Sunday, 28 December 2014

Post-Christmas birding

(From the comfort of the kitchen window).

Well, that's Christmas over in a flash. All that preparation, and now the days of nibbling on leftovers! 

The weather here for the past few days has avoided giving us the snow-falls reserved for the northern counties, and aside from heavy rain overnight on Boxing Day, the sky has been kept clear by boisterous, disgruntled winds. 

Standing at the kitchen window (bowl of cold roasties in hand of course), I look out onto our tiny, mid-terrace garden that squeezes between the back wall of the house and the carport, bordered by standard board fencing. Beyond the garden and the rooftop of the carports, rise a pair of old oak trees, pre-dating the house by many a year! They are the haunt of wood pigeon and woodpecker, visited by acorn-gathering jays in the autumn, and a playground for arguing gangs of crows and magpies. The finches and the tits use them, the starlings sit a-top and sing from them. And through each storm and each sunny day, they stand tall and proud and constant, and ever-changing to mark the passing of each season. 

The garden is our little haven, our own patch of land to tend, and we are well aware that we share it with a wide variety of wildlife too. As this kitchen-window-view is about as 'local' as part of a local patch can get, you will find that I will probably blog often about the wildlife that visits; being so accessible and within the boundaries of my Home creates a strong connection with all of the birds and the bees and the bugs and such. I have put a bit of effort into making it as comfortable for these wild visitors and residents as possible. Well, as far as space and practicalities allow at least.  

We have a small pond, and a bird-bath (a homemade affair of an old seed tray, with broken terracotta flower pots as perches, snuggled in at the edge of the flower border). Most of the plants are 'cottage garden' or wild flowers, some of which happily self-seed themselves profusely where ever they choose, and almost all are bee-&-butterfly-&-other-pollinator-friendly varieties. 
In one sunny corner is a solitary bee nesting box; a little wooden 'house' filled with tubes where the solitary bees lay their precious eggs, in the other corner is a collection of bird nest-boxes, of different styles and hung at different heights, in the hope that one will be successful (but every year the birds use the nest-box of my neighbour on the other side of the fence!). 
And I feed the birds. 

What do we get from all this? Satisfaction, and endless entertainment. 

The bird-feeders have been busy the last few mornings, as the birds need to top up their dwindling energy levels after the long cold night, and natural food is trickier to find and access when all is frozen and frosty. 

I have tried to capture a few photos of our recent visitors to share with you.
(They are taken through the window so as not to spook the birds away, so please excuse the slight drop in quality!)

This masked bandit is a Nuthatch. he dashes in and out and steals seeds away to stash in crevices in the bark of the old oak tree. A very smart looking bird; slender and pointed, with a blue-grey cap and back and an apricot waistcoat!

 A mob of starlings descended a few times over the last two days. I refer to them as a 'mob' as they do tend to come in on mass and be a little heavy-handed, but I do love their 'pearly-king' plumage and cheeky, intelligent personality.  

The blackbirds spend most of their time on the ground, and, at the moment at least, seem rather shy.
This is a female, the male is glossy black with a fiery orange bill. 

The robin. Who doesn't love a robin? This little fella (or girl, it's not really possible to tell) is a real character in our garden. He spends most of his time in the gardens along this terrace, flitting from fence to fence, stamping his feet, flicking his tail and scolding me in no uncertain terms when there isn't enough food for his liking, or the neighbour's cat is on patrol, or other birds are on HIS feeders, or indeed it would seem for no reason at all! Grumpy little robin!    

Other birds that visit include both blue and great tits, and the tiny coal tit too. Goldfinches, chaffinch, and greenfinch pop in from time to time, with dunnock, house sparrow, wood pigeons, and my favourite, the tiny scurrying wren. In previous hard winters, when snow has fallen, pied wagtail and grey wagtail have staged feirce battles over grated cheese, and a shy song thrush has visited for his or her share of mealworms and suet. A few weeks ago we had a first (and so far last!) sighting of a marsh tit on the feeders. I hope it returns. 

I seem to have eaten all those cold roast potatoes. I suppose I had better go and tidy up the kitchen, and stop staring out the window...for now. 

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Christmas Morning at the Oak by the Rife

What a beautiful winter's day!

Christmas morning dawned bright and clear. Frost formed last night but it must have been frightened off by the clouds that visited overnight. Now however the sky is pale and blue and the weak sun has just a little warmth. No peaceful lie-in for the birds this morning, they are as lively as the young children down the street who woke with the dawn! 

Robin song fills the cold excited air. Flit, dash, twit, flick, flutter; a winter tit flock passes by, bumbarrels (country-name for long-tailed tits) bounce from twig to twig, dangling like pinkish baubles reflecting the early sunlight and chattering and giggling in high pitched calls from one family member to another. 
House sparrows bustle through the brambles, popping up here and there, as if to check where they are, before barging back into the gossip, and rough and tumble of the flock. 
High in the top branches, basking in the sun, Starlings point their beaks to the sky and sing their strange repertoire to whistles, clicks and 'sci-fi noises'.  
The great spotted woodpecker is beating out a rhythm on the old oak tree. 

Distant, hesitant, I hear the first tuning whistles of the song thrush rehearsing for his role as newly appointed town-cryer come the fickle spring. It is good to hear his voice again.

Whatever you are celebrating at this time of year, may you have a joyful and peaceful time everybody!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Solstice birds.

I think the birds noticed the turning of the year and the returning strength of the sun this morning. 

In the dark of the night, a tawny owl called to the stars from the oak by the rife; that hoot that we all recognise as the call of an owl, mixed with squarks and 'kee-ick's. 
He wasn't alone in his night's vigil. 
The robin sang by the light of the street-lamps and as they switched off and the sun took their place, other birds joined the morning chorus. 

Sparrows chirruped from the eaves, living up to their a cheeky-chappy reputation; have you ever noticed how they seem eternally cheerful? Wish I knew their secret! A wren rattled from deep inside it's bramble-bush. 

The wood pigeons were the next to arrive, appearing from across the pale clouded sky and taking their positions in the tops of the ash trees, coo-ing and woo-ing as if it were spring! 

From somewhere within the branches below the pigeons came a sharp drumming. It came again and another answered it in a different tone. These are great spotted woodpeckers declaring their territory. They drum hard and repetitively with their beaks on the branches or trunks of trees, a call that travels through the woodland and shows their strength and fitness to rivals and potential mates. This year I heard the woodpeckers drumming for the first time on Tuesday (16th December), which is much earlier than usual as it is usually January before I hear them here first, perhaps it is the mild weather we have been having. 

The great spotted's weren't the only woodpecker about this morning. A green woodpecker, or 'yaffle' was shouting the laughing call that gives the bird its alternative name. These woodpeckers feed on ants, and often suffer in cold winters when the ground freezes hard and they cannot access their favourite food. I hope this year is kinder to this stunning bird of brightest green and yellow with a smart red cap. 

Can you believe that this whole list of birds were heard or seen from my home if the first few hours of the morning? 

I did head out onto my patch later on, taking a stroll along Pitsham Lane on my way to join the family for a lunch-time drink at the local pub. 
Starlings whistled on the rooftops of the housing estate, and formed squadrons over the fields. The fields themselves were scattered with corvids, mostly rooks and jackdaws. A robin sat in christmas card style on top of an ivy covered gatepost. As we passed the barns, a flock of wood pigeons scattered in all directions, spooked from their thieving activities in the silage stores, and a posse of pheasants skulked around the edge of the barn yard. 

There are still a few berries on the holly, but the blackbirds are making short work of them, and will be joined no doubt by the flock of thrushes that passed overhead near the pub. Against the grey clouds they were fairly camouflaged, and I had neglected to bring my binoculars, but a 'seep' call led me to guess that there were at least a few redwings amongst their number.  

The weather forecast is set fine for this week, and as we pass the winter solstice tonight, Christmas is only a few days away. 
I wonder what seasonal surprises will turn up this week?
I did catch sight of a flock of finches in the field where the path I take joins Pitsham Lane. Perhaps I will return tomorrow or in the next few days, and take a closer look if they are still around. 

Bird List: tawny owl, robin, wood pigeon, sparrow, wren, great spotted woodpecker, green woodpecker, rook, jackdaw, pheasant, blackbird, starling, redwing. Total: 13 species

Thursday, 18 December 2014

South Pond - the heart of the town

What a dull dreary day it is today; overcast and grey, and damp from last night's rain. It is very tempting to stay snuggled on the sofa for the day, but a short walk, some fresh air and a stretch, will do us good. 

The colours are subdued, road verge mud splattered, and only the ivy retains it's glossy gleam where it's leaves have been washed clean by the rain. The dark boughs of douglas firs and scots pines are bold against the pale sky. This pine belt marks the northerly route of the disused railway I mentioned in a previous blog when we explored Pitsham Farm. It is often my first stop on my way into town, and there is always life here. The deep masses of pine needles knit together to form a long blanket, protecting the gap between them and the trunks of the trees from the worst of the weather all year long. Small birds, such as parties of tits (blue tit, great tit, and coal tit are the three most common here) forage for insects and spiders between the needles, bouncing in groups across the sky. My favourite is the goldcrest. Our smallest bird in the UK the goldcrest weighs about the same as a 20pence coin, and loves pine trees. Listen out for their very high pitched, thin and squeaky calls; I invariably hear these little characters before I spot them flitting and hovering around the branches!

Now, the gardens and streets of the housing estate we have to walk through to get to the destination for today's outing, can be great for birds such as sparrow, starling and collard dove, but I think today we will hurry past and head straight down to South Pond. 

Leaves on the wind, or flocks of finches?

South Pond is in the centre of Midhurst, overlooked by the community centre and car park, and was originally made over 800 years ago as a fishing resource for the local landowning families. The pond, and the woodland along the rife that feeds it, are the focus of a community led project working to restore the area to its former glory and for its future sustainability. Historic, and a valuable community asset, South Pond should be a beauty spot, a community resource and great for wildlife, but neglect has seen this area become unloved and degraded over recent years. The ambitious project includes community engagement, dredging works, planting of wildflowers/native water plants, establishing a reed-bed, improving the physical environment and much more!

Today we will reach the pond from the south, via Jubilee Path, a footpath that follows the route of the rife. This is the same stream that crosses Pitsham Farm, and it flows on from the pond, down The Warfe (where it was channeled to form Midhurst's long forgotten canal) to join the River Rother at the foot of St Ann's Hill. This path is likely to be the first place we see orange tip butterflies in the spring, and hear returning summer migrants such as willow warbler and chiffchaff singing. A Community Orchard has been planted by the Rotary Club on an open patch of ground half way along the path - a scrumped plum from here is one of the best tastes of late summer! 

Blue tit
Today, the path is busy with dog walkers and cyclists on their way to or from the shops or work in town. But we still see a few birds: there is a flock of goldfinches singing and feeding in the top of the tallest alder trees, blue tits call, and that rustle was a blackbird turning over the fallen leaves. A christmas-card-robin is perched in the holly, above the big fallen log that lies in the grass at the end of the path, as the pond itself comes into view. A wooden footbridge crosses the point where the rife enters the pond, the path leading either side of the pond or off into the car park and towards the shops. The north-eastern edge of the pond is bordered by the old Chichester road, once the main route through the town. Water pours over a weir in the corner of the pond, and is tunnelled under the road to roar over a steep drop into a deep still pool on the far side, surrounded by high shear sandstone banks with over hanging vegetation - perfect for kingfishers to nest. A kingfisher does come through here, a zooming flash of blue, but I rarely see it. The pool is next to a house that was once a working mill, and the water pouring down would have provided power. 

Let's go and stand on this road bridge and have a good look at the pond, we can see clearly from there. 

Two islands squat in the muddy waters, both swamped by willow scrub, and one containing an impressive lone swamp cypress tree that towers above the pond. Mallard ducks and black headed gulls are squabbling over some crumbs left on the bank by a passer by. Between the islands is a narrow, shallow channel, where a tall shadowy grey figure stalks. It's a grey heron, a regular visitor to South Pond and one of the many species that will benefit from the South Pond Group's project. 

Grey heron

Canada geese

The restoration work is well underway and we can already see the start of many changes. Birch faggots have been made by local school children on the nearby commons, and are being used to re-enforce the banks and mark out the edges of the new reed bed. The silt being dredged from the bottom of the pond, where it has built up over the past decade or so, is being pumped behind these faggot barriers to create a perfect bed for planting native wetland plants and flowers.  

We will follow the developments of South Pond as the restoration continues, as this is an exciting time for wildlife in the centre of my patch. It will be interesting to see what new species are attracted to the pond during the next year as the planting establishes.

But for now it is getting a bit gloomy and starting to drizzle, so I reckon its time to head back for a cup of tea, a piece of fruit cake, and finish of writing those christmas cards!

This is the third and central section of my patch, with Pitsham Lane and farmland to the southerly directions, and St Ann's hill and the Cowdray Meadows to the north. It is possible to visit all three in one walk, but more often, time allows just a short walk and a few moments in one or the other. I hope you have enjoyed exploring my patch with me and will continue to join me in watching the wildlife and changing seasons across this patch through the coming months. 

Sunday 21st is Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. From this day on, the hours of light slowly stretch out, through the sweet joys of Spring, the first flowers and the warming weather, to the endless days of Summer, before the darkness returns bringing the fruits and mellow mists of Autumn. For nature, this is New Year, and a great time to start watching a Local Patch. Perhaps you will see some similar wildlife in your area, as we find around Midhurst, or discover something wonderful of your own to share. 

Orange-tip butterfly, "The happiest butterfly of Spring", something to look forward to on the patch

Monday, 15 December 2014

I met Jack Frost at Cowdray Meadows

With the festive season well underway, and Christmas itself only 10 days away, Midhurst is looking ever more seasonal. Christmas lights and trees adorn shop windows, and people have been rushing around stocking up on favourite foods...and Brussel-sprouts! A busy weekend for all. I took a few minutes out to take some photos of the frost that coated everything in a white crystalline crust in the early morning. You'd have had to have been out early to catch it, as by the time the sun was risen by mid morning, it was melting and retreating to the shadows. It was the area around Cowdray Ruins on the northern edge of my local patch, that caught me eye, as the sunlight was beautiful across the meadows and through the trees that line the river. 

From the centre of town, a causeway runs, perpendicular to the main street, from busy road to quieter river. Originally the Tudor approach for the now ruined Cowdray House, the raised path today is popular with local towns people and dog walkers, and still provides a safer route when winter rains fill the low flood meadows either side. The damp fertile soil of these flood meadows is enriched and hoof-hollowed by summer grazing of cattle, but by this end of the year the cattle have been taken to drier pastures and already chill water glimmers between the rush clumps. A barn owl used to hunt here, but it has been many years since his ghostly apparition has bothered the voles that squeak between the rough grass and tussocks. 

Despite the plastic bottles, cans and crisp packets that huddle beneath the squat bridge halfway along the causeway, and the varying volume of the traffic from the main road and adjoining car-park and bus station, the Cowdray Meadows are often rich in wildlife. 
Multi-stemmed willows, linden trees with baubles of mistletoe in their crowns, and sepia-tinged alders crowd the meadow margins and shade the bank-sides of the River Rother that borders the north and eastern ends, often lending its waters to the seasonal floods. 
Beside the bridge, a small scattering of willows grow with their feet in the meadow floodwaters, the rushes maturing taller and ungrazed between them. Stonechats are a regular sight here in the winter months, but there is no sign of them yet. I remember an early morning, when the sun shone low between these trees on a pair of roe deer browsing. When it reaches another bridge, this time one that crosses the River Rother and meets the ruins themselves, the path drops down off the causeway, along the edge of the meadows and around the base of a small hill. Atop this hill, under the roots of gnarled chestnut trees are the remains of a Norman castle which has lent its name to the mound; St Anns Hill. Other steeper paths climb up this hill and lead over the top back into town, whilst across on the opposite bank, the polo lawns roll away to a fringe of woodland and distant chimney pots. Russet foxes sometimes slink through the woods, or sunbathe on the low stone castle walls on quiet afternoons and jackdaws and grey squirrels quarrel over crevices and rain-worn holes in the trees. Great giants of fallen trucks rest on blankets of chestnut cases, lulled asleep by the soft "hoo" of stock doves. Blackbirds often chatter in alarm from the bushes, swooping low across the river. 

This time, as I walked, all was still and quiet, except for the robin who sang from a willow by the gate. The low, early morning sun back-lit each grass blade and rush-clump, setting the ice sparkling. Jack Frost had the flood meadows and the trees tight within his cold grip; only the river could not be halted in its ever persistent race to the sea. It will still be flowing and gurgling, ripples tumbling over themselves, even now as we chat. Perhaps the deer have come to the shallow edge at the bend to drink the cool waters. Or just maybe, an otter hunts the glistening fish, in the cold shadows beneath the tree roots that reach out from the eroded soil. We shall look for footprints in the soft mud next time we visit, and see if we can interpret the story they tell, of the night-time life of the river and its meadows. 

St Ann's Hill, the constantly murmuring river, and indeed the ruins of Cowdray house with its mistletoe-topped linden trees and rush-studded flood meadows, are only a few steps from the town centre; the shops and car-parks, the bus station and the traffic lights of pedestrian crossings. And yet they are an oasis of calm, a world of nature I look forward to sharing with you, that is made special by its very 'ordinary-ness' and it's proximity to everyday life. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

A late afternoon stroll along Pitsham Lane

The afternoon sky is a washed out grey, we had a storm last night and it has continued to rain most of the day. But the birds have started to sing, and that means it must be clearing up - they know a thing or two about the weather! 

A brisk walk through the residential estate has led us out onto a public bridal-way, which runs along a farm track between fields, hedges and large oak trees. From here we have a choice; a left turn takes us out into farmland, or a right turn takes us along towards a lake, and out across the road onto Midhurst Common. Let's go right to start with, its not far along to the lake and then we can come back and explore the farm. Watch out for potholes along here! 

To our left a large field stretches, empty pasture at the moment, but sometimes there are cattle grazing here. The edge of the field closest to us is dotted with a few trees, mostly oaks, and a couple of hawthorn bushes. A pheasant was hiding behind that fallen log and runs like a clockwork toy across the field. One of our most recognisable game birds, this was a 'cock' or male pheasant, with a striking bronze plumage separated from a bottle green head by a smart white ring, and ending in a fabulous long tail. Once at a supposedly safe distance, the pheasant stands upright, fluffing out his feathers and with a good flap squawks an alarm call to warn the hen pheasants that are probably crouched down and camouflaged in the long grass and nettles in the margins of the field. 

In the corner of the field, the scattered trees become a small covert, the oaks and hawthorn joined by scrubby willows, tall scott's pines, and slender silver birches. Holly provides denser cover and the grass is longer and coarse, and jostles with bramble, nettles and dock. I saw a treecreeper here earlier in the spring, creeping up one of the pine trees and into a deep crevice with a beakful of insects; food for its chicks. 

A blackbird is tentatively but greedily stealing the berries off the holly, there will be none left by christmas!

We are still close to the housing estate, so there are gardens coming down to our right, but they are hidden behind those large ivy-clad oak trees and bushes. There is a patch of  spiny gorse bushes with yellow flowers, give them a sniff - they smell of coconut! The gorse is said to flower in almost every month with an 'R' in it, so even now on this chilly damp day in December, there are a few bright sunshine coloured flowers. 

The lake comes into view, the track we are following passing right along its edge, whilst the water that flows out of the lake is piped under the track and pours down into a deep gully and flows away through the woodland. The lake is called New Pond and it is used as a fishing lake, but today we have it to ourselves. Well, almost. A small group of five black headed gulls swoop over the water, and another perches on the overhead cables. As it is winter they have lost their black heads, (which are really more chocolate coloured hoods anyway) that are part of their breeding plumage, and just have a few remnant smudges behind their eyes. The gulls are noisy birds, a raucous high cry, their monochrome shades broken by red-ish beak and legs. 

A ripple in the water catches our attention; it is a moorhen making
it's way through the rushes at the edge of the lake, beneath the alder and willow trees. 

At the back of the New Pond a narrow channel leads to a smaller hidden section of the lake, still used for fishing, but quieter and less disturbed. The banks there are thick with rushes and there are water-lilies too, great for dragonflies in the summer, but it is a bit too muddy to get around there today. 

If we carry on along the track just a little way, it comes out onto a road beside some allotments. Across the road is Midhurst Common, which is a large area of wooded heathland and disused sand pits. But I did promise we would explore the farm too so perhaps we will leave that for another day. 

Back past the houses, a smallholding and under a tunnel of trees alongside a small but busy bus depot, the view opens out into farmland, and in the distance the South Downs. On one of the downs is a cliff face that shows up white in the sun, this is the old chalk quarry at Cocking. 

The fields are populated by muddy, curious cattle at this time of year, but in summer are thick with tall rows of maize.  Patchy hedgerows of blackthorn, holly, bramble and dog rose, along with a number of big oak trees, edge the track and the fields. Beyond the furthest field is a small narrow woodland, a rife, or small river, runs through here at the bottom of an embankment. 
The embankment is a steep one and before 1950's would have been the route of the Midhurst branch line railway. 
Our path bends round past a mixture of barns, the centre of the farm where cattle feed and tractors are stored and the young cows are housed. A grey wagtail (badly named, they are more yellow than grey, but then there is another species called a yellow wagtail, and that is more yellow than the yellow-ish grey wagtail, so I suppose it makes sense!) paddles in the puddles ahead, flying away in its characteristic loopy style when it sees us approaching. The grey wagtail's pied cousins strut along the rooftops where plump wood pigeons perch, digesting a crop-full of stolen maize. Ginger and white farm cat blinks sleepily from the top of the straw bales piled high in one of the barns. Does he dream of mice and moonlit nights for hunting? 

Continuing, we pass a row of cottages with chickens in the garden, beside a thriving independent brick works whose history is as long at the railway that used to come through, and between trimmed blackthorn and hawthorn hedges and pasture fields. The big farm house, that I have always called 'the manor house' since a child,  has sparrows chirruping from the guttering of its barn and stables and squabbling in the bushes around the garden. We cross that rife I mentioned earlier, although further up-flow here, it has narrowed to little more than a rushing stream, and under a brick railway bridge, topped with slender trees. A few steps on we come out onto the main road, time to re-trace our steps and head home for a cup of tea. 

Against the sunset, a flock of triangular-winged starlings, crosses the sky heading towards their communal roost somewhere to the west.

The moon, a quarter-past-full, is rising above the rooftops to the east. 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Let's go for a walk

Come on, I want to show you something, or rather, somewhere to be precise. Hurry up and pull on your wellie's we are going for a walk, and it might be a bit muddy! 

This is my 'patch', the area around and about my home and my town where I like to observe nature, from birds to butterflies, and watch how the grand old sussex oaks mark the passing of the seasons. I've been walking here for nearly 14 years and watching what goes on, but until now I have never been as conscientious as I mean to about keeping notes and records of the things I see. It's all been kept in my head however; that morning I saw the kingfisher on New Pond, and the time when the barn owl used to hunt over the flood meadows in front of Cowdray Ruins, and where I always stop to look for the whitethroats that nest in the overgrown old farm pond in the barn yard. But I am getting ahead of myself and carried away, those are past sightings (although in the whitethroats case, a future sighting too, if they survive the return migration this spring), and we want to see what is around now and over the next weeks and months to come. Watch the grey heron stalk the silted-shallows of South Pond, the jackdaws already chattering and inspecting the hollows of the broken sweet chestnuts on St Anns Hill, and wonder how long the fieldfares will stay. 

Over the next few blog posts I will introduce you to the various places and walks, within my overall patch, in the hope that from the Winter Solstice when the year turns and starts afresh, you will accompany me on regular wanderings and nature watchings. This place has been my personal patch for many years and it is now time to share it with you in the hope that it may help you connect with nature and see your own local patch with fresh eyes. 

About Me

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Hello! Thank you for viewing my blogs and profile. I am passionate about the countryside and british wildlife and I hope that this comes through in my blog. I am a nature writer and have been pursuing photography since early teenage years, whilst building a career in conservation. Helping people to reconnect with the natural world is very important to me, whether through direct hands on interaction, education or literature. Please also visit my website, for more information, my current CV, and further examples of writing and photography. You can contact me or keep up to date with new blog posts via Twitter @SophiEcoWild and/or Feedback, comments and audience participation are always welcome! Sophie May Lewis