Monday, 27 October 2014

The Owl, The Puppy Dog and The Meadow Pipit

Dusk was gathering as the little car bumped down the puddle filled lane heading for a small cottage shielded from view by tall blustery trees. Beyond, in the gathering gloom, the roar of the sea washing up onto a sandy beach, can still be heard over the rush of wind in grass and trees. Riding alongside in the passenger foot well, a familiar red fox Labrador sniffs the salty air trickling through the small gap in the window, her nose making smudge marks on the glass.

On pulling up to the cottage the puppy dog and driver are greeted by a small team of ringers who have been working the site all day. With the trees now mere black shadows and the sky deep indigo the last round has been completed, and the nets closed. There is just one bird left to process and arguably it is the bird of the day. In a net that had caught nothing all day, one final surprise had been waiting. A Tawny Owl. Its black liquid eyes, beautiful, dark, deep pools, watch silently. Its soft feathers barely rustle, a mixture of soft browns, white and black, while its legs and feet are covered in fine white feathers that contrast starkly with long black talons.

The Owl

The process is quick, a youngster of this year the bird is ringed, weighed, measured and soon is silently heading away down the lane that is now pitch black.

It was a cold night. The stars twinkle brightly in a deep black sky. The puppy dog finds the warmest spot in the tent… at the bottom of a sleeping bag! All around are the sounds of night; the rustle of trees disturbed by the wind, the distant crash of waves on sand, and the roar of rutting red deer. The middle of the night, and the puppy dog has moved upwards towards the coolness and freshness outside of the sleeping bag. For the rest of the night she stretches out, head poking out of the bag but still stretched out alongside the warm body and using a conveniently places arm as a pillow!

Camping - Puppy Dog style

Light breaks slowly across the now deep blue sky of pre-dawn. Pale pink washes through as the blue lightens with morning. Skeins of pink footed geese honk nosily as they pass over head, heading for fields for breakfast. The puppy dog follows through a maze of blackthorn and bramble that covers the sheltered side of the sand dune where mist nets are opened; sniffing and creating trails in dew laden grass.

It is one particular set up of nets that creates the interest for the ringers on this session. Set in a triangle, with an MP3 player in the middle, the nets are successful at catching meadow pipits throughout the day. Such elegant birds with tones of brown and buff, and bold dark streaks on back and breast, perhaps overlooked by many a birder who become used to its accelerating and the decelerating song as it rises into and then falls like a parachute from the sky, used to its high piping call, and its presence in such a variety of habitats. They seem to be everywhere. And yet even this most familiar of pipits is suffering declines. The birds this day are moving through, heading to southern areas and lowland habitats for winter.

The Meadow Pipit

For the puppy dog it is just another day of running, sniffing and chasing tennis balls...   

Monday, 6 October 2014

Absolutely Quackers

The large fat raindrops fell in torrents from the dark grey sky, bouncing off the green leaves of trees and bushes and creating puddles in the gravel track that was sandwiched between wood and fields. The rain thundered down on the hoods, jackets and wellies of a small group of people standing at the end of the track. To the left the horizon was clearing, a brilliant setting sun breaking through the clouds and illuminating the fields in beautiful golden light. To the right a wonderful rainbow arched over a small pool set in an open field surrounded by the dark still dripping trees. The sky through which the rainbow arched was still dark slate bluish grey. In the gathering dusk and as the rain eased the group set a series of nets covering the dark, muddy pool and then retreated to the cover of the surrounding wood. 

The small pool ready and waiting

With the sun set darkness crept over the pool, nets and people, the light and colour slowly draining away and shadows replacing the greens and browns of water and vegetation. Above, the clouds continues to clear, glinting stars filling the now inky blue black sky. The sounds of night fill the air; the loud raucous alarm of a group of pheasants, the kwick of a tawny owl whose silhouette then crosses the darkening sky, the low rumbling roar of a rutting red deer, echoing from some unseen place. Then in the sky above the low rapid flutter of wing beats as a number of small ducks come swooping over the trees aiming for the pool.

A 'spring' of teal

There is a swish and a splash as the ducks land on the water, with some landing in the awaiting nets. A dark, shadowed figure emerges from the deeper black of the trees, walking quickly to the waters edge and then wading into the shallow pool. ‘Kersplosh, Kersplosh’ the figure wades over to the net and carefully removes the duck, retreating with the bird to the cover of the trees and placing it safely in a bag and then a quiet box. As the evening draws on this process is repeated. With the increasing darkness there is no need to retreat to the woods and the figures simply crouch low at the waters edge, shrouded now by darkness.

For every duck removed from a net, many more simply flap their wings and escape. Still more, even in the darkness, see the nets and divert with an acceleration of wing beats, up and away. Finally the number of birds coming in dwindles to nothing, a bright silvery moon appears from behind the trees and the group calls it a night. The nets are taken down and the group retreats to the warmth and light of a nearby barn in order to process the catch. It may be small, with just five birds out of all those that came swooping into the pool, but these gorgeous little ducks more than make up for that. They are teal. Delicate, small, and at this time of year seemingly brown with none of the glorious chestnut and green in the head of the males, no bright yellow patch on the tail or brilliant white streak across a silvery grey flank. But up close there is a bright green and blue iridescent flash across the wing, and beautiful mottled, soft brownish grey feathers across the body and back. The birds are ringed and processed before being returned to a small pond behind the barn. From the hand the birds barely touch the water’s surface before head straight up and away into the moonlit night.