Saturday 27 February 2010

Bohemian Wax-ody

It's been a rather quiet week for me, wildlife wise, with the sole exception of a Goldeneye on the M6 Toll. Well, in one of those pools adjacent to the motorway, that help with the run-off. Made a change from Buzzards.

Then, this morning, we were returning from another fruitless bathroom tile-choosing session, when I realised that the thrush I was trying to identify before we drove passed it was, in fact, not a thrush at all. I see a little silhouette of a bird.

At this juncture, I should add that I wasn't driving, so it was to my dear wife's credit that when I screamed "Waxwing!", she performed an impeccable and swift three-point turn, without so much as a question. Parking up on the opposite side of the road, we sat amazed as pedestrians wandered beneath the tree, without so much as a care for what was perched in it. This was matched by the Waxwing's disdain for the feverish excitement emanating from the 4x4 over the road. Make that 2 Waxwings, there's another one! Magnifico-o-o-o-o!

Now as this was on our patch, less than 500 yards from home, it made it all the more special. I hadn't seen a waxwing for over 30 years, back up North, and our lass had been on the planet even longer without ever spotting one. Not too late, my time has come.

Rushing home for optics, we returned to look up to the skies and see. The birds were sat in a... actually, I don't know what kind of tree it was, very, very frightening. Anyway, there was loads of Mistletoe in it, covered in berries, which is presumably why the waxwings were on the scene.

Pulled my trigger, now they're photographed.

Saturday 20 February 2010

Naked birding

He's used that word again! O-oh!

It's a long story, so bear with me. No pun intended, honest.

It is often the case that a child who grew up surrounded by countryside will veer off on one or other of Life's diversions during late teens. Wild life rather than wildlife, if you will. But hopefully undergo a metamorphosis when older and re-emerge as a nature lover once again.

This certainly seems to be the direction that my life has taken. After the wilderness years, the imminent arrival of a family nudged me back on the right track. A muddy track with puddles, but a track, nonetheless.

My partner in this endeavour was not nearly so keen in those early days. I recall a blazing row in a Westphalian wood in Germany and a field guide whizzing through the air. Walks were walks back then, none of this poncing around with optics and stopping every five yards to peer skywards. Well, we're all older and wiser now, though she doesn't seem too feather-spittingly distraught at having passed up on Black Kite, Black Woodpecker and Black Redstart, to name but a few. And why were they all black? It wasn't even the Schwarzwald.

Fast forward several decades and here we are in a much different scenario. One of our number went off on a gap year in the autumn of 2006 and the thing that got us parents through those empty winter days was a Garden Bird Survey for the RSPB North Bucks local branch. That's what took our minds off the imagined terrors facing our wee lass as she ventured across the globe. This in turn allowed my wife to blossom as a nature lover and she's not looked back. I don't seem to be the most keen birder at Tense Towers anymore, judging by this morning when a shout of "Long-tailed Tit! Yes!" preceded a feminine hand ticking off another square on the form.

She has a good eye (actually, she's got two good eyes, and they still have a mischievous sparkle when she laughs) and often spots things that I've missed. Her adoption of optics is impressive but hides are still boring, I'm afraid. However, her waking thoughts, as she rises and opens the curtains, are to see what's in the garden and on the feeders. Now that is naked birding.

I did seek permission for a photo of this, by filling in the forms in triplicate, two weeks in advance and supported by profuse assurances of tastefully arranged framing, but to no avail. Sadly, the ladies of the local WI have missed out on a possible recruit.

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Dum, dum, der dum ti dum dum dum...

You know how it is. It's a busy day in the office, there's a thousand and one things to be done, you're rushing through an email, typing faster than is wise, brain working quicker than fingers, when it happens. The typo to end all typos.

What it should've said was "further tests", but what appeared on the page was "fuhrer testes".

My question is this... does this mean that the old song is untrue? Did Hitler, in fact, have more than one ball? What other bygone mysteries could be solved using this method?

I look forward to the next revelatory typo with interest, though the thought of channeling uncertain historical fact through the medium of the misspelt word is not a creative outlet I had previously considered, even in my most off piste moments. That wasn't a typo, by the way.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Kite Amble, innit!

As you will know from a previous blog, I find that there’s nothing quite so tedium-relieving on a long car journey than spotting a bird as you careen along. Raptors figure quite highly (though I did spot a Great Spotted Woodpecker on a telegraph post by the A5 the other week). Top raptor for me tends to be the Red Kite, as sadly, I don’t have a commute that includes mountains or moorland.

In fact, the majority of my Red Kite sightings have been from behind the wheel at 60-70mph. I know, I know, I shouldn’t let them drive, but they do thrive on road kill. And you thought they were just scavengers!

Seriously though, there have not been many non-vehicular moments in the Tense/Kite relationship.

Little persuasion was required, therefore, in the decision to visit the Red Kite Centre just outside Rhayader (or Rhaeadr Gwy, for my Welsh readers), to sample a bit more of the spectacle that shines from this charismatic bird.

Large birds of prey are always impressive to see, but combined with the kite’s wonderful colours, markings and aerial agility, they are a joy to behold. A bit like a Spitfire painted using the autumnal palette, with razor sharp talons replacing the Brownings, though without the Merlin engine, cos that’s a much smaller raptor, obviously.

The trip from Shropshire, down through Herefordshire and into Powys was reasonably uneventful so we arrived in Rhayader requiring the adrenalin rush that only a tea shop can deliver. Suitably sustained, we then pootled the short distance out of the town to Gigrin Farm, which is the official Red Kite Feeding Station. Sleet and snow showers were sweeping across the area, but fortunately, we made it to the hides without becoming soaked. Thankfully, the sun appeared as feeding time approached, its weak light mixing with the tangible sense of avian and human anticipation.

On cue, a tractor chugged onto the field in front of the hides, and chunks of meat were shovelled from the rear bucket. Somehow, the raw redness of the situation was heightened by the whiteness of the snow, a feeling probably lost on the assembled Crows, Rooks, Ravens, Buzzards, Red Kites and, bizarrely, two Grey Herons. The corvids were the first to begin feeding, followed by the raptors once they felt safe. In contrast to all the other species, the Red Kites did not land to feed, but would swoop between the assembled throng to grasp the meat in their talons and then gain height to eat it whilst flying. Their aerial antics, experienced at such close quarters, were something to behold, but the best was yet to come.

Needing to move our cold muscles, we abandoned the hide to wander around a nature trail above the feeding site. From this vantage point, we noticed that as the food stocks were depleted, the Kites would harry any bird flying from the field carrying food. Ravens, Buzzards, even other Red Kites, were chased in a whirling, soaring, diving dogfight until the food was dropped, at which point the nearest Kite would twist in mid air and swoop to retrieve it before it fell more than a few feet. It was absolutely amazing to watch and I suspect that we will return to sample the magic again.

Winter Windowland

The Tense team have been on a winter break in deepest darkest Shropshire.

More by good luck than good management, for our post-Christmas chill, we often experience a week of sub-zero temperatures for snowy walks and picturesque frosty vistas. But we weren’t too hopeful this year, what with all the arctic conditions over the festive period, and therefore reluctantly assumed that we’d had our cold spell for the winter.

Not so. For to arrive at the rented cottage, we had to drive up an icy tarmac’d lane, across a pot-holed farm yard and then down an even narrower, snow-covered track. Game on!

This particular cottage is a converted barn, nestled near the top of a valley close to Wenlock Edge. The bedrooms/bathroom are downstairs and the kitchen/diner and lounge are upstairs, with a large window looking out down the valley.

No phone signal, no street lights, no traffic. Just peace and quiet, if you don’t mind birdsong, and we certainly don’t.

Sally soon settled herself on the sofa, staring out of the window at the owners’ chickens and piglets, scratching and snuffling their way through the snow, looking for tasty morsels. And so began PigWatch! Not quite so unpredictable as the BBC’s [insert name of season]Watch, but with a variety of birds drawn towards whatever the livestock unearthed.

As the light began to fade, a male Bullfinch perched on the Buddleia bush beside the window, which afforded rather pleasing, close up views of this shy bird.

Then, as the sun set, wrens began to appear and gather in a communal roost under the eaves of the cottage. As this was effectively the corner of the lounge, we could hear them settling down for the night, chuntering to each other about various topical troglodytical issues and, presumably, how things used to be better in the old days. “ Cave? Call this a cave? In my day…etc.” In the decreasing light but with the snow giving a white background, we were able to pick out the little feathered missiles arriving, and counted at least 18 individuals approaching from the 180ยบ arc visible to us.

Flitting from the surrounding shrubs onto the window ledges and the lapped pine walls of the cottage, it was like a scene from The Birds but as filmed by Beatrix Potter, not Alfred Hitchcock. Inspection of the eaves from ground level the following morning, revealed several old House Martin nests and a few small gaps, certainly sufficient for a tiny bird to squeeze through.

As Sal pointed out, with her genetically-inflicted punning ability, “This is a wren-ted cottage, after all.”