Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Double Buzzard!

Once is lucky, twice looks like a pattern...

I saw a Common Buzzard in Roberts Park, Saltaire, the other day. Not something you see every day in a manicured, suburban, West Yorksire park, but a Buzzard nonetheless. It was a particularly pale individual, but these are variable birds. Its markings and general size and shape all added up to Common Buzzard - broad, pale underwings with dark primary tips, shortish wide tail, cream-coloured underside with brown speckles, darker brown upperparts, right size and shape, etc. I also checked with Salts Estates at the nearby Salts Mill that no falconer had been operating in the area (they have previously used Harris Hawk and Lanner Falcon to control pigeons on the Mill), but they stopped using falconers in 2010.

But today, I saw another one, but half a mile away. I was picking my daughter up from Rainbows (Brownies for under 7s), when a large bulky bird caught my eye, seemingly quartering the park in the distance. I watched it for maybe 30 seconds, then a further 10 seconds from a longer distance. My two-year-old son was running around the busy car park so I was struggling to concentrate, but I did get my bins on it for 10 seconds or so.

The bird was maybe 300 metres away at first, heading slowly west - it came slightly closer. It was over Northcliffe Park when I first saw it and appeared to be hunting. At first I thought it might be a Red Kite, as it had a lazy flapping motion and slightly shaggy appearance, holding it's wings in a shallow V (almost Marsh Harrier-like, though not so pronounced). There ware no marking on the upperwings - they were pretty uniformly dark brown. I ruled out female Sparrowhawk because of the bulk of the bird (it was much bigger than the Jackdaws that eventually came to mob it) and the slow, almost laboured, wing-flapping.

It was a much darker bird than the one I saw last week in Saltaire - a different individual. This bird's underwings had mostly thick dark brown/black edges, white/buff away from the edges. The breast/belly on the Roberts Park bird was the colour of pine furniture (I've just moved house, so I'm in soft-furnishings mode) whereas this guy was more mahogany. The wings were broad and the breast  deep. I saw no barring underwing, under tail, or on the breast.  Not an escaped Harris Hawk, and no Sparrowhawk - too big, dark, shaggy and bulky. No pale rump, tail-base, or flanks.

So, I'm certain it was a Common Buzzard, and a different individual than last week's bird. Believe me, Buzzards are not common round our way. Could a pair have taken up residence somewhere nearby? Seems unlikely, but... I'll keep 'em peeled.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Learning songs

Earlier this week, at this month's local bird group meeting, I'd been discussing bird songs and calls, and tips on learning them, with my colleague Paul. During a couple of lunchtimes this week, I'd been out birding in local park in the warm weather, and heard a few calls of resident birds and newly-arrived migrants that would be good for a newbie to learn, or for a birder to "get their ear in" in time for the main Spring invasion. So, on Thursday this week we took an hour to wander along the River Aire by Roberts Park in Saltaire.

As ever, the loudest, most bold song was the one that bursts forth from the diminutive Wren. I’m always impressed when the little fella pops up and belts out that busy-yet-controlled call at such high decibels. This was soon followed by the familiar cadence of a Chaffinch. It’s often likened to a fast-bowler’s run-up and delivery in cricket, and having just spent seven weeks watching the beautiful game during the brilliant 2011 Cricket World Cup, I have to agree it’s a great way to remember the rhythm of that call.

The newly arrived Chiffchaff called his name from over the river, in between pecks around the branches and sorties for insects on the wing. At the same moment, an obliging Great Tit did his “teacher teacher” call, to help us eliminate the only vaguely similar call from our Chiffchaff enquiries. Its cousin, the Blue Tit, did its familiar song too. It’s often the first recognisable song of Spring I hear, often starting in early January. It starts with a high “peep”, then goes rapidly down a short scale, and finishes (if he’s allowed) with a short section of relatively lower notes that really characterise the song.

Then, one of my favourites; the true sound of Summer: the Willow Warbler. With a song that sounds like someone coming to the end of a long laugh, it has the vibe of a hot summer’s afternoon that reminds me of the lazy summer days of my youth in the Pennines. We’d cycle up the Woodhead Pass to the reservoirs, and after some pranks and dips in the water, I’d sit and listen to the songs of Meadow Pipits and Willow Warblers and dream of seeing a Common Buzzard (yes, they were rare then!).

I find when learning calls, it helps to see the bird as it sings, to cement the connection. Paul managed a shot of the Willow Warbler in full voice.

Willow Warbler, Saltaire (Paul Marfell)

Robin and Dunnock were the next songs to be separated. I find they have similar voices; but the Dunnock has a repetitive song, as if sung from sheet music, whereas the Robin is more of a jazzer, taking the improv approach. Amongst all these calls and the sounds of Blackbird, Wood Pigeon, Magpie, Mallard - not to mention the rushing weir - we picked out a tuneful almost thrush-like warble. Up At the top of the tallest tree, a large grey-white warbler with a black crown sang as it looked for insects in the buds: a male Blackcap.

Blackcap, Saltaire (Paul Marfell)

So, a steady introduction to the sounds of breeding season, and on the way home from work that evening, I had the pleasure of seeing my first Swallow and Sand Martin of the summer.

But most memorably, at 5pm, straight out of the doors from work, I saw a Common Buzzard flying up out of Roberts Park, mobbed by crows, gulls, and practically everything else. Who’d have thought that possible 30 years ago..?