Thursday, 30 December 2010

The sound approach

The weather has been terrific around here recently, low temperatures and lots of snow: perfect for Winter Solstice and Christmas time. My office is in Salts Mill, and has was very quiet before the Christmas break – mainly because most workers there don’t have the same luxury I have of walking to work, so they’ve been stuck in their cars or homes. I think the mill looks good in any weather, but it’s been particularly presentable recently - here’s a photo I took with my phone as I arrived last week:

Salts Mill, Saltaire

The day after I took the above photo, while at the very same spot, I heard an almighty commotion coming from the tree on the left in the picture. There were at least 15 assorted birds yammering away with their loudest alarm calls at the evergreen bush. The motley crew included Carrion Crow, Magpie, Starling, Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Great Tit, and Blue Tit, and probably others. 

As every birder knows when they hear that kind of rumpus: there must be a top-line predator around, causing consternation further down the found food chain. At first I though there was probably a Tawny Owl in there somewhere, but I realised it would have struggled to fit in that tree. It soon became clear that the object of all the angst was a male Sparrowhawk, who flew to a conifer five metres away. That didn’t stop all the ballyhoo of course – it just moved with it.

I managed to get a short recording of the birds’ clattering. Notice how the commotion dies away rapidly as the Sparrowhawk flies on to its next perch: 
I followed the cacophony as the birds moved from tree to tree, around the allotments, then across the car park, around the toilet block, beside the social club, over to the railway station …until the Sparrowhawk eventually decided to leave town altogether, flying off high over the canal. It’s not easy being a predator.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

On your doorstep

Aha! Something that really is about birds and music. My slightly mad friends in Being747 have followed up the tremendous success of their Amoeba to Zebra shows and CD with a new show called 'In the Valley', about the Dearne Valley, South Yorkshire. Going by their past offerings, it'll be brilliant, informative, and ridiculous, in equal measure. To quote from their site:

"Being 747 were commissioned by the RSPB and the Environment Agency to tell the story of the natural and social history of the Dearne Valley area of South Yorkshire. 'In The Valley' features new songs about revolutions, riverways, recycling, regeneration...and reed warblers. 'On Your Doorstep' encourages the listeners to go out and see what amazing nature surrounds their towns. A more active lifestyle is there for the taking. SO what are you waiting for? On yer bike! "

Here's a taster track from the CD:

Update 24/12/2010

Here are two more tracks. Brilliant, brilliant stuff...

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Ice Station Rodley

 Upper dipping pond, viewed from the visitor centre, Rodley NR

Sometimes, I admit, I find it difficult to drag myself out of bed for the monthly WeBS counts. In the summer they can start at 5am. They're much later in winter, but by then it's dark and cold... But, I never regret it once I'm out there. These mornings have become the highlights of my birding month;  sometimes, when I'm busy, it's the only "real" birding I'll do. Every month I learn something new, about birds, mammals, the reserve, the weather...  And it's fascinating to watch the way the seasons change.

The December WeBS count at Rodley Nature Reserve took place this Sunday, and despite the relatively late start of 09:00, it was still really cold. The thermometer on the post outside the visitor centre confirmed it: -10˚C. Brrrr…

The lagoon was almost completely frozen over, with the birds sandwiched in and around a small area of open water no bigger than your average front room. Some 85 Black-headed Gull and 19 Common Gull jostled for space with Mute Swan, Pochard and Coot. Not much else about apart from the odd Cormorant overhead and a flock of seven Fieldfare (been a bit thin on the ground in these parts so far this winter, especially when compared to the vast numbers of Redwing and Waxwing dripping off every other berry-laden tree).

 The lagoon, viewed from the Lagoon Hide, Rodley NR

Taking account of the ice and snow, and the later start time, we changed our usual route around the reserve. By going around the back of the lagoon we’d be unnecessarily disturbing the birds, and any early visitors; so, after a count from the Lagoon Hide, we decided to concentrate on the river, where much of the waterfowl had relocated to get to open water.

 Rodley Weir, River Aire

The reserve staff had seen otter prints around the weir during the snow in late November. Unfortunately there were no tracks in the area this time, but that’s unsurprising given the size of a dog otter’s territory. Apparently, a dog otter will have a large territory, big enough to overlap several female territories. The male can move through this area very quickly: being at Rodley one day, and as far away as Keighley the next – a distance of 22km.

Apparently. there are plans by the reserve's landowners, Yorkshire Water, to install a fish pass at the back of the reed bed in 2011, at the behest of the Environment Agency. The plan is for a natural-type open channel to cut into the land north of the river, to allow trout and other fish to circumnavigate the weir. Once it's there it will enhance the wildlife on the reserve, though it's a shame it will be constructed during the breeding season.

In the area behind the reed bed is a Partridge feeder, one of many placed around the reserve, mostly in places away from pubic view. We found many Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge tracks going to and from the feeder as we walked, showing how important these were for the birds in winter.

 Pheasant, and possibly Red-legged Partridge, prints

Of course, it’s a good time to look for mammal tracks when there’s snow cover. We found fox and Roe deer tracks in many places around the reserve, particularly near the river. Birds can leave particularly interesting tracks, as they sometimes leave behind imprints of their wings when they take off. The tracks in the photo below were on the decking at the upper dipping pond - probably those of a Blackbird, judging from the impressions left by the primary feathers.

 Bird tracks, probably a Blackbird’s

My personal highlight of the morning was hearing the laughing yelp of a Herring Gull as it flew over the reserve. The call was loud and clear in the still air, and briefly brought the sound of sunny Blackpool to a frozen corner of West Yorkshire. The usual flock of 25+ Stock Dove was wheeling over the field behind the manager’s garden. These lovely doves are often overlooked, but there are one of my favurite birds. Plenty of activity around the feeders on the reserve, as you'd imagine during the severe winter weather, including the welcome sight of two red-listed Willow Tits.

 Work is progressing on the new education room at the visitor centre

Vistors don't usualy arrive too early at Rodley, and the only one was encountered on this quiet day was a chap sat drinking tea in the vistor centre. So, WeBS count all wrapped up by 11:30, with the thermometer now reading a balmy -3˚C…

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Some proper photos

The birding has been a bit thin on the ground recently, mainly due to the weather but also because of commitments like “family” and “friends”. Ho hum. Also, my wife went to All Tomorrow’s Parties last weekend (curated by Belle and Sebastian, so I wasn’t clamouring to go with her), meaning I had three lovely days with the kids, but no “proper” birding.

Fortunately, I've managed to get out a couple of times during my lunch hour (“lunch 40 minutes”, actually), and wander around Robert’s Park, Saltaire. The Redwings are still present and correct, and are much easier to see now the leaves have fallen - I’ll have another go at counting them next time out. A Grey Wagtail has been bobbing around noisily over the field, probably looking for a bare place to land in all the snow. And a lovely first-winter male Goosander has been fishing on the river, entertaining the drinkers and diners in the Boathouse pub.

I occasionally go birding around the park with a work colleague, Paul Marfell, when our lunch times coincide. Paul claims he isn’t a bird-watcher, he just likes photographing them. He claims he’s not much of a photographer either, but he’s a damn sight better than me, although maybe that’s not so difficult. Over the past year or two, his bird knowledge, and photography, have really progressed.

In the summer of 2010, we watched a pair of Kestrels as they nested in Salts Mill. They had chosen to use a deep hole in the Mill wall, created by the recent refurbishment works and viewable from my friend’s desk. Fortunately, further work on the building was delayed, allowing the birds to fledge four young. Paul was able to watch them regularly and noticed that one of the chicks had a foot that was either deformed or had toes missing. It seemed to be several days behind the other three in development. After fledging, one of the juveniles became caught behind netting covering another part of the building, which was there to stop wildlife getting in. Unfortunately, it couldn’t find its way out and died.

Seeing as I haven’t got any recent photos of my own to show, I thought I’d show some of Paul's (with his permission, of course). It feels a bit like cheating - me putting someone else's photos on my blog - but Paul's too modest to shout about them. These were taken around Salts Mill, where we work, and the surrounding area. I hope you like them.

 Kestrels, Salts Mill (Paul Marfell)

 Waxwing, Salts Mill (Paul Marfell)

 Curlew, Baildon Moor (Paul Marfell)
Feral Pigeon, Baildon (Paul Marfell)

Long-tailed Tit, Baildon (Paul Marfell)

More of Paul’s photos are on Flickr:
Birds at Baildon and Shipley
Kestrels at Salt's Mill 2010

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Soundtrack to Winter

I love Winter. It’s the booze and salty-snack season. It's also a great bird-watching season. The birds are often easier to see: less foliage to hide those pesky passerines; ice forcing things like Water Rail and Bittern out to feed… And there’s the added bonus of there being fewer people around clogging up the countryside. Unfortunately, the birds are often harder to get to during winter, thanks to family commitments, fewer daylight hours, and the odd hangover.

We're having another proper winter this year - record low temperatures and snowfalls. It's usually around this time of year that I find I’m drawn to certain music that seems inherently associated with the shorter days and colder weather. Generally, it’s music I bought or listened to previously, during a particularly memorable winter. As the nights draw in, I start listening to those same songs again. I guess this reinforces the association: it makes winter feel more like winter when I hear them. Does everybody do this, or is it just me?

Here is a list of some of this music, with an attempt at explaining why I just have to listen to it once winter kicks in. I’m guessing it's available for free on Spotify or somewhere out there:

Saturn Ascension Experiments by Union Wireless - A few years back, I spent a weekend in Scotland roadie-ing for Leeds band Chest, and this beauty was the only tape in the Transit. We decided to set off back to Yorkshire just as a blizzard was hitting the Borders, and after around 15 hours of snowdrifts and swaering, and a fair few listens to this album, we arrived home. Now, whenever I'm sat in a vehicle driving through snow, this LP plays over in my head. Released on the Spanish label, Elefant Records, it has a great lo-fi 70s feel to it, very organic and tube-driven. Each song has a nodding grove, with simple guitar drones and sparse stoner vocals. Someone once described it as Krautrock Moody Blues. Hmmm.

Wire Tapper 10 Compilation - The Wire magazine has produced loads of these great compilations over the years - they are gold mines of wierd and wonderful music. Wire Tapper 10 was given away with the mag’s October 2003 edition. I first listened to it in depth on a trip to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire, that December, on my way to witness a friend getting married on the beach. Among the many brilliant memories of that trip, every track on this double CD became lodged in my mind, forever associated with the east coast of Yorkshire in winter. It’s got some cracking tracks on it, in fact the only slightly dodgy one is by Ui. Even the Laibach song is great, if only because it’s so po-faced as to be completely risible.

Victorialand by The Cocteau Twins - I’m not going to go on about this. It’s my favourite album of all time, and I’ll listen to it at any time of year. A friend of mine once described it as sounding “smudged” - he meant it in a good way, and he’s exactly right. The beautiful songs have a vague, blurry production, so you try to bring them into focus as you listen, adding some of your own character to the music in the process. It’s cold-weather credentials stem from the album title: Victorialand is a reference to an area of Antarctica. The song titles also seem to refer to the Artcic and Antarctic regions. But you never know with the Cocteau Twins.

Varde by Elegi - Now this really is about the Antarctic, but there’s no blissful dream pop here. Inspired by the rescue mission to find the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott, it’s slow, gruelling, modern classical music. Despondent, mournful strings play over ice-picks, shovels and hard breaths – I find it both wretched and seductive. Mark Riley played it on his BBC Radio 6 show last year, and it just made me stop in my tracks.

A Stable Reference by Labradford - I used to listed to this on tape on the train on the way to Falconetti rehearsals. We spent a winter rehearsing in a run-down old mill, where we would need to wear gloves to be able to play. This wonderful record, from this overlooked band, was the ideal soundtrack to a journey by rail through a frosty countryside of moors, rivers, and narrow valleys. I've lost that tape now. Maybe Santa will bring me a new copy for Christmas. Talking of which...

Christmas in the Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album - In a not-so-secret other life, I am a total Star Wars geek. I love practically everything about it, but even in a post-ironic galaxy, far, far beyond kitsch, this record is dreadful. I should have realised that before I introduced my daughter to it. Now it’s on several times a times a day throughout December. I love Star Wars, but not that much.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Massive Heron

No, not that Massive Heron, the kraut-rock slackers from Leeds, but the Grey one that left these tracks at Stockbridge Nature Reserve, near Keighley, on Sunday morning (with Pheasant tracks going in the opposite direction)…

Big foot
I knew they had big feet, but not this big. BTW, that’s my foot, in the brown Adidas Beckenbauer Allround (size 9.5, if you want an accurate scale). Of course, I soon found it was not the ideal footwear for tramping around a partially frozen marsh (at the Bradford Ornithology Group members-only reserve).

 Stockbridge NR, looking East
Stockbridge NR, looking West

Good views of Water Rail at Stockbridge, as usual. They are almost guaranteed on early mornings from November to March. We had a pair of them fighting over the small area of ice-free water this weekend. Good to get confirmation there are at least two on the reserve.

And I finally got my Waxwings for this year (UK year list now a new record 179). A small flock of four were preening in the trees on the far side of the lake, their silhouettes unmistakeable – upright, Starling-like posture, berry-filled pot bellies, low-hanging wings, and of course those crests. They went over the other side of the council waste site to rest and preen in an ash tree, and then (generally in pairs) took turns to fly across the road to the feed in the berry-laden trees behind B&Q, allowing me to go around a get some great close-up views.

Saturday 27th November, and I very generously gave my wife and kids a lift to Leeds to go shopping for shoes. Almost as if it was planned, I realised I could bob on to Swillington Ings and look for the reported Black-throated Diver. So I did, successfully locating, and losing, the diver several times through the fence at St Aidan’s Lake. Bloody impossible to get a photo of it. Seven Whooper Swans on the lake too, plus a great array of ducks. Nice big open area of water – I think the RSPB is currently doing some development work on it.

Nearer to home was a very obliging Grey Phalarope, at Cononley, North Yorkshire, over the weekend of 20th November. Surprisingly it was feeding on the fast-flowing River Aire when I arrived at 08:00, and apparently had been for at least 30 minutes (thanks to the only other birder there for stopping me from walking off in the wrong direction – a very helpful chap). It soon flew south, but dropped in an hour later at the small pool back at Cononley, just south-east of the river. Within seconds, half-a-dozen birders had appeared from nowhere and proceeded to get what I imagine were better photos than mine:

Grey Phalarope. Peachy.

I tell you, it was an absolute peach of a bird - tiny, like a slim winter-plumaged Black-headed Gull seen from a distance; but on closer inspection revealing the lovely dark lines on the head, and the orange-red on the side of the neck and cheeks like soft blusher. It swam around the edges of the pool picking food from the surface with its delicate bill. A real treat to watch.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Watching Swans

Swans. Birmingham 2010. Me watching.

I see the preliminary line up for Primavera Sound 2011 in Barcelona has been published. Looks like there’s plenty to look forward to, with Animal Collective, Broadcast, Suicide and the sublime Swans catching my eye. I may even have the pleasure of wilfully ignoring those unadventurous dullards Belle and Sebastian.

Primavera is a strangely well-behaved festival, held in the balmy evenings of late Mediterranean Spring in what seems like the world’s biggest skate park. The 2009 event had so many of favourite acts (MBV, Jesus Lizard, Neil Young, Sunn 0))), Shellac, Jesu…) that it would be hard to surpass, but the 2011 mix looks intriguing already. Primavera has a knack of getting bands to reform, play outdoors, or perform whole albums, who otherwise wouldn’t anywhere else. It’s also a great opportunity to meet up with some old friends, so I’ll be there.

A few days in Catalonia in spring should also give me a chance to do some birding. Previously, my birding in Barcelona has been reduced to listening to the squawks of Monk Parakeets in the park, and being shat on by a Little Egret at the heronry at the Zoo. In truth, it was my daughter Rowan who bore the brunt of the egret droppings. We learnt that egret caca doesn’t wash out, so Rowan had another year of being wheeled around in a poo-stained buggy, before passing it on to her younger brother…

Unsurprisingly, Barca is a good place to get your eye in with Yellow-legged Gull identification. They’re easy enough when you’re in Spain, but far less so when you are trying to pick them out of Lesser Black-back flock in the winter twilight back in the UK, so any chance to practice should be taken. Perhaps surprisingly, Barcelona it’s not the place to see Mediterranean Gull – at least, I’ve never seen one there. If you want to see one, I’d try throwing some bread around at the car park at Holbeck, Scarborough in winter. Never fails.

The nearest nature reserve to central Barcelona is the Delta del Llobregat, just southwest of the airport. I hear it’s good, but I’ve not yet managed to get there myself due to the road being closed the only time I tried. My friend, a Barcelona resident, once told me of his attempt to get to the reserve by bus to take photographs, only to get off the bus a few stops too early. He tells a good tale, but his story, set against a backdrop of dusty gas stations and boozed-up truckers, and littered with used condoms and handlebar moustaches, has not prompted me to consider a second attempt.

I did once make the trip to nearby Montserrat, the impressive serrated mountain to the west of Barca, as much as a hangover cure than anything else, and it was well worth the effort. Hair of the dog, lungs full of fresh air, Ravens and Crag Martins swooping past at eye level. Then back to town for a few beers… I felt so much better after that.

I doubt I’ll get any bird watching done at Primavera 2011, but I might at least get to see the mighty Swans again. I recently saw them live at Supersonic 2010 in Birmingham, and while there was disappointment amongst my companions that they didn’t have the unrelenting, hammer-to-the-face ferocity of their 80s heyday, I found their display of repressed power truly masterful. You won’t see a more gracefully brutal band – they’re worthy of their name. The work of percussionist Thor Harris on the night was a revelation, playing the tubular bells solo for 20 minutes before the rest of the band came on stage, then using vibraphone, hammered dulcimer, and all kinds of found instruments throughout the show. Incidentally, he also plays with that famously ornithological band, Shearwater.

The Supersonic festival is the complete opposite of Primavera, staged as it is in an old warehouse complex in the industrial quarter of Birmingham, over the last weekend in October. It’s dark, cold and isolated – perfect for the rather wintry music that’s on offer. Amongst the many highlights of this year’s festival were the return of Godflesh, for only their second show since they split in 2002, some excellent dubstep from Dead Fader, an old favourite of mine Zeni Geva, and the wonderful surprise that was Nisennenmondai.

Unfortunately, Birmingham isn’t the place to go to get the best of late-October bird migration, especially if you are only awake during the hours of darkness. So the bird “highlights” were the sombre Jackdaws and Feral Pigeons adding to the downbeat atmosphere of the festival, and massive flock of three Starlings on the church St. Martin in the Bull Ring - hardly enough to get even Kate Humble excited.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Taking notes

I’m sorry to have to report an unfortunate footnote to the story of the Morpeth Squacco Heron I twitched last Saturday. Sadly it died during the night of Tuesday 16 November, apparently from starvation (the varying water level and temperature of the River Wansbeck driving its prey – small fish – deeper, and so out if reach of this relatively small heron).

The carcass was found, and retained, by a visiting twitcher (LGRE, no less) the following morning. This news (the retaining of the carcass, rather than the death itself) has caused much debate among birders and ornithologists about the value to science of the bodies of dead birds, as opposed to good photographic images and field notes. I didn’t get involved, mainly because I don’t know enough about it to contribute constructively, but also because last time I looked that particular forum thread was getting perilously close to proving the infamous Godwin’s Law.

Anyway, this got me thinking about my own rather sorry looking field notes. A quick glance at my drawing of the aforementioned Squacco Heron tells you my notes are unlikely to be requested by the Natural History Museum at Tring any day soon, to be stored in perpetuity for the benefit of future ornithologists…

In my defence, it was very cold that morning, and I’d forgotten my gloves, and I was trying to use as little paper as possible for environmental reasons. Most of my field sketches aren’t this bad – honest; but even so, I’m making a resolution right now to improve my note-taking and field sketches, although I accept they’ll never be as good as these superb drawings. The good news is my ever-resourceful daughter Rowan has made me a new notebook in which to start taking field notes with renewed zeal. So you might well see me tomorrow, out in the field, furiously drawing and writing in this beautiful work of art:

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Getting started

Is there some kind of convention on what you should put in your first blog post? No? Okay, here goes. Let’s start with a big one…

Somehow I’ve managed to have an excellent week’s birding since Wednesday 10th November, and that despite being at work all week and only having limited free time at the weekend. Twitching, lunchtime birding, garden-listing, more twitching, and bird-surveying…

I got the news of a Pied-billed Grebe, near Rochdale, last Tuesday 9th Nov while at work, and in the middle of a free lunch (yes, I know) with a supplier. This would be the first mainland PBG for over a decade, and a new species for me. Turns out the supplier lives near Littleborough and could give me a lift there that very afternoon. That tidy plan came to nowt when I realised I had to be back in time for a parents’ evening at my daughter’s school… So, I was up early the following morning, and arrived at Hollingworth Lake CP with plenty of time to get a really good look at the PBG and be at work for 10:30. Excellent, excellent stuff, though my digi-scoped photos were pretty cruddy (I must remember to clean my scope lenses…).

Some birders have complained about the rather drab and forlorn look of the PBG, but it was perfectly at home on the lake. I thought it was a beauty – especially as it meant I’ve now seen each of the grebe species ever recorded in Britain… The forum threads were buzzing with this one, although, typically, some of the comments were from Daily-Mailers whingeing about the parking tickets they’d got while twitching the it. All because they ignored the visitor centre parking and went to park on double-yellows right next to the bird. And, yes, parking attendants were referred to as “little Hitlers”… Sigh.

Friday 12th Nov, and a lunchtime walk around the newly-refurbed Roberts Park in Saltaire. At least 25 Redwing being chased around the park by some irate Mistle Thrush. By Tuesday 16th, the Redwing numbers were well in excess of 50, with the Blackbird numbers possibly half that. The trees were full of football-rattle calls from the MTs, plus a noisy supporting cast of Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Greenfinch, Coal, Blue, and Great Tit, Robin, Wren, Rook, Jackdaw, BHG… Perhaps I should get off my backside more often at lunchtime, instead of sitting around reading blogs…

So, the weekend and more twitching, this time to Morpeth for a Squacco Heron early Saturday morning with a friend. Despite being bloody difficult to pick out against the riverside grass, even when right in front of you, I did manage some decent shots (btw, photography is not generally my game). Surprisingly small, and with a jaundiced look about it – like a small night-heron in stone-curlew fancy dress.

WeBS count at Rodley NR, Leeds on Sunday morning. The thick fog meant we saw bugger all for the first hour, but it gave me the opportunity to compose some atmospheric pictures.

Great views of Kingfishers (a most reliable place for them), and I added some birds to my Rodley patch list (now a whopping 77), with Little Owl, Song Thrush, Redwing, and Tree Sparrow (none of them WeBS birds). It’s a cracking reserve, particularly if you have small children (much better than, say, Fairburn Ings). Don’t you just hate those grumpy gets who seem to think kids should be kept off reserves?

Oh yeah, Redwings on the garden list on Sunday! Well, on the in-next-door’s-garden list, but seen from the house. An impressive total of 27 now. Impressive because I live in a terraced house in the middle of cat city...

So, it's lunchtime, and I'm off for another trudge around Shipley. Am I the only birder in West Yorkshire not to have seen a Waxwing yet this year..?