Tuesday, 27 January 2015

A quiet corner

Isn't it funny how it is often places right on our doorstep that we seem to never get around to visiting. Allow me to introduce you to one such quiet corner I discovered this week; Carron Lane green, cemetery and allotments. 
I first found the area when taking my partner and his dog for a relaxed morning walk on Midhurst Common on Sunday, and couldn't resist popping back on my own for a proper exploration. 

Tucked away at the end of a quiet road, is a clearing at the edge of the common. Wooded heath hustles the open land, crowding around the perimeter of the field but not daring to venture onto the green, as if afraid of the play equipment that quietly await the end of the school day. 
The history of this green is lost, hinted at by boundary banks, camouflaged ribs of fencing, a forgotten roller that is being gradually claimed by the wood in a silent small victory. 

 From the middle of the green you'd struggle to know the cemetery is there at all, but take a peek behind the thick laurel hedging. A suitable peace fills the atmosphere, but it is far from quiet. Flocks of tits and finches call from insulating conifer trees, squirrels carpet the ground beneath a sweeping cedar tree with cone-scales, and from all around comes the tap-tap-tap of carpenters at work. Occasionally one will break the rhythm of his sculpting with a burst of territorial drumming, for these are not human chiselers but great spotted woodpeckers. Weaving between the gravestones, new and ivy-covered alike, over ground that grows mosses, and the remnants of heathers and billberry, the path leads to a discreet iron gate in the hedge. 

One last interruption into the heathland is a hollow, lined with allotments. Bereft of human activity this weekday morning, the plots were instead occupied by avian gardeners. Blackbirds flick fallen leaves, searching for slugs and worms, whilst great and blue tits climb the pea sticks and fruit cages, picking off spiders and sheltering bugs. A shy jay loops between the tree trunks, betrayed by the flash of his white rump.  Silver lichen collects raindrops, nestled between fallen leaves. 

Beyond the allotments the wooded heath eagerly stakes it's claim on the land. Silver birch and stunted oaks jostle with holly, dominated by scot's pine and invasive thuggish sprawls of rhododendron. Where there are breaks in the canopy, the sun-dappled ground is peppered with stumps of felled pines, patches of heather and billberry, and black peat-tinted pools. 

Paths, varyingly trodden, wind across the common, heading this way and that, crossing and forking, on their never ceasing journeys of various purpose. One or two lead back to the allotments, the cemetery, the green, and Carron Lane.

Monday, 19 January 2015

A local patch 'Big-Day'

With winter's grip still holding the countryside firm, wildlife is having a tough time. It is easy to understand why most insects time their life-cycles to avoid being active in this period, whilst reptiles and some mammals are tucked away hibernating. 

The birds are our most conspicuous wildlife at this time of year, visiting our garden bird tables, turning up in unusual places, or simply easier to see with there being no leaves in the trees to hide them. 

And so, what better way to celebrate them, than to dedicate a whole day to birds?! That is exactly what I did today. Inspired by my recent Bird Race adventures, I decided to apply the same idea to the Patch, and see how many species of bird I could find there in just one day. 

So what did I find? And how many? Settle yourself comfortably, maybe brew a cup of tea, and I will recount the story of my "Big-Day".

view of a line of alder and willow trees edging a rushy flood meadow, distant hills behind. Winter morning sunshine.

Making the most of the day required a pre-dawn start (or so I convinced myself last night) but as my alarm startles me into disgruntled semi-wakefulness it really does seem a rather silly hour. Opening the window lets in a blast of cold air that must've been leaning half asleep on the pane, and I am reminded of yesterday evening's weather forecast; dry night clouding over later, heavy frost, icy road conditions, commuting mayhem, cold-snap-photo saturated newsreels... Or in other words, a freezing night and a cold bright frosty morning, just about right for mid-January. 
Just as I am contemplating crawling back under my warm duvet, there comes a sound from somewhere in the garden, half-lit by an insipid streetlamp that glows with less subtle beauty than the moon. I pause to listen and it comes again, stronger this time, in careful deliberate phrasing and high, sweet notes. The robin has started to sing; the first moment of the day. 

A blackbird lets loose a volley of alarm calls, startled by my presence in the cold stillness of the morning. His fussing is cut short by the explosive song of the wren, delivered in all of a hurry and settled with a trill. The energetic squeaking of blue tits filters down from the branches of the silver birch on the edge of the car park. It is 7.30 am and I am standing, not too far from home, in a small industrial estate. A dense stand of fir trees runs the length of the road, marking for those who remember, the route of the disused branch-line railway. At this hour, although the sky is fading, there is not really enough light for the binoculars to be much help, so we have to rely on our ears to identify the other early risers. It is helpful when they shout their name, like the jackdaw flying overhead. A clumsy clattering in the trees is a couple of wood pigeons already intent on spring-wooing. A dunnock sits silhouetted on top of a bush, bursting confidently into song as if certain this time he will remember all the words. He never does. Grey-brown and dumpy, he flicks his tail and dives into the bush, seeming embarrassed by his ever hesitant ending to his simple song. 

The corner of the housing estate is guarded by a gang of house sparrows, but they are too busy arguing amongst themselves to mind, or indeed notice my passing. The gardens are quiet, mostly cars and building materials parked side-by-side, or enclosed by tightly clipped conifer hedges. 
A wheely-bin arrives on the pavement edge, attached to a small girl who hurriedly disappears inside again, as though afraid the approaching bin-lorry might gather her up along with the rubbish if she lingers too long. The crashing and banging of the lorry as it devours the contents of the bins, eating its way slowly along the street, must have woken the starling. It tumbled from its roost behind the barge-boards of an end of terrace house with an irritated squawk, and perched on the TV aerial a few houses along, muttering to itself and straightening it's feathers.

The bustle and rumble of traffic on the main road hint that I am approaching the town. There is still chance to avoid the vehicle fumes and rush, by taking Jubilee Path which runs perpendicular to the road, between gardens and woodland and following the route of the rife. A few metres away from the road and I am enveloped by bird song. Song thrushes repeat their full-throated phrases whilst above them the ringing of tiny bells draws the eye to a flock of goldfinches that adorn the top twigs. Blue and great tits squeak and dash too and fro. Wrens and robins too are joining the vocal cacophony. 
A movement between the trunks is a great spotted woodpecker; a glimpse of bight red on its underparts confirms its identity, before it skill-fully dodges behind the tree trunk. 
Time to pause and enjoy the morning. 

The cold is needling, reminding me it is time to move on. As I count up my list, a collared dove flies out of the wood, passing a magpie that flies back along the path behind me. A distant laugh is the call of a green woodpecker, bring the running total to 17 species. 

South Pond is lightly iced, and a flock of black-headed gulls shout and wheel over the waters like screaming children in the school playground. A moorhen plods around the edge of the island. 
A tinting of the sky marks the sunrise and is reflected in the pond; rippled clouds and peach shades. 
The same colours appear on the breast of the nuthatch, a handsome fellow that clings head-downwards many metres up one of the pond-side trees. I have always liked nuthatches, with their smart, pointed appearance made up of dagger beak, slender body, grey-blue blazer, peach waistcoat and white silk-cravat, finished off with a black bandit eye-mask. I hung around the pond for a few minutes, partly to enjoy watching the nuthatch, whilst also adding a few more species to the list. 

I had a choice now, I could either head straight through the town centre to the end of Cowdray causeway and see what birds could be found over the flood meadows, or I could go to St Ann's Hill first then head along the river to the other end of the causeway. I chose this latter option, hoping for perhaps a glimpse of the elusive foxes that I know have an earth somewhere near the hilltop. Today, the foxes were obviously engaged elsewhere, but I am still glad that I chose St Ann's Hill. 

As I walk between the ancient sweet chestnut trees, the sun breaks through the shroud of cloud, bathing anything east-facing in a magical golden light. I was musing on the history of the low ruinous walls when something made me look up. High overhead, above the tree canopy in a patch of blue sky, is the unmistakable shape of a bird of prey. It took a closer inspection through my binoculars to identify it as a red kite, although it isn't hanging around and seems to be traveling a determined route north. 
A red kite on the patch is always a treat, and it wasn't going to be my only treat of the day! 

Stock doves puff and coo as I leave St Ann to her slumbers, and head out onto the edge of the flood meadows, following the river until I meet the causeway. Two large thrushes are tugging at the berries of a clump of mistletoe high in a linden tree beside Cowdray Ruins. A rare occasion of birds living up to their name; these are mistle thrushes. 
The morning light on the flood meadows is beautiful, slowly softening the frost and picking out the eastern edges of trees and rushes in gold. As I am roughly halfway through my morning route, I decide it is time to stop for a break (and a jam sandwich!) at the squat bridge part way along the causeway. I am busily inspecting the base of each clump of rushes in vain hope of a potential sighting of a cryptically camouflaged snipe, when a loud squealing sound startles me. It is unmistakably a piglet-like call of a water rail! Water rails are a shy, elusive wetland bird, that loves nothing better then skulking around the bottom of rushes and reedbeds, more often heard than spotted. Today however I am lucky, and before too long spot not one but two water rails, dodging in and out of the gaps between the foremost clumps of rushes. They repeatedly call, perhaps in territorial frustration as they are pushed into closer proximity with each other by the bad weather. 
This is the first time I have ever seen water rails on the patch and it is a real highlight of the day. (I tried to catch a photo, but was really too far away, and these birds are notorious for being camera shy!)

Once I eventually drag myself from the water rails, I rapidly add herring gull, grey heron, pied wagtail and cormorant to the list, and find myself back on Jubilee Path wondering how the goldfinch flock I had seen earlier had somehow turned into a flock of siskin. It was as I am watching these siskin, that I spot my 35th species of the day, a little egret flying over, only seen because I am looking upwards!  

The grey wagtail clings to a flimsy hazel twig, bobbing up and down above the rife. This is my first species of the afternoon and another new addition to the list. By now, the list has reached 36 species, and finding anything new is tricky. 
I am very pleased to spot a goldcrest high in a pine tree, as I was surprised not to have already seen one today. Being our smallest bird, the cold weather is particularly tough for them, so I suppose this morning they were roosting and doing all they could to conserve energy and keep warm. 
Continuing along the road I spot another bird which at first I think is another goldcrest but almost immediately know that this is something different and fabulous. A tiny delicate bird, it flitters and hovers around the brambles, feathers olive-green on its back and pale cream on it's underside. It's head is triple striped; white, then black, topped with brightest orange on the crown. This is the rare cousin of the goldcrest; a firecrest. In bramble bushes behind the bus stop. 

The rest of the afternoon had a lot to live up to if it was going to compete with red kite, water rail and firecrest!

I head out onto Pitsham Lane, past New Pond and across Pitsham Farm. Pheasants were more or less expected, but redwing was a nice list addition, as was a very brief view of a bullfinch. As the afternoon cools and heads towards sunset, and my energy too is beginning to fade, a flock flies up from one of the fields. Mostly starlings with a few redwings,  and mixed amongst them, the final bird of the day; a fieldfare!

And so, time to head home for a well earned cup of tea, and leave the birds to head to their own roosts, for another cold and frosty night. 

Bird list: Robin, blue tit, wren, blackbird, carrion crow, wood pigeon, jackdaw, dunnock, house sparrow, starling, song thrush, great spotted woodpecker, magpie, goldfinch, collared dove, rook, great tit, green woodpecker, nuthatch, long tailed tit, black headed gull, moorhen, mallard, chaffinch, canada goose, red kite, stock dove, mistle thrush, water rail, herring gull, grey heron, pied wagtail, cormorant, siskin, little egret, grey wagtail, goldcrest, firecrest, redwing, pheasant, bullfinch, fieldfare. Total: 42 

Monday, 12 January 2015

Wet Days and Bird Days

January would appear to be turning into a month of wild weather! We have had plenty of rain here in Sussex, and although it has been very windy, the weather reports for Northern England and Scotland look unpleasant. Hope you are all staying safe out there? 

We have had one break in the weather, and, I think, we made the most of it! Yesterday (Sunday 11th) I headed out from the local patch with a group of other local folk, into what proved to be a cold and windy, but sunny day. We were taking part in an annual tradition, the Sussex Ornithological Society New Year Bird Race. Perhaps you haven't heard of a bird race before? Well, the basic idea is to see as many species of bird as possible within a set boundary of time and location. We headed out into West Sussex, to watch birds for a day, from dawn to dusk. So what was our final total? I have shared the whole story over on my other Blog; sophiecosussex.blogspot.co.uk. You can read a brief write up, and the other team's stories on the Sussex Ornithological Society's website too.

But what about the patch, what's been happening with the wildlife here during all this rain and whilst I've been off chasing birds across the county?  Well it has not been quiet by any means. 

On drier cold nights, when the moon was near full, the local dog fox could be heard barking. On one dark night two foxes could be heard, yickering, whining and yapping in the street. 

The fox isn't the only one to have possibly found a mate. A grey heron visits a neighbour's pond from time to time, but a few days ago it was the huge wingspan of two herons that blotted out the sun as they aimed ungainly for a nearby rooftop.

A little gang of starlings has been visiting the feeders most days, squabbling and bickering, whilst other smaller birds including goldfinches wait in bushes to the side. A goldfinch was on one of the bird feeders a few days ago, swinging in the wind, but it was so wet that its feathers were streaked and it looked as if it's colours had run like a painting in the rain!

I have also seen one of my first signs of spring today along the main road into town, one that seems to get earlier every year; yellow lambs-tails, or in other words, hazel catkins. The catkins are actually the male flower that produces wind-blow pollen. Look carefully at the photo, can you see the tiny red 'sea-anemone' close to the stem, near the top of the catkin? That's the female flower which catches the pollen as the wind blows it. 

Hopefully the weather will improve soon and we can head out onto the patch again under brighter skies. Maybe we will find out where the herons are building their nest (they are usually busy with this quite early in the year), or find out if the rains have wetted up the Cowdray flood meadows enough to attract anything unusual... 

Monday, 5 January 2015

Dear St Ann

Do you remember in a previous blog posting here (click here to read it) I mentioned St Anns Hill? The site of a former Norman castle or keep, it is just a few steps from Midhurst's town centre and overlooks the River Rother and her younger sibling of Cowdray Ruins beyond.

The foundations of the castle, or rather, restored approximations are still visible on the top of the hill, beside a tourist board explaining the history of the site with artists impressions. From between and within the walls, bulbous sweet chestnut trees with ridged bark and branch-socket holes, cover the ground with spiky cases and the sky with sun-catcher leaves. These trees are young compared to the walls, and previous generations lie as fallen giants, heads pointed downhill, on the slopes of the hill. 

Today the weather is overcast and grey, with a dampness that brings a deep chill. But just a few days ago, if you had been standing with me on the sheltered sunny southern slope of St Ann's Hill I am certain you would've declared it Spring! 
Blackbirds were busy with their task of turning over every fallen leaf to give the emerging green access to the light. By the edge of the path I spotted the glossy hearts of celandine leaves, the spikes of bluebells first ventures, and the coiled tongues of wild arum. A woodlouse tottered along the precipice of a brown leaf. 
A layer above, the trees were yet to break their buds, they are old enough to know it's far too early for that, so just the holly and ivy gleamed and glinted in the sun. Higher still, jackdaws wheeled and played in the breeze that caught in the tree tops, chattering and inspecting potential nest holes seeming excited and eager. 

At the top of the hill the wind dipped from the tree tops to skip around the trunks and play hide and seek between the low walls. The leaves of wild strawberries hunkered against the stones, growing from cracks. Sometimes one of a family of foxes slinks away from where it has been sleeping on one of these walls, but today they must've heard my approach, or had more pressing things to do this time. 

The foxes may have been absent, but the birds were busy, aside from the leaf-flicking blackbirds and the playful jackdaws. Blue tits and great tits foraged from bush to bush, robins peered from between the leaves with beady eyes. Wrens appeared like mice and disappeared again into crevices and holes or sat proud, tail cocked and sang from tree stumps. Treecreepers lived up to their name, white undersides breaking their camouflage against the bark. Suddenly a flurry of squeaks and trills all around announced the arrival of the sociable long tailed tits, that bounced and dangled from the thinnest of twigs before moving on as quickly as they came. 
I followed the long tailed tits down the hill to the path along the river. A lone swan sat preening her feathers at the apex of the river's lazy bend, a pair of mallards for company. 

It is nice to know, despite today's return to gloomier weather, that on the sheltered slopes of St Ann's Hill spring growth has begun and a flock of long tailed tits is bouncing through the branches above foraging blackbirds, to the sound of wren song.      

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Nature: Top Tips for 2015

Hello there! How are you feeling? A little sensitive after last night's exuberance, or optimistic and raring to go for another year? 

Either way, there is the perfect answer - Nature. 

Wherever you live there will be some form of nature within a short distance of your home, whether its the pavement trees that clean the traffic-polluted air, the buddleia bushes that have conquered the derelict factory site. It could be a city park, or endless wilderness of high moorland, or a pebbly beach beside where the ferris wheel turns. It could be the glimpse of the sunset behind the hedge on your daily commute home from work, or the collared dove that sits on the TV aerial outside your attic window. 
Whatever and where ever it is, it is there, waiting for you. 
Re-discover, explore, develop a new obsession. 

I am looking forward to watching my Local Patch and reporting on and sharing with you each new sighting and memorable moment, but for now here's my "Top Three Things" to do or look out for over the coming months. 
Why not give one (or two or three!) a go yourself?

Join in some Citizen Science!

24th-25th January, the RSPB will be running their annual Big Garden Birdwatch survey.
Just pick an hour over the weekend, put your feet up with a cup of tea, write down any birds you see in your garden, and send in the results when you're done! And don't worry if you don't see many, or even any birds, because knowing what is not there is just as useful to the science as knowing what is there!
For more details, how to take part, and why it is important, go to : https://www.rspb.org.uk/birdwatch/how-to-take-part/ 

Phenology: or in other words, studying the seasons and nature's cycles. 
Did the oak leaves burst before the ash leaves last year, or are the primroses on the bank by the bus stop seeming to flower earlier with every spring?
Recording flowering times and leaf bud bust, arrival of migrant birds, the first butterflies, tadpoles in your pond or birds nesting, is a great way to help scientists understand what is happening to local, and global climate and wildlife. 

The Woodland Trust collect this data every year, and all the information on what to look out for and where to record your sightings at the click of a button, is available on their
Nature's Calendar website:  http://www.naturescalendar.org.uk/

Pick a 'Patch'

Why not adopt your own local patch?
What and where you choose is of course up to you, but top tips are:
  1. Choose somewhere close to home, perhaps within walking distance, or on your route to/from work, school/college or uni. 
  2. Choose somewhere with a circular walk if possible, it can be boring doubling back on yourself.
  3. Decide on the boundaries, big enough for variety, but doesn't take all day to visit.
  4. Visit as often as possible - at least every week if you can!

Learn something new

(Photos: left - male orange tip butterfly, right - nightingale)

It is never too late, or too soon, to learn something new! 
Perhaps you are expert at identifying birds - try transferring those skills to wildflowers! 
Can you tell dragonflies apart in flight in seconds? Try shutting your eyes and deciphering bird songs!

Maybe you are new to nature and want to learn more? 
Don't try to tackle everything at once! Instead, try picking a specific group and focusing on learning how to identify those, and then go from there.
Butterflies are a great place to start - there are not so many species as birds and most are very distinctive and often come to gardens!

Look, listen, and most importantly, keep asking questions!

Whatever you do this year, I hope you will continue to join me in explorations of nature on this local patch. 

Please feel free to join in the conversation, or share your own discoveries. Leave a comment on the blog or on the BBC Wildlife Magazine forum Local Patch reporter's discussion board (on the The Oak By The Rife topic if for my attention) at http://www.discoverwildlife.com/forum/local-patch-reporters-f47.html.

Happy New Year!

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 www.sophieco.co.uk, 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 Facebook.com/SophiEcoWild Feedback, comments and audience participation are always welcome! Sophie May Lewis