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 

a return visit

33DDED54-0DD9-407D-B782-83B850437716This afternoon a Little Owl began to call very loudly from somewhere in or near our garden. Eventually spotted it in the Elderberry bushes at the end of the garden. Was this the same one that visited the garden in the cold spell at the end of February? Couldn’t say for sure, but it’s quite likely.

Thing is, there is an owl box on our neighbour’s outbuilding, just metres from where it was perching. I will have to keep a closer eye on it, see if there any goings on. Could be an excuse to buy a trail cam. Now there’s a thought…

copse report #1


Yesterday I took a dawn walk to see what bird life there was on my ‘patch’ – a route that takes me from home, along the lanes and round part of our community copse. This was the first time in some little while that I have done this; recently my resolve to go out early has been eroded by the seemingly interminable winter.

Many of the usual suspects were in evidence – Blackbirds were in full song, along with numerous very loud Wrens. Dunnocks, so easily overlooked, were singing from the tops of hedges in several locations. More unusually, a Grey Wagtail was sat on the ridge of a nearby farm building. Great Spotted Woodpeckers drummed in the distance.

Once I was at the copse, I could hear some of our summer migrants – Chiffchaffs and Blackcaps. I’ve already heard them elsewhere this year, but was keen to see if they were around here, and its good to know they are back on the patch. Both species seem to do well here – no doubt this is down to the habitat. This part of the copse is a mixture of both scrub bushes and more mature top layer trees and it is very noticeable that the warblers tend to be found in the former. Through previous observations it is apparent that several territories are maintained, for both Chiffchaff and Blackcap.

The song of the Blackcap is one of my favourites, and one male was certainly staking his claim to territory in one corner of the copse. A pair nested in this location last year, so I hope they have returned. Later I saw what was probably this male, having a ‘sing-off’ with another male, while a female was nearby.

Blackthorn blossom was still out, and some of the trees are starting to break bud, so there was a flush of green starting to appear. Despite the fact that it was a foggy morning, and cool enough at that time of day to still require a woolly hat it finally felt like spring.

This got me thinking about the arrival of spring. Not the meteorological or lunar spring, but how each of us decides that spring is here. From a seasonal point of view the change in the seasons is not generally sudden; a switching off of one and turning on of the next. It’s a gradual process, where numerous factors slowly transition from one state to another. An increase in day length, warmer temperatures, greater intensity in light as the sun’s path gets higher, along with the dawn chorus, arrival of summer migrants and trees blossoming. All of these contribute to what makes spring, but at what point can we say that the combination of those factors has reached a point of sufficient magnitude that spring can be said to have ’arrived’?

Going through the winter requires a certain mindset, a bracing of oneself for the wet, cold and short days. This year the extension of that season throughout March and well into April has required a resolve that certainly goes well beyond what is normally needed. I think it fair to say that I don’t just speak for myself when I say we have had enough.

This week has been the turning point. Just over a week ago I saw my first swallow, and several others since. There is more of a fresh green look to the landscape than the brown of winter. And although we had two wet days at the start of the week, an upward shift in temperatures, culminating in a beautiful sunny day yesterday really felt like winter had been thrown off. I no longer feel I am bracing myself against the cold and wet.

Going for that walk was specifically about seeing what summer warblers had returned. Without realising, it was also drawing a line in the sand; an affirmation that winter is over. Perhaps the arrival of spring is not only about a change in the season, but also our frame of mind.

a short walk in Aller & Beer Woods

Overlooking the Somerset Levels, this stretch of broad-leaved woodland is both a nature reserve and SSSI.

Making the most of a nice morning for a walk, this is the first time we’ve visited Aller & Beer Woods. A few woodland flowers were showing themselves, including what we think is Toothwort.  An unusual looking plant, it is parasitic, living on the roots of other plants – my wildflower book says it particularly likes Hazel, of which there was plenty. The adjoining Turn Hill affords great views across the Levels. Lots of bird activity, including Song Thrush, Green Woodpecker, a pair of screeching Jays, and as a bonus, we heard our first Blackcap of the year.

More info at the Somerset Wildlife Trust website here.

comings & goings

Little Owl

I wrote in my last post about the mass movement of birds caused by the recent winter weather. It also brought an unusual visitor to our garden, and was likely the demise for another.

Close to where our bird feeders hang stands a table, on which there is a tray where we put mealworms for the Robins and Blackbirds. First light, the day before the snow arrived a Little Owl was sitting on the corner of the table. Feathers all ruffled up against the cold, it was so round that it was initially difficult to know which way it was facing. The usual garden birds had of course vacated the feeders for the safety of nearby shrubs and trees, all clamouring alarm calls and flicking tails. It sat staring intently towards the feeders for a while, and then flew to the ground beneath them and rummaged about amongst the plants. Shortly after it went and perched in our walnut tree, before heading off to the far end of the garden and disappearing.

We have had Little Owls in our area as long as we can remember, and have seen them in the garden before, although always at the far end. To have one sitting on the table, just metres from our back door was extraordinary.

Later that day it returned and spent a good hour sitting in a sheltered spot on a wall, shuffling along as the sun slid further toward the horizon, as if to find the warmest spot. And understandably so as the cold easterly wind was making it feel several degrees below freezing.

Over the next few days it appeared around the garden several times, until the weather turned mild and the thaw began. Given that earthworms are a staple of the Little Owl’s diet we speculated that it was perhaps interested in the mealworms although we never did see it take any. Or was it interested in the other birds that visit our garden? Or simply making the most of the limited respite from the weather that our garden provided? I guess we will never know for sure the reasons why it was so emboldened, but I think it reasonable to assume that the Little Owl’s behaviour was brought about by the cold weather. Extreme weather, extreme measures.

For some years our garden has been frequented by a female Blackbird. We recognise her because she has a crooked wing – it sticks out at an awkward angle, increasingly so as time has gone by. We refer to her as Mrs Blackbird – imaginative, I know. Her crooked wing does not seem to have restricted her from leading a normal Blackbird life – she has had at least two mates that we know of and raised several broods, often nesting in our shed.

The thing is, we have not seen her since just before the snow at beginning of March. We have had two males and a different female come to the feeders, but no sign of her. So that’s now three weeks without seeing her and we are used to her visiting pretty much every day. According to the RSPB, Blackbirds have a life expectancy of 3.4 years, but the oldest on record was over 20. We think ‘our’ Blackbird may have been around our garden for more than 8 years. It’s entirely possible the winter weather has brought her lengthy life to an end. Which is sad.

It’s funny how attached to her we became, by virtue of the fact that we could easily distinguish her from other Blackbirds. No doubt it is also about rooting for the underdog. We’d watch her hop around the garden (they jump really, not hop), stop, head tilting as she listened to a worm, and then pull it unceremoniously from the ground. Either she would eat it there and then, or if she had young, it would be gathered up along with a beakful of others and carried off to the nest. When doing the latter, I have never worked out how it is birds don’t drop the food they already have in their beak.

Of the two mates she had, the first had a white patch and quite why, I can’t recall, we called him Elvis. They raised a number of broods, until one year we found him dead on the road, while they had a brood in the nest. Mrs Blackbird went on to raise the brood herself, and the chicks successfully fledged. Later that year another male appeared and he and Mrs Blackbird fought. Some kind of arrangement was quite literally thrashed out and they went on to raise a number of broods over the years.

So now it looks like she has gone, but it’s quite clear now that of the Blackbirds that visit the garden there is a pair. They fly to and fro from the same location outside of the garden so must have a nest nearby. Is the male Mrs Blackbirds former mate? I’m not sure I could have identified him for sure. The female is quite pale, probably one of last year’s young. So this presents a new challenge – can I spot sufficiently distinguishing features to enable me to identify this pair? And of course they are going to need names…