Thursday, 28 April 2016

shakespeare sonnet to a bird

From where does thy trepid call emit
its high-born shrill upon mine ear?
Thy form is spied now floating as does a leaf 
or feather upon the tumbrous air.
With wings dipped in ink thou writest
tales of thy skill
and valour not matched by any circus acrobat
who awe can fill.
Prince of the marsh, now casting golden eyes upon his realm
with long shanks bearing talons cruel as the Moor's scimitar
that which the moor-hen does fear and more.
This splendant hawk goes down among the standard reeds
and, once down, does rise again
and hence,
does set the standerd in such deeds.
A toe is reached forth,
and scratching head whilst wings are spread
and tail fanned, held in thought
of sweeping after worthy sport-
Thou shall feast once more if careless coney
or tame vole
will not see,
the coming of thy destiny.

Monday, 25 April 2016

tern again

Its head scratching time at the pits again as the migrants continue to trickle through. Dunc came across a couple of Arctic Terns amongst the Commons, so I headed up to the sailing club to see if I could get a few pictures. The flat light helped to capture plumage details, but I was most taken by the structural differences between the two species. The long sharp heads of the Commons contrasted with the rounder-headed, fuller chested Arctics. Even subtle differences such as the amount of white above the gape all go to creating the overall  form.


Tuesday, 19 April 2016

spring here

April cannot decide if Spring is properly with us. One day the last shivers of Winter freeze the buds, the next day the sun caresses the opening leaves and warms the blood.
It would seem the winter has been kind to the Cetti's Warblers. All Around the Pits their livid outbursts signal their presence as never before. Almost every stretch of suitable habitat seems to support one of these invisible shouters.
The Blackcaps and Chiffchaffs have arrived in good numbers also, ensuring that the scrubby woodland is full of song.
At the water's edge the first Sedge Warblers have started tentative bursts of scrambled twittering, while overhead the Marsh harriers are well into the breeding season, males bringing in prey to the incubating females, whose plaintive cries can be heard emanating from the reedbeds.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Arctic Monkey

Mid April, drizzle, wind to the North West in the Ely10 this is time to go looking for the world's longest distance migrant bird - the Arctic Tern.  Last weekend I enjoyed a positively balmy early morning on the coast finding a singing Firecrest and fly catching Redstart to boot.

 Today the thermostat was down 15 degrees and it was not too far off freezing.  When I looked in at Roswell early doors there was a Common Tern and quite a gang of hirundines, I decided to press on to the middle of the Ouse Washes.  Some years ago in the same conditions I had watched an ephemeral, shimmering pack of  25 Arctic Terns storm up the Washes and I had a fancy I could see something similar today if I was lucky.  I did enjoy my time seeing Yellow Wagtails dotted against the black soils like custard spots on chocolate pudding - mmmmm.  Thousand strong Godwit flocks are not unusual through the spring and today a flock of that size or more were carpeting a flood corner. Along the bank a late Stonechat perched up and a Redpoll jibbered overhead.
I even enjoyed watching a French Partridge perched up on some bales but I didn't, between my shivers, see any Terns.
Or Ring Ouzels, which seem to have slipped through undetected, or not at all.  Looking afresh at Roswell on my way return leg a fresh cohort of Terns had arrived. A check through with the bins and yes there was a single Arctic, gorgeous and maybe a thousand miles from anywhere called home.  Heavily, heavily cropped the finer points of identification may be lost in some of these pics but the feel of an Arctic Tern is present in each.
For those who don't mind an spot of anthropomorphising in their children's books I would recommend a childhood favourite of mine.  Starts of with an amazing first person/bird description of flying to limits of height and looking down on North West Scotland returning to a viscerally pictured experience within the bustling colony.  What follows is a travelogue, from birth, of an Arctic Terns first migration loop.  Heady stuff, I'm going to read it again once I've finished my book on trans global shamanic knowledge of DNA communicated from hallucinogenic experiences directly from the molecules themselves - really.



Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Boys are Back in Town

There have been plenty of Great White Egret sightings up and down the Washes over the winter and into the early Spring.  Helen sent the photo's below which show a bird coming into fine summer dress.  With upwards of 4 birds over the winter on the Norfolk stretch it's good to see that some of these big old boys have wandered back on to the brighter side of the county border.


Friday, 8 April 2016

Home and Away

So the main thread of my last weeks birding, based in York, has been to focus on seeing things that I can't readily enjoy within the Ely10.  Cambridgeshire does have one very old record of Red Grouse but neither this or it's even scarcer brethren the Black Grouse could be expected to grace the county until the next Ice Age.  Icy it was on the tops of the Northern Pennines.
An especially early rise was needed to ensure we could see the Black Grouse lek in full swing, and swing it did with over 60 birds seen over 2 leks within a couple of miles of one another.  As the leks dissipated birds spread over more fields and could be seen well picking amongst the sward.  A couple of Snow Bunting flew over, rippling calls through the cold sharp air.  All around Curlew song trembled, Snipe drummed and plaintive Golden Plover calls intermingled with the bubbling communion of the grouse lek.  It was a beautiful series of moments.
At the coast, the photogenic species are scarce but regular visitors to the Ely10 in the right conditions.  
I have seen a Fulmar, many years ago, grounded in a field to the south of Wicken - I don't think there's been another in the Ely10 since. Kittiwakes do move through the Washes in early Spring every year, I've seen a couple in the past and undoubtedly many pass unnoticed.  There has been an occasion when over 100 have moved through during a day and I can only hope that I'm lucky enough to see a similar passage in the future.
Guillemots have been recorded  over the years moving up the tidal systems within the Ely10 and some have been well watched, not unfortunately yet by me.
Gannets have also been recorded with some regularity over the past few years over the Ely10 and I have managed to miss them despite some intense skywatching during protracted spells of overland seabird movement.   These movements are usually, but not exclusively, associated with strong NW winds and inclement weather during September to November.
More frequent but still not a species I have encountered are Seals, there are even records of these having bred at Earith Marina, which seems bizarre.
This young Grey Seal was tucked way on the Brigg at Filey where a Surf Scoter has taken up residence offshore.  It is now moulting into a more adult plumage, the white nape being diagnostic along with the opened winged dive. 
Three species increasingly encountered across Yorkshire are Tree Sparrow, Red Kite and Woodlark.  The Red Kite story is well known and birds are in filling from both the east and west.  Wheeling flocks of 20 or 30 birds can be seen around Leeds and singles from most vantage points during a prolonged skywatch. 

Tree Sparrows did become scarce but reassuringly I saw healthy numbers on the coast and inland. There is much to learn about the population dynamics of this short range migrant which in some parts of the globe is abundant and in others has become scarce or extinct.  The Yorkshire populations have been well supported by conservationists and enlightened landowners alike.  Having seen the Ely10 populations dwindle, there is some signs of small scale local increase a Yorkshire scale bounce back would be welcome.
Woodlarks are a favourite of mine and I could have only dreamt of singing birds on my local Nightjar heath when I were a youth.  Now the Nightjars have near enough given up the ghost in the Vale of York but Woodlark song breaks the dawn and I made time to drink them in.  The Sparrows and Kites will hopefully increase from there current population status in the Ely10. Woodlark has bred twice in Cambridgeshire at Kennet Heath just out of the 10, but are not likely to gain a toe hold again as there is no real habitat.  The few Breck type fields just east of Fordham could just hold a pair and maybe there's a bit of habitat in Chippenham Park somewhere. 
We've definitely lost Willow Tit as a breeding species in Ely10 and Cambridgeshire, I was very keen to locate some during my time in the north.  This is the fastest declining UK breeder and little is clearly evidenced about the causes of decline.  I had a few sites in the Lower Derwent Valley to try and drew a blank but did find a territorial pair on Allerthorpe Common nearby.  I went here on a hunch, a site I'd never visited, and was very pleased to have followed my instincts and read the habitat well.  It was a very wet experience but rewarding spending time with them as they went about their business including some nest site excavation. 
On the way back to the Fens I dropped into Fairburn Ings RSPB where Willow Tits visit the feeders. We didn't see any on the feeders but did find a vocal pair, that stayed high in the birches,  and at Eccup Reservoir nearby I was quite surprised to find a showy pair of Little Ringed Plover on the Dam.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Cache and Carry

According to folklore 'On the third of April come the Cuckoo and the Nightingale'. Surely a fraction early in most years, at least for Cambridgeshire, though if this phrase was coined before the switch to the Gregorian calendar in 1752 then it would place the expected arrival day on what is now April 15th... A flick through the last 10 Cambridgeshire Bird Reports reveals that Cuckoos rarely arrive in the county on or before the 3rd (only twice in that time), but they are usually here by the 15th (which is the latest they've been found (twice) in that time). Nightingales, it appears, generally arrive in the county a fraction earlier than Cuckoos - but again, somewhere between the 3rd and the 15th on average. Interestingly, (ahem), in 2013 Cuckoos began to arrive in Cambridgeshire extra early, with 3 reports on March 24th. Typically, that year marked the latest that Nightingales arrived within the decade. As Winnie-the-Pooh might have observed, you never can tell with birds.

A career as a statistician ruled out, I decided to head over to Wicken Fen, hoping to see if I could find signs of either species. Needless to say, neither obliged, but it was a fine day to be out. Chiffchaffs noisily proclaimed their return, Peacock butterflies flitted about the 'pussy' willow flowers and Marsh Harriers soared effortlessly above the reeds. A pair of Toads ably demonstrated what the season is all about.

Over on Burwell Fen, the Winter order was not yet finished. Short-Eared Owls put on a fine display, with at least 2, but possibly up to 4 birds on show. One individual, whose plumage positively shone in the Spring sunshine, exhibited some interesting behaviour. Twice it caught voles and on both occasions appeared to take them to a (different) tussock of grass and leave them there. No doubt other explanations exist but it looked to me as if the owl were caching food, which I was unaware they did (on one occasion it even appeared to  look round as if checking nobody was watching where it stashed the vole, but that might be pushing it!)...

Further on a Hare ran across the path and bolted away through the grass at impressive speed. As I watched, a slight flicker of movement betrayed a fine male Wheatear down on the cropped grass. A handsome symbol of the changing year.