Thursday, 19 February 2015

A Downland Walk


For one of the first times this year, the sun shone with noticeable warmth, making it a pleasure to stretch, breath deeply and stroll grassy paths, and gaze upwards into the blue. I climbed high above the village onto the side of the downs, and higher, bisecting a line of thorn and ash and onto the bare open tops. My legs ached with the uphill pull, the chalky mud beneath my feet was slippery, held together by only a threadbare net of grass, but it felt good to be out. 






The village houses huddled together around their square towered church, a plume of smoke drifted up from a distant bonfire; someone tidying the winter's damage from their garden. On the opposite hillside, pylons strode across the rolling field. 

But it was the birds that caught my eye. 

From where I stood near the hill top I was close to the birds as they rose on the updraft of wind that pushed up the hillside, soaring out over the blue ceiling of the valley. 
The buzzards were first, circling, stacked one above the other like planes waiting to land. 
As the morning warmed further, a red kite joined them, russet tail ever twisting, wings shifting to manoeuvre on the invisible wind. 

Through a kissing gate and along the side of the hill, the path narrows, splits and rejoined, trodden more often by the sheep that watch my progress with wary eyes. The short turf is wiry and coarse, but I know that later in the year it will be studded with violets and orchids. 
An ancient sound calls for my attention, and I pause and turn to watch a pair of raven, heavy set with wedge shaped tails, tumble from the blue sky and rise and pass and twist and fall, with an agility unexpected from broad black wings. 
In the quiet after their passing, a lark leaps forth from the meadowland, climbing ever skywards and pouring sweet song from the heavens. 


The skylark is not perturbed when pale clouds began to move in from the west, he continued to sing, so I knew the chill wind and shading clouds would not last long. 

In the hedgerows, lambs-tail catkins dangled and together with the fluffy masses of old man's beard from the wild clematis, they matched the colours of the sky in it's soft greys and sunlight yellows. 


It was time for me to turn back and take the path that leads down the field, through the line of thorn and ash. 

I looked and gazed and took my fill of the view one last time, noting the red kite had been joined by another and my own heart echoed their calls as I found my feet back in the village. 




I know when I next walk out on these hills, it will be Spring and the fields will echo with the bleating of lambs and dainty flowers will nod under the hedgerows that will be fresh with new leaf. 



Sunday, 8 February 2015

Old woman of the heath

The sun lured me out today. It was an early spring sun; still low enough in the sky to flicker through the roadside tree trunks and send long shadows across the path. But for a few long minutes after noon, it gathered strength, as if it's confidence was boosted by the welcome it received from faces too long shaded and winter-wind buffeted. It soon lost it's nerve as the henchmen of evening loomed at its shoulder, and faded into a pale lemonade sky, but it was there and it was warmer than it has been for weeks, for an hour or two. 

Lowland heaths always have a captivating quality, and Iping Common today was beautiful in the yellow light. At this time of year the wind can whip the branches of the trees against the clouds, and the open swathes of landscape can be barren and unforgiving. Today it seemed that the wind, and winter with it, had been lulled into a gentle sigh, suitable for a relaxing Sunday afternoon. Dog-walkers and families strolled along the sandy paths, commenting on the glorious day as if every time they mentioned it, the act of speaking the words aloud would tease a little more warmth from the sun, for just a little longer and help them ignore the fact that the afternoon was already growing cooler. 

Gorse bushes sprawl beside the paths, sunlight reflecting off a thousand gossamer spiders' threads spun from needle to needle, and yellow blooms glowing. Above them clouds of pook-flies shift in golden swarms. Slender birch trees gather in clusters like young ladies whispering together at the edges of the room. And in the dips and hollows and across the sandy stretches in between, grows the old woman of the heath. Come late summer when the heat haze warms her old branches, she will wear a gown of purple and be courted by butterflies and bees and romantic poets, but gnarled and bent, and greyed by winter, the heather leaves the dancing to the younger birches and the pook-flies. 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

A little bit sticky


With the storms we have been experiencing and nights of minus temperatures on the forecast, the birds are going to be feeling the brunt of the winter weather. 


Although the days are slowly lengthening, there are still only a few limited hours of daylight for birds to feed, whilst simply surviving the long nights of freezing or storm-buffeting requires a huge amount of energy. This means that high energy foods, for little effort, are top of the birds' wish-lists and the search for this often pushes birds to be bolder, and even range outside of their usual habitats or territory. This is why we often see larger numbers of birds or more unusual birds in our gardens in winter, as our lovingly cared for and sheltered gardens offer a sanctuary for these hungry birds. 


So what is on the menu? 
Well most invertebrates have spent out their life-cycles before the cold weather struck, and the rest are tucked away hibernating, so picking out the spiders and bugs from their crevices is a tricky game of hide-and-seek. There are berries too, and weed seeds, although these were dwindling; either eaten already or rotting and washed away by the rain. 




People have been feeding garden birds for decades, enjoying not only the close views and companionship of the wildlife, but also the satisfaction of knowing they are helping the little creatures through a time that has historically been as hard for us as it is for them. 



Although a traditional food, bread is actually bad for birds, as it fills them up with bulk but almost no nutrition. Seed mixes, peanuts, suet balls and fat cakes, live or dried mealworms/insects are all available to buy from a variety of shops or suppliers to suit most budgets, or you can put out kitchen scraps such as cheese, fruit, bacon and other fats, pastry and even left over cooked potato.  (Don't forget that fresh water is vital to birds too, for both drinking and bathing in all weathers.)




In my own garden I feed sunflower hearts in hanging feeders which are popular with the tits, finches, and even a nuthatch. The robin has learnt to cling on to the perches to steal a few seeds too! 
For birds such as the dunnock and blackbird, I offer a mix of seeds, suet nibbles and dried mealworms on open trays, often supplemented with raisins, grated cheese or a very occasional treat of a handful of fruit-cake crumbs. The starlings gobble most offerings quite happily, however they are most fond of the fat-filled half-coconut-shells that I hang up. 



Today I added a new addition to this banquet. A few weeks ago, knowing my passion for wildlife, my parents gave me an unusual present. It was a chunky log with a number of holes drilled into it and a hook screwed into one end. This was my new bird feeder. 


This afternoon I decided to put it into action and make some 'bird cake'. 

My ingredients were:

- a block of lard, 
- dried mealworms,
- a small amount of mixed seed,
- some berries/fruit (I used the holly and ivy berries and rosehips off our christmas wreath, that had been abandoned outside the back door)

I put the lard in a hot place in the house for a few minuets, to soften just enough to be 'squishable' and allow me to mix in my other ingredients. I then simply crammed this delightfully sticky mixture into the holes in the log. I had some left over mixture, so strung an old little terracotta pot with strong string to enable me to hang it up, and filled it with the remaining mixture. Both feeders were hung in the garden to await the morning's hungry visitors. 







Monday, 12 January 2015

Bird Day

Sunday 11th January was the only fine sunny, dry day in a week of rain. Which was fortunate, as Sunday 11th January was also the day of the Midhurst Martlet's Bird Race! 
For those unfamiliar with the term 'Bird Race', the aim is to see as many species of bird in one day as possible, usually within set geographical parameters, often either competing against a previous tally, or other teams. The Sussex Ornithological Society run a sponsored 'New Year Bird Race' each year, with teams taking part during the first two weeks of January, across the county of Sussex. This year was the third occasion the Midhurst Martlets team, of which I am a member, has taken part. 

The core team of Hugh H, Peter P, Peter D, and myself met up for our usual 7.20am start, and we headed south from Midhurst, towards Selsey Bill and the sunrise, where we hoped to meet our additional team member 'honorary Martlet' Gary T. By the time we arrived at 8am, we had collected 10 common species - Robin, Blackbird, Carrion Crow for example, including our first raptor of the day, Kestrel, and had a very brief debate about whether or not we could count the Partridge pub as a species. 




Next came the tricky part of the day - extracting identifications of birds between the waves with a spot of sea-watching, the joy of which divided opinion on the team. Never-the-less, as Great Northern Diver, Red Throated Diver and Red Breasted Merganser, along with beach-loitering Oystercatcher, Turnstone and Great Black Backed Gull joined the list, our running total was rising well into double figures. 
But with a Bird race, time is everything and we had a long way to go! 
Church Norton was next, scrunching over the shingle at a low tide, the winter wind scouring the air clean of even the sea-mud smell. A Moorhen was skulking around the moat that circles the historic mound, a Jay called and a Raven answered with two of these large corvids flying back the way we had come. Waders were rapidly counted and ticked off the list, an obliging Spoonbill slept soundly on the far side of the channels, accompanied by a Little Egret. The shoreline produced a Common Gull, whist a couple of Song Thrushes were the sole occupants of the churchyard, (bar a friendly tortoiseshell cat who's eyes were full of imaginary mice). 



On the beach I also spotted a couple of shark or ray egg cases, known as 'mermaids purses', and quickly snapped some photos of (beside my notebook for scale) for later identification and reporting to The Shark Trust's Great Eggcase Hunt (http://www.sharktrust.org/en/great_eggcase_hunt) 



The second raptor of the day was a Sparrowhawk, attracted perhaps by the same Great Tit that attracted us to the feeders outside Sidlesham Visitor Centre. Ferry Pool was busy - a mass of Shelduck and Brent Geese, and (when our view was not blocked by passing lorries) we picked out a number of other ducks and waders, and a Buzzard. Three wintering Chiffchaff made it onto the list as we returned to our cars bound for Apuldram Church and Fishbourne Creek. Stonechats flittered from bramble bush to bramble bush, Yellowhammer fed around the straw pile by the stables, and the flickering dart of a Jack Snipe brought our total to the mid 50's. 







Time to head inland... but maybe a stop at Chichester Gravel Pits on the way is worth a try... after superb views of Kingfisher, and additional ticks of Pochard, Tufted Duck, Gadwall, Red Crested Pochard and Long Tailed Tit, that would seem to be true!

At last we were bound for the Downs. 

It was in the fields below Burpham that we found the congregation of Bewick Swans, whilst above them an airport style stack of circling Red Kites populated the skies. Grey Partridge inspected us from the longer grass of a field at The Burgh (we decided we couldn't count Turkey!), whilst more Red Kites momentarily distracted us from what was turning into increasingly wintery weather. 


Pulborough Brooks provided our last few species, sadly not the hoped for Marsh Tit, Treecreeper and Nuthatch, but as dusk claimed the land, we were rewarded with a pair of Mandarin that whirred past, and the bat-like dash of Woodcock
In total we tallied up 88 species, plus a possible heard only Whimbrel at Church Norton and Fishbourne Creek which would nudge our score over to 89...

Having parted company with Gary T. at Waltham Brooks where we failed to persuade a water rail to drag our score up to 90, it was long after dark when the original team meandered back into Midhurst, to our respective houses, dinners and well deserved beds!

I must say thank you to Tina Pettifer and her friend, who we met over the view of the Bewick Swans, and who kindly donated £5 to our sponsorship. 

The award for best views of the day has to go to the Kestrels, not just spotted over the road on the first journey south, but hanging above our heads at Ferry Pool, and The Burgh also. With eyes pinned on the ground below them, each feather shifting and adjusting, they certainly lived up to their alternative name of Wind-Hover.





Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Winter and Wildlife

Night

The air smells of frost & there is already a glistening of ice in the half-moonlight; the heavens and ground glitter alike with stars. Through the cold, hard December darkness, comes the call of a dog fox, sharp as the night air. Short. Twice. Carried by the cold. He does not linger. Sometime in a few days or weeks, I'd expect his staccato call will be answered by the vixen's drawn out cry. Slowly, yet undoubtedly, tangibly, the year is turning.

Pinprick stars populate the night sky as if light were shining through moth-holes in a black out curtain, blinking as the material shifts, breathes. I count those I can see beyond my window; the Plough is tilted & hangs suspended at an angle, Orion has crept out of sight over the roof of the house. 

Wildlife will be risky & bold tomorrow; hungry & cold.

Dawn

A frost so heavy & hard it holds still branch & air, binding all to all, leaf to leaf & leaf to ground. Our warm breath melts the air ahead. The landscape seems subdued, as if holding its breath and waiting for the weak sun to share it's meagre warmth and free it from it's iron-ice cage. 

The dawn sun brushes all with an alchemist's touch, turning white base metal to blazing gold.

Goldfinches, perched on just those highest branches the sun's caress first reaches, sing brightly, their melody as high and sweet as the sound of falling icicles. 

Two redwings sit in the topmost branches of the tallest ash, looking out across the frozen fields like sailors from the rigging across the sea.
Cattle huff and shuffle around the feeders, a blanket of frost unmelted on their backs. 

Grey wagtail paddles and potters, tail-bobbing, along the edge of the stream. Her world flows, unbound. 
Her pied cousin is perched atop a plough-rut castle, perusing his clumps and furrows, and preening his feathers, tail-bobbing. 
Blue tit calls, great tit responds. Blacksmiths hammer; blackbirds with their fire hued bills working on frozen ivy berries. 
Distant, hesitant. I think I hear the first tuning whistles of the song thrush rehearsing for his role as newly appointed town cryer come the fickle spring, but he notices when I stop to listen and quells his voice.
The woodpecker is not so shy, and boldly beats out his percussive rhythm on the old oak tree. Another responds like an echo.

Wood pigeons clap, startled overhead, and pheasant crows in alarm from the woodland edge. Do they start at my passing, or has the fox returned from his night-life unseen, silent, light of step so as his paws barely soften the frost in his wake?





Sunday, 21 December 2014

Winter Solstice

The year-weary sun is crossing the sky towards an early sinking death, leaving us in darkness. The moon too has turned and hides her light from us. Only the cold stars will stud the sky if the clouds allow. 

The hours of night will be long, the longest we have known since the sun warmed the land last spring. 

But there are buds in the oak and catkins in the hazel, under the deep drifts of fallen leaves seeds soak up the winter rains and swell, preparing. 

Eventually dawn will come, and a fresh sun will rise with renewed energy, and in its pale sky a slim crescent moon will reflect this bright light. 
Each day this new sun will grow in strength, shining longer and warmer. This is the signal that nature has been waiting for. 

As the old sun waned, life retreated and withered; only the holly retained its verdant green. 

Now the oak will reclaim its crown and encouraged by the youthful sun, will allow energy to flow back into its leaves and unfurl to glory in the coming spring.







Monday, 15 December 2014

Festive frolicking in the heather

Come up to the Common, and help us with some conservation work They said! You can take home a christmas tree They said! It''l be fun They said! 
... They were right!


Saturday morning dawned cold bright and heavy with frost. Every leaf, grass blade and rooftop was crusted with ice, or glinting in the sun. I arrived at the common at about 10am, mid morning. The sun was well risen, and the day had aired long enough for some of the frost to sparkle as it melted, and the thick mud to ooze underfoot. The brightness of the sun blocked my view to the east; slender trees danced in front of it, and the light burst through between their ranks of trunks. All was grey-green and brown, yet gilded by golden light. Except the gorse, squat bushes of which were growing resolutely along each side of the path, proffering its vicious spikes to the frost, each thorny crown cradling a mass of yellow flowers like distilled december sunshine. 
High in the birch trees, minute movements dashed across my vision, accompanied by high thin calls. an autumn flock of small birds, mostly tits and crests were feeding in the topmost branches. I recognised the bold black markings of a great tit, and several bouncing pinkish baubles paused just long enough to reveal themselves as an extended family group of long tailed tits. the smallest of all were the goldcrests. Like mobile leaves these miniature green-hued birds flitted and hovered, seeking the insets and spiders succumbing to the frost. One goldcrest dropped low in the trees, taking a moment out from foraging to plunge into the icy waters of a tree-root-puddle and clean his vital feathers. I watched him through my binoculars as he sat on a branch preening and drying off. His flame like orange flash on his crown, bright and glorious. The flock moved on in their continual roving travels, and I too continued my walks, in the opposite direction. 
An unusual sound stopped me in my tracks; a bird like chattering from the gorse, someone clearly wasn't happy with my presence. a shifting, a movement, an appearance. There sat on top of a gorse bush in perfect field-guide-picture pose, was a dartford warbler*. A gorgeous male bird, of uniform charcoal grey from beak tip to long tail, with a bib of deepest claret wine. This was my first really good view of this bird, one that I had only glimpsed before. A heathland specialist, the dartford warbler relies on gorse bushes to harbour their insect food during the winter, even under snow cover, but here we are at the northern reaches of their range, and populations often crash during hard winters. This sighting cheered me to good spirits for the rest of the day, and was boosted by the additional unexpected view of a glorious male bullfinch, plump pink plumage illuminated by the sun. 




My birding walk was just the start of things. I returned to the car park to join the local Wildlife Trust volunteers and gathering public. We made our way out onto the heathland, and gathered to listen to a talk and instructions. We were here to help clear pine and birch trees from a patch of the heath, essential management work to protect this rare habitat. Lowland heathland has developed through centuries of human activity, and if ignored trees would rapidly grow up and the area would become woodland in a natural process known as succession. The Wildlife Trust (and other organisations) are endeavouring to maintain a mosaic of different habitats to protect the specialist species that rely on each. 






Very soon, small seedling scot's pine trees and twiggy birch saplings were being cleared and stacked beside a glowing bonfire. Smoke drifted lazily, misting over Neolithic barrows, dropping low under the high pressure of the fine weather and rising phantom-like from the heather. However, not every pine was destined to burn on the fire and scent the smoke. Across local villages and towns, preparations for christmas are gathering pace as the festive season gets underway, and now the homes of many of Saturday's volunteers are also adorned with a proud tree of heathland heritage. 








*Please note that Dartford Warblers are a rare, and sensitive species, both in the breeding season, and through the winter when they are particularly vulnerable to cold weather. I have purposely refrained from giving an exact location, for this blog/species for this reason.