Sunday, 28 March 2010

Birders excitedly pointing

It's a great sight, when you roll up at a place to try to see some birds, and a bunch of birders are there excitedly pointing at something. I rolled up at Bockhill early this morning, intending a stroll along the cliffs, and a gaggle of the Bockhill birders were indeed excitedly pointing at a clump of grass.
Jack had added yet another great find to his long list, and eventually a Fan-tailed Warbler/ Zitting Cisticola (don't ask) showed itself before flying high and far away.
Imagine for a moment that the bird above is a Zitting Cisticola (it isn't - it's a Meadow Pipit, but an illustration of some kind is called for). The Bockhillers probably got excellent photos, as the bird was more obliging before I got there, but I've no complaints.
A walk along the cliffs to Langdon Hole failed to find the Zitter (unsurprisingly) or indeed a Ring Ouzel that had been seen there (ditto), but three female Black Redstarts showed, and I was able to check on the nesting Kittiwakes. I reckon that there were about 50 birds at the Langdon end and 60 nearer St Margarets, with a small colony of about 15 nests in between. This is probably up on the last couple of years, albeit way down on a decade or so.
There are, however, plenty of predators in the wings........

Friday, 26 March 2010

Raptor in the sky - watcher of all

Opening the curtains on a fine day, I saw a sparrowhawk drifting over the trees towards the sea - this formed the prologue to a day of raptors.
The weather encouraged me to walk the circuit for the first time this year, on paths around the Kingsdown golf course; along the cliffs at first then striking inland to farmland tracks that lead back home. I hoped to see and hear migrants, but the wind reduced these to a minimum, but the skies were far from empty.
Resting at Hope Point, listening to a singing corn bunting and anticipating the arrival of a swallow or two, I saw four buzzards together, two of which moved off out to sea, while two circled the wood, then passed off inland. They were later seen returning to the same area, and some have been reported before, so perhaps they will breed here.
The clifftop resting place was convenient for watching fulmars, and could be rewarding for someone that can control the white balance of his camera.
Another sparrowhawk was seen along the clifftop, scattering the local jackdaws and pigeons, and then quartered the fields looking, presumably, for a grounded skylark, pipit or bunting. Just inland, where I was hoping for a yellowhammer, a peregrine flew north with the wind.
The walk back across the farmland was uneventful until a long-winged bird shot low across the path - dashing to get a better view, I was able to confirm it was a red kite, my first in Kingsdown. Nearby, a tawny owl hooted.
The Kingsdown village book mentions a Wych Elm at Otty Bottom, and I was able to find it from its lovely flowers - then it was back home to rejoin battle with the garden (with one eye on the skies).
But the day's remaining interest was lower down, as first a small tortoiseshell then a couple of cavorting commas revelled in the sunshine.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Just across the Channel

Just across the Channel, at the mouth of Somme estuary, is an extensive area of saltmarsh, reedbeds, lakes and forest. From part of this patchwork a nature reserve has been created, called Marquenterre.

We chose yesterday to take the ferry across from Dover, and it turned out to be a cracking day. Totally overdressed for the 18° C sunny weather, we notched up 78 bird species, plus plenty of brimstone butterflies and a comma and a peacock.

Included in the list were migrants like gargany (12 off), chiffchaffs, willow warbers and sedge warblers, black-tailed godwits, ruff and a little ringed plover. I saw a swallow flash across in front of the car, and my companions were pleased for me. Well done, they said, we wish we had jolly well seen it!

But it was the larger residents of the reserve that really took the breath away - from the first sight of a white stork's nest accompanied by bill-rattling, burping and whistling........ the glimpse of a night heron in its tree, the place is stunning.


Grey Herons and Spoonbills

One of about 40 white storks seen around the reserve

Little egret

Common crane

Finally, two black-necked grebes, in fine breeding plumage, were seen on one of the lakes (photo Reuters/Steve Ray).

The confiding nature of some of the birds on the scrapes closer to the entrance leads to accusations that they are kept there as tourist attractions (the admission fee is nearly a tenner after all) but these soon change to wilder lakes and the estuary itself, which attract obviously wild birds. It's a great place for a visit, and so close.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Little darling

It's been a long cold lonely winter. But now there's some warmth in the wind, a westerly which has finally triumphed over the north-easterlies that seem to have blown for months. In sheltered patches of Kingsdown Wood the first wood anemones are flowering......
...clumps of sweet violets are emerging smelling, well, sweet.......
....and tucked away inconspicuously is a patch of town-hall clocks, and the time that they tell is that it's nearly spring.
In the Wood the usual party of long-tailed tits is still together, this time with at least three firecrests, a couple of goldcrests and possibly the same dusky chiffchaff that I saw here in December.
A stroll along the coast provided a first sand martin, another f1recrest, a singing chiffchaff and three male wheatears, living up to one of their local names - "clodhoppers".
Also seen was John Holyer, who entertained us with a story of how, in the early days of ringing at the Sandwich Bay Bird Observatory, he caught wheatears by putting a net over rabbit holes, and waiting until they flew out.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Nature for a Reason

I saw all these things in my sleep. Nature approached me, calling me by my name; and he bade me take heed, and gather wisdom from all the wonders of the world. And I saw the sun and the sea, and the sandy shores, and the places where birds and beasts go forth with their mates - wild snakes in the woods, and wonderful birds whose feathers were flecked with many colours.

And I beheld the birds in the bushes building their nests, which no man, with all his wits, could ever make. And I marvelled to know who taught the magpie to place the sticks in which to lay her eggs and to breed her young; for no craftsman could make such a nest hold together, and it would be a wonderful mason who could make a mould for it!
And yet I wondered still more at other birds - how they concealed and covered their eggs secretly on moors and marshlands, so that men should never find them; and how they hid them more carefully still when they went away, for fear of birds of prey and of wild beasts.
I saw the flowers in the woods, with all their bright colours, growing with so many hues in the green grass. And it seemed to me strange that some were rank, while others were sweet, but it would take too long to speak of all their kinds, and their many different colours.

Yet the thing that moved me most, and changed my way of thinking, was that Reason rules and cared for all the beasts, except only for man and his mate; for many a time they wandered ungoverned by Reason.
Piers the Ploughman, by William Langland, written in the second half of the Fourteenth Century (a long time before the Age of Reason)

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Blackcaps still

A little bird told me that the blackcaps that have been around since December would appreciate a nice pear. Half was put in the the back garden, and half in the front.
The female found the one in the back, and demolished it over a few days, fighting off all comers, even those which - like the tits - had no interest in the pear but preferred the other goods on offer.
The male, however, ignored the pear and kept to the suet, again chasing away any competition although this particular blue-tit was not easily scared off.
The male blackcap has a blotch on his cheek making him easy to identify, so I'll keep the feeders well stocked and will see if he stays into the spring. The theory is that many over-wintering blackcaps are migrants from continental Europe, which return in the spring to be replaced by 'normal' birds that have spent the time in Africa.
If this one stays and establishes a territory it might indicate that it's a British bird. But it could be argued that it only stayed because of the food supply.


Sunday, 7 March 2010

Meetings with Remarkable Trees

Once upon a time, long long ago, we bought a book called Meetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Packenham. We flicked through it idly, and it stayed on the coffee table a while; then it was put on the shelf, but we've always 'liked' trees'. I'm not much good at identifying them, but am more interested in their character or personality than their scientific name.
OK, I'm a tree-hugger, I admit it.
But I know enough to know that one that I saw today was - in my eyes - unusual, and fortunately I had an expert to tell me that it was a hornbeam. Not at all uncommon, except in east Kent where I live. So I took a photo of it.
I took other photos of trees in Park Wood, when trying to photograph birds flitting through the uppermost branches. That's a Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker up there - but you could see that already couldn't you?
Regular readers of this blog (hope you're both well) know that I like to tag along with people with proper cameras, telescopes, picnic hampers etc so that I can make use of them; today I encountered Dylan, the Dumpton Non-committal, who not only spotted the bird but also sent me this picture. As always he was a source of constant information, enthusiasm and good humour.
Another tree with a bird

Reaching down Pakenham's Meetings with Remarkable Trees, I found that it includes "Majesty" the huge oak tree on the Fredville estate, in East Kent. It's about 600 years old, 40' in circumference and probably about the largest in Britain. Unfortunately it's on private land, and the one I could see from the park is probably its smaller cousin, called "Stately".
The park, on clay and flints overlying chalk, must be very fertile to produce such trees - there are also fine Sweet Chestnuts, and some very tall green oaks by the gate. On closer inspection, one was an evergreen Holm Oak, but the other was a Turkey Oak - not really an evergreen but capable of keeping its leaves through the winter when "young".

Friday, 5 March 2010

Low tide - high tide

As it was the lowest tide for years, a clamber over the rocks seemed a good idea, to see what's out to sea.

The resident crows were my only company.The chalk substrate is pockmarked with holes made, I assume, by the grinding action of molluscs and /or the boring of piddocks. Some areas are also etched with smaller tunnels.
There is a general covering of seaweed, which is more prevalent now than I remember a decade or so ago. Below the low tide line, now briefly uncovered, there was no weed, just bare chalk.

A puzzle was what caused the occasional area of bright purple on some areas of chalk.
Rock pipit

Back on dry land, the most photographed black redstart posed for yet another picture.

And the "high tide" in the title? Well, after all this snow and rain, it's no surprise that the winterbourne streams are running this year. The Drellingore along the Alkham Valley appeared this week, as the water seeps through the chalk and emerges from springs in the valley bottom.

Local lore has it that the Drellingore runs every seven years; to quote Leland: 'ones in a vj or vij yeres brasted owt so abundantly that a great part of the water cummeth into Dovar streme'.