Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Moving House Sparrows

A couple of days ago I saw the best bird I’ve seen all year: a House Sparrow. Of course, I’ve seen thousands of these chirpy chaps over the years, and quite a few this year already; but this bird was different - this bird was in my garden. I’ve not seen one House Sparrow in my garden during the 11 years I’ve lived in this area. Unfortunately, the only way to get one in my garden was to move house.

I saw the bird on the day I moved in, while I was unpacking. The smart male sparrow sat on the ornamental bush in the front garden; it didn’t seem at all fazed by me grinning, pointing, and shouting the good news to my family.

House Sparrow, Howden (Paul Marfell)

We’d lived at our previous address for over a decade, and despite watching out for spadgers all through that time, I didn’t pick one out among the 27 species I did see. Probably due to all the cats. But now we’ve moved a mere 200 metres to a new house, and they’re everywhere. In fact, I’ve spotted them coming in and out of a hole under the eaves of our house – hopefully they’ll nest here – and I’ve seen them carrying nest material in the neighbour’s garden.

It feels apt that I should move in and get excited about these little sparrows on the same weekend as World Sparrow Day. The House Sparrow has been in serious decline over the previous 15 years or so, particularly in England. There's extra bad news for the sparrows in my garden - the second bird I saw over the house on moving day was a Sparrowhawk…

Since moving in I’ve also been watching one of my other favourite birds – Jackdaw. Late in the afternoon I watched as a flock of Jackdaws appeared over the nearby houses, wheeling around acrobatically. It took me a moment to realise the loose flock was made up of pairs, with each pair flying close together, following one another. I'm not sure I’ve seen this paired “sky dance” before – I’m sure I would have noticed this graceful formation flying if I had. It was a dramatic sight, with at least 25 pairs over the garden. After a couple of minutes, the sky cleared and the birds went back to their respective rooftops and continued to drop sticks down chimneys…

More of Paul’s photos from Howden, North Yorkshire, are on Flickr:
Howden Wildlife

Monday, 21 March 2011

You live and learn

Here’s a story: A fastidious birder in Chipping Norton, Oxford, spotted an unusual pigeon during a BTO Garden BirdWatch survey. And although it wasn’t ID’d by the finder, an equally fastidious BTO worker ID’d it as a Rufous Turtle Dove, of the form orientalis (we’re talking, like, really rare.) Fortunately, it was refound a few weeks after the ID was confirmed, in Steve Akers’ back garden, (that’s Number 41, The Leys, Chipping Norton). And Steve, being a generous and laid-back guy, invited everyone round to see it.

Ever since, this bird has been causing a stir in twitching heartland, and twitchers have been causing a stir in the national press. Many people have since visited Steve’s cosy home, stood in stocking feet on the warm tiles in the back room, looking through the French windows at the bird’s singular beauty, while Steve made cuppas on his Aga and totted up the money he was making for BirdLife by way of the £5 entrance fee. And to top it all off, each visitor got to add a new bird to his/her British list. The whole thing sounded like so much fun, I had to pay a visit.

So, one Saturday, I took what I like to call a Don Draper day (you’ll know what I mean if you watch Mad Men). Except I didn’t slink off to spend time with my boho mistress or watch some arthouse movie. I went twitching in Oxfordshire.

It’s a bit of trek from West Yorkshire to Middle England, so I got through a fair few CDs, opting for a couple of easy straighteners to help me along the pre-dawn motorway (Black Sabbath’s Black Sabbath and The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa). I then tried another listen of Deerhunter’s Halcyon Digest. Well, it starts off promisingly enough, with a superb Slowdive-like epic, and takes some interesting turns with sparse solo tracks, great lyrics, and simple guitar-pop (Memory Boy is ace); but ultimately it’s a patchy record. But “patchy” is a lot better than “boring”, which was my thought when I caught them live in 2009…

Felt Mountain by Goldfrapp was the accompaniment to the journey trough the grey pastoralism of the Cotwolds. This record is always a joy to hear, and is surely one of the best records released this century. I mean, how great is Deer Stop?! It’s almost the perfect song, except it doesn’t include a guitar solo, so I’m not sure it qualifies...

Chipping Norton town centre was busy with local people, as you’d expect at 08:30, and so was The Leys, although mostly with birders (plus a wary bloke washing his car and a bemused Tesco delivery guy). I briefly joined a group of purposeful-looking birders stood staring at a fence, before our man Steve beckoned us silently from further up the road, and I was soon stood sweating next to the Aga in the now famous kitchen.

The bird had flown as we filed in, and most people left immediately to go chasing it around the side streets and back gardens. A few of us more patient types waited, sharing tea and conversation with our host, while watching the Bullfinches (seven at once!) and Brambling, among the commoner finches in the garden. The dove teased us for a while, sitting in a tree in next door’s garden. I could just make out the dark grey-black of the tail among the ash keys.

Soon the dove from above came down from its resting place and perched unsteadily on a fence. Lots of cooing from in the kitchen. Then it settled on a stone plinth close to the windows for all to see. Lots of commandments to “keep still!” from the home-owner, and clicking of DSLRs, something like this:

And what a beautiful bird it was – particularly the pristine black-and-white neck lines and those dark, dark wing coverts with their rusty orange fringes. A truly exotic Turtle Dove in Britain, as if the “usual” ones weren’t exotic enough. Well worth the trip.

Now then, while I’d had my feet up at number 41, the news came through the infamous Slat-backed Gull had been seen again that morning on the River Thames. That news, added to a report from previous day, made me decide to go for the gull again. So I jumped in the car and grabbed the nearest CD, which happened to be Granddaddy’s classic The Software Slump, and I was off.

There’s always been something slightly “ELO” about Graddaddy. Maybe it’s because, like Jeff Lynne, Jason Lytle writes songs about things like robots and the weather, as much as about love and death. And like best of Jeff’s often-pompous output, Jason somehow manages to combine cheesy synths with old school song writing and instrumentation. There’s just a vague similarity to both bands that I can’t put my finger on... I dunno, maybe it’s just that their initials are the same.

As I drove, I remembered hearing that it was quite easy to see Red Kite over the M40, and during the course of just two Granddaddy songs I saw an impressive 31 Red Kite over the car and a pair of Common Buzzard. There were certainly more, but I really needed to keep my eyes on the road.

Two hours later, I’m stood staring at the landfill beyond Rainham Marshes. Again. Here's some film, to give you an idea of the scene...

I learnt a lot about gulls in the 2.5 hours I stood there (even picking out a Yellow-legged Gull among the blizzard of gull wings). I also learnt a lot about myself. I don’t think I’ll twitch a rare gull at a tip again, unless it’s nailed on. I mean it: actually nailed on to something. I can’t face many more dips like this. My mood wasn’t helped by suggestions later that the previous days’ sightings were a bit dubious. I’ve no reason to doubt the claims, but if I’d considered the lack of recent convincing photos of the gull, I probably wouldn’t have attempted the twitch. You live and learn.

So, home via the traffic jam known as South Mims on the M25. At least it gave me time to give Radiohead’s new album The King of Limbs a listen or three. I’ll freely admit that I’ve long been indifferent to Radiohead (apart from their first two albums, which I simply don’t like), although they have been pressing all the right buttons and ticking all the right boxes for years. I just haven’t been able to get excited by them. But this album, with its unobtrusive, half-formed ideas and abstract demos that sound like sketches, is actually brilliant. The vocals are bare yet impenetrable, and the brass is both subtle and bold. Despite my previous misgivings about the band, I’ve always rated Radiohead’s rhythm section, and this record belongs to them: simple and complicated. My ears will be open from now. You live and learn…

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Mink Encounter

I did my monthly WeBS count of the River Aire on the way to work this morning (a day late, but Monday was so hectic with the house move happening this week). I walked through Hirst Wood to get to the start point at SE125380. Despite the foggy conditions, the wood was filled with song, as you’d imagine for March: Blackbird, Mistle Thrush, Robin, Wren, Great-spotted Woodpecker, Nuthatch, Blue Tit, Great Tit, Chaffinch, all heard but not seen.

Conversely, it was very quiet on the River Aire around Hirst Wood and Dowley Gap, with just one Mallard and Goosander. As I rounded the corner to the aqueduct, I realised the birds had probably been spooked further downstream by the Mink standing by a small wooden bridge. It glared at me as I approached, allowing me to get within four metres, before it slid into the small stream. It sat up on the opposite bank and stared at me, as bold as brass, twitching its nose, while I cursed myself for forgetting to bring my camera.

The Mink was dark brown all over, save for a whiteish spot on the chin and another blotch on the chest/belly. Smallish, slimmer than a cat, like a big, dark stoat. Otters also frequent this stretch of river, but this was easy to ID as an American Mink, Mustela vison. It eventually swam away, completely unperturbed, as I got a couple of poor shots with my rubbish phone camera. Regardless, it was a pleasure to have shared a few moments with the wily character.

American Mink, Hirst Wood, Shipley, March 2011

As I suspected, the water birds were further on, including seven more Goosander on the flat stretch above Hirst Weir, a Grey Wagtail and two Dipper on the wier itself, and a Kingfisher at Salts Sports.