Sunday, 31 January 2016

Big Garden Birdwatch 2016: My First Brambling!

A new house in a new town means new birds. I've been particularly looking forward to doing the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch this year for this very reason. It's given me an opportunity to get a really good idea of what birds we have visiting our new garden as, up until now, I've only really managed fleeting glances through the windows, although this technique has yielded some great spots already! I've been adding to a new patch list as each species has revealed itself and recently bullfinch, goldcrest and nuthatch have all been included.

When I woke up yesterday, the muted grey light told me that it wasn't the sunniest of mornings. It was drizzly, cloudy and typically British. I was already lacking in hope for many feathered visitors as our feeders have hardly been descended upon since moving here and I've had to change the food on more than one occasion because untouched peanuts have gone mouldy in the persistent rain. I just think that the mild temperatures have meant that there are still plenty of natural food sources out there, so the birds haven't found the need to visit the feeders as often as I'm used to. With that in mind, I wasn't expecting to see much.

The first quarter of an hour lived up to my expectations. The only activity going on came from three feisty robins bullying a lone blue tit, while three woodpigeons watched from the branches of the oak tree. I found it fascinating to see the robins using the feeders with ease as this behaviour is relatively new for this usually ground-feeding species. 

Without a doubt, the highlight of the hour for me was a visit from a brambling! I watched Friday's episode of Winterwatch which mentioned the possibility of seeing bramblings hidden in flocks of chaffinches and I couldn't believe it when I spotted one during my watch. It was an extremely fleeting visit, but it perched on a bush long enough for me to get a positive I.D. before flitting off over the fence. Actually the same thing happened with a bullfinch later in the hour so I was able to add those both to my list.

Image: John Harding/BTO

I rode the brambling high for the rest of the hour and actually quite a few of my favourite species made appearances, including a nuthatch, long-tailed tit and a great-spotted woodpecker. Whether the latter was the same one I'd hear drumming earlier in the morning, I don't know. I was also serenaded by a particularly enthusiastic song thrush on the top of the fence. Both of these would suggest we have an early Spring heading our way!

There was quite a lot going on in the area of trees behind the garden (of course). There is one I call the "starling tree" because it's usually bustling with them. However, they were replaced yesterday by a flock of 30 or so bullfinches and goldfinches. I could just about make out the bold, black heads and flashed of red although I could really have done with a scope at that point! One day, one day... I saw the brambling again, this time hanging upside down at the top of bare tree, pecking at the tiny branches. There were also a number of carrion crows fighting above me and a mix of gulls lazily circling the trees.

My total tally for the hour was as follows:

3 Woodpigeon
1 Blackbird (m)
3 Robins
2 Blue tits
1 Magpie
1 Coal tit
1 Song thrush
1 Brambling
1 Bullfinch
1 Jay
1 Great-spotted woodpecker
1 Dunnock
1 Long-tailed tit

I've put together a little table comparing my results from the past three years. Obviously two of the three counts were in Southwater but it will be interesting to see how the results vary at this new house over the next few years.

Monday, 11 January 2016

A Triple Threat at Pulborough Brooks

A belated happy new year to you!

What a hectic few weeks I've had and sadly no time for any birding. I was on hides and trails at Pulborough the Sunday before last but this glorious weather we've been having meant that visibility was bad and very few birds were out other than the ducks and waders. It wasn't the best start to 2016. However, when I was last out on the reserve, three weeks ago, I had an absolute cracker of a day and nearly suffered whiplash trying to watch everything at once!

The first part of the day was relatively uneventful. There were a couple of perched buzzards at West Mead and Winpenny and the odd snipe hiding in the long grass. It all started to get much more interesting once myself and Graham made our way to Hanger View. One of the largest trees to the left of the view is known as the "peregrine tree", so-named because, in the past, a female peregrine was frequently spotted perched on the branches. This was the first I'd heard of it since starting at Pulborough a couple of years ago. It would seem that a new female-a ringed juvy born at Amberley-has taken up this tradition as she was there for several hours on this particular day, preening herself after a wash. This was enough to keep me entertained for some time. The position of the tree gave me relatively close views of her with just my bins.

Several visitors were with us at the view and naturally everyone had their attention fixed on the peregrine, with the occasional shout of "bullfinch in the sloe bushes!" (I counted three females and two males at one point) One lady I was speaking to said that she and her husband had seen a very distant short-eared owl when they were down in Little Hanger hide. She kindly pointed me in the direction they'd been looking, which fell just behind where our falcon was perched. Literally as I focused my bins past her and onto the river bank, I had a shortie in my sights immediately! I was tickled by the fact that we'd all been so distracted by the peregrine that we'd been missing out on other exciting sightings. It didn't stop there though.

As the other visitors became aware of the shortie, all scopes and bins refocused and followed its progress. Not long after this, after the owl dropped out of sight then reappeared in two different places, we realised there were now two quartering the riverbank. One of them landed on a fence post and a visitor was kind enough to let me look through his scope, so I could have my first close-up view of this stunning bird. I could see the characteristic piercing yellow eyes and very round facial disc.

Everyone's attention was now divided, with some back to watching the peregrine, some looking in the berry bushes for bullfinches and some chatting with each other. Many of us had lost sight of the shorties and I was scanning the banks trying to relocate them. As I brought my bins upwards, I saw both of them circling higher up, along with another bird. It most definitely wasn't a third owl though, something I realised the second I caught sight of the forked tail-a red kite! The two shorties were circling above the kite and taking turns to dive on him. At this point, the peregrine took off from her perch and joined in with the assault on the poor kite. It was quite a sight to see! 

The kite didn't hang around for long, not that he was really given a choice. Being attacked by two owls and a falcon is enough to make anyone feel unwanted! After he cleared off, it seemed the owls weren't keen on hanging around either and we lost sight of both of them. The peregrine did come back to rest in the same tree again, apparently quite pleased with her contribution to the aerial display. 

I haven't been doing hides and trails for long so I don't have a huge pool of experiences to make comparisons with, however, I can confidently say that this particular day was the best I've had on the reserve so far. I couldn't have asked for more; three species of raptor all at once and showing in a spectacular fashion! Fantastic.

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Out with the old (patch) and in with the new!

It all happened rather fast after an extremely long process; my parents and I are now living in Midhurst. We moved from our Southwater house exactly a week before Christmas (!) and into the place my mum and step-dad bought together in the beautiful historic town of Midhurst, found smack-bang in the middle of the South Downs National Park.

Given the option, I don't think I would have chosen to move away from where we were before. I was so spoilt by the rural location of our cottage, being fully immersed in nature and not being able to look out of the window without seeing some form of wildlife. I talked about this in my guest post for A Focus On Nature but, in a nutshell, living in Southwater and immersing myself in the natural world were the reasons I decided to pursue conservation as a career. I have had some amazing experiences in that quiet corner of West Sussex.

Our old back garden bordered a huge expanse of woodland and so we had all sorts of creatures visiting the feeders. I discovered the undeniable quirky character of the nuthatch, now my favourite garden bird, and was treated to frequent close sightings of great-spotted woodpeckers, including a male and female pair feeding their two juveniles on the peanuts. We regularly had goldcrests hopping about in the bushes, the occasional visit from goldfinches, long-tailed tits and bullfinches, the odd treecreeper clinging to the oak tree and even a couple of redwing stopped by briefly on their way through. I think the most exciting sighting I had was actually one of the last before we moved, seen from the kitchen window, and that was a firecrest!

In the three years we lived there, we had five different species of bird nesting in the garden, though not all with successful broods. The first year the nestbox went up, the blue tits moved in straight away and their chicks fledged with success, spending the next couple of weeks using our feeding station to learn how to feed. At the same time, a few metres above the box, a pair of nuthatches spent weeks lining a hole in the oak trunk with mud until it was only big enough for the parents to fit through and then flew back and forth with food for their chicks. I didn't see them fledge so can only hope they did so successfully.

 The following year the great tits decided it was their turn in the box and the same thing happened; I saw a flock of juvenile great tits on the feeders and made the assumption that they had come from our box. Elsewhere in the garden, a female blackbird had decided the hedge next to our kitchen was the perfect place to build her nest, and I spent many moments at the window watching her return with her beak stuffed with twigs and moss. She laid three eggs which all hatched, but sadly, the day after, they had disappeared from the nest. I put this down to either corvids or woodpeckers. In a separate bush at the same time, long-tailed tits built themselves an impressive ball of feathers, moss, horse hair and lichen. Unfortunately this didn't even see eggs as it was destroyed by a predator of some form before the family returned to lay any.

I explored quite a bit of the woodland surrounding our old house where I had some close encounters with roe deer on several occasions. The first one was with a doe and her very young fawn, so young it still had its spots. I remember holding my breath and not moving a muscle from where I was stood, while my heart beat wildly in excitement. We frequently had deer crossing in front of the house too and so I was often able to watch them from the front garden. I always felt grateful to be so close to such beautiful animals in the wild and still do.

I also built a mini wildlife pond not long after we first moved in. I would have loved to construct a full-sized one with plants but the house (and garden) were rented so that wasn't an option. It didn't seem to bother the local amphibians that my pond was only small; I had both toads and frogs frequent it right up until the last few weeks, when there were two resident frogs living under the pile of rocks surrounding it. 

It's actually quite difficult to look back on three years worth of experiences and remember each and every one in perfect detail. The big ones have stuck with me, naturally, but there were others that would have just become blurry in my memory if I hadn't have blogged about them. I'm definitely going to be better with recording what I see, hear etc. if only so that when I move away from this patch eventually, I'll be able to look back as I'm doing now and recall everything over and over.

The feeling of leaving was bittersweet. I was worried that moving to a slightly more suburban area, albeit with a small patch of woodland behind the house, would mean less variety of garden birds. I have absolutely nothing against blue tits and starlings, as many of you will know from this article I wrote back in October , but I knew I would miss seeing the nuthatch and woodpeckers especially! 

It turns out I didn't need to worry. The first bird I spotted after moving in was a goldcrest! And not a goldcrest in the distance through bins. Nope, this was in a small tree in our neighbours front garden, about 6ft from our window. I took that to be a good sign. Since then we've had goldfinches and long-tailed tits on the feeders, a song thrush in the front garden and two great-spotted woodpeckers fly over, chuck-chucking as they went. It's looking like this patch won't be letting me down any time soon.