Sunday, 23 November 2014

Number 8 - Oriole cathedral

Number 8 - 26 May 1978 - Golden Orioles at Lakenheath

Before Lakenheath was a flagship RSPB wetland reserve, it was virtually bird-less farmland. But it was still a much revered birding site, due to the presence of a polar plantation, owned by the matchstick manufacturer Bryant and May. Confused? Then read on...

This particular poplar plantation had been adopted by a colony of Golden Orioles, which for us 1970s birders was a welcome splash of Mediterranean sunshine. To reach this fabled woodland you needed to be able to map-read your way along twisting country lanes, and drive along a farmland track until reaching a railway line. Here your journey ended. And it was here that I stood in the breaking dawn having slept in the car overnight. We were not alone - maybe three other cars were also parked up, each having just ejected a gaggle of birders, stretching and yawning into the promise of the day ahead.

Even though it was 05.30hrs it was already warm. And there was already a loud, rich, flutey sound coming to us from the plantation - the unmistakable song of a Golden Oriole. In silence we all trooped across the railway line (via a crossing) and stood at the edge of the trees. We couldn't see the bird, but it carried on singing. Ahead of us was a theatrical set forged by a combination of mother nature and big business, as the spaced out poplar trees, in their rigid rows, were shrouded in ribbons of mist, in turn lit by beams of early sunlight, sparkling in a million places from the dew drizzled vegetation. With another Oriole stating to sing, along with a couple of drowsily calling Cuckoos, the term 'dreamlike' had never been more appropriate. We were birding in nature's cathedral, and as such crept around with humble reverence. It took half an hour before a male gave itself up, the buttercup yellow and black form in the tree tops, flitting around in the ethereal light. Over the next two hours we watched up to seven birds (four of them males). We witnessed much chasing and copulation, one particular male mating with two females, one after the other. The best views were of a male that chased a Cuckoo through the trees, both birds flying above our heads. As the morning wore on and the sun got a firmer hold of the day, the activity reduced. The echoing quality of the song in the poplars diminished and some of the magic evaporated. The predominant sound was now taken over by singing Willow Warblers and Whitethroats, with the odd Oriole song coming from deeper in the wood. I left the scene feeling as if I had been blessed.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Number 9 - Brambling blizzard

Broadfield - without finches on this occasion...

No.9 January 2008 Finch flock at Canons Farm, Surrey

This is not so much a single day, let alone a single moment, more of a rolling event. It all began on January 1st, when I located a large flock of finches at Canons Farm, feeding in a very large field known locally as Broadfield. There were at least 1,000 present, and my initial scan through them with binoculars revealed the odd Brambling in amongst Chaffinches. However, once the scope was put to work it became obvious that at least a quarter of the finches were in fact Brambling - a 750/250 split!

I returned on January 5th. Word of the finch flock had got around, as at least a dozen other birders were also present, unheard of back in these 'early' days at the farm. Throughout the day the finch flock remained faithful to the field, waxing and waning in number, numbers breaking off to forage elsewhere, then returning to swell those that had remained site faithful. At times all took to the air, swirling and twisting over the earth, pitching down only to take flight abruptly. Together we estimated the flock breakdown as Chaffinch (1,650), Brambling (550) and Linnet (200), an overall flock size of 2,400. By 13.00hrs the numbers peaked, but then soon started to dwindle, leaving 700-800 until the light started to fade.

When I visited on January 19th numbers had fallen to 1,400, although Brambling numbers had increased to 800. The following day (20th) Brambling peaked at 1,200, with Chaffinches numbering 800. I spent most of the afternoon transfixed at this seething mass of birds, white-rumps and nasal calls all around me. I knew it was something that I might not see on such a scale again, certainly not locally.  By January 24th the flock was still at a healthy number - 2,000 - although the breakdown had shifted once more, with Chaffinches outnumbering Brambling in a 1,600/400 split. From this point onwards the flock broke up and such counts were not repeated. It was interesting to observe how the flock size had kept relatively stable over the three weeks, yet the composition had not. Taking the peak counts of the three finch species present, a minimum of 3,000 had been recorded, but this was very much a minimum. Was there a turnover of birds, or were the same birds returning each day?

What had attracted them? The farmer had not taken in the flax crop that autumn and it had been flattened by November winds. The flax had then been rolled by machinery, exposing the seed on the soil surface. It was an open avian feast...

This event was not just memorable as pure spectacle, but also a reminder that such things can occur close to home in areas that might not be considered as worthy of spending your birding time. It certainly opened some local eyes to the potential of Canons Farm, something that has been ongoing ever since. We are still awaiting a return to such large finch numbers.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Number 10 - botanical highs!

No.10 13 July 2008 Botanical highs on Ben Lawers

Ben Lawers had attained a mythical status with me due to 'Tales of Botanical Wonders', told by Barry Banson. I needed to go...

From my guest-house bedroom window, the hilltops were obscured by cloud, but there it had been dry and mild, so it was with some surprise that when I got out of the car at the Ben Lawers Visitor Centre it was not only windy (force 6) but also cold enough to need gloves and a woolly hat.  I didn't pause much during the first hour of the ascent, the habitat above the nature trail being a monotonous swathe of Heather, Cross-leaved Heath, Bell Heather, Tormentil, Heath Bedstraw and Bilberry with various grasses in-between. However, a series of path-side ditches held appreciable numbers of Starry Saxifrage together with Common Butterwort, Lousewort and Hare's-tail Cottongrass along with Mat-grass (the food plant of Mountain Ringlet).

My first new 'alpine' of the day occurred at a fairly low elevation - Alpine Mouse-ear. From here, this species was common all the way to the summit. As elevation was gained some of the species that were common lower down started to disappear, such Wild Thyme, Tormentil and Heath Bedstraw. Wherever a dribble of water could be found so to was Starry Saxifrage, along with a lesser amount of Mossy Saxifrage. Instead of carrying on the path that summits Beinn Ghlass I contoured around it on its western flank. Just before joining a narrow path (that navigates its way through a collection of low rock faces), there is a small pool. In this general area two species became quite common - Cyphel and Moss Campion. Both were flowering freely and were easy to find all the way up to the 'hanging gardens' underneath Ben Lawers summit.

Cyphel (left) and Alpine Mouse-ear (right)

As I skirted these rock faces I finally entered the cloud. At once I became soaked by a fine mist. It was like botansing in a bathroom shower underneath a blanket of cotton-wool. I deferred searching this area until later, although a Fir Clubmoss stopped me briefly. After a further uphill climb at last I came to an area of level ground. To the left of me was the path to the summit of Lawers. To the right, the summit of Ghlass. But, taking a deep breath, I walked straight ahead into the fabled area of the 'hanging gardens' on the cliffs underneath the summit of Ben Lawers...

What should have been a dramatic first view of the delights ahead were lost in the swirling mists and hampered further by a screaming force seven wind. I had been sheltered somewhat from the elements by Ben Ghlass's shoulder, but now the weather could get at me unimpeded. What part of me that had remained dry now became very wet indeed as the drizzle had become rain. Every so often the fog-like cloud parted for a few seconds to reveal the way ahead. A boulder strewn grassy rise led up to the cliff base but it was not until I was close to this wall of rock that I could appreciate the size of it towering above me. The maelstrom gave the mountainside a forbidding persona, a roaring shriek seemingly emanating from the vertiginous weeping rock. I found the 'botanists path' that hugs the very base of the cliff and held on to the vegetation hanging over the lower shelfs. Slippery under foot,  with the wind grabbing at me, I was aware of the steep decent below and was reminded of this every now and again as the swirling cloud broke up to reveal my fate should I fall.

Close up, the flora of the cliffs was amazing. My first scan in front, and above me revealed Alpine Forget-me-not, Roseroot and several plants of Alpine Fleabane which got me most excited. I edged along the path, having to keep bracing myself against the wind. Hoary Whitlowgrass was scattered about, Mountain Whitlowgrass not so common and Green Spleenwort tucked into the odd fissure. As I went to grab onto a ledge to negotiate a tricky section of the path I looked down and there, inches from my nose, was a perfectly formed Rock Speedwell, two flowers facing me like precious gems growing out of the mountain. Of all the special plants on Lawers, this was the one that I most desired. Retreating to the boulder fields below I hunted between them in relative shelter. There was plenty more Alpine Forget-me-not, Holly Fern and Brittle Bladder-fern. The mountain sub-species of Thyme-leaved Speedwell was common, but I couldn't find any Alpine Speedwell at all.

Alpine Fleabane (left) and Rock Speedwell (right)

Although the weather suggested otherwise, I decided to go all the way to the top, at 3,984 feet Scotland's tenth highest peak. By now the cloud was heavier, but the drizzle somewhat lighter. My elation with the success at the cliff carried me up to the munro marker, where in force seven winds I stood with several 'munro baggers' looking out and imagining what the view would be like if it wasn't for the cloud. But I had places to go and had to move on. I wandered 200m beyond the summit and, with precise directions, found a boulder strewn ravine in which several old shielings lay in ruin. Behind one such wall, in short turf, were several plants of Dwarf Cudweed. Carrying on into the ravine, with visibility down to no more than 30m, I struggled to make out the landmarks that I knew would lead me to Drooping Saxifrage. Perseverance paid off as I found several rosettes along with Alpine Saxifrage and Rock Whitlowgrass.

After a couple of hours in this world of half-light and botanical riches, I started to descend, finding other targets on the way, such as Three-flowered Rush, Stiff Sedge, Russet Sedge, Alpine Meadow-rue and a single Alpine Sawwort. I had failed to find one plant that I really hankered after, one that would only open its flowers in sunshine, and that was Alpine Gentian. I would need to come back on another day to see that...

...and I did!

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Shedding another skin

Over the years I've shed an ornithological skin on more than one occasion. From novice to keen lister: from twitcher to keen patcher; from confused birder to content wanderer; and now I can feel my current skin peeling away to reveal... what?

All of my recent 'looking back' postings feels a bit like tidying up the past in readiness for something new - the next chapter in life's birding adventure, I suppose. I've not been so excited about a new project for an age, and this is but a modest one, based on my very local patches. Maybe this is what has captivated me so much, the simplicity of putting 40 years of experience into a largely non-birding arena. What is out there? What will I find? What will I miss?

To ensure that I don't get to disheartened during the inevitable dry periods, my eyes will be taking in the plants, butterflies and moths for which the area is justly renowned. But it is the birds that will take up most of my efforts. 

What price a Turtle Dove….?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Brief encounters

Instead of giving you a verbose account of each of the four unlucky moments that didn't quite make the Top 10, I'm cutting a wordy corner and am dishing up this particular course on a paper plate with plastic knives and forks - rest assured, the Top 10 will be served on best china with accompanying posh cutlery!

Maiden Pink
October 22 1982 Dungeness Thrush Rush
I've only just written about this so, if you missed it or want your memory jogged, click here.

July 1 2007 Breckland Plants
A whistle-stop tour of some of the finest sites on the Norfolk/Suffolk border, all of them that held some very special plants indeed, in the company of three knowledgable and agreeable companions - Peter Follett, Stephen Clarke and Barry Phillips. We virtually cleaned up, with my highlights being Proliferous Pink, Maiden Pink and Spiked Speedwell. To cap it all, a Marbled Clover (moth) joined in with the fun!

July 4 2012 Dungeness Oppen pits revisited
Thirty years after my last visit to the only natural water body on the shingle, I returned. I chose a glorious day to venture down memory lane, this time armed with an appreciation of the botanical gems that the pits harbour. Alone and at peace, I wandered around the two main pits and drank in the secluded grandeur before me. I found a blanket of moss and lichen to lie upon, looked up into the blue sky and thanked whoever might be listening for providing such natural wonder. There is something magical about this tucked-away and little known part of Dungeness.

March 17 2013 Juniper Bottom Hawfinches
In the past I've posted at length about this event, so if you want to investigate further please click here, here and here.

Hidden Dungeness - the magical world that is The Oppen Pits

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Top 10 moments - those that didn't make it

The adjudication is over - my Top 10 moments in the company of natural history has been decided. I identified 15 possible candidates for this list and thought it only fair to share with you the five that didn't quite make it. The first of them is:

March 17 1984 Stodmarsh Penduline Tit
There was a bit of previous to this. Back in 1984, Penduline Tit was still a mystical bird. There had been but four previous records and all had been day jobs seen by a select few. None of the 'big boys' had connected with one. When a male turned up at Stodmarsh, interest was rampant. I travelled to the said reed bed twice with Steve Broyd, who was then still an avid UK twitcher - we dipped on both occasions. But the bird kept on reappearing, mocking the mass dipping that was being suffered by the birding elite. Then, one Friday afternoon, it showed well. Cue Saturday at dawn... the car park at Stodmarsh was rammed, hardly a place left to park. As the light bled into the darkness each car ejected its cargo - a yawning, stretching mass of humanity, from as far afield as Scotland. As if in a trance we all walked slowly along the Lampen Wall - no talking, all of us sedated by the promise of seeing one of the most wanted birds on the British list. I looked along the footpath ahead of me at the several hundred birders taking up position and could not quite take in the scene before me. It was as if a monastery of Trappist Monks had been released to sanctify the raised footpath through the reedy wastes, such was the solemnity of the proceedings. I had not witnessed such a mannered gathering of birders before, all in such a beatific and sedate state. On arrival at the target area, all stood still, as if in a church awaiting the arrival of the Lord. This religious analogy was not misplaced. There was an air of expectation at the same time as a realisation that things might still go 'tits-up' as it had done for many of us over the previous few days. Then, after a wait of no more than fifteen minutes, a ripple of activity from those positioned some ten metres further along the footpath - murmurs - no, not murmurs - shouts of joy came forth. The target had played ball, as a cracking male Penduline Tit was ripping the hell out of a bulrush head. The crowd behaved impeccably and the bird seemed unawares of the appreciative audience admiring it. For half-an-hour it performed, moving from head to head until it was lost in the depths of the reed bed. The gathered masses gave thanks to the birding God's such was the release of relief - after all, some of us had already spent days looking for this magical waif! It wasn't the only species on offer as I could also mention the Hen Harrier, the Great Grey Shrike and the Bewick's Swans that tried to vie for our attention at the same time, but that would be over-egging the pudding, wouldn't it? After a couple of magical hours I refaced my steps to the car park. It wasn't the bird so much as the collective emotion of those gathered that imprinted on me. Never had a twitch felt so together.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Desert Island moments

If you had to compile a Desert Island Discs-like DVD of your most cherished moments in the company of natural history, what would they be? You would no doubt think of some of the rarities that you have seen; consider those bigs falls or spectacular sea watches that you have been lucky enough to witness; possibly include one or two long-held ambitions that were met. But then again, these moments might involve the mundane and commonplace that for whatever reason became the inspirational.

After my recent trawl through many years worth of field notes I am putting together my top ten (so that's ten posts worth of material taken care of!). Watch this space… and if you are left underwhelmed by this promise then there is a list of much worthier blogs on the right for you to peruse.