Sunday, 30 January 2011

BGBW highlights

Photographing the birds in our garden through several panes of glass will never produce brilliant results, but at least the shutter noise doesn't scare the subjects away.

Here's a few highlights from this weekend's BGBW...

Mrs Great Spotted Woodpecker
Mr Great Spotted Woodpecker
Long-tailed Tit

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Pig lard and curd munch

Yes, folks, it's that time of year again, when the UK human population has the chance to survey the numbers of birds frequenting their gardens.

The RSPB's Big Garden Birdwatch takes place this weekend and it's reckoned that half a million of us are likely to spend an hour perusing the wild space that's nearest to our front or back door.

"But, Tense," I hear you cry, "You do that anyway!"

Admittedly this is so, but the Tense Towers team relish the one weekend in the year when, it could be argued, quantity matters more than quality. Our Lass is excused a wry smile at this point. For not only are we logging the number of species in the garden, but also the number of each species. Against the clock. OK, so it's not strictly against the clock, it's just that we're only supposed to spend an hour on the activity. This means that every little happy bundle of feathers counts.

Whilst our garden is less than the size of a tennis court, when there's numerous habitats to watch, it does become a bit more complicated. With lawn, borders, hedge, tree, feeder and bird table to scan, even two pairs of eyes aren't enough when a feeding frenzy kicks off.

For some species, where we wouldn't expect to see more than one or two individuals at a time, this isn't a problem. Song Thrush, for example. We only ever see these in ones, which makes for easy counting. Or Wren, where again if we see one individual in a week, we're ecstatic.

Other species are more numerous. Where these are large birds, like Collared Dove or Wood Pigeon, it's pretty straight forward to log the quantity. Some of our flying visitors are both very large and only ever appear in ones...

Thames Valley Police helicopter
Less subtle than a Sparrowhawk, but as good at emptying the garden in seconds. Grrrr.

Yet more species arrive in multiples and squabble fiercely amongst themselves. In a dynamic situation like this, it's important to be able to recognise differences between individuals. If males and females have different plumage, that's a big help. For example Blackbirds, we can spend a few minutes counting the really black male ones and a few more minutes the browner female (or perhaps 1st winter) ones. The same goes for Greenfinch, Chaffinch and House Sparrow, where the males tend to be more prominently marked.

Great Tits are not identical, the male having a broader black stripe down his front. However, in the hurly burly of the garden environment, it can be tricky to compare this feature. Oddly, today we've only seen one, so the problem has not materialised.

A few species make it nice and easy for us. Dunnocks always turn up in threes. The Great Spotted Woodpeckers take turns at the feeder, he with a red flash on the back of his head, her without. You will always know if you've got more than one Robin, as the posturing and bickering will draw your attention like a red r... obin to another Robin?

The male and female Goldfinches, however, are hard to tell apart. Fortuitously, they tend to visit the feeder all at once, monopolising the ports and queuing impatiently on the crossbar to the exclusion of all else, simples!

Sadly, Starlings don't visit in huge numbers any more, possibly a reflection of their well-documented decline, so head counts aren't difficult. However, we need to keep our eyes peeled, and be on our toes, to spot the Coal Tit as it nips in, grabs a seed and disappears again.

All of this means that the most difficult bird to monitor in our garden is the numerous, rather small, similar-looking and incredibly lively Blue Tit. With individuals flitting to the peanut feeder, the sunflower feeder, the fat block and bird table from several different vantage points, they're almost impossible to count. I reckon we've had six today. Maybe. That's my best estimate short of deploying the superglue.

I hope you have the opportunity to take part in the RSPB's survey. All records count, just don't include helicopters.

Pig lard and curd munch? I ate a bacon and cheese slice during my hour's vigil.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Blank-ing banking

Having survived the festive season without a disaster brought about the banking industry (see a previous post), I had relaxed my guard somewhat. Should've known better!

Our Lass and I ventured northwards and westwards this weekend, to visit First Born in sunny (ha-ha-ha-ha-hah) Manchester. Due to our early start on Saturday morning, we stopped off at a motorway services for some breakfast, which I paid for with my debit card. It wasn't a huge breakfast, you understand, it's just I tend to use plastic on these occasions. So far so good.

Before resuming the thrash up the motorway, I fuelled up the car at the same service station, but my card was rejected at the till. The nice lady tried again, but to no avail. I looked all uncomfortable and didn't offer to use another card, so said nice lady directed me to a cash point at the side of the building (Note to all, if you ever find yourself in Tibshelf services on the M1, the cash point in the main services charges £1.99 for withdrawals, the one in the fuel station is free). Anyways, the cash point wouldn't give me any money, though it did give me my card back. Our Lass came to the rescue and paid for the fuel, whilst I got on the rantline to the bank.

I tried both the telephone numbers on the back of my card, but these wanted me to type in my card number. When I did this, I was told that my number wasn't recognised!

Hmmm, by this point, all sorts of alarm bells are ringing in my head. After a period of time listening to some irksome music, interspersed with the usual helpful comments about unprecedented levels of customer calls, I finally speak to a human, who informs me that my branch cancelled my card on Friday i.e. the previous day. No reason given, but I was advised to talk to my branch on Monday.

Putting aside the fact that I had successfully used my card a scant 30 minutes earlier, just how do you contact your branch in this day and age, when a bank goes to the n-th degree to hide all branch contact information? Serves me right for living 200 miles from my branch. There are closer ones, obviously, but as they push the convenience of internet and phone banking, why change it?

After a pleasant weekend paid for by Our Lass (Thanks, pet!), one of my first actions upon returning home was to call the bank again. It turns out that they were really busy yesterday, as a batch of new cards had been mistakenly sent out on 24th December (hah, the festive curse did strike, after all). Once new cards are sent out, after 28 days the old cards are automatically cancelled, irrespective of whether the customers have received them or even know that a new one is on the way!

This is referred to as a "system failure". No sh*t, Sherlock.

Well, now we know the reason for the malfunction, that's alright then. An even-nicer lady, at the call centre, re-activated my card, lowered my blood pressure and restored my faith in Customer Service.

Rant over.

Sunday, 16 January 2011


As the sunrise begins to slowly, but relentlessly, inch back along the eastern horizon towards Midsummer's Day, Mother Nature is already beginning to respond to this gentle stimulus.

After weeks of being entombed under an eclectic blanket of frost, snow and ice, the ground is enjoying its new-found freedom. In our garden, the shoots of spring bulbs are pushing through the soil, breaking cover and bringing a splash of fresh green to the bare earth.

The pre-dawn air is filled with layers of sound, as one by one, the chorus singers rediscover their voices, in grateful response to the rise in temperature. The ever-sonically-present Robin is ramping up the volume and the beat, to re-affirm to all those visiting cousins just whose patch this is. Great Tits are nowhere near as melodious, but make up for it with their powerfully-rendered bisyllabic notes. In this neck of the woods (figure of speech, we don't live in a wood, more's the pity), we don't often see a Song Thrush, as we do not have enough of the relevant habitat. But at least now we can hear them again, that jaunty repetitive bunch of phrases uttered in defiance of Man, weather and, most significantly, other thrushes.

Whilst Winter has not yet dealt its final card, here is the groundswell of opinion from all living creatures, that they will endure and survive to welcome in the next season. It may not be perpetual motion or time travel, but pedalling along on the cycle of Life is the definitive green movement.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Retail therapy

Sunday 9th January 2011.

With the prospect of good light and blue skies this morning, the Admiral and I decided on a trip to Tesco, retail juggernaut and inadvertent wildlife site, though not for provisions, you understand. Specifically, the store located in Bletchley.

The supermarket's car park had become the latest food emporioum of choice for the roving flock of Waxwings that have been in the MK area for several months. Not having bumped into them in huge numbers or even bright sunshine, this was an opportunity not to be missed.

Finding them was reasonably simple, as they were perched in some trees by the fuel station. But the small group of birders amongst the Sunday shoppers were hoping for some berry action, courtesy of the Sorbus trees dotted throughout the car park. These were still laden with red fruit and seemingly irresistible to your average Waxwing.

Hmmm, that's an interesting concept. Is there such a thing as an average Waxwing? They're just so splendid in every department. Beautiful colours, natty crest, cute song and ever so approachable.

By good fortune, one particular line of trees was situated in a less busy part of the car park and presented the best chances of photographic opportunities. A pair of resident Mistle Thrushes were somewhat taken aback at having to share their fruit with the Scandinavian visitors, but they were as helpless as the Saxon monks of a Lindisfarne monastery, in the face of the invading Viking hordes.

The main flock of 200 or so Waxwings broke up into smaller groups, which then repeatedly descended on the berry-laden trees. Their frenzied feeding was not even interrupted by the presence of so many equally-oblivious shoppers, who only seemed to notice the birds when half a dozen cameras were suddenly trained on the fruity feasting.

A few birds were even landing on the ground to gorge on fallen berries, quite unconcerned by the people and cars around them, who themselves were caught up in their own mad dash for provender. However, I would sooner listen to a chorus of Waxwing-y trilling than the sounds of squeaky trolley wheels and impatient shoppers.

After an hour or so, a Kestrel appeared and landed on top of a large lighting gantry in the centre of the car park, causing the Waxwings to temporarily depart. We, too, took this as our cue to move on, after a pleasant morning in the company of these spectacular birds.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Driving Miss ****y

In 1975, Ian Hunter had a UK hit with the song "Once bitten, twice shy". In 2011, Martin posted a comment on my blog that included nearly the same words. Boys, I gotta tell ya, you're wrong.

Today, whilst out with Second Born, she turned right at the roundabout before the one she wanted. The road which we found ourselves on, ran along the side of a wood, behind a lake. A clearing in the wood extended to the road, and as we drove passed, I glanced across it, at a bird standing in the open. Ooo, a heron, a brown heron...

After we'd stopped, turned around and crept slowly back, it was still there. No way, this cannot be. As we were out on driving practice, I had somehow inexplicably forgotten to bring binoculars and camera. There I was, a mere 25m from my second Bittern of the week, but this time without a reed in sight.

Hmmm, twenty minutes from home. What would you do?

Forty minutes later, we were back on site, there was still plenty of light but the bird had moved back into cover. A shame, but still a great view.

Second bittern, not shy
I love MK and its confusing roundabouts.

Land of the Prince Bishops

Just before dawn on the first day of 2011, Our Lass and I were northbound from Buckinghamshire, heading for our spiritual home in the Land of the Prince Bishops. We were both raised in County Durham, that interesting bit of industrial archaeology, bordered by the rugged Pennines in the west, the River Tyne to the north, the River Tees to the south and the North Sea to the east.

Some 4 hours later, we crossed into the county, at Piercebridge, next to the remains of the Roman fort. It is always a special moment, though with political boundary changes, the definitive sign, "County Durham - Land of the Prince Bishops", wasn't for a few miles yet. To explain, the eponymous clergy were a succession of powerful men who ruled the County Palatinate in medieval times.

Our first port of call was to the clan headquarters, or to be more correct, "me Mam and Dad's house". For, nestled in the Gaunless valley, in the village of West Auckland, is the home of the couple responsible for unleashing Imperfect and Tense on an unsuspecting world. After catching up on events recent and past, we settled down to watch the activity in their garden. It had us green with envy, as a flock of tits visited the bird table just outside their window. The usual Blue and Great, but also a couple of Coal and seven Long-tailed. I managed to catch some footage of the latter.

Following that merriment, we journeyed to that most confusing of constructions, the conundrum of all conurbations, Middlesbrough, to visit my brother and his family. Positioned by the wide estuary of the River Tees and on the edge of the idyllic North York Moors National Park, the town is dominated by its industrial past and present. The railway, the port, iron and steel and, latterly, chemical works have all left their mark, and aroma, on the town. Despite all that, my dear bro still has a garden bird list to cherish. I recently recalled the text message informing me that he had seen a Waxwing. Unfortunately, it was dead, having flown into a window. Quite possibly caused by lack of vision due to all the noxious petrochemical fumes.

That notwithstanding, we rounded off New Year's Day with a fantastic family meal and pondered on the wonderful start to 2011.

Monday, 3 January 2011

Single, shivering and surprised

Belated Happy New Year to you all. The slight interruption to service was due to a trip north to the Land of the Prince Bishops, but more of that in a future post.

This morning I was "home alone", Our Lass sloping off to work and Second Born walking out with her young man. Even the Admiral was otherwise engaged, so I thought I would pop to the local nature reserve for the first time this year.

The lakes have been frozen solid for some time, therefore there hasn't been many recent reports of wildfowl sightings, but there were a few breaks in the cloud so it seemed like a good time for the inaugural outing of Very Wrong Len.

Following a slight overnight dusting of snow, temperatures were still very low, so I wasn't expecting to see much in the way of liquid water. Oddly, a few shallow pools on the bund were ice free and offering sanctuary to several species of dabbling ducks, Mallard, Teal, Wigeon, Gadwall and Shoveller. The diving ducks just hadn't bothered to show up, as they would've needed crash helmets.

It was turning into a very quiet morning, with little to see and even less to photograph, but I remained hopeful of a sighting of something out on the ice. A fox perhaps, or a Water Rail, if I was lucky. Certainly a few corvids, some Crows and Magpies, were making use of the frozen conditions to patrol the lake margins, on the off chance of an easy meal if an unfortunate Moorhen or Coot had succumbed to the cold.

Whilst sat in the Far Hide, feeling some sympathy for the proverbial brass monkey, I noticed a vague brown shape, hugging the bank, way, way over on the other side of the lake. Presuming I'd finally had a bit of luck, I raised my binoculars to what I assumed was a fox or a deer. Yes, it was a bit of luck, but no, it wasn't either of those creatures. My frozen little brain had to guess again, but aided by a sudden shot of adrenaline, neurone after neurone was screaming "Bittern!" Cold fingers scrambled for my camera to capture a record shot, because I was about as far from the bird as it was possible to be. The Bittern was walking on the ice, along the edge of a small reed bed and soon disappeared from view.

Closing the viewing hatches as fast and as quietly as I could, I headed for the Near Hide, presumably named for just this occasion, as it was definitely much nearer the Bittern, though still on the opposite side of the lake. Once inside, I resumed my scanning of the reeds and after a few minutes the bird reappeared walking back in the other direction. I watched it for about half an hour, as it stalked and hunted its way along the bank, often losing sight of it for minutes at a time as its camouflage is perfectly suited to this habitat and vegetation.

At this distance, approximately 200m, I was doubly glad I'd brought along Very Wrong Len. In fact, if he continues to find Red Data List species, I may have to christen him Very Right Len.