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 

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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