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.

 

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

Apus apus

I always enjoy Harry Eyre’s Slow Lane column in the Weekend FT.  Last weekend’s The planet’s still working was no different: a delightful mixture of the practical and the philosophical, and at its heart the swift, or more correctly the European swift (Apus apus), as there are almost 70 different species of swift across the world.

We are like Eyre’s uncle, whom he notes,

Every May . .  notes down the first arrival of the swifts on his particular beat in north London. The birds are not quite as regular as the St George’s mushrooms which appear on precisely the same day – April 23 – every English spring, but the birds come some time between the 9th and 13th of the month. I haven’t asked him about this but I assume he finds it comforting, a sign in uncertain times that, as Ted Hughes put it, not entirely reassuringly, “the planet’s still working”.

We see them later in this part of the country, and often the ones we see first are on their way north. In the last 10 years, the earliest we have noted them was 30 April in 2004; and the latest, in 2002, 14 May. For the most part they are with us sometime in the second week in May. The swallow may be the usual harbinger of summer, but for us it is always the swift.

Eyre also quotes the recent RSPB report on the diminishing number of swifts: since the 1990s a 40% drop. Again, we have seen it here. This year there seem only to be four or five resident in Moretonhampstead, whereas in the past we have had far more. Changing building practice is partly (possibly largely) responsible, but this is nothing new. In his 1980 book, Devil Birds, Derek Bromhall wrote,

As old buildings in which swifts have nested for years are demolished, new sites become progressively harder to find. Modern buildings do not allow birds access into roof spaces, and in our present energy-conscious society we seal and insulate the roofs of those older buildings which are being preserved.

Eyre wrote almost the same last week, “Mostly unconsciously, we have been shutting the swifts out of our lives. Now the imperative to insulate our houses and make them airtight, to save on heating and therefore CO2 emissions, has made matters still worse.” He suggests swift bricks are one answer. Bromhall was there first, advocating nest boxes.

And an afterthought; Harry Eyre makes the mistake many people do, referring to swifts as hirundines, and thus lumping them into the same bird family as swallows and martins. They aren’t. Swifts belong to the Apodidae; swallows and martins are Hirundinidae.

And as for poetry, Ted Hughes’ poem, also ‘Swifts’ is every bit as good, “On their switchback wheel of death/They swat past, hard fletched,/Veer on the hard air, toss up over the roof,/and are gone again. . .”

Red Letter Days

2007 has been the year we have started birdwatching in earnest: see A Birdie Year. We are very lucky living where we do: Yarner Wood, the best place in the South West to see Pied Flycatchers, is 15 minutes down the road. 15 minutes in another direction will take you to the High Moor (Golden Plover at this time of year; Skylarks and Meadow Pipits for much of the Spring and Summer; and always the magical Ravens), or to Soussons Woods or the Fernworthy Plantations. Only a little longer and we can be on Dawlish Warren, watching waders along the Exe, or Slavonian Grebes and Common Scoters off shore.

We never know quite what we are going to see, and rarely set out with the intention of finding a particular bird. We don’t have life lists, and such records as we keep are more to help us remember what we have had the good fortune to watch, than to boast of our sightings. I see each day we are out as a red letter day, but some this past twelve months have been the reddest of such days: the afternoon of 14 April, with leafbreak just happening in Yarner and the first Pied Flycatchers arriving; the Ravens on Snowdon as we came off the Bwlch Main in very early May; the trip to the lighthouse at the tip of the Coskata-Coatue Wildlife Refuge on Nantucket Island in October. These are days that will live in the memory.

Nature’s Fireworks

To reach the hide at Dawlish Warren, you have to come off the sandy spine that runs from the car park towards the tip of the Warren, skirt the golf course and then walk back along the beach. There is a sign, some 25 yards or so along the edge, asking birdwatchers to take care not to walk when golfers are about to tee off; and not to stop on the shore to watch birds, as this may interfere with people taking their shot. As we walked down the path towards the shore, it was clear that few were paying attention to the warning. It was not hard to see why. It was at the top of the tide, and a great flock of Grey Plover, with Dunlin mixed in among them, were settled on the spit of sand in front of the hide, jostling for space with an equal number of Oystercatchers, with the odd Turnstone and Sanderling.

The Plovers were unsettled, lifting off and turning and wheeling in the sky in front of us, before landing again. This was happening regularly and as the bright sunlight caught their white undersides and wings, the whole flock glittered against the grey sky behind. It was if silver foil was caught in the wind, but the swirling cloud of shorebirds moved as one: now light, now dark, now silver. The Oystercatchers just tucked their beaks in, and faced the wind.

We spent over an hour in the hide, watching the the birds as the tide fell, and wishing that we had had the gumption to bring our thermos of coffee. Our neighbours in the hide, a son and his elderly parents, had arrived not only with the usual birding paraphernalia, but with lunch. I am not sure what hide etiquette about lunch is, but we had to wait for coffeee until we got back to the Land Rover, just as the rain expected all morning arrived.

A wild ending

Wild weather has kept us off the High Moor this holiday, but the upside has been the opportunity to watch birds. This we have taken and have spent the last four days doing just that.

On Boxing Day we were at Lydford Gorge: a short walk as the main route is closed over winter, but after the descent to the waterfall, we climbed back up and along the old railway line to the hide at the end. Just before high tide on Thursday, we watched squadrons of Oystercatcher and Dunlin arrive on the Dawlish Warren mud flats, the sun catching the flash of wings like glitter. We watched Marsh, Coal, Blue and Great Tits at Yarner Wood very late on Friday afternoon, with fleeting glimpses of a Nuthatch and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker in the half-light. Yesterday we saw more Godwit along the margin of the flooded area at Bowling Green Marsh than we have seen before, and mixed in among them Redshank, Lapwing, Pintail, Shoveler, Wigeon and Teal, as well as Canada Geese; and in the tree next to the hide, Longtailed Tits. Add to that watching Dippers on the Teign just up from Clifford Bridge on Christmas Eve, and seeing a trout (or perhaps even a very late salmon) jump in one of the pools.

This morning we were closer to home, back up to our favourite walk on Mardon Down, the weather rushing in from the south. In the space of 45 minutes we lost sight of the Moor completely but we missed the rain, which came just as we reached the Landrover (very clean and if not new, then definitely more pre-owned than second hand! One result of the problem with the central locking which I posted about in Technology is not all it is cracked up to be, was being persuaded by the silver-tongued salesman at Matford to trade in and up: another 110 Defender but three years and 70,000 miles younger).

2006 is not going out gently. The rain is hammering on the windows and it could already be tea-time, not just after lunch. It is all too easy to concentrate on our own small corner of Devon. But perhaps I do so because to understand the world beyond sometimes seems so difficult. These past few days have seen the unfolding drama of Saddam Hussein’s end, and yet more turmoil in Iraq. We caught the last half of Brian Walden’s Sunday reflection, A Point of View, on Radio 4 as we lay in bed this morning.

In five minutes, he put into words far better than I could ever hope to, a view many share. He spoke of lessons that need to be learned about the occupation of Iraq, calling it one disaster that we must never repeat. While entertaining no doubt about the physical courage of our troops, he asked our political leaders “to find the moral courage to face some unpalatable facts about Britain’s status in the world”, and in particular “the embarrassing impression that other countries look to us for ethical leadership”. As he put it somewhat bluntly, they don’t. And as for the rest of the world standing in awe of our righteousness, this illusion, he averred, is the source of many of our follies.

If I were to have one wish for 2007, it would be a government that understands this.