a hawthorn in Wiltshire

During the winter it sometimes seems that the need to get out and walk is stronger than at other times of year. Perhaps it is because of the short, dark days that a kind of opportunism sets in. Any chance to counteract the symptoms of cabin fever.

One of those days recently finds us at home with itchy feet. A thick fog envelopes us, so we head for the chalk hills of Salisbury Plain, hopeful that getting up on to higher ground will make for better conditions. The gamble pays off, as just a few miles down the road the fog blanket ends abruptly, and by the time we arrive at our start point we have a cirrus-patterned sky above us, and the sun is climbing its low trajectory.

We walk up Cold Kitchen Hill – from the Celtic for ‘Hill of the Wizard’ – the path following a comfortable gradient around the southern flank. Looking in the direction of the sun, the low-angled light shows up a silvery patina on the grass that would otherwise be invisible – innumerable spider’s webs. Meadow pipits fly up from the ground around us and the short grazed turf makes for easy walking. I always find the process of climbing a hill to be a mentally uplifting experience; the fact that it is such a beautiful day makes it truly joyous.

Once on the flat top of the ridge we find our rhythm, with a light breeze and cronking ravens for company. Here on the western edge of Salisbury plain, the hills extend like a hand outstretched above the surrounding farmland. In the clear air and low winter sun, the surrounding views are mapped out in sharp relief – every hedge, fence line and beech hanger underlined with long shadows. We walk almost to the far end of the hill, where scrub bushes and a small wood mark the end of the ridge before it descends sharply to the fields below. On the edge of the scrub, a hawthorn tree stands, leans, hangs on to the soil. A startling wreckage of a tree, it is a testament to what conditions can be like up here. It is tangled and broken, such that it is not easy to follow any one branch from its starting point through to the tips.

The weather here today is so pleasant it is unseasonable, the sort of day you might get in late February, a suggestion of spring. But the hawthorn tells a different story – one of unabated wind and raw exposure. It is difficult to picture on a day like this, but when the weather turns bad this must become a hostile and alien place. I try and imagine what it would sound and feel like to be here in a blizzard or when gales come in from the west. I like to think I’d come back to find out – but that’s perhaps for another time.

It is warm enough today to stand for a while and enjoy the sights and sounds without getting cold. A couple of Nuthatches chase and call loudly at each other, and a Jay scolds from nearby. From just the other side of the hill a hot air ballon appears on a level with us, unexpectedly close. It is caught by whatever slight air movement there is, and drifts slowly away. On the way back down we watch a hare. It appears at the edge of an empty field below us, loping across the pale chalk and stubble, and just as quickly it is gone.

As we finish we realise the toes of our boots are festooned in cobwebs – we have each collected hundreds of them as we have walked, along with dozens of tiny black spiders. Even the dog has them draped across his nose.

On the drive back home I can’t stop thinking about the hawthorn tree; I think its chaotic framework will stay etched in my mind’s eye for some time to come. The fog is where we left it on our way out, and reduces the daytime high from a just-about-comfortable 9C to a rather cold and dank 4C. However, sunshine, fresh air and exercise have done their work – the cabin fever will be held at bay for now.


wetland bird survey – swans and sunshine

When I make the half-hour drive to my survey patch, I will often see flocks of Starlings pass over head, all coming from the direction of the Somerset Levels. When there are several hundred they will be strung out in a long line, flying low across the fields, up over the hedges and roads and on to their feeding grounds. Last weekend was no exception, and given it was also a beautiful sunny morning, it felt like a promising day for seeing birds.

A month ago I saw less than a hundred Lapwings for the whole count, but as I arrived it was evident that it would be different on this occasion. As I got my wellies on a flock of about 60 Lapwings flew overhead, their curious calls filling the air. The water in the River Sowy and Langacre Rhyne was high, just about breaking the bank. Here, there were the usual suspects – a handful of Mute Swans and Cormorants. There is scrub and long grass on the banks which play host to Stonechats, and there were several visible, all very noisy.

I covered this first section on foot, and part way along my route a pair of Roe deer watched me from the far side of a field. Evidently my presence proved too much; off they went, their tail flashes showing up bright in the sunshine. Perhaps this was the same pair that I saw here last month? In the bushes beside me a Cetti’s warbler gave song – always startlingly loud. I sometimes wonder if they surprise themselves with the volume of their voice.

On this part of the site I have to cross two bridges. There are often birds here, and with little cover available, caution is required if they are not to be spooked. As I approached, there suddenly seemed to be birds everywhere. A flock of about 160 Lapwings took off from a field adjacent to the river took. Several Mallards passed overhead. I could hear Teal calling – there were 20 or so upstream – and numerous swans populated the river banks further downstream.


Three swans flew past, following the line of the river. Initially I just noted down the number, but as an after thought I had a quick look through the binoculars. I’m glad I did as the different shape and colouring of their beaks revealed them to be Whooper swans. I have access to the survey records for this site going back to 2000, and looking through later on I could see no previous instance of the species. In addition this was a lifer for me, so on two counts that already made the day a bit special.


Larger numbers of Lapwings gather in the fields adjacent to one of the roads that cuts across the site. I can scan these from the roadside, but it takes some time to cover as there are anything up to several hundred in each field, and careful counting is required. Here also were Golden Plovers, the other species that gather in large numbers. In one field there were approximately 1500, and along with a flock of Lapwings, they took flight, giving a wonderful swirling display. When they wheel and turn they look like a shoal of fish, the sunlight catching their paler plumage.

As I drove between two viewpoints I noticed a couple of egrets in amongst some cattle. Were these Cattle egrets? After parking, I used my scope to have a better look and sure enough, this was certainly what they were. This was my second lifer of the day, and again, another species that is not in the records I have access to.


Cattle egrets have been showing up on the Somerset Levels for some years now, with Catcott Lows seeming to be a particular hotspot for them. In 2008 they bred here on the Levels for the first time on record in the UK, after an influx the previous year. It will be interesting to see if they show up again on my patch over the winter.

In the same way that it is somehow reassuring when the Swallows return in spring, it was good to see the Lapwings and Golden Plovers back here in numbers. In all there were 1450 and 3000 respectively- double the numbers present the same time last year. This count was particularly enjoyable – nice weather, new species and the spectacle of large numbers of birds in flight. What’s not to like?

wetland bird survey – October

A year ago I signed up to take part in the Wetland Bird Survey. Over the course of last winter I completed monthly counts of waders and wetland birds at a site on the Somerset Levels.

The survey is undertaken on specified dates, and last weekend I did my October count. I had hoped that the good weather would continue over the weekend, but it was not to be. Wellies and waterproofs were a must!

Scanning the fields at my first viewpoint, it quickly became evident that there were none of the lapwings and golden plovers that will be present in the winter. However, as I made my way around the site several species were present on the various drains, rhynes and ditches.

Mute swans, variously on the water or banks, were gathered in pairs or small groups – 38 in all. Cormorants were scattered in ones and twos, perched on gates and bridge parapets. There is also a tree which they favour. Why this particular one, I don’t know, but often there will be seven or more amongst its branches. On this occasion there were just a pair. Every so often mallards, in twos and threes, would fly over head. From a nearby field, a lone snipe launched itself skyward, zig-zagging as it called.

While walking along a drove track my eye was drawn to birds in flight above me. Strung out in a ragged line were my first flock of lapwings, just 13, followed soon after by a flock of 23. In another part of the site I saw a flock of 42. It is early days yet and numbers will hopefully increase in the winter – last year I was counting them in the low 1000s. The historical records for the site show that less than a decade ago lapwings were being counted at over 10,000.

As I worked my way around the site, other species made a show. A couple of teal here, a coot there. A grey heron, wings arched, flying ponderously. The dashing flight of a kingfisher – always a delight to see.

While scanning a section of a rhyne, I spotted three birds on the water some way off. They dived repeatedly, and at that distance I could just make out one black, two brown. I couldn’t think of what they were immediately, although I had the nagging feeling that I ought to be able to. The colouring was familiar. It would probably come to me later.

I watched as a great white egret stalked along the margins of a drain. Extending its neck, it leaned out and stabbed at the water. With much exaggerated gulping and shaking of the head, it swallowed its prey and resumed its task. Shortly afterwards, I saw the egret fly off, being chased by a grey heron. Earlier on I had seen another in amongst some reeds, and that was also seen off by a grey heron.

The landscape here is not just about waders. I was walking one section and a flash of white up ahead caught my attention. It was a wheatear, hopping along the ground, then up it flew, landing on a nearby post. Two roe deer grazed on vegetation in a nearby field. In the scrub and bushes alongside the tracks there was a constant movement and calling from small birds – goldfinches, robins, tits, and reed buntings.

By the time I had completed the count I had seen 12 species in all. In terms of numbers, it was a slow morning compared to some of last winters’ counts, but a good chance to refresh my ID skills. Also, the discipline and purpose that doing the survey brings to birding is enjoyable. Besides which, the wetlands are a fascinating place to spend time. The landscape of the Somerset Levels has a unique beauty – even when it rains.

And those three diving birds? Tufted ducks.

a following wind

Sunday afternoon, a couple of weeks ago, the storm has blown through, a rearguard of cloud moves away to the east. Overhead, a bright blue sky and rag ends of clouds caught on a stiff northerly breeze.

Looking up on the off chance, a habit.

Half a dozen or so swallows fly over, purposeful, direct, southbound.

It gives me an idea. Equipped with binoculars, a chair, and an hour ahead of me, I install myself at the end of the garden where I have a clear view of the sky. Check the time and wait. It doesn’t take long – another small flock, heading the same way, south, and the same focused flight, intent. Minutes later another group. And another.

I watch for an hour, and over the course of that time I count 142 swallows and 12 house martins. Not a huge number by any means, but a near constant flow. In all, 32 groups pass over, ranging from lone birds to 20 or more, so on average every 2 minutes. Unlike the interweaving flight of resident feeding swallows, they are all flying in one direction. This behaviour suggests that with the wind in the right direction, and more than 9000 kilometres to go, this is an opportunity not to be squandered.

So, do migrating birds wait for a following wind? It makes sense, but this is something I need to look into.

Two days later, late afternoon, I watched a group of six swallows skim over the village. And that was the last time. So long until next year.

Last weekend I talk a walk to the copse around sunrise, and the number of Robins was notable – far more than usual. It seemed almost as if every few metres there would be one singing or scolding. I counted 20 over about a kilometre – normally there would be perhaps 5–10. No doubt these will be part of the influx of migrants that overwinter here, so as one lot of visitors are leaving, another are taking their place.

In the copse itself a noisy flock of about 30 Magpies congregated in the tops of the trees – I don’t recall seeing this many at one time before. In the half-light Meadow pipits called as they passed overhead, reminding me that soon the sky will be punctuated by the flight calls of Fieldfares and Redwings. Smaller birds were still relatively quiet, although from time to time, I could see movement in the lower tiers of the trees. Nearby, an alarm call from a wren, and at one point, soft ticking sounds came from within a scrubby bush, and a small flock of Long-tailed tits appeared, moving through the branches like bobbing musical notes.

I reached the high ground that overlooks the copse as the clouds to the east flared momentarily a deep rose-red. With the sun up, daylight quickly increased and with it bird activity. Blue tits, Great tits and Chaffinches started to call to one another as they worked through the Blackthorn scrub on the edge of the copse. Hidden from view, but very close to me I could hear the slightly mournful call of a Bullfinch. Further away, a Chiffchaff haltingly gave song.

Time to walk back, taking in another part of the copse on my way. The blackberries, mostly over now, have been both abundant and delicious. Blackthorn branches are weighed down with sloes, and the Guelder Rose bushes are covered in berries. I hope this means our birds will do well this winter.


A small brown bird flies up from somewhere near my feet, lands in a nearby bush, watching me, its tail flicking. Delicately built, about the size of a Blue Tit, this unremarkable looking bird is a Chiffchaff. It had been so close to me when it flew up, that I can think of only one reason why it would have been there at all. Looking around I spot what initially looks like a ball of leaves and other vegetation wedged between grass stems just centimetres off the ground. It is the Chiffchaff’s nest, and is so well hidden, if it were not for the female flying up like that, I’d never have noticed it. Crouching down I am able to see what is actually a neat dome like structure, in the side of which is the entrance. Peering in I can see a clutch of 4 or 5 eggs. Not wanting the nest to be abandoned, I move away from the location, leaving the Chiffchaff to return undisturbed to her nest.

This was back in late June, and I happened to return to the same site a few days later so was able to check on the nest. I was pleased to find that the Chiffchaff was still sitting – hopefully she was able to go on and successfully raise her brood.

Over the last few weeks I have been hearing the ‘hweet’ call of the Chiffchaff, usually coming from the the cover of a bush or tree, and if it were not for the fact that they are a bird that is constantly on the move, I would probably never spot them. During the spring, the male Chiffchaffs make their presence known by the distinctive song that gives them their name, often delivered at length from an exposed perch on a bush or tree, so they are much easier to observe. Although at this time of year they will still sometimes break into their ’chiff-chaff’ song, I find they are more likely to give their ‘hweet’ call, and it is this that I have been hearing frequently in many places over the last 2 or 3 weeks. I presume local numbers are currently swelled by birds on migration, and at the moment I find at almost any location where there is the cover of trees and bushes, one can be heard.

Given how ubiquitous they are, they are easy to overlook in favour of more flamboyant birds. The epitome of the ‘little brown job’, they are easy to miss. Despite their unremarkable appearance, I think the Chiffchaff is a delightful bird – they are constantly busy, as they search for insects to eat, sometimes flying out from a perch to catch prey in midair. Watching one work its way around a bush, absorbed in the immediacy of its task, is in turn utterly absorbing itself. At one location recently, I heard calls of ‘hweet’ coming from more than one direction – it was quickly evident that here was presumably a family group, keeping in touch with each other as the moved around the area.

Of a rather delicate build, to look at they are not easy to distinguish from the Willow Warbler – the more ‘obvious’ distinctions are darker legs and a shorter eyebrow stripe. I think am slowly finding it easier to spot the difference, but am by no means confident on every occasion. The BTO has a good video to help distinguish between them.

I usually stop seeing Chiffchaffs in late September or October. According to the RSPB, between 500–1000 Chiffchaffs over-winter here in the Uk, and I spotted my first one last winter, on a cold but sunny day in Dorset. The movement of a bird caught my eye – it was looking for food in amongst some plants and bushes, and after a short while perched on a branch in the shelter of a wall, preening itself. It did this for what seemed like a few minutes, as if enjoying the warmth of the sun.

During the breeding season there are 1.2 million Chiffchaff territories held in the UK, so if the majority of those are currently on migration south, it is unsurprising that so many are to be seen and heard at the moment. Over the coming winter, I would like to think that I will see another Chiffchaff like last year, but I think I will be lucky to do so. However, come mid-March that will all change, and there will be that moment when I realise that for the last few minutes I have been hearing the song of the Chiffchaff, and spring will be back with us.

wet woodland, a stately tree

It rained non-stop on the second day of our trip to Scotland. Not wishing to spend the whole day indoors kicking our heels, we went in search of a short local walk.

Balmorino is a small village that sits on the southern shore of the Firth of Tay in Fife. Parking near the ruins of the 13th century abbey, we followed a path past a large barn, behind which stood another ruin – an unidentified if impressive bit of industrial/agricultural machinery.

Following the path, we soon entered woodland that follows the shore of the Firth westwards from Balmorino. The wood is a mix of Scots pine and other coniferous species along with broad-leaved trees such as Beech, Sycamore and Sweet Chestnut, some of them truly impressive specimens. We had also read that red squirrel can be seen here, so we kept our eyes peeled, which presents a challenge as you can’t look up at the trees and look where you are going at the same time. Fortunately there were no twisted ankles, but sadly no squirrels spotted either.

The tide was out so at various points we were able to get down onto the beach. Because of the rain, visibility was not that great, but we could see across to Dundee. We did an out and back walk, backtracking on our route, partly because the rain came on heavier and we preferred the shelter of the trees, partly because we just liked the woods. Should we ever come back the area would be worthy of much further exploration – the walk can be extended, and then loop back inland, for example.

We had a quick look around the abbey ruins, but what really got our attention was a magnificent Sweet Chestnut, standing on the edge of woodland behind the abbey. Said to be about 430 years old, this is one elder statesmen of a tree, all twists and bulges. Sweet chestnuts have a tendency to produce a beautiful twisting pattern in the bark – this one is no different and the urge to touch it is irresistible. I love the way an ancient tree like this evokes a sense of awe.

copse report #2

I’m walking along the southern side of the copse that is the focal point of my patch. It’s an hour or so after dawn and the bird song is a tapestry of interwoven sounds, almost overwhelming. Here at the end of April the leaves are starting to fill in the gaps between the branches, so it is getting harder to spot the birds that favour this habitat.

Thick with dew, the grass clings to my boots. From the top of a nearby fence post a Wren gives voice to its larger than life song. Away to my left I can hear the tumbling song of a Chaffinch, and the repeated phrases of a Song Thrush. I come to a stop; I am not sure if it is my imagination or not, but in amongst all the other songs and calls I am sure I caught a snippet of something else. Something scratchy; a sound that doesn’t quite fit with the familiar songs that I can hear. I listen for a minute, but failing to hear it again, I resume walking.

I’ve not gone much further and there it is again , I am certain of it. I stop a second time and wait. This time I get the payoff – there is a slight lull from the other birds, enough for me to clearly pick out the short-phrased song. That of a bird I have not heard here before; the Whitethroat. Up until a few years ago I used to see them in the hedgerows around the lanes near our home, so it’s a delight to see one again in the area.

It is somewhere in the brambles just beyond the copse boundary . I use my binoculars to scan the area from where the sound is coming from but I can’t pick it out, despite their propensity for perching in full view on the tops of vegetation. I could spend more time looking for it, but my attention is drawn away by the burbling call of a Blackcap in the bushes beside me. Or at least, that is what I initially think it is.

Two aspects to warbler’s behaviour – that they don’t stay still for long, and often spend much of their time in the middle of shrubs or undergrowth – along with their often indistinguishable appearance make them difficult to identify. This one is being true to form; I can hear it clearly, and I can see movement, but any brief view I get is partially obscured and too dark to see any colour. Moving to another vantage point I watch again. This time I am rewarded, as the bird moves to the outer branches. What I see is a small brown warbler – brown all over, so definitely not a Blackcap. This then is a Garden Warbler. And for the second time today, a first for my patch, and for the 12 months or so that I have been coming here now, the fifth species of warbler.

Distinguishing between the song of the Blackcap and the Garden Warbler is a noted challenge of birding 1. I certainly lack the expertise, and can only say with confidence that I have heard the song of a Garden Warbler once, as I saw the bird in question clearly enough to identify it. On this occasion I am able to observe and listen to one at close quarters for fifteen minutes or more – perhaps the biggest difference I can hear is that once it gets going it just keeps on going! I don’t know, but I hope that this means I will be that bit better at telling the difference in the future.

A fortnight later I am in the copse again. It’s the middle of May and the difference in the leaf coverage on the trees is so much more noticeable. The undergrowth is now verdant, a mass of grass, nettles and cow parsley. The flowers of the Blackthorn and Wild Cherry have been superseded by those of the Hawthorn and Wayfaring Tree. Any vestige of winter is long gone, and the paths around the copse feel more closed in and secret.

I want to see if there is any sign of either the Whitethroat or Garden Warbler this time. Of the latter – not a thing. Does this mean that it was simply passing through when I saw it? I would like to think that it is here for the summer. Perhaps I will hear it again on another visit. It is quite a bit colder than on my previous visit and the birds are less active, so maybe it is just not giving itself away. However, what I do hear is the Whitethroat, and this time I am able to spot it. It is in the same location as on my last visit, using several different perches from which to sing, and every now and then it gives its display flight.

After a time I realise that I can hear not one but two Whitethroats. A scan in the direction from where I can hear the second reveals one perching on top of an Elderberry bush, not more than fifty metres from the first. Do either of these have a mate? Are they nesting or just holding territories? Regardless, it is good to see the reappearance of Whitethroats – I hope this signals a change in the fortunes for the species in our area.

Usually on my visits to the copse I am taking an overview of the birds I can see or hear, but on these last two visits I’ve found myself drawn into watching just one or two individual birds. As I get to know the copse and its residents better, perhaps this is a natural evolution; delving deeper into the lives of these birds. Walking back home, thinking about the those I have seen, and the ones I haven’t, my mind is filled with more questions than answers. This is the pull of birding – the more you learn about birds and their behaviour, the more you realise how much there is to be learnt.

  1. The BTO have a useful video to help tell the difference here