Watching warblers

Father’s Day yesterday, and with the children away the opportunity for a day for ourselves and a walk down the Exeter Canal towpath.

No walk for us is ever just a walk, and even if summer birdwatching all too often takes second place to gardens, we took the bins. Just as well: Reed Buntings all day, Goldfinches – at one moment upwards of a dozen in the willow on the opposite bank, Greenfinches (the first we have seen this year), families of Sedge Warblers in the reeds along the canal edge – see my Tumblr photo, Little Egrets, a Great Black-Backed Gull feasting on a very dead and very large fish, Swans, Herons in the air and at the water’s edge, a solitary Curlew, all manner of Tits (including some on bicycles), a Whitethroat, Gulls and Mallard, and Swallows all along the towpath, hawking insects.

And the highlight? Probably a Cetti’s Warbler in full view: we had heard it (as you do) but then there it was, on the top of bush, drowning out everything and everyone.

A perfect day. Calls from two of the children (sadly I still put the mobile in the backpack) and a text from number three.

And home to sit by the pond, have a cup of tea – and to be surprised by a water lily that I remember planting but which didn’t flower at all last year.


The boys are back (again)

We reached Yarner Wood not long past 10.00: our first visit this year and a wonderful sense of anticipation.

Although quite grey down at the car park, it was warm in the hide (nothing much to see – just a pair of Blue Tits exploring one of the nesting boxes ) and as we climbed the path, sun burning off the cloud and the sky turned blue. The woodland is still bare -branched, so it is easy to spot what there is, or isn’t, but it is filled with bird song: all the usual suspects (Robin, Wren, Blackbird, Blue Tit) and also Chiffchaff,  Nuthatches, a Goldcrest, the drumming of one Woodpecker across the valley and another up the hill behind us, and a Raven seeing off a Buzzard.

Add to this Bumblebees on the bilberry, the occasional Peacock butterfly, and Wood ants warmed by the sun and busy.

It was a perfect Sunday morning – and then not one but two male Pied Flycatchers: the first by Box 46, and the second a little further on, engaging in some territorial argy-bargy with a Nuthatch. Last year Pied Flycatchers were  first seen in Yarner on 7 April, and we didn’t see them until 21 April (when I posted The boys are back). They are early this year.

It may only be March, but for us Pied Flycatchers are one of the first signs that summer is really on its way.


A new year of birding

Lured by reports of Bitterns and Harriers, yesterday saw us at Exminster Marshes. Having asked Caroline to park a little closer to the edge, I got out of the passenger door, took a couple of paces backwards and one leg went into the ditch up to my thigh. What I had thought was firm ground was in fact dead reeds over nothing. And I had to clutch at a bank of stinging nettles to haul myself back up. It was not a very auspicious start: and I squelched around for the next hour. It wasn’t that I was cold (I was) but felt such a plonk (plus was quite shaken).

And the birding? Well, no Bitterns, and the Harriers, one Marsh and one Hen, had been sighted but had dropped down, out of sight, about 30 minutes before we arrived. But a Kingfisher, wildfowl everywhere, and the lady Smew preening on the canal. Not a bad trip at all.

Exminster Marshes: early afternoon, New Year's Day 2011

Just a perfect day

The last day of a week’s holiday, and another day out with the birds.

We started the week at the London Wetland Centre – very cold and gloomy, and notwithstanding recent sightings of Bitterns, we didn’t see any (we always arrive at a hide to be told, “You should have been here five minutes ago; you’ll never guess what we have just seen . . .”) – but plenty of Snipe, Tufted Duck, and Coot.

Wednesday was another cold but bright day at Slapton Ley and on the beach at Thurlestone. Shovellers, Tufted Duck and a solitary Little Grebe in the reeds by the Slapton Hide, and plenty of Canada Geese and more Tufted Duck on the water. Robins everywhere, and a Sparrowhawk through the bushes at the edge of the Ley, upsetting the troupe of Longtailed Tits that was bowling along the edge.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Thurlestone – we had to stop in Kingsbridge, where I was living when Caroline and I first met, and stop at the deli at the top of Fore Street and visit Pig Finka.  The marshes behind the NT car park were frozen and there was very little duck around. Instead, there were Oystercatchers and Turnstones on the rocks edging the beach, and a wonderful sunset.

Today we have been at Roadford Lake. We didn’t know quite what to expect – we last visited in January 2009, and had then seen little (and been rained on). This time was different: in the woodland and along the edge, Nuthatches, Great, Blue, Coal, Marsh and Longtailed Tits, Greenfinch, 6 Bullfinches and half an hour later another 9, a Greater Spotted Woodpecker chased off by a solitary Raven gliding through the canopy, Crows, Rooks, Kestrel, Sparrowhawk and Buzzard, Dunnock, Blackbirds, a Song Thrush, Redwings, Goldcrests, Robins and Wrens – and on the water, Coot, Moorhen, Tufted Duck, Mallard, Teal, Widgeon, Gadwall, Pochard, Herons, Great Crested Grebes and a Little Grebe, Shag, 3 Goosanders, and in the last light of late afternoon, a pair of Goldeneye below the bridge.

A perfect day.

Thurlestone Rock and a calm sea
From the bridge at Roadford Lake

Two very different days

Saturday afternoon and  Celia (daughter #4) and I were on the 6th level of the Millenium Stadium, watching Wales lose a game to South Africa that they should have won, and which at half-time they were leading.

The noise from the 60,000 of us watching the game was such that at times it was difficult to think, with what was happening on the pitch mirrored seconds later by the response of the crowd. Warmed up by all that now accompanies a major rugby game in Cardiff, we had seen male voice choirs, the Lostprophets, three base jumpers off the roof, choreographed pulses of fire, before the gladiatorial entry of the teams, and the anthems: Nkosi sikelel’ iAfrika,  then Land of my Fathers. The final chorus, “Gwlad, gwlad, pleidiol wyf i’m gwlad” filled the stadium.  Expectation rippling around the crowd, a sudden still, the referee’s whistle, and then game on.

Television delivers an experience stripped of passion, where the commentary and the camera angles shape how you see the game, and just in case you missed it, the replays. Very little is left to you. There is no sense of involvement, and your role is no more than a passive observer. Up close and personal, or as up close and personal as you can get on the 6th level, it is all very different. You see the whole pitch, and even if the the players are difficult to distinguish, there is movement:  it is much easier to feel what is happening and to make sense of it. You can hear the stands opposite and at each end;  and the bank of spectators behind you: to your front it seems little more than a wall of noise, with the occasional words of Cwm Rhondda suddenly heard; and yet behind and around there are the snatches of conversation overheard, laughter and groans, and “Wales, Wales”, taken up and echoed back.

And afterwards there are the crowds.

Arriving at the ground is easy: we were through the turnstiles at 1.00 and had an hour and a half, watching the stadium slowly fill. At the end of the game it is as if a plug has been pulled, and thousands are funnelled down the stairways, and out through the Gates. It has been a very long time since I found myself  in quite such a crowd and making our way to the railway station, sometimes with and sometimes against the flow was not pleasant, even though he crowds were quiet: as if all excitement had been drained away.

This afternoon was a different world.

Caroline and I were on Mardon Down, bright sunshine and wind making ripples through the grass. The bluebells may be past their best but they still tint the shallow slopes where the bracken is uncurling, pale green- still only a hint of what will be a dense covering in little more than a month. In the air Skylarks, floating in the wind, with Swifts hawking insects and a lone Buzzard playing at being a Kestrel, holding position with hunched wings.

Just the two of us, accompanied by birdsong and with views south to the Moor, caught in shadowed sunlight. And a slow drive home. Hawthorn in bridal white and campion splashing the green walls with colour.