Sunday, 29 January 2017

Hunting corvids

They make it look easy on the television but I know from bitter experience it may take weeks of planning to arrive at a location and see a specific species or wildlife event. It doesn't happen easily and without those thousands of people on the ground daily cataloguing what is happening in the countryside, the events we witness on programmes like Winterwatch would never happen.
I realised  a year or so back that having travelled across the UK looking at wildlife, that which frequents my local area is a bit of a mystery to me. One I am rectifying, with the hook for this being my beloved corvids.
Every morning and every evening a flotilla of jackdaws and later rooks pass over the house heading north-ish. I know rooks nest in the village but somewhere there is a super roost of jackdaws and rooks. Thus I found myself at 4pm yesterday poised like a gazelle to follow the flock as they flew over. Poised like a gazelle I may have been; but all was anticipation and anti-climax. Though watching wildlife is never an anti-climax.

I haven't counted the nests this year but around 40 rook pairs nest around the village hall and church. As I arrived there were many of these settled in the sunshine on top of the trees by the village hall.  Soon though they departed to another tree nearer the church. No jackdaws yet. 
Corvid watching is often a fruitless business as although many are site specific they can move from area to area depending on food availability in the surrounding farmland. Not knowing where the roost is, unless they came over I had no idea where to look.  Nevertheless I watched a few carrion crows in a sheep field and a buzzard at rest. It was while looking at the buzzard that I heard the familiar jak jak of a jackdaw flock passing overhead. Except they were about 2 miles away and flying in off the sea, and not past where they usually fly.

Well that was disappointing. Watching them through my binoculars they headed in a straight line towards what I thought was towards Clevedon but on checking the map more towards Yatton a few miles away. There is a super-roost nearer Bristol so my only thought was they're heading there. Definitely more leg work needed on the ground to discover more. 

We get little owls around here too so after abandoning any chance of finding a roost site I went off looking for owl. Nothing, but a nice woodpigeon roost, blackbirds in full tik tik call - I did wonder if there was an owl nearby but couldn't see anything, and when almost dark 4 roe deer.

So no corvid roost, and no owls but do you know that doesn't matter at all. Just spending two hours in the local area discovering little pockets of activity was a winner to me. Where the jackdaws go is a mystery, and as I discovered today they flew over at 3pm a whole hour or more earlier than normal due to the heavy rain presumably.
All food for thought for another day.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Results - The Christmas Bird Challenge 2016

For those of you, and there were 10 of you who took part, the results of the 2016 Christmas Bird Challenge are in. And It was a fabulous selection of birding lists from across the United Kingdom. The reason I like this challenge is that it "forces" us all out into the Great Outdoors over the festive period.
Although there were two categories, most from a garden and overall highest species list, the real winners are all of you who took part. Maybe as you enjoyed it so much we should consider an Easter challenge when the migrants will be flooding in. But that's for another day.
And so without further a-do here are the winners and the competition lists from those of you who took part. WELL DONE!!!

Garden Lists :  Winner – Andrew Smith with a whopping 33

Overall Supreme Champion – Stewart Sexton with 90

Here are the results in no particular order - just when they came in.

Iris Bassett – 9 species from around the Bristol area.

Iris wrote "Ducks under the bridge in Pensford near church yard. Quite a few other very small birds, (don't know if chickens and a rooster count).". Ed comment. No Iris domestic chickens or budgies are definitely not allowed :-)

Starlings, Seagulls, Wood pigeons, Blackbirds, Pheasant, Robin, Owl - only heard one, not seen, Woodpecker.

Dr Simon Acey  - We got a total of 85 species – North East and North West. 

Simon a great birder since childhood said " Had an excellent week walking off Christmas excess. Highlight for us was excellent views of a water rail though missed the waxwings... Attached is our list from Dalton Piercy. Don't know if the Black Swan counts - it was in the wild at Saltholme. I think our total is therefore either 84 or 85 "

Ed comment. Sorry Simon I failed completely to download and read your list, but knowing how honest you NHS staff are, it's all okay :-)  Oh and yes a black swan, if it is living wild and not in a captive collection, is allowed.

Stewart Sexton – aka the Boulmer Birder from Northumberland  90

Stewart lives next to the best stretch of coast in Northumberland and has a fantastic blog, where he also posts some of his outstanding bird art. No list from Stewart, but his 90 stands on a nod and a handshake over Facebook !!

Stewart said "Hi Andrew well thats the week done and I finished on a nice clean 90 species. Highlights included Peregrine, Mediterranean Gull, several Kingfishers, Black tailed Godwit, Purple Sandpiper and Grey Plover. Obvious misses were Coot, Meadow Pipit, Skylark, Fieldfare plus many more. I didnt do any twitching or even visit any reserves, all seen just wandering around locally. All tbe best, Stewart. "

Well done Stewart a great win especially if having not visited any reserves.

Andrew Dawes – 80 – South West

A weird year for me doing this. I got to nearly 60 species by Boxing Day and then each day struggled to add more. But overjoyed with the otter on Chrstmas Day, as well as a greenfinch as I'd not seen one of these once ubiquitous finches for over a year.

Christmas Day in the garden - Robin, house sparrow (35+), starling, collared dove, wood pigeon, carrion crow, blackbird, magpie, herring gull, jackdaw, redwing, blue tit, black headed gull, dunnock, great tit. Out and about on the Somerset Levels - buzzard, long tailed tit, grey heron, little egret, pheasant, rook, goldcrest, goldfinch, chaffinch, moorhen, coot, cormorant, teal, OTTER, kingfisher, great crested grebe, wren, marsh harrier, greylag goose, pochard, jay, great spotted woodpecker, kestrel, stonechat, lapwing, widgeon, snipe (flushed from a few feet away - magical views), shoveller, bullfinch, great white egret, gadwall, reed bunting.

Remaining species from Boxing Day - Canada goose, pied wagtail, little grebe, tufted duck, Cetti's warbler, Raven, BITTERN (spotted by Julie in amongst the starlings at roost at Ham Wall),

Sand Bay 27th - my local patch. Curlew, oystercatcher, shelduck, dunlin meadow pipit, grey plover.

Topsham in Devon 28th - Day out with the nearest and dearest but I had to take my bins : Red breasted merganser, avocet, brent goose (bit far away over the mudflats to see if pale or not),bar tailed godwit, black tailed godwit, song thrush, redshank, water rail, goldeneye.

Cheddar reservoir 29th - scaup, common gull, lesser black backed gull, fieldfare (at last!!) grey wagtail, sparrowhawk, green woodpecker.

December 30th - absolutely nothing!

New Years Eve in Wiltshire - Red kite, greenfinch, corn bunting, coal tit and stock dove.

New Years Day - abysmal weather but had an hour at Catcott just to get out - pintail! Last bird of the year.

Ed Drewitt – 86 -  Around the south of England.

Ed is one of the top birders and wildlife experts in the UK and hosts wildlife holidays for organisations like Naturetrek - and what he doesn't know about peregrine feeding habits is not worth knowing. He and his wife Liz almost toppled Stewart.

Ed said " Hello Andrew, Happy New Year! I reached 86 bird species (88 if we combine Liz and me together). Highlights include four red-throated divers, hen harrier, corn buntings, thousands of knot and wonderful views of waders at high tide on the Isle of Sheppey, Bewick's swans, all the winter thrushes, barn owl, stonechat and nuthatch. Hope you had a good festive season - our birds have been busy in the garden. Best wishes Ed "

Julie Rana – 15 from the stables in Northumberland.

Great list Julie, good to know the horse fields are alive with birds, I hope this has sparked more interest - I know it has as you'll be doing the Garden Birdwatch soon with your son. Good luck with that.

Julie said " Bird race - Stable yard and winter field., Choppington, Northumberland. Buzzard, robin, chaffinch, blue tit, crow, common gull, starling, pheasant, jay, blackbird, collared dove, wood pigeon, racing pigeon, wren, partridge. xx "

Gill Brown – 49  in total from around North Somerset.

Gill is one of natures champions - a dormouse and otter expert and passionate about all wildlife in her local area and beyond. It is people like Gill who spend hours a week helping wildlife.

Gill said "Facebook managed to lose the message I sent with this! The best birding days were taken up with family but we did brave the rain yesterday and spent a rather dull afternoon on the Severn Estuary. Great fun though and I would definitely do it again. Thanks Andrew!"

Garden - 18
Blue tit, Great tit, Goldfinch, Blackbird, Wood Pigeon, Collared dove, House sparrow, Long tailed tit
Magpie, Black headed gull, Starling, Greater spotted woodpecker, Tawny owl, Robin, Wren, Carrion crow, Dunnock, Jackdaw

Out and About – 31

(Land Yeo Valley and Towerhouse Wood, Backwell Lake, Clevedon sea wall, Severn Beach, New Passage, Aust, Strawberry Line, The Causeway on Nailsea Moor)
Mute swan, Shoveller duck, Tufted duck, Mallard duck, Feral pigeon, Green woodpecker, Curlew
Reed bunting, Skylark, Shellduck, Stonechat, Lapwing, Oystercatcher, Greenfinch, Kingfisher, Herring gull, Moorhen, Buzzard, Meadow pipit, Raven, Pied Wagtail, Canada Goose, Redshank, Dunlin, Grey Heron, Coot, Little egret, Cormorant, Water rail, Rook, Song thrush.

Andrew Smith –  33 - North Yorkshire

Andrew's 33 from and around his garden is a great total - we did have a long FB discussion about the hooded crow (normally not seen in England) and having done some searching a couple of records were put in from Durham and North Yorkshire over Christmas too. So the 33 stands.... next time a photo Andrew - we'd love to see this in Yorks.

Andrew said " Have really enjoyed this - I feel privileged to have seen these all from my own house / garden "

1. Blackbird 2. Goldfinch 3. Great Tit 4. Blue Tit 5. Cole Tit 6. Crow 7. Hooded crow 8. jackdaw9. Collared Dove 10. House Sparrow 11. Tree / Hedge Sparrow 12. Gull 13. Pigeon 14. Wood Pigeon 15. Starling 16. Robin 17, Pheasant 18. Chaffinch 19.Fieldfare 20.geese (Barnacle) 21. Blackcap 22. Greater Spotted Woodpecker ( Male ) 23. Lapwing 24. Wren 25. Kestrel 26. Canada Goose 27. Black Headed Gull 28. Greenfinch 29. Grey wagtail 30. Mallard 31. Brambling 32. Tree creeper 33. Sparrow hawk

Richard Comont – 38 - Malverns and Cheshire

Richard is one of life's greats - and so young :-) A superb entomologist now bringing his unique way to Bumblebee Conservation. As a Dr PhD id have expected nothing less than Richards spread-sheet with both species and detailed information. If you ever get a chance to meet Richard at an event, you must. Great man.

Richard said " Hi Andrew, My sightings attached - 38 species in all, all from walking the dog on the Malverns plus a drive up to Cheshire.  Highlights were ravens, a pair of peregrines, and the first bullfinches I've seen in a long time! Cheers, Richard"

Collared Dove, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Black-headed Gull, Pheasant, Rock Dove, Starling, Lapwing, Grey Heron, Coot, Mallard, Mute Swan, Woodpigeon, Blue Tit, Jackdaw, Blackbird, Goldfinch, Fieldfare, Redwing, Chaffinch, House Sparrow, Canada Goose, Carrion Crow, Robin, Black-headed Gull, Tawny Owl, Raven, Song Thrush, Wren, Bullfinch, Green Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tit, Buzzard, Jay, Peregrine, Dunnock, Magpie.

Miranda Bell – 19  from Herefordshire

Miranda and her husband has just moved back to Hay on Wye after years in France and someone I met through blogging - having blogged about her wonderful wildlife rich garden in Brittany. However we've never met, but in 2017 plan to rectify this.

Miranda said " Hi Andrew  Hope you've both had a great Christmas...here are a list of birds seen in our garden here near Hay from 28 Dec – 1 Jan...not that impressive compared to others I’m sure. The highlight was the female Bullfinch – see so few of these now. Look forward to hearing how other people got on!"

Great tit,  Blue tit, Coal tit, Robin, Dunnock, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Buzzard, Chaffinch, Song thrush, Gold Crest, Bullfinch, Fieldfare, Starling, Blackbird, Long tailed tit, Crow, Wren, Magpie, Redwing

And last but by no means least....

Lyn Hunt – Dorset – 15 Garden

Lyn is another one of my blogging contacts and another I have not met although we used to frequent the same areas of Dorset.  Great to have your garden list Lyn, and on one day. Now here's a thought, you have 15 - how many at the end of 2017?

Lyn said " I saw 15 different varieties of birds in our garden on the 1st January, does that count?
Sparrows, Starlings, Dunnock, Blackbirds, Robin, Great Spotted Woodpecker, Blue Tit, Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Carrion Crow, Wood Pigeon, Jackdaw, Nuthatch, Great Tit"

Thank you all for taking part - I hope you all enjoyed it, enjoyed working out what the birds were and above all enjoyed being out and about in nature. If I have missed anyone out, please do let me know and I'll rectify this.

Now where are my bins.............

Sunday, 1 January 2017

A Damp Grey Wet New Years Day 2017

Down here in Somerset it is a damp, grey and very wet start to 2017. The ran began about 7am and as I write this around 1pm, it is still 'dreek'  A day for staying in, candles on and the fire warming the ancient bones.

I did have an offer to go to Slimbridge today with a friend who is in the Bristol Ornithological Society, but birding in the wet is something I no longer do. I had enough of that yesterday in Wiltshire, a wet cold county in winter. 

So I have resigned myself to a fairly low score on the Facebook bird race I suggested to those out there willing to give it a go. I'll not post numbers here yet, save to say having got over 50 by Boxing Day, each day since then has seen my score only increase by one or two new species. Partly weather and partly doing other things over Christmas. Many quite common species (until yesterday no coal tit, green woodpecker or fieldfare) and most birds of prey have escaped my binoculars this year. It fascinates me that in some years this bird race has been easy, birds flowing into view, and others, like this year, struggling. Looking back the NHU bird cup started 14 years ago. 

This year also see the tenth year of my blogging. The halcyon days were 2008-2009 when I seemed to blog about wildlife every other day. With the arrival of Twitter into my life in 2010 (which I no longer do) and Facebook in 2011 my blogging suffered, except in 2014 when I blogged an image a day to celebrate my 50th year. I've missed blogging and taking the opportunity today to revisit some of the posts, they, like a diary, take me back to a place and time. 

Thus my one and only resolution for 2017 is to blog about wildlife and the countryside once more. I'll end with a posting from January 3rd 2008 January 3rd 2008.  I'm not going to make that total this year!!

Happy New Year to everyone reading this and if you can suggest new blogs to visit, let me know. I wish to expand my horizons.

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Just a bit of Go-Pro fun at Christmas

I've had a GoPro for a while now but hardly use it, but it does have it's uses....


Happy birding everybody.....it is the new Rock n Roll !!

Monday, 26 December 2016

Christmas Bird Race 2016

For many years I part helped organise a Christmas Bird Race in the BBC's Natural History Unit where I worked. It was just a bit of fun but did involve some serious competition between half a dozen top UK birders. The highest total was 136 (if my memory serves me right) by Mike Dilger who sort of had an advantage as he was in Ireland, Scotland and Wales as well as England and scored some blinders of species from the Irish Sea Ferry.

In most years though the race was between myself (I never won, always the bridesmaid), Stephen Moss the author and top birder, Brett Westwood, possibly the best naturalist in the business and Rob Collis an excellent birder. The last official race was competed in 2014/15 and won by Rob Collis. Sadly since then the BBC and the Natural History Unit reorganized, many staff have flown the nest, including myself, who found my world of wildlife radio disbanded as the NHU moved over to a commercial business model.

But like they say all good things come to an end - or do they? 

I've taking it upon myself to resurrect the Bird Race on Facebook for those friends and friends of friends of mine who are up for a spot of avian fun over the festive period. I think so far about a dozen or so are up for either the supreme challenge (highest number of species) or the garden challenge (most species seen, heard or flying over a garden). I have a slight advantage here as I can see over 2 miles of farmland to the sea from my garden - is that a rock pipit at Sand Point????  No I'll not cheat, but on Christmas Day I got off to a goodly start, with 46 species.  

However the highlight of the day had to be an otter cub swimming by the bird hide at Canada Lake on the Somerset Levels. Maybe I'll talk more about that in a later posting.

There's still time to enter... for those of you who are not on Facebook as one of my friends. Rules are simple. Two categories, highest number of birds species seen between 00.01 Christmas Day and 23.59 New Years Day, or most seen in a garden during the same time frame. Sent the results to me an on this blog there'll be a Twitch of Fame. Keep-On-Birding.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

The fingers of Autumn

That feeling of the strength of the summer imperceptibly starting to wane comes stealthily every year through the back door of long late summer days. 

First it is the subtle arrival of an earlier sunset from Mid August. August is for me more a moment of changing seasons than a main fixture in the school holiday rota. For many and I count myself amongst them the first week in August is akin to the warmest and longest of summer days, yet, by its end August feels decidedly autumnal, cool evenings, a creeping damp air and much shorter days. I've just looked up some facts to near where I live. On the 1st of August there was 15 hours and 19 minutes of day length, and of course much longer twilight. The sun rose at 05.37 and set at 20.57. As someone who spends time outdoors I can remember only a few weeks ago looking at the sun setting over Wales at 9pm. By the end of the month, there will be just 13 hours and 33 minutes of day length, close to a 2 hour difference. By then the sun will set before 8pm and not rise until 6.30am. 

Why am I saying this? Well today was the first morning I have risen and it was dark enough to need a light. Admittedly it was a cloudy start to the day, but not until near 6am did it feel as though the day had begun. I know this as I was sat in the garden. Unable to get back to sleep, I made myself a cup of tea and headed onto the patio. Time, 5.30. All was still without. Overnight we had had heavy rain and through the gloom jewels of rain were across many of the leaves and flowers hard by. There was a glorious earthy aroma around me, mixed with wood smoke, from where I know not. Most noticeably however was the absolute lack of wind. It has been like this for a couple of days. Nothing stirred either, it was as if all sound had been switched off by some unseen hand. 

Not long however the call of a wren erupted from the undergrowth closely followed by a robin. The robin I'm used to who has been calling his territorial scone for about a week now, a song that will continue into mid-winter. The difference in August however is that just a few minutes later the soft chittering of house martins was overhead and mixed beautifully with the robin song. At first I could not see where this was coming from, but then high high up in the sky a half dozen dark spots zig zagged around the sky in crazy circles. The day was waking. 

The time around dawn is possibly the best time to be outdoors. From a near silent landscape, no matter the season, the landscapes offers subtle changes in sound and motion minute by minute as dawn breaks. Today was no exception as by 6.30 I'd been privileged to be under the flightpath of around 100 jak-a-jack jackdaws off to forage somewhere to the south, herring gulls coming inland from their roost to the west, and alongside a few other species such as blue and great tit, the comic circus of house sparrows cascading out of the eves and creating both a deafening din and a cartwheeling mass of brown splodges across the garden. I love these birds which have chosen to live alongside us in the roof space. Regularly we have 50 by the feeders and today it was no exception. They were everywhere and as I have often observed the males were gently feeding juveniles, who with gaping mouth and shimmering wings were attended most dutifully by dad with a soft morsel of worm, bug or grain. 

I've been to many locations around Britain looking at wildlife but an hour or so in the garden matches many a trip to far flung areas. Despite the lack of sun drenched warmth there was still a feeling of summer joy listening to the martin’s overhead, but the autumn season was much in evidence, waiting in the wings. Aside from that scent of earth, the hedge behind the garden is now covered in red berries. Above my head a few gnats jostled for space but other than a single buff tailed bumblebee no other insects came into view. Turning a little too cold in the morning maybe and many will have finished their sexual phase thus larva are hidden from view awaiting their entrance in the years to come. I don’t mind autumn creeping through the back door, but as the day length shortens, I shall miss the long summer nights with screaming swifts around the house, those screams ended on July 23rd this year. May the 4th and they’ll be back.   

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Ferguson System

July 30th 2016 will go down as one of my most amazing memories. A cornucopia of Massey Fergusons beneath the Coventry ring-road is most definitely a first and possibly a sight that will never happen again.  I volunteered myself to head off at 5am on a Saturday morning to record a short report for Radio 4's Farming Today (of which I'm still trying to find a farmer who listens at 05.45 each weekday morning). Even though it was a Saturday, as a Massey fan myself it was a simple calculation, to go or not to go. I arrived at 8am.
The drive up the A46 was the beginning of my own journey, coming up behind a low-loader carrying three vintage Massey's near Evesham, that vision to be replaced by a convoy of 8 Massey's on the three lane highway just south of Coventry, amber flashing warning lights ablaze. Terrific. As was the sight as I peered down from the elevated section of the ring-road. Even as early as 8am, more than 20 Massey's and Fergies were assembling off the back of low loaders, in preparation for today's main event. And that main event was wonderfully named 70 at 70, a celebration the 70th anniversary of the Ferguson TE20 tractor being produced at Coventry's Banner Lane works, once Europe's largest tractor factory. Sadly this closed in 2002, Massey's are now manufactured in Beauvais in France thanks to huge resistance to keep Massey production in the UK by the French government. The site is now a  housing estate.

More than half a million Ferguson TE20's were produced over the decade they were in production before their replacement with the Massey Ferguson 35 following the merger of Massey-Harris and Ferguson. Better known as 'The Little Grey Fergie' these machines did arguably more than any other aspect of agriculture to modernise farming and make it more efficient, a dream of their founder Harry Ferguson. Harry Ferguson's dream was to feed the world with efficiently produced food. Beginning in 1919 he worked for over a decade to perfect his 'Ferguson System' which remained in production for decades before being replaced with modern electronics in the 1990's. However even today his 3 point linkage system is used on most tractors to attach mounted implements. It is a remarkable achievement that 70 years later, many of these simple 20hp tractors are still working.

This event organised by the Coventry Transport Museum was to celebrate the seventy years since the TE20 was produced but tractors from all ages were part of the day, including this flagship of the current range the mighty 400hp MF8737. Yes it is black, and that was a sprayed this colour in celebration of Coventy's bid as a City of Culture, and will remain that colour as it travels about on the exhibition circuit.
A huge difference from the oldest machine in the parade this 1947 TE20 driven by the wonderfully jolly Mr Dodds who was second in the convoy after the 8737.

So to the parade. At 09.45 we were off (Mr Campbell Scott head of Massey PR on a blue number) I'd been promised a seat on one of the MF's in the parade but as it happened seats were in very short supply, so I bagged a lift in the Coventry Transport Museum's land rover making up the rear. Not as atmospheric, but a lot more comfortable.

We chugged through the streets of Coventry, quite slowly, as can be seen from inside the land rover.

Before amassing at the Millennium Square for the official presentation and cake cutting. 

It was amazing to see so many members of the public taking photographs along the route. As Will my driver from the Museum said, the tractor exhibits at the Museum are a huge hit especially with children, more so than cars apparently.

Obviously there for work I did a number of quick interviews with some people there but the most interesting was with a David Walker, the chap in the above image with the baseball cap on. He worked for Massey's for 21 years as a technical writer and was involved with the 100 series right through to the 3900 series.in the late 1980's. Now retired he has written a very readable autobiography of his life. Sometimes these niche autobiographies can be a dry read. Not so Mr Walkers who has the wonderful ability to lift a technical career into a readable gambol through the world of agricultural engineering. He was as entertaining on air too.
Like all good things the day came to an end, for me at least. Switching off the microphone I metamorphosed into a member of the public for half an hour, strolling around the now static displays.

This beautifully preserved and still working MF135 had to be photographed by me as this was the model of tractor I first drove, in fact the first vehicle I ever drove at the age of 14 or so. This model even has the ploughing light on the back which I remember so well. I caught up with its owner later, from Newbury in Berkshire and he explained that it has been restored but like all tractors needs to be worked regularly so continues to do light work around his mostly sheep farm.

I took this image inside a cabbed 135, just for nostalgia reasons....its all so familiar even 30 years after I last drove one.