Sunday, 28 April 2013

A bit of variety

The clouds of varying shades of grey chased each other across the sky. The sun played hide and seek with the patches of bright blue in between. April showers swept across the trees, spiky hedges and opaque polytunnels of the farm. Finally things were starting to look green, tiny leaves covered by bare skeletal branches of the hedges, pale pink and white blossoms covered the trees. Bird song filled the air; busily they dart from hedge to grass to tree and back, disappearing into secret corners where their nests are hidden.

Dodging the showers the nets were up, but as always the question was what would we catch? This may always be the question on every ringers mind, but at this time of year for us it’s even more so. Things are in a state of flux, winter migrants are or have left for their breeding grounds, summer birds are returning but not all are back yet. Residents are spreading out through the countryside, setting up and maintaining breeding territories.

Plenty of lesser redpolls still moving through at the farm

The result? Well the star of the winter show, the brambling, seem to have left, but there are still  plenty of redpolls having their last fill before heading north. Plenty of siskins add their green and gold to the feeders, some piling on the fat reserves ready to leave, while others are already into the full swing of breeding. 

Female siskin - some had brood patches
others were piling on fat ready to leave

Female chaffinch, greenfinch, great tit, goldfinch, siskin and robin all show evidence that breeding is underway, the feathers on their breast have been dropped and the skin engorged ready for incubating eggs.

Summer migrants have also made an appearance; swallows recently returned from Africa, dip and dive over the cottage roof, while in the net we catch a female blackcap.

Female blackcap (with her brown cap!)

Added to the mix were nuthatch, coal tit, blue tit and even a female great spotted woodpecker, her all black head setting her apart from the males of the species.

As the horizon darkens ominously, promising more than a light sprinkling, it is time to close up. The nets are safely wrapped up, the kit is tidied and stowed away. As large, heavy rain drops start to patter against the roof of the polytunnel we leave the birds to find shelter for themselves and head home for a well earned bacon and egg sarnie. 

Sunday, 21 April 2013

A day in the Bay of Biscay

The deep blue of the Atlantic Ocean stretched to the horizon, mirrored by a blue sky that was a just a shade lighter. The sea rolled, the occasional white cap broke the surface, small dark waves rippled. The ferry steamed ahead, leaving a path of pale turquoise and white water. Once again I am back heading across the Bay of Biscay.

After a quiet morning, with only the occasional adult gannet swooping by, finally comes the shout of dolphins. Common dolphins sweep past the vessel quickly reaching her wake. Surfing through the waves, they start to leap, clearing the waters surface by meters, as exuberant as those onboard watching.

Common dolphins 


The wind picks up, more white horses are scattered across the deep blue. Still we stand, still we watch, we wait. Then from the depths… a tall, ephemeral jet of vapour, the telltale sign of a whale, followed by a large, dark, sleek body that slices out of the waves. Not just any whale. A fin whale. The second largest animal on the planet, a few hundred meters from the ferry. Again it surfaces, heading in the opposite direction, before after the third time it is lost from view.

Fin whale!

We resume our watching but it is not long before something else catches our eye. A dark shape beneath the waves… a huge dark shape beneath the waves, but not breaking the surface. This time it is the second largest fish on the planet, a basking shark! As the ship passes, the tip of its dorsal and tail fin breaks the surface, before it is also lost beneath the waves at the stern.

My head turns back to look ahead, and once again I see that ephemeral wisp of a whale blow. But where is the whale? It must be close…then whoosh! not one but two whales, an adult and a juvenile!

Adult and juvenile fin whale

Through the hazy cloud the Spanish coast comes into view, mountains still capped with snow, towering over the rocky coastline. Our whale watching adventure is almost over for the day, but not quite with one final sighting of long-finned pilot whale. They surface close together, a tight-knit group, black bodies gleaming in the sun and topping off yet another brilliant day in the Bay of Biscay.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Wax Lyrical

I am sitting tucked up in my office, eating lunch, reading a book (a very good book I might add) and occasionally gazing out the window watching the world of Great Yarmouth go by. The hazy sun filters through the dust on the window. It’s the holidays and kids are playing outside, their shouts carry across the hazy sky, it could be the middle of summer. Step outside and a bitter, cold easterly wind quickly reminds you it’s not quite here yet. Little generally happens during these lunch breaks, the office slows down, people head off for lunch. Later, once it is warm I will venture more often out to the beach, but for now I am content to watch from the warmth.

Into the quiet of the lunchtime office a colleague bursts, with one word on his lips. Waxwings. Having braved the cold wind for a stroll, he had picked up these superb winter visitors at the end of the road. It’s getting late for them, they will soon be heading back to Scandinavia to breed. Most years less than 100 head over to the UK. In some years when the winter food source fails, hundreds arrive on our shores in search of food, namely berries. In those years, in Eastern areas, find a rowan or hawthorn bush and you have a great chance of finding waxwings.

Waxwings in Great Yarmouth

Leaving the warm we venture out into the haze, the cold wind scouring our exposed faces. It’s worth it. Two minutes down the road, and at the top of a telegraph pole are the plump silhouettes, with distinctive crest of 13 waxwings. So confiding we walk right up to the pole. They sit, preening, the tinkling bell of their contact call rings out, and is echoed back by the mimicking starlings on roof tops. The subtle beauty of the waxwing is now clear to see, its buffish pinkish plumage with striking black bib and mask, not to mention the bright yellow and red in the wings and tail.

A stunning bird

Within a moment or two, a couple lift off from the pole, rapidly followed by the rest; dropping down to a small spindly tree, its thin branches bending under the weight, before they all rush into a low berry laden bush over a low wall. Here they start shovelling berries into their bills, swallowing them whole. A passerby flushes most of the group out, only one or two are brave enough to stay a little longer, before rejoining their companions in the lofty safety of the tree.

It is tempting to stand and watch all day, and I could, I really could. But work calls and it is time to leave them to their banquet. They’ll stay till their satisfied or the bush is completely stripped, and then head off in search of another, until finally they’ll head for home…

Monday, 1 April 2013

A murmuration

The steady thwap and thwump as the fork dug into the deep brown soil rang out over the patchwork of the allotment. Working down the plot the green of grass, dandelions and other small plants gave way to the rich brown of recently turned over soil, ready for the vegetable seeds to be planted. Beyond the fences the parcels of greens, browns and yellows, of polytunnels and vegetable beds, not only provide a place of escape for people, but a haven for wildlife. In the three months we have been digging there have been waxwing feeding on berry bushes amongst the snow and fieldfare, song thrush and various species of gulls flying over. 

The newly dug allotment!

Easter weekend, and despite British 'summer time' having started it still feels like we are in the midst of winter, with the snow only just having melted, and a bitter easterly wind still ravaging the country. Undeterred the birds are in full song, goldcrest, dunnock, song thrush and blackbird all singing from the ivy hedgerow surrounding the allotment. 

Waxwings feeding 

As the sun drops pale yellow and pink streaks stretch across the deepening blue sky. Whirling above the allotment and across this canvas, is one of the best wild displays of nature. A black swirl of starlings, undulates across the darkening sky, moving as one creating shapes and patterns. A murmuration. 

A rush of air and wings as the groups swoops low, before heading up again. When one moves, with lightening quick reactions the rest follows. During the last few moments of dusk this party plays out, before the flock dips one final time, piling into a tree or bush. A reassuring chorus of twittering greets you as you walk past such roosts before finally all goes quiet...and its time to sleep.

A murmuration of starlings over Thetford