Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Spring evening starlings.

Driving home from work this evening I took the back road from Glastonbury with my daughter in the car eating her Tuesday subway treat having been to after-school hockey. We passed a series of rather desperate sandbags still piled up along the main drain, evidence of the recent flooding, before turning towards Ashcott along the Mere road in the spring sunlight. It's a joy to be driving home in the evening sunshine after months of driving and cycling in the dark and we pulled over by the Ham Wall bird reserve at the end of the long line of parked cars to see if the starlings were coming in to roost. The number of people standing on the path by the reed beds was quite astonishing, with much conversation about the murmerations and a sharing of previous experiences. Watched a marsh harrier dividing one flock as their paths crossed over the marshes and what appeared briefly to be a crow harrying another group a long way away, it could however have been another bird of prey, perhaps a sparrowhawk making the most of the mass of opportunity. There was even a film crew talking to someone who had travelled a great distance to watch but unfortunately the great clouds of starling settled in the reeds far off to the East of where we were standing. We all stood and watched the rivers of incoming starlings streaming in low in the sky and the occasionally well defined ball or arrow of birds, moving as one, to join the others for the relative safety of their collected roost. Through binoculars I watched the pulsing mass of birds settling and then moving in the reeds, black translucent waves of creatures rolling over the distant marsh before all was still in the dying light.

Sat looking out over the still waters of the flooded peat diggings with the water broken by the splashing of fish and the familiar sounds of ducks and calling coots. The smell of the water reminding me of chaotic fun evenings with the sea-scouts in Norfolk many years ago. Listened to a far off and distantly familiar bird sound which we at first thought might be a bittern, but sounded less booming and more like a slow deep sawing breath. I'm not sure I know what a bittern sounds like when it's not booming ?

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Here Hare Here

I spent a couple of hours this morning shivering in a hedgerow trying to get pictures of Hares. I spotted one in the distance. A great exercise in patience, at which I failed.

And so it starts...

Signs of spring are all around. Yesterday I saw the first Bumblebee of the year, a queen Bombus terrestris, foraging to gain strength before establishing a nest. And today, as I sat soaking up the wan sunshine in a hedgerow, hoping to get some photos of hares (nothing notable), I heard a brief snatch of skylark song amongst the see-saw calls of the Great Tits, chirrups of the Long-Tails and treacle song of the Robin. Before long there will be symphonies of birdsong, cascades of daffodils and blossom by the ton.

I know that each year the visceral thrill of spring leaves me astonished anew, but I wonder, will this be the year that the jolt of impermanence comes too sharp on the tail of winter's deep gloom? But maybe that will never be and the scream of the spring will always have its unsullied moment, caught between the expectation of what will be and relief at the passing of what was.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Bird-table 'action' in Strumpshaw

    Great to be in Norfolk spending time with family and enjoying the landscape of my childhood. Stood looking out of the window from Mum's kitchen, at the now repaired bird table, and made an effort to identify the many flitting little birds as they arrived back and forth from the fruit tree branches. The cheery little gangs of puffed up long-tailed tits stood out as they came and went in their busy little groups, hanging from the feeders, tails poking out in all directions.

In about 20 minutes I spotted the following birds:

Long Tailed Tit
Blue Tit
Great Tit
Rock Dove (Pigeon)
Cock Pheasant

    For the first time I watched a sparrow-hawk try to capture a bird whilst flying slowly around the bird table. It flapped rather awkwardly and banked around the bird feeders clearly trying to get hold of a distracted blue tit or blackbird and the little sparrows and other birds dipped and turned out of the way without much effort. The sparrow-hawk didn't seem to be trying too hard and gave up after a few turns and dropped low to the grass and swiftly flew along the hedge and away. I must sit and make time to watch the bird feeders more in my own garden, the interactions, dramas and conflicts.

Monday, 4 February 2013

Play it cool...

Today I spent the morning at one of my favourite places, RSPB Minsmere. The mix of habitats from heathland, through rolling deciduous woodland, to marsh, coast and sea with careful management means a rich and diverse ecology. Although obviously the RSPB have a particular focus on birds, it is also rich in mammals as well. Last year I saw my first water vole there, and the highlight of this morning's visit was seeing my first otter. I know these are now a relatively common sight across the UK, having fought their way back from desperate straits a few years ago. In fact, so common have they become, that they have started to become for some people a nuisance, with a story just today of the havoc they can wreak locally. Nevertheless, it is undoubtedly a wildlife success story, and I have been hoping to see one for the last couple of years to no avail.

So when, sat in the Island Mere Hide at midday, I knew there was a chance of seeing one with plenty of recent sightings there, but with the time of day against me. It was relatively quiet in front of the hide, with a steady, strong wind keeping birds sheltering, other than a covert of coots (yes, I've just looked up the collective noun, by the way...) sitting around 20 yards in front of us. From looking pretty set, they suddenly flew up and flew across the mere for no apparent reason. Not apparent that is until a few seconds later when a sleek, dark shape breached and arched for a moment in the sunshine.

Breaking unwritten hide conventions and playing it supremely un-coolly I shouted 'otter!' as he clambered out on to the bank, posed for a few photos and then dived into a dyke. For once, I didn't panic too much and managed to take a couple of photos just about in focus and with the otter in the frame.

It always amazes me how when one first sees an animal with which one is familiar from photos and TV, one just knows what it is - that sounds obvious, but what I mean is that one doesn't go through a conscious process of looking and thinking 'hmm, that looks like an otter' or whatever, the knowledge that that is what it is arrives fully formed in your brain. I guess that's a pretty useful evolutionary adaptation, to be able to rapidly identify whether an animal is either one that's worth eating or running from, without having to think too much (again, I guess the thinkers died out pretty quickly...). But it serves modern wildlife watchers in good stead so they can go to bed happy, knowing that they have, definitively, joyfully, seen an otter.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Winter Robin

A wonderful week in Florence, Italy, with my students visiting the art galleries and museums. Spring clearly a few steps ahead here as you might expect. Saw a kite, possibly a black kite, circling above the Tuscan hills as we visited the beautiful San Gimignano and enjoyed the sunny cool weather. Whilst in the Baboli gardens behind the Pitti Palace I was able to get close to this wonderful robin. Clearly more concerned about defending it's territory than worried about how close I was standing I was able to take some photos as it sat warming in the spring sunshine. Almost spherical in it's late winter plumage it posed resplendent and proud, defending it's little corner of the wall beneath the hedge by the path.