Sunday, 28 November 2010


Following yesterday's deathly blog, it was pointed out by those far wiser than me (thanks, Admiral), that it was likely that we had been visited by more than one Sparrowhawk. The theory being that with the first appearance resulting in the definite kill of a Starling, there would be no need for that hawk to feed again so soon. Therefore the second appearance was probably a different bird.

The theory was wonderfully demonstrated this morning when we caught sight of a male Sparrowhawk on the lawn, trying to flush a Dunnock from a small dense shrub. When landing on either side of the bush did not have the desired effect (for the Sparrowhawk, not the Dunnock), the hawk proceeded to crash down on top of the bush, wings outspread, in order to spook its prey into flight. The Dunnock wasn't about to fall for that old trick and cleverly remained in the densest bit of vegetation. This was a very brave thing to do, as it can only have been mere centimetres from certain death. Eventually, the sprawk's patience wore thin and it flew off to try its luck elsewhere.

All this activity meant that we were able to gain good views of the male raptor, clad in a cloak of slate grey on its upper parts and with a rusty orange underside. Definitely not the bird photographed yesterday, which was clearly female. So now the conjecture has moved on to whether this is a pair of hawks, and if so, how large is their territory. More research needed...

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Sterner Sturnus Story

This morning, I was gently woken from my slumbers by the tell-tale sound of a mug of tea being placed on my bedside table. Our lass had braved the chill air and beaten me to the kettle.

As she opened the bedroom curtains, the first thing to greet my wife was a dusting of snow. Not a blanket, as some parts of the country had seen, but a lacy white veil, softening some features and highlighting others. The second thing to greet her as she stood gazing out into the wintry scene, was a flurry of activity as a Sparrowhawk flew into the garden, hurtling with undiminished speed into the Hawthorn tree and falling out of the other side into a Kerria bush.

Our lass's initial exclamation was sufficient to bring me to a full state of awareness and I struggled from my horizontal position in my own flurry of duvet and pillows. To the accompaniment of shrill and strident alarm calls from the local bird population, the hawk fluttered through the bush to the ground and landed behind the Hawthorn. In the low light, it was difficult to make out what was going on, but it seemed that the raptor had made a successful kill and was now hiding its victim beneath spread wings. A Magpie sat in a nearby Willow, firing out its staccato bursts of alarm, but the finches and tits were keeping well out of the way. 

The Sparrowhawk continued to struggle, turning this way and that, tumbling out onto the lawn, as it sought to despatch its prey. A pair of binoculars had miraculously turned up in my wife's hands and she was able to make out a very distressed Starling, bill raised defiantly at the hawk. Then, bizarrely, dozens of Black-headed Gulls appeared from nowhere, flocking above the garden, presumably drawn in by the possibility of some easy scavenging. The hawk now had a better grip on the Starling, minimising the threat of that stabbing bill, and was busy plucking the unfortunate bird, irrespective of its life signs.

A few Blue Tits emerged from their hiding places and bravely flew to the Hawthorn, presumably safe in the knowledge that they wouldn't be on the hawk's radar for a while. Meanwhile, the hawk was now satisfied that it had subdued its breakfast and sat, wings still spread, considering the options. It was out in the open, but near cover and the focus of a great deal of attention, so when a cat suddenly appeared on the fence close by, it took to the air and, with a few wing beats, disappeared from view.

We clambered back into bed, musing upon what we had just seen and contentedly slurping tea. Our lass was still holding the binoculars (i.e. in bed, which is a bit disappointing for a bloke's ego!), and from a warm comfortable position, she was able to peruse the flocks of finches in the tops of nearby trees. We pondered whether a successful kill was more likely to mean that the Sparrowhawk would return, but with the number of bird feeders in the surrounding gardens, I didn't think this was likely.

However, whilst cooking breakfast, another shout brought me rushing into the lounge, to see what was occurring. My wife had spotted the hawk again, as it sat on the fence at the rear of the garden. With a slight increase in daylight, this was a better view and we were able to identify her as a female. She looked about keenly, turning her head this way and that, as she scanned the hedges and bushes for prey, giving me enough time to rush for the camera and capture a few images. She flew a short distance to perch on a Honeysuckle, somewhat unsubtly directly behind our feeders! The diagnostic pale stripe above her eye and the grey barring on her chest were now obvious and we enjoyed a few more seconds of quality Sparrowhawk time, before she took off once more and was gone. Much to the relief of our more usual garden visitors.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Lakes, bakes and a Sunday roost

The Admiral and our lass are still walking wounded, so with the amount of injuries the Tense Towers Team are carrying, I may have to consider exchanging my 4x4 for an ambulance. Whilst our wildlife sojourns have never been particularly onerous on the aerobic exercise front, if our ambles become any slower, we'll have to start monitoring lichens. On each other.

Second Born needed some time behind the wheel and I needed a dash off the leash, so packing the invalids into our lass's car, we headed up into Northamptonshire to visit one of their Wildlife Trust sites, Summerleys. The plan was that Second Born and I would walk briskly around the lake in a clockwise direction and meet up with the Amblers in one of the hides. Exercise and nature. Perfect.

It was rather cold, that creeping damp cold that seeps into your bones, for which the British Isles is so famous. At least this meant I wouldn't be distracted into birdwatching, unless an Osprey flew past with a Red-necked Phalarope in its beak and Kate Humble in its talons. There were plenty of the usual suspects about, ducks, geese and swans, but our lass was particularly keen to see a flock of Golden Plover. Having had close up views of a breeding pair whilst on Shetland in the Summer, this would be the counterpoint to that experience.

The feeding station was devoid of Tree Sparrows, but harboured several Reed Buntings amongst the tit flock. We were able to see some Golden Plover, sharing one of the small islands with a flock of Lapwings. Every so often, they would all be spooked by some imagined or real threat and take to the sky in a wheeling cloud, but they were just silhouettes, pointy or rounded depending on species.

After the team reassembled, we walked the last bit of the route together, and found another mixed plover flock in a ploughed field. To the naked eye, the field looked devoid of life, but the odd flash of white alerted us to the presence of Lapwings. Looking through binoculars, the birds took shape and dotted amongst them were a few Golden Plovers, now appearing a little more golden against the damp soil.

The route home was somewhat convoluted, principally for the driving practice, but just happened to take in a Little Chef for a lunch that put some much-needed warmth back in to our souls.

Sunday dawned as cold and overcast as the previous day, but Phase Two of our weekend mission saw us journey to College Lake for another striding/ambling combination. Again, Second Born and I hared off around the site, whilst the medically-excused avoided being mown down by passing snails on their way to a hide. A Red Kite glided serenely over the lake, putting the fear of God into a flock of Wigeon and the berry-laden hedgerows were full of Redwing and Fieldfare. And if that wasn't proof enough that Winter's on the doorstep, a biting Northerly wind made sure we didn't hang about on our circumnavigation of the reserve. Meeting up again in the cafe, we thawed out with sandwiches, cakes and several mugs of tea. The Wildlife Trust were having a Family Autumn weekend, with lots of activities for children and parents. Not to be outdone, our lass and Second Born squeezed themselves into kiddies' chairs to make candles out of beeswax. Bless!

We dropped into Linford Lakes on the way home, for another helping of cold and cloudy weather. Just before hypothermia set in, a pair of Kingfishers flew past the hide, and as I followed them through my bins, I picked up a Goldeneye too. This certainly lifted our spirits, so when a fellow birder arrived with news of a possible Starling roost at Willen Lake, we decided to head back to Tense Towers for a brief swig of Hot Chocolate and then head on to Willen.

Parking between the Hospice and the Sanctuary, then pottering to the lake, we arrived just in time to see the assembling of a sizeable flock. As the light faded, Starlings poured in from every direction, in tens and occasionally hundreds, there were soon at least several thousand birds swirling around over the water, sometimes in a tight amorphous blob, sometimes strung out in a thin line across the lake. The wind wasn't too strong to hide the sound of their wings as they all turned in unison, a deep swooshing noise, that is just so undeniably pleasing to a ground-based mammal. As if on cue, a Sparrowhawk cruised passed, choosing to ignore such a spectacle as too mind-blowing for an aerial predator as well. We watched and smiled and watched some more, but all too soon the birds wheeled and turned for the last time. They suddenly descended like a feathery black waterfall into their reedbed roost and the show was over for another day.

Photo courtesy of The Admiral

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Bossy Gladys and a sensory dusk

After a leisurely start to our weekend, we hastily plumped to undertake our postponed trip to Welney. Giving the Admiral very little notice, we picked him up and headed eastwards.

Purely coincidentally, we arrived at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site on the Ouse Washes, just as the restaurant started serving lunch. So following a warming bowl of leek and potato soup, we headed over the footbridge to the hides.

Flocks of Lapwing, Golden Plover, Wigeon and Starlings made linear patterns across the sky, a Marsh Harrier quartered the reeds at the opposite side of the Washes and I was amazed at the number of Pintail on the water. Our lass is still unable to potter too far or too fast, so the Admiral and I left her in the heated observation room taking photos of Whooper Swans and Pochard ducks, whilst we wandered along the edge of the banks to another hide. Here, we had distant views of Black-tailed Godwit, Redshank, Snipe and Curlew. 

Meeting up again, we all gently ambled in the other direction, and bumped into a chap who informed us that, "The Glossy Ibis is showing well from the Lyle Hide!" We were then rapidly overtaken by another birder, in a state of some excitement, hurrying to said hide.

O-oh, cue inadvertent twitch.

Arriving at the Lyle Hide, it was immediately apparent that, a. it was pretty crowded; b. all optics were pointed in the same direction; and c. "showing well" is a very subjective term. With our limited magnification power, and in less-than-perfect light, we struggled to make out the dark brown bird from the dark brown background that it was stood against. Fortunately, a kindly lady birder, packing the sort of optics of a size and price to make you nervous removing it from its protective packaginging, took pity on us and allowed views through her 'scope. Thank you, kindly lady, for my first Glossy Ibis. Our lass was a bit non-plussed, as she had assumed that "glossy" meant white (she's probably been watching too many home makeover programmes) and thought that "vinyl silk" might've been a better description. The trudge back to the Visitors' Centre was accompanied by much muttering of a disgruntled nature. Lighten up, my love, Bossy Gladys is a life tick!

Fortuitously, the mood was lifted as the mini-twitch and the mid-afternoon swan feeding session meant that the restaurant was suitably empty for a leisurely Tense Towers Team tea and cake break. Galvanised against the elements once more, we returned to the fray to watch and wait as dusk fell. Against a backdrop of glowing clouds, formations of swans, skeins of geese and flocks of ducks flew low over the hide, as the birds returned from feeding in the Norfolk fields to spend the night on the Ouse Washes. The evening air was filled with the bugling calls of the Whoopers, the whistling of countless Wigeon and the flight calls of Lapwing.

We sat, mesmerised by the wonderful sky and soundscape, until with the fading light, the chill of the air turned our thoughts to returning home. As is often the case on these occasions, the final treat was a Barn Owl, this particular one perched on a fence post, as we drove away from Welney.

Good times.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Clueless Wednesday*

It's Wednesday. There's a photo. I haven't a clue what it is. 

A further instalment on the "Is it, or isn't it, an orchid?" question.

Photo kindly supplied by the Admiral, who has thoughtfully included a 1p piece for scale.

For non-UK followers, this coin is about 20mm in diameter. That's about four fifths of an inch in old money (though for those of us who began our education pre-1971, this 1p will always be new money).

The small brown leaf can be safely ignored, it's Autumn and it's windy. I wish the not-so-careful accidental topiary of the big green leaves could also be ignored, but, to my eternal shame, it's my fault.

The Admiral is pretty convinced it's a Bee Orchid. But as I stated the other day, I don't have the necessary botanicalness to venture an opinion. I just hope it knows Winter's on the way.

* Apologies to Nature ID for the barely-disguised plagiarism of a brilliant title.

Monday, 8 November 2010

Habitat creation at Tense Towers

Following on from a previous post, in an unexpected development, certainly with no awareness from the author, there's been a bit of a Ying and Yang situation occurring with habitat in these parts. First the destruction, now the creation. 

Whilst putting out the recycling and the rubbish for collection, I happened to spot an unidentified  plant growing in the lawn. After placing the bags, bin and box at the edge of our property, I retraced my steps to have a second look. Now I'm not a floral expert (as some of my frocks and dresses are atrocious), but I like to think that I can recognise the common or garden weeds that end up being commonly in our garden.

This plant was significantly different from anything that I'd seen growing here previously. It's situated near to where we removed the Pampas Grass last year and put in a circular bed for several species of lavender and a rose. There isn't much to see at present. It has a fairly tightly-packed rosette of broadish leaves chopped off at the ends, as some short-sighted buffoon had run the lawn mower over them. Oh, I wonder who that was?

Discounting Dandelion, Plantain and Teasel, I was at a loss, so threw the question open to our lass and the Admiral. After some deliberation, the consensus is that it may be an orchid of some sort. Which would be brilliant, but also a bit of a conundrum.

In all the years we've been here, there's not been any orchids on site (the bloke with the lawn mower was questioned very thoroughly on this point, and, no, I hadn't seen any). Had a seed been brought in by a bird? Or on our footwear? Or had it lain dormant for years and only germinated because of the particularly harsh Winter 2009/2010? Or is it something else altogether?

We will have to watch and wait and see what grows next Spring. And I'll start wearing my specs when cutting the grass.

Sunday, 7 November 2010


Our lass (and I should belatedly explain that this is North East England dialect for a bloke's significant other) has been under the weather of late and not able to get out much. As the weekend forecast was looking bright though chilly, we wondered about a trip over to Welney to the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust site to soak up some migrating swan action. This pretty much ticks every box for her. Not far to amble from Visitors Centre to birds, restaurant on site, heated hide, shop with birdy trinkets.

My head was swimming with the thought of all the brownie points this would rack up, so I was a bit nonplussed when she thought it was too far to drive. Plan B involved a much shorter drive to College Lake, near Tring, and as we hadn't visited there since the new Visitors Centre went in (it's got a tea shop, but you were ahead of me there, weren't you?), it seemed like a good alternative.

Arriving not long after the gates opened for the day, it was still rather quiet in the Centre, so we ambled out to one of the hides for a look at the wildfowl in the recently re-landscaped chalk quarry. It all looked fairly standard, with the usual species of ducks, Mute Swans and Canada Geese. Not a wader in sight. We pottered along to some woodland and were rewarded with a brief view of a Tree Creeper amongst a tit flock, but it was chilly and the tea shop was singing its siren song.

Whilst sampling several slices of rather gorgeous ginger shortbread, we received news that some Bearded Reedlings had been seen at Walton Lake, back in Milton Keynes. We'd only driven passed this site on the way to Tring! Worse still, some Whooper Swans had been spotted at Linford Lakes, not a mile from Tense Towers! What a quandary. Should we keep the faith with College Lake or just return home and pretend that we weren't twitching our own patch? That phrase is just plain wrong, I do apologise.

Hmmm, what do you think we did?

Arriving at Walton Lake, we joined several other hopeful folk wandering around the perimeter path of the main reedbed, listening intently for the characteristic twanging "ping" call. Whilst the Bearded Reedlings may well have been there, they weren't about to show themselves. So we called time on our second site of the day and went to Linford Lakes, only stopping off at Tense Towers to take on reserves of tea.

No, we couldn't see any Bearded Reedlings either.
Safely ensconced in the Near Hide (cracking name, by the way, it isn't as far as the Far Hide), we proceeded to scan all the swans for the telltale signs of Whooper-ness. Now I must tell you that there have been a great many swans on this lake all year, all Mute, and indeed that was all we could see. Figuring that we'd missed these birds too, we continued to scan for other species and managed to spot a few Snipe tucked away in the undergrowth near the water's edge. What we should've done, was to count the swans and then count how many we'd been able to check. This was because not all of every swan was visible at all times, due to various behaviours like feeding or sleeping. After about 20 minutes, I spotted a group of three swans that were dozing in the shallows, one of whom was waking up to reveal a bill coloured with a large amount of yellow. Bingo!

Awful shot, but definitely Whoopers!
They were a very sleepy bunch and only briefly did all three show signs of consciousness together. They were too far away for Wrong Len to capture a meaningful image, but we were just so pleased to see these beauties on our local reserve, presumably resting up after the long haul flight from Iceland. And they saved us a trip to Welney!