Monday, 20 May 2013

Friend or foe

The garden in Wales is bulging with life, the hedgerow bristles with tiny green leaves, dunnocks and house sparrows scurry through its maze of branches. The borders brim with flowers and leaves of every colour. Grasses sway in the gentle breeze. It may have been a slow start but it seems spring really was in full swing. The grass in the fields beyond was thick, lush and green, scattered with brilliant yellow dandelions and delicate white daisies. Swallows dip low over the tops of the flowers and grass catching insects on the wing. The trees, bushes and air were alive with bird song. Close at hand great tit, chaffinch and robin sing from the garden, across the fields the distinctive song of a chiffchaff floats across the sunny sky.

The garden in full bloom, mist nets at the ready!

House sparrows continually flit back and forth from the nest boxes on the side of the house, stopping only briefly to feed their chicks before darting away to find more food. At the other end of the house in another box, a blue tit is snuggled into her nest of moss and feathers, warming her clutch of eggs. The calm before the frenzied storm of feeding nine tiny mouths.

While the number of birds coming to the feeders is a lot lower compared with winter, they still come to find food for themselves and for the hungry mouths of their broods.

Another bird visits the garden for the same reason, although this one may not be as popular due to its choice of dinner. It is a sparrowhawk. With a silent rush of wind and wing the hawk swoops over the fence, springing its attack on the small birds in the garden. Alarm calls replace the bird song. In many cases the sparrowhawk is unsuccessful, perching on a branch surveying the now empty garden with golden eyes, before heading off to search some other haunt. In some cases, of course, it is successful. It may be hard to take, but there is another set of mouths to feed.

A female sparrowhawk takes stock

To catch a sparrowhawk takes a lot of luck, and speed. The bird, so focused on catching dinner, does not usually notice a net, but often bounces out before you can get there, running like a loony down the garden with only one shoe on. Sometimes however the bird sticks long enough for you to get there.

Once you have a sparrowhawk in the hand you can only marvel at its beauty and design. Short, rounded wings and a long square-ended tail, designed for manoeuvring through confined spaces, perfect for chasing small birds through woodlands and gardens. Graceful long legs, that stretch from a tiny body, to grasp its prey with long, sharp talons. Today we caught a male. Small compared to the female, its bluish-grey back and wings only showing the faint reminders of a young bird in the brownish fringes to a few feathers. Its breast is barred with fine orangey-brown streaks. Its orange yellow eye watching your every move. It is simply a stunning bird.

The simply stunning male sparrowhawk

The recovery of sparrowhawk population and its preference for hunting small birds in gardens may not be welcomed by everyone. It is distressing to see a robin, goldfinch or even blackbird killed by a sparrowhawk but to me it is all a part of nature. Just as a blue tit will kill a caterpillar to feed its young, a sparrowhawk must kill a small bird in order to feed its own.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The Peewit

The sun drops over the lakes at the Nunnery Reserve, turning the calm waters the colour of molten larva. Ripples created by the resident ducks and geese spread out in ever increasing circles, rolling gently onto the tree lined banks or melting, disappearing into the smooth surface once more. The banks merge into rough grass, undulating up toward the track and fence marking the boundary of the reserve. Dotted around are dark green prickly gorse bushes, blooming with brilliant yellow flowers. 

The cutest of the cute - a peewit chick

Across the washed out pale blue sky comes a sound reminiscent of a 1980s space game. The sound dips and weaves until the source comes into view. Two lapwing, otherwise known as peewits, chase each other across the sky on rounded wings, twisting, turning and rolling, before one disappears and the other charges off chasing another bird, this time the black shadow of a crow. On the ground another lapwing stands erect, keeping one eye on what is going on above and the other seemingly at the ground around her. Her dark green and purple iridescent back shimmers in contrast to the brilliant white of her belly. The white of her cheeks stands out against the black of her face and neck, and her crest points skywards, although not as smart as her mate who valiantly chases all comers across the sky, she is still a picture to behold.

Beneath her are huddled four chicks, little speckled brown and white balls of fluff on spindly legs. Unlike song birds, waders such as lapwing don’t really build a nest. Their eggs are laid in a small scrape on the ground, whether it be on moorland, estuaries or farmland. Also unlike song birds, wader chicks hatch ‘fully clothed’ so to speak. Covered in down the chicks are able to walk about and feed within a few hours.

All blinged up 

Our chicks will have been hatched on the farmland over the fence, the parents then leading them onto the grassland of the reserve to feed. If you can spot them it is the perfect time to ring them. Despite more growing to be done, not only in size but with proper feathers, their legs don’t grow any fatter meaning you can fit a ring that will last all its adult life on a chick that is a couple of hours old.

The trick is spotting them amongst the tussocks, one warning from mum or dad and they can disappear right before your eyes, their plumage and small size enabling them to blend in with the background. If you can find them, they are the best. The cutest balls of down that one can handle. A privilege that I never grow tired of. No pecking or scratching, just a wee bit wriggly. No wonder I always look stupidly happy when I have these little dudes in my hands. 

Me and my peewit chicks

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Redgrave and Lopham Fen

We are up before dawn, which at this time of year is early, too early some might say. A sliver of a crescent moon greets us as we drive east, shining in a velvety black, clear sky that is slowly turning an inky blue. The car park at Redgrave and Lopham Fen National Nature Reserve is, to no one's surprise, empty as we pull in to await the rest of the ringing team. 

As the shadows of the surrounding trees slowly come into focus the dawn chorus begins, the song of robins, blackbirds, song thrush, blackcap and many more break the quiet. 

Dawn light filters across the landscape of pasture, woodland and fen as we drive to the ringing site through gate after gate. Rabbits appear in the low lying mist, their ghostly forms appearing and then disappearing as they scamper across the fields. 

The ringing team at Redgrave & Lopham Fen NNR

The nets are set in the scrub and trees at the edge of a large reed bed, a sea of dun yellow stalks whose tops glow burnt orange as the sun finally breaks the horizon. A barn owl floats across the crests, dipping back and forth on silent wings. 

The stunning sedge warbler

The ringing is good, enough to keep us ticking over, with a catch of warblers only just returned from their wintering quarters. Willow warblers, garden warbler, sedge warbler and whitethroats all fresh from Africa, blackcaps from either northern Africa or southern Europe. 

Equally stunning whitethroat

The morning develops into a warm, bright spring day. The barn owl is replaced by three hobby, also recently returned from their winter travels, circling high over head.