Thursday, 29 January 2009

WH Hudson's British Birds

A fascinating and readable book arrived yesterday: Birds of Britain by WH Hudson. I've owned Nature in Downland and A Shepherd's Life for years and read them many times - languid accounts of summer days strolling across the South Downs in the company of skylarks and sheep - but I was not aware that he had written a bird guide until recently.

Hudson's entertaining but informative style shines throughout the book, and he clearly knows the subjects well. On the Throstle or Song Thrush (above) he writes 'it is impossible not to feel and to express regret that so good and distinctive and old a name for this familiar bird should have been replaced by a name which is none of those things.'

And on its song: 'They are snatches and portions of melody, and he sings in a scrappy way - a note or two, a phrase or two, then a pause as if the singer paused to try to think of something to follow......[but] Browning has called him a 'wise bird' because he can
The first fine careless rapture

The book was first published in 1895, about 100 years after Gilbert White's Natural History of Selbourne, and it is interesting to note the considerable development of knowledge and belief on avian matters.

It is instructive to see the changes in status of many birds - the Bittern is described as 'formerly a common bird, it is hardly entitled to a place in this book, since it has long been extirpated as a breeding species'. The Corncrake is 'one of the commonest British southern England and Ireland it seems most numerous'. Similarly, 'Scaup are common with us in winter, and found on most parts of the coast.'

The Fulmar is reported as being 'a rare straggler in winter, and its only breeding-station in the United Kingdom is St. Kilda'.

On the Hen Harrier: 'the incessant persecution of all birds of prey by game-keepers is having its effect. it is plain to see that as British species they are being extirpated.'
The Marsh Harrier: 'is now extinct in this country, and cannot be introduced into a work on British Birds which does not include the great auk, the bustard, the spoonbill and many other species which have been exterminated in England'.

Although he comments that 'it has long been the practice of our ornithologists to regard as 'British' any species of which one specimen has been found in a wild state...' he includes brief but accurate descriptions of many of these 'stragglers', such as the three other crossbills, black-headed, little, ortolan, rustic and Lapland buntings, five rare larks and so on, showing an impressive knowledge of rarities that we (with our telescopes, cameras, communications and speed of travel) would be proud of.
WH Hudson was not even British, being from South America of US origin, so his knowledge is doubly impressive. He was a founder member of the RSPB.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Sunday Morning, Praise the Dawning

Early Sunday morning (for about a minute) was the only part of the day to see the sun. We spent that minute on the Prince of Wales pier in Dover.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Counting Crows

Kingsdown beach was inundated with a piece of wood today, part of a cargo that was washed overboard down the coast. Most of it ended up on the beaches of Thanet.

It was a morning of counting - first from Deal Pier with the inimitable Dylan, who had managed 250+ Great Crested Grebes floating past by the time I arrived. A Kittiwake created some photo-opportunities by standing on the flagpole (a traditional Kittiwake perch) .....
....and by attracting the attention of local gulls when it took a large fish.
Moving along the coast to the undercliff, it was clear that there were far more auks and divers to be seen flying south, confirming the expected flightpath from mid-channel past South Foreland.
Continuing to count, I timed 18 auks and 7 divers flying past in a minute, which could be unscientifically extrapolated to 1000 and 400 per hour.Not as many as yesterday (when the piermaster said he was surrounded by feeding guillemots) but plenty nonetheless.
Not many birds came close, but a few Guillemots dived nearby and one of the divers was close enough to confirm with Dr Ray's scope as a Black-Throat.
Dr Ray's equipment also came in handy when a Peregrine flew past. Tetrad counting too, there were 26 Fulmar sites occupied (compared with 16 by the breeding season last year).

Back to the counting theme, Counting Crows in the US refers to the British equivalent of counting magpies - One for sorrow, two for joy / Three for girls and four for boys / Five for silver, six for gold / Seven for a secret never to be told.
There were five crows on the range today......I'm waiting.......

Finally back to the garden for an hour's RSPB Garden Bird Count. Not too impressive, but two Coal Tits (one continental, one British) and a party of nine Long-Tailed Tits enjoyed the patent suet recipe.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Oh me oh my, there's a light in the sky

The dawn sky had its angry eyes on this morning.
The sun rose under the clouds over France.
In the afternoon, one of the Sandwich Bay Short-Eared Owls was hunting between the scrape and the golf course, wafting over the scrub in search of prey.
Occasionally it came to rest on a post, then up it went again, silently quartering the ground, always looking down, swooping and turning effortlessly with its long wings.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

A wander around North Kent

A strangely unsatisfying morning (probably the cold wind, for which I was not adequately prepared) at least gave us an overflying Lesser Spotted Woodpecker and three clumps of Butcher's Broom of which only one had a few berries remaining.
These were in Park Wood near Challock - the pecker had been calling up in the canopy, and was eventually kind enough to show.
Then a short drive across to Oare, even though the tide was out. We had distant views of two Common Buzzards, three Red-Breasted Mergansers, 64 Avocets and a Great Northern Diver, the last-named struggling with a large flatfish while envious gulls circled above.
Dunlin on the Swale mud
The 64 Avocets, and a flock of Brent Geese flying upriver. One lone goose seemed to look different so was tracked along the Swale, but the possibility of a Black Brant was quickly discounted, and eventually we concluded that it was not a PaleBelly either, and that the bright light had made its flanks seem whiter than normal for a DarkBelly.
More exciting are the latest addiotions to the Flicker Photos of the Kingsdown Sherpa....stunning!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Green shoots of recovery

A walk in the woods today, to see if there are any green shoots of recovery from the cold snap yet.
Broom was flourishing in a clearing,beyond a pile of logs thoughtfully left as a bug habitat. I could find no Butcher's Broom though.
A clump of Caper Spurge looked bright in the winter sunshine, and further on a shoot still bearing its poisonous berries was found.Plenty of blurred life, including singing and chasing Marsh Tits, Nuthatches, GreatSpots and a Treecreeper.

On the way home, I stopped by the row of twisted gnarled old Sweet Chestnuts, and finally (checking out the undercliff) I came across three bright shoots of early spring - Coltsfoot.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


An early cold-morning visit to the twin areas of Russell Gardens and Bushy Ruff revealed a fascinating phenomenon - the water that runs through them is warmer than the air, so a mist rises from the surface.
The water emerges from the ground a short distance up the valley, from the chalk which keeps it at a reasonably constant 10° C (about 12° warmer than the ambient temperature). Understandably, this is appreciated by the local gulls and ducks, along with bread brought by visitors.
At times of high rainfall and a high water table, a winterbourne stream called the Drelingore appears further up the Alkham valley and runs into Bushy Ruff. This only happens infrequently, perhaps once every 10 years, or as Leland explained 'ones in a vj or vij yeres brasted owt so abundantly that a great part of the water cummeth into Dovar streme'.
This is one of the tributaries of the River Dour which reaches the sea at Dover, and here has been dammed to make an attractive formal and informal gardens.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Tree Sparrow

A post from the North Downs reminded me of visits that we received from Tree Sparrows in the hard winters of the mid-1980s. We lived in a little mid-terraced house, but put out seed on the snow and they found it.

That was in the days before Cettis Warblers, Little Egrets and overwintering Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps, and when photos were taken with trusty Zenith E cameras. This one was probably in 1982/3.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Chav Warblers in Thanet

Botany Bay reinforced its position as my favourite birding location today, as it gave up two (not one, two) Dartford Warblers - my first ever. Not only did they show, but they stayed showing for a short while, in bright winter sunshine.
I caught sight of a long tail attached to a small bird that flew past us, and sure enough it was a Chav Warbler (sorry if that's politically incorrect - coincidentally we chatted to some birders from Dartford during the morning). This bird seemed to be duller and to have a shorter tail than the second which appeared a little further on.
There was also a Stonechat.

While at Foreness it would have been remiss not to count the wintering Purple Sandpipers - 29 on the steps and another 9 roosting in the shelter of human footprints on the beach.
There was the usual split of about 100 Oystercatchers in one roost and a similar number of Sanderlings on the other (spot the odd one out).
Plenty of Grey Plovers were dotted about on the beach, and and there were 33 Golden Plovers on the clifftop grass.An earlier visit to Pegwell was pleasant, with Dunlin especially close as the tide rose, and there was an Avocet further out. I consulted the excellent Handbook of Pegwell Bay Birds to see if this was an unusually early date for an Avocet, but it appears not.