Tuesday, 17 May 2016

When Did You First Begin Bird Watching?

I wish I had a £1 for every time I’ve been asked when I began to watch/take an interest in birds.  The simple answer is there isn’t a specific time and I can’t answer the question without going into a great deal of detail as to how my interest grew over many years.  Do I count my childhood years when I watched David Attenborough on a twelve inch black and white TV (I’ve just noticed that TV tonight includes some colour footage of  Zoo Quest from the 1950s so I’ll be watching that), or the time I took such great interest in James Alder and Ian Armstrong as they searched for Dippers and Nuthatches in the Breamish Valley probably in the early 1970s (Dipper is still amongst my favourite species), or the first day I opened my copy of the Readers Digest Book of Birds many years ago and which I still think is an excellent book for those beginning an interest in bird watching.  I remember looking at this book and thinking how exotic species such as Great Crested Grebe, Hoopoe and Waxwing were and at that point I had seen none of these birds in the wild.  I’ve certainly made progress there!  When ones interest in any subject begins usually depends a great deal on opportunity and that is why I am such an advocate of giving such opportunities to young people.  When done appropriately I know few youngsters who cannot be excited about the natural world…yes really!  Opportunity and encouragement are key.

The simple truth is that an interest in birds and natural history in general came into my life in stages, until now it is a major part of it.  I don’t see any point in holding regrets that I wasn’t an avid naturalist as a youngster, but it would have been nice if I had been.  Later years saw a career and a multitude of other demands getting in the way, although I don’t offer that as an excuse, but only as more of a failure to get the balance of my life and routines in order, and I’m sure I’m not alone with that problem.

The 1980s saw my interest increasing especially after trips Speyside and searches for Capercaillie, Crested Tit and Scottish Crossbill, but it was my first trip out of the UK for bird watching at the start of the new millennium that really ignited a very serious passion.  Who could not get excited by time spent in Bialowieza Forest and on the Biebrza Marshes?  It is the atmosphere and feel of such places that I retain in the memory as much if not more than the species seen.  I still feel that Europe offers as exciting birding as any part of the world, perhaps because I feel it positive to have a feel for and an understanding of the birds being watched, not that this has prevented me exploring further afield.

In the beginning identification of bird species usually plays a major element in anyone’s growing interest and it was naturally a very important issue to me in the beginning.  I say that as one who still remembers the thrill of learning the difference between a House Sparrow and a Dunnock!  With growing experience I’ve come to believe that identification is but one factor among many, and I believe each person will find their interests taking them in varying directions.  In my case it has led to a wide interest in ornithological matters and some heaving bookshelves, not to mention a more rounded interest in natural history in general.  I’ve also come to appreciate that sharing ones knowledge with others and watching their growing appreciation of nature is equally as rewarding as making my own discoveries.  Why else would I be up at 4.00am in order to co-lead a Dawn Chorus walk with Samuel at the Rising Sun Country Park.  So if you’re going to ask me when I first started to watch birds, please be ready to listen to a very long and complicated explanation.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

A Painted Lady Bathes in the Sunshine

14th May.  On arrival at St Mary’s Island Sam and I were greeted by the song of Sedge Warblers along the bank of the wetland, but more surprisingly a Painted Lady Butterfly bathed in the sunshine on what was a very chilly spring evening.  Surprised indeed to see this butterfly so early in the year had me reaching for my butterfly book when I returned home and from this I was reminded that Painted Lady Butterflies have been recorded in the UK during every month of the year, so perhaps not as surprising a sighting as we initially thought.  Never the less I’d still be surprised if many sightings of this butterfly species have as yet been made in Northumberland this year.  I do note that City Birding recorded one in Dumfries last week so I’m wondering, does this suggest that we can look forward to a large influx of this species in 2016?  Were we looking at a newly arrived migrant butterfly which has flown from Northern Africa?  How early do first broods of this species appear when they stop over in areas such as Spain?  Just a few questions that crossed my mind at the time. 

Painted Lady Butterfly courtesy of Samuel Hood.

As we set off along the back of the wetland we noted Gadwall and Teal on the pool but more rewarding was the song of Garden Warbler, the bird well hidden at the back of the hedge but which gave brief sightings as it worked its way along the hedge before lifting for a second and dropping down again to be heard briefly once again.  Common Whitethroats and Reed Buntings were seen well as were Chiffchaffs later on our walk as we passed the mounds.  Skylarks were in full song and numbers of Linnet and Meadow Pipit appeared.  Swallows and Sand Martins were around in some number.

I hadn’t been down to the area recently so it felt odd to find most of the waders gone although we did see Oystercatchers, Turnstones and a single Dunlin.  Of course there were plenty of terns to watch and we found numbers of Sandwich, Common and Arctic Terns, many of which had appeared to find a good feeding area.

From Seaton Sluice we did have a distant sighting of a wader flying north which we are now pretty much convinced was a Whimbrel.  There was movement of auks and Kittiwakes but little else this evening.  The light and visibility was excellent but the temperatures were dropping ever lower and by the end of our walk I had my hat on and the temptation of some hot chips was just to hard to resist so we adjourned to the fish and chip shop before making off for home after an enjoyable few hours.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Border Raid for Ospreys, Peregrines, Kites and Warblers

"I think he'll be to Rome as is the osprey to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature."
William Shakespeare.  Coriolanus Act 1V Scene VII.

7th May.  It was a question of ‘heat wave, what heat wave?’ as the RSPB Border Raiders (AKA Local Group) left Newcastle and headed for Threave, Dumfries with Samuel Hood and myself taking the lead roles, myself armed only with my pocket camera, water-proofs and bait(not yet up to carrying heavy equipment).  The idea for this spring trip had been put forward by Sam at the time of a successful winter trip to the same area a while ago.  It was pleasing to see thirty-one participants involved.  Shame about the thirty-second who appears to have got the dates mixed up and thought we were going next week.  There wasn’t going to be a hint of tea, coffee or cakes today (unless you had taken your own) so all attending were geared up for full participation in the birding and that is always good to see, although as a concessionary gesture Sam and I do allow short comfort stops. 

The big draw at Threave of course is the pair of Ospreys and as Sam is a regular volunteer on this  National Trust of Scotland Reserve we were well aware that the pair had nested again this year.  We were equally aware that there could well be Peregrine Falcons on show in the area (I hasten to add that this is something that the trust has made known to the public and they are in a well protected situation, so I’m not giving any information here that isn’t now commonly known).

Threave Castle built by Archibald Douglas the Grim.  Well I'd be grim if I was called Archibald.  Legend has it that the cannon Mons Meg was built by a local and used to fire a canon ball through the castle taking of a lady's hand as she was drinking.  In truth it is thought that the Cannon was built in Mons, now on the border of Belgium and France and given to the Scots as a gift.  The legend stems from a tale of Sir Walter Scott.

The outward journey to Threave provided sightings of birds as diverse as Common Buzzard, Kestrel. Sand Martin, Linnet, and just before arrival, a Dipper.  On arrival participants soon dispersed to various areas of the reserve.  It was of course the nature reserve we were visiting.  The National Trust for Scotland managed Threave Estate provides a safe haven for many species of birds, mammals and insects. The estate covers some 1500 acres and contains a wide range of habitats, including farmland, woodland, marshes and a two mile stretch of the River Dee.  Initially it was the song of warblers that caught my attention, Garden Warbler, Blackcap, Common Whitethroat, Sedge Warbler, Willow Warbler, Chiffchaff, and a distant Grasshopper Warbler call picked up by Sam.  Willow Warblers and Sedge Warblers were numerous and there was certainly a number of Garden Warblers.  I was also impressed by the number of Song Thrushes heard.

The walk around the reserve is basically a circular walk in part and Sam and I took the opposite direction than most other participants.  We were soon watching pairs of Goosander and Kingfisher on and over the River Dee.  A large flock of House Martins were in the foreground.  I managed to find Tree Pipit and had a fairly fleeting sighting.  A skein of late staying Pink-footed Geese were seen.  Sam has seen them here in late April but never as late as today.   The Oystercatchers were getting agitated and Sam thought that there was possibly an Otter disturbing them.  Although we didn’t sight it others in our party did later in the day.  Just a little further along our route we were soon watching the pair of Osprey.  The female bird on the nest with the male perched not far from the nest and offering a great sighting as it ate a fish which Sam seems to think was a Mullet.  From this same area we watched the pair of Peregrine Falcons as they lifted and called, the pair of Kingfishers, Red Kite, Common Buzzard, Raven and the likes of Grey Heron and Cormorant, whilst we listened to birdsong.   We later checked out the marshes and River Dee from one of the hides from which Lapwing, Teal and Oystercatchers could be seen.

River Dee passing through Threave.
We checked out the woodland areas once again although we failed to find a Pied Flycatcher which had been reported.  Treecreeper was seen but once again it was the warblers that attracted the eyes and ears.  Skylarks were also numerous.

All too early it was time for us to move on to Loch Ken but not before watching House and Tree Sparrows, Chaffinches, Goldfinches and Reed Buntings.  We’d also taken heed of the trees and other plant life along our walk.  I voiced the opinion that I would have been happy to stay at Threave all day.  I have to say if you have never visited this reserve in spring it is time you did and I guarantee you wouldn’t regret doing so.

We reached our destination at Loch Ken in about thirty minutes, the coach having to take care along the narrow roads.  I took the chance to have a bite to eat on the way.

I always enjoy the walk along the pathway through the woodland at Loch Ken and also the view from the platform overlooking the Loch.  A single Wheatear had been picked up by Sam on our journey.  The Loch appeared to hold few birds although a small flock of Greylag Geese were in the fields nearby.  There was no need on this occasion to trouble ourselves trying to pick out White-fronted Geese!  Once again we had Skylark song overhead.  Initially the amount of song from warblers seemed far less that at Threave, but as we walked further on it did increase and once again the song of Garden Warblers was soon recognised and numerous other species were watched.  Later as we were on the return walk another Grasshopper Warbler was heard and on this occasion my ears picked it up.

Bluebells at Loch Ken

 Sam and I paid particular attention to some of the trees which included a very old Silver Birch tree.  Mosses and lichen were very prominent.  We also diverted from the main path at times and picked out areas that we feel would be well worth exploration given more time.  One particularly pleasant area of woodland held carpets of Bluebells.  It was in this area that some participants had picked up Pied Flycatcher and Redstart but we weren’t so lucky.  It was in this area that I noticed one of the photographers in our party might benefit from some fieldcraft advice.  I’ll say no more, but what are such groups for but to ensure member learn good fieldcraft and thought for the wildlife and fellow watchers.  Perhaps a need for some basic field etiquette reminders and I wasn't alone in thinking this.

Not having been out and about much of late I really enjoyed the walking in the clear and now warm atmosphere and I picked up my first Swifts of the year.  Initially only the odd Red Kite was seen and we assumed that it was feeding time at the local feeding station which may have drawn the birds away.  Later as we left the area they were returning in numbers and this give everyone the chance to see these birds in larger numbers.  Common Buzzards also appeared and several occasions.

So Sam’s idea had proven to be a good one and it was a very special day and I could tell that everyone had enjoyed the trip, not least myself.  The group bird list came to seventy-six species seen plus the likes of Roe Deer, Otter and Brown Hare.  For me the number of species seen was irrelevant as my enjoyment came from the over all experience of context and having been in such a wonderful and well managed environment.  I reminded participants that such areas depend so much on volunteers and we ought not to forget that!  I hope I’m back there soon.

No sooner had I finished the last sentence above when my mobile rang.  It was Sam.  He had found a Wood Warbler down in the woods by the lake.  I left everything as it was and walked as fast as I could (not that fast at the moment) down to where he stood.  I didn’t see the bird in question but did hear it despite a noisy child, car alarms and other assorted noise that is the norm on a sunny Sunday on patch.  A new patch tick for both of us and the eighth warbler species of the weekend.  No, not quite up to the standards of Threave but the patch can and does deliver at times.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Chorus at Dawn

I heard a bird so sing, Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
W. Shakespeare

30th May.  It’s a rare thing to see me up and about at 4:00am, but today I was, and Marie, Sam and I arrived at the Rising Sun Country Park at 4:45pm with Sam and I ready to lead the dawn chorus walk arranged by staff at the country park.  On arrival the song of Blackbirds dominated the air and a Chiffchaff could be heard in the distance.  Thankfully, despite it being circa 1C in temperature it was a dry fresh morning and it wasn’t long before a rising sun lit the Rising Sun CP.   All twenty-four participants which included some youngsters, twenty-five if you count a very well behaved dog which arrived, and everyone on time too, which in it’s self showed that participants were keen.  I’ve rarely led a walk when everyone turns up.  I know twenty-four participants for this type of walk seems a sizeable number and I also know just how noisy twenty-four folk can be on walks, but I have to say I was well impressed with the response of everyone who took part and who all appreciated the need for quietness.  I think the response reflected the fact that all were keen to listen and learn.  Well who would be up so early if not keen?    

There was quite a bit of birdsong as we departed from my home in the darkness and on arrival at the country park this was building up nicely.  Most of the birds heard today were common garden/park species but included the likes of Common Whitethroat, Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff.  Whether it was the newly arrived summer visitors or the song of Backbird, Song Thrush, Robin and Dunnock et al, it had to be remembered that listening intently to birdsong was a new experience for most if not all the participants.  Sam and I managed to get across some points of interest about many of the species, so I’m thinking that everyone will have taken away some new knowledge.  My own bird of the day was the Willow Tit seen and heard along the footpath behind Swallow Pond.  This is a species I’ve only seen once before in the Country Park.  Surprisingly we heard no Blackcap song and very little Robin song.

The calls of the likes of Little Grebe (one of two species of grebe seen today) and Water Rail added some real interest.  The latter species was seen by many of us as it wandered deeper into the reeds just as the light was beginning to improve and Lapwings called.

Our walk of two hours was taken slowly with several stops to focus attention on song and calls.  We didn’t attempt to climb the hill, but Sam did pick up the song of Skylark coming from that direction.  As we turned to make our way back to the centre the pace quickened with a few minds now focused upon those full English breakfasts awaiting us which were very nicely cooked by staff member Graham who I know well from previous events at the park.

After breakfast Sam and I had arranged a short presentation.  Short because we guessed that everyone would be tiring after such an early morning start.  The focus was again on bird song and all who participated did so in the light hearted manner in which we had intended.  I do think that it reinforced the learning that took place during the walk and I’m hopeful that many will have left at the end of our session determined to find out more about birds and also to use their ears as much as their eyes.

We had seen and/or heard at least forty bird species during our session(I won't list them all).  I don’t much enjoy group participation unless well organised and having a focus and an intention that everyone will leave having learned something.  I’m happy to say this event was very well organised and did have a focus which everyone kept to.  Everyone also respected the need for quietness and the group all kept close together rather than drifting off in various directions which so often happens.  It re-ignited my interest in being so involved with this type of event.  Samuel and myself would like to thank all the staff (especially Heather) at the Rising Sun Country Park who were involved in any way, all participants for their keenness and good humour and we'd like to give special thanks to who ever arranged for the fine weather after all the rain, snow and hail of late. 

Nearer home the Song Thrush continues to sing outside, as it has done for most of 2016.

It's good to listen!