Saturday, 18 April 2015

Byway birds

I have been out and about on the patch today, mostly for necessity, but with time to dawdle for a moment or two, or take the option of the longer route to make the most of the sunshine. The day started well, with a real surprise. At the corner of a path I was stopped in my tracks by a loud, persistent bird call, a high pitched trill that I was sure I recognised but couldn't quite place. I peered upwards into the ivy clad tree, and spotted a movement between the shining triangular leaves. A firecrest, strikingly marked, very mobile and visible, and singing his little heart out! I have spotted one or two firecrests on the patch in the cold winter months, feeding in the hedgerows, but not in the spring and not singing with such gusto. 

All along Jubilee Path, around South Pond, and indeed throughout the patch, spring greening is well underway, and now it has started seems determined to make up for any lost time. Lady's smock lightens the shade with pale pink flowers, signalling the arrival of the orange tip butterfly. These tiny, but bright, white and orange butterflies* dash past with such a cheerful and excited demeanour that they never fail to speed the heart rate up a little. Look out for them along road-sides and sunny path ways at this time of year, as they rush to complete their business before summer truly arrives. 

*These are the male orange tips which are the most obvious, the females lack the orange wing tips and tend to be less conspicuous, intent on feeding and egg laying rather than patrolling and showing off like the males.

The Community Orchard is bursting into life, after long months of twiggy bareness through the winter, blossom adorns many of the small trees and there is more than a hint of green around the buds. A commotion of birds made me look up just in time to watch a large female sparrowhawk drift overhead. Extracting herself from the the mobbing crowd of small birds and corvids, she climbed high into the sky, disappearing against the glare of the sun. 

The willows by the pond are a cascade of green, long leaves and long yellow-tinted catkins. A Grey wagtail has been using the posts around the new planting areas (part of the South Pond Restoration Project) as fly-catching perches, flitting out to plucking insects from the warm air above the slow water and returning to bob and wag its tail on the top of its favoured post.

For once today I was following my own advice - never get parted from your binoculars! I presumed the large bird of prey that was drifting south on the strong wind above the highstreet, whilst I was sat eating my lunch on the squat bridge along the causeway, was a buzzard. My binoculars revealed the truth; a red kite! This is the first time I have seen one at this end of the patch, and this close into town. A few minutes after I lost sight of it, it was later picked up by a family member at home who reported that it was last seen heading towards Pitsham and Bepton, it's more usual territory. 

For some birds it seems spring has already made progress, in the church yard, where holly blue butterflies flittered around the tops of the evergreens, a coal tit was busily attending to the demands of a family of hungry fledglings. 
Amongst the primroses and herb robert, long legged bee-flies hovered like insect-hummingbirds.

Byway birds; seen alongside public byways and on a day when one is busy doing other things and comments about birds tend to start with, "oh and by the way..."

Monday, 6 April 2015

Return of Spring

The last month has been one of 'new things': a new season, a new job, and a new focus. All in all life has been rather busy, and it seems, in the few moments between the rushes here and there, that nature has been quiet. The weather has been a repetitive pattern of grey cloud, chill winds and misty dampness, all rather disappointing and uninspiring. As such, it seems spring made a false start and has been hesitating ever since. Brimstone butterflies that sprung with such exuberance onto the scene have not put in any more appearances, and the trees have remained stubbornly bare. I have seen little sign of blackthorn blossom, or roadside swathes of flowers save the faded early crocus. A bumblebee comes knocking on the window from time to time, and in the garden the primroses light up the shade with lemon yellow, and the roses are shooting, but the sun has still been loosing its fight with the chill winds and late-March storms have buffeted those buds that dared to venture forth. 

I fear that I have neglected my local patch for some weeks, having been somewhat distracted. My observations have been restricted to the jackdaws that make scavenging forays into the carpark at work, the goldcrest that has been singing from my neighbours birch tree, and the wood pigeons that are determined to nest in the rafters of our car port, despite the attentions of the local cats. One morning this week I awoke early, and suspended in the cool air that rode in through the open window on a the first rays of the sun, was a delightful mix of bird song. I recognised the blue tits that are considering nesting in the bird box on the other side of the garden fence, the squabbling sparrows that seem to never run out of things to argue over, and the laughing call of a green woodpecker. The mewling cries of three herring gulls seemed incongruous this far inland. But it was the blackbird that made me smile. For days, two males have been intent on chasing each other throughout the row of gardens, whilst the female obsessively gathers nest material, even filling her beak with mud from the guttering. It was good to hear the blackbird start to sing at last, not in the distance, but proclaiming his territory from last year's favoured perch, the topmost branch of the oak sapling next door. 

This morning dawned similarly. When startled into bleary-eyed consciousness by an early morning text message alert, I could hear the bird song that had pleased me so much that other morning, but soon realised, from its quality, and from the brightness of the sunshine beaming from the east, that today was going to redeem the slow spring and was certainly one of which not a moment should be wasted. 
After hurrying through a few jobs I had put off from the day before, (or was it the day before that?), whilst the rest of the population reached tentatively for the lawn mower and pottered out into the garden as though emerging from hibernation, I headed out in search of any signs that I had not been mistaken when I announced the arrival of spring so keenly just a few weeks ago.

My route took me through the housing estate and onto Pitsham Lane, past New Pond where the reflections in the still waters betrayed the presence of fishermen on the bank, and along the track through the farm, and beyond the cottages by the brickworks to where the track bends round past the manor house. 

A pair of courting buzzards soared high on the thermals, chaffinches and nuthatches called and dunnocks sang loudly. Robins and blackbirds too, a song thrush, blue tits, great tits, and, at last, a chiffchaff. Once I heard the first chiffchaff it seemed every copse and woodland corner had attracted one, each unseen but unmistakable when heard. A slender greenish warbler, at the edge of the old sandpit copse by the farm yard may have been another chiffchaff, taking a break from singing to feed, but I managed to convince myself without too much difficulty, that this was one of the first of the chiffchaff's cousins to arrive from their longer migration, a willow warbler. 

Whilst my ears were pinned to the tree-tops and hedgerows, my eyes were attracted by the brightest of colours as sunny banks were carpeted with lesser celandine, primrose, violets, red dead nettle, barren strawberry and dandelion. 
One of my favourite insects of the spring, the bee-fly, bounced from flower to flower, performing it's pollinating duties impeccably, whilst managing to look completely unique with it's half-furry-bee, half-long-legged-fly appearance. Between the flowers was the promise of later bounty, as in various shades of green the leaves of new plants growing up hinted of what was yet to come; bluebells, stitchwort, garlic mustard and wild rose. Hazel leaves unfolded beside hawthorn leaves, and the great fat sticky buds of the horse chestnut had burst their tough skins.

And did I say I hadn't seen another brimstone butterfly since that first? I lost count after 10! the brightest of yellows, the males patrolled, never slowing, along their chosen bank, field edge or garden plot, whilst the paler greener females sought the nectar the hedgerow flowers advertised. There were other butterflies too; peacocks, red admirals, commas and small tortoiseshells. Perhaps the most exciting was the smallest, spotted as I made my way through the housing estate, its pale silver form flickering along the evergreen hedge. It was a holly blue, my first blue butterfly of the year. 

Easter Monday bank-holiday, and the sun shone warmly. By the time I got home the gardeners all along the street were well into their stride, and so I followed their lead, retreating to my own garden on the pretence of tending to those tidying up jobs that needed attention, but really to sit and listen to the blackbird sing. 

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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