfolk I see no swifts, where but a couple of weeks ago they still gyred overhead, pell-melled noisily down streets and scrabbled impossibly under the tiles of a nearby cottage, the most welcome of house-breakers. They are one of the earliest departers of our summer visitors, already seeking warmer climes in unimaginably long hauls - even this year's fledglings may stay air-borne for three years.

The gap they leave in the skies, though, makes their cousins, the swallows and martins, seem even more valuable as a promise that summer may still have some warmth to impart, some last blossoming of golden days that will provide the blooms of insects to sustain them in their own migration. As they wobble ahead of me along the lane, I exalt in their aerobatics. But my heart will still leap when I see next May's first Swift, and their screams shall echo inside me.