Tuesday 18 January 2022

Tuning In

I was reading a column by nature and sports writer Simon Barnes recently, and he was saying that he doesn't go birdwatching, he is birdwatching, and this is something that I concur with. If I'm awake, I'm birding, wherever I am, I am always connected to nature. I can be watching a gripping MotoGP race on TV, and if I catch the movement of a bird in the Hawthorn outside my lounge window, it is identified and logged in the old grey matter before I even think about it! Simon calls this tuning in. It takes a while for this to happen, at first it requires some conscious effort, but eventually when you are fully immersed in the wildness of the world, this tuning in happens at the subconscious level. And it certainly enriches your life.

Talking about all this tuning in, reminds me of a joyous encounter that I had with a Wren recently, and the 'joy' word isn't a word that I use often, but it is the correct choice of word to describe my experience.
 A Wren, but not the Wren.
In fact, this tiny bird, second smallest in the UK to the diminutive Goldcrest, made me feel very small indeed. A Wren weighs somewhere in the region of 10 g, and I weigh 70 kg, or to put it differently, I weigh 7,000 times more than a Wren! So, how can something so tiny, make me, who is so large compared to a Wren, make me feel so small?

It was the joyous nature of the encounter that made me feel small, the humbling experience of spending five minutes in the company of that Wren, sharing in its life, if you will, for five minutes, that's what made me feel small. 

Just over a week ago, I was standing at one of my vantage point locations, tucked behind a Hawthorn hedge to try and get some shelter from the biting northerly wind, one of those winds that cuts right through you. In fact, folk from Norfolk call them a lazy wind because of this. I was looking towards the horizon, in this farmland landscape, eyes peeled to pick up any bird movements, and ears finely tuned to pick up any sound. 
Just to the left of me, and only about six feet from me, a Wren came into view. It was on the southern edge of the Hawthorn hedge that we shared, and like me, it was taking shelter at the same time as soaking up some watery, winter rays. 
It was obvious that he or she couldn't see me, and it proceeded to preen. Using that fine, slightly down-curving bill to part, comb, probe, tease and re-arrange its' feathers. I could see its' tiny feet gripping the thin branch it was perched on, and the pale stripe above its' eye, that we birders call a supercilium, gave its' face some detail that I wouldn't normally notice. I could see the rusty upperparts, and the dark and pale dots along its' wings, and its' short, stubby tale that Wrens seem to almost constantly hold cocked. 
This delightful of 'cave dwellers' (from its scientific name of Troglodytes) continued to preen, and then it moved further out to soak up the full rays of the sun. It looked left, right and straight past me, so I knew for definite that it didn't know I was there. Or did it? Did it know that I was there, and that the large, brown lump adorned in the bird surveyor's jewels of binoculars, telescope, camera and clipboard, was no threat, and therefore was being ignored? After all, the Wren had made me feel so small, and maybe it knew that. 
It then dropped to my feet, literally, with just the mesh of the fence between us. It was obviously searching for invertebrates, and I could see it on the ground, like a clockwork mouse, all jerky in its' movements. I could see it looking, cocking its' head to one side, so a dark eye could look skywards, and see whether there were any predators approaching. It actually looked as though it was looking at me, perhaps it was, who knows. 
It flew back to the hedge, soaked up some more rays, as though it was using the sun to re-charge that tiny body. And then it was back along the fence, looking for invertebrates again. 
I could see why it was feeding along the fence bottom, as the structure of the grassland was different here, as the sheep couldn't eat the grass off along the fence bottom, and tussocks had formed as a result, perfect for harbouring multi-legged, juicy morsels for the Wren to eat. The Wren moved further away from me, but I could still hear that ratchet-like call, as it foraged along the fence bottom. A joyous encounter indeed!
That encounter with the Wren had been the highlight of what was a very quiet morning. I was at one of my wintering bird survey sites in northwest Lancs, and even though it was a lovely sunny morning, birds were thin on the ground. 
Just before I had my encounter with the Wren, another creature that lives its' life equally as fast made a brief appearance, and that was a Stoat. It popped up, took a look at me, as they often do, and then vanished as quick as it had appeared. This site is good for another mammal that lives life very fast at times, the Brown Hare, and this morning I had five on the arable land. 
Pink-footed Geese were thin on the ground, or should that be up in the sky, as I only had 38 go over. Four Shelducks that made an appearance were another sign of a growing list of signs, that spring is on its' way. Whenever I start seeing Shelducks inland on farmland, I know that spring is round the corner. How far round the corner, is a question that only February knows the answer to?
For once, Stock Doves outnumbered Woodpigeons, with 17 of the former, and only 3 of the latter. A total of 166 Lapwings heading west was noteworthy, and I wondered if it was an effect of the recent cold weather that we have been having. Only two species of raptor, a Kestrel and two Buzzards, and my total of nine Blackbirds was greater than my total of Fieldfares and Redwings put together. I think there's a pattern emerging here! And that was that. 
I read a rather depressing report recently from the BTO, that said that the UK's Puffin population could plunge by as much as 90% by 2050, because of changes in the marine environment caused by rising temperatures, if global warming is not checked. 
Increasing water temperatures are having a negative impact on sand eel numbers in British waters, the main prey species of Puffins, affecting the breeding productivity of British breeding Puffins. Very sad news indeed. Trying to put a positive spin on this depressing piece of information, is the fact that the Puffin population could plunge as much as 90%..., and putting the emphasis on the 'could', means that we might be able to do something about it. We'll see. 

Thursday 13 January 2022

Displaying Peregrine

At about 9:00 a.m., just over a week ago, I was stood at one of my VPs when I heard an unusual call, I knew it was the call of a raptor, but which species? I looked up, and there over my head, and rocketing past on half-closed wings, was a male Peregrine! As it flew over me it was calling constantly, giving a harsh 'ee-chip' call, that I later found out is a contact call, that can be used during courtship display. It has equally been described as 'ee-chup', so, take your pick. 
This of course isn't this mornng's Peregrine. This is a young Peregrine
that fledged from a nest site on a friend's farm, a number of years ago now, 
when it hadn't completely mastered the art of flying, and was found on the 
ground a tad damp. It was placed off the ground in a safe location close to the 
nest site, and was soon in the air again with its parents!
For obvious reasons, I don't want to say where I was, other than at one of my wintering bird survey sites in Lancashire. As the bird rocketed past me on those half-closed wings, it pulled up and climbed with powerful wing beats, visibly changing up a gear. At the top of the climb, it closed its wings, and dived, giving that 'ee-chip' call again, before pulling up once more. Another climb, followed by another dive, and I lost sight of it as it shot through a caravan site full of mobile homes. It must have been travelling at an incredible speed, just several feet above the ground!
I thought it had gone, but I heard it calling again, and once more it stooped and soared into the air, as if on some invisible rollercoaster. As soon as it had arrived, it had disappeared off to the south. Fantastic! 
After that incredible display the rest of the morning seemed decidedly mundane. Just under three hundred, 299 to be precise, Pink-footed Geese flew over just after first light to various foraging areas, and Magpies were once again noticeable with a good count of thirty birds. Like I said before, everything else seemed so mundane after that display by the Peregrine, and I am struggling to mention any more highlights. 
This is a Grey Heron that I 'snapped' feeding on the edge of a pond close to
one of my VPs.
The following day on a cold and frosty morning, I was in south-west Lancs to complete another wintering bird survey. My whole life seems to be dominated by wintering bird surveys at the moment, but I'm not complaining. It was Jackdaws that took the top step of the podium at this site with a count of 333, closely followed by 317 Woodpigeons and 162 Rooks.   

I had a flock of 77 Lapwings head west during the morning, and these were probably just birds that had been flushed off some stubbles perhaps. Talking of stubbles, the stubble field directly in front of my VP held a flock of 32 Skylarks, which in these days of catastrophic farmland bird declines is a reasonable count. Sad really. 

The only raptor I had was a Buzzard, and the best of the rest included eleven Stock Doves, twelve Common Gulls and 13 Long-tailed Tits
Over on the right you may have noticed that I have updated the ringing totals for Fylde Ringing Group until the end of 2021. During December, no new species were ringed for the year, and the only species to get into double figures for the month were the 15 Blue Tits that we ringed.
Below you will find the top ten 'movers and shakers' for the year.
Top 10 Movers and Shakers for the Year
1. Linnet - 310 (same position)
2. Blue Tit - 175 (up from 3rd)
3. Lesser Redpoll - 161 (down from 2nd)
4. Sand Martin - 123 (same position)
5. Greenfinch - 114 (same position)
6. Goldfinch - 113 (same position)
7. Chaffinch - 101 (same position)
8. Great Tit - 99 (down from 7th)
9. Meadow Pipit - 81 (same position)
10. Blackcap - 65 (straight in)
Coming soon will be details of a joyous encounter that I had with the not so humble Wren!

Saturday 8 January 2022

Nest Boxes - Large and Small

Over New Year, Gail and I spent time with our good friends Robert and Diana putting up and building nest boxes for Tawny Owls, Pied Flycatchers and Tree Sparrows, but more of that later. 
I need to rewind to just before the winter festivities, when I carried out the second of the December wintering bird surveys at this particular site in northwest Lancashire. I spent five hours surveying, including time at two different vantage points, under full cloud cover, with a moderate south-westerly wind.
As I've mentioned before, Pink-footed Geese and Whooper Swans are the focus of these surveys, and once again I recorded both species on this morning, but they were all fly-overs; 886 Pinkies and three Whoopers. 
Talking of wildfowl, I decided to have a walk down towards the fishing lake and see if I could see onto it properly, rather than having a look at it from afar from my first VP. And it was worth the walk, as I could see over quite a large part of it, and my counts were a good deal healthier. On the lake were 13 Wigeon, 297 Mallards, 27 Teal, a pair of Pochards, five Tufted Ducks and 94 Coots (I know they aren't wildfowl!). 

During this survey, I recorded two new species for the site, the first one being the pair of Pochards on the fishing lake, and the second being a Barn Owl that gave a brief view at first light as it disappeared behind some trees, heading towards some old farm buildings. 

Raptors were thin on the ground, with just a single Buzzard and two Kestrels. However, I did record numbers of Corvid species, with 23 Magpies and 246 Jackdaws being the highest counts. There were still at least 30 Skylarks feeding on the stubble fields, and wintering thrushes numbered six Song Thrushes, a Mistle Thrush, seven Redwings, six Blackbirds and 40 Fieldfares. A Tree Sparrow, twelve Linnets and two Reed Buntings were best of the rest. 

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I spent a couple of days putting up Tawny Owl boxes and building Tree Sparrow and Pied Flycatcher boxes with Robert on his farm near Nateby. The same farm where we operate our feeding station. So, over the New Year period I topped the feeders up at the feeding station, 15 Tree Sparrows being the highlight, and had a quick look on the wetland, that held 160 Teal, three Shovelers and four Wigeon.

Robert had three Tawny Owl boxes to put up, and we managed to find suitable places for them all in his 6 acre woodland. As we were wandering around looking for suitable trees to put them on, we put a Woodcock up. 
One of the Tawny Owl boxes
We put the Tawny Owl boxes up in the morning, and after lunch we started to build 24 boxes for Pied Flycatchers and Tree Sparrows. Robert had kindly already cut the wood up, so it was a case of assembling the boxes. The following day Gail joined us for the morning, and helped to give them all a coating of wood preserver. The next job now is to get them put up in readiness for the forthcoming breeding season.
Pied Flycatcher and Tree Sparrow boxes (above & below)

Saturday 1 January 2022

Solstice On The Galwaithegate

I've blogged about the Galwaithegate, or the Galloway Road, or the Old Scotch Road, to give it all its names, before, and I'll come back to it later.
One of the five wintering bird surveys that I am undertaking throughout the 2021/22 winter, is an exciting project on a farm in the Fylde that is attempting to obtain The Wildlife Trust's Biodiversity Benchmark.  The Wildlife Trusts’ Biodiversity Benchmark is the only standard that certifies management of a business's landholdings for wildlife. It tests the design and implementation of a business’s management systems to achieve continual biodiversity enhancement and protection on its landholdings.
I have been commissioned to complete a suite of wintering and breeding bird surveys at the site to provide a baseline for what the site currently holds in terms of bird populations during winter and summer. I have been doing the wintering bird surveys since October, and they will continue until March, and then I'll complete two breeding bird surveys during the period between April and June.
The day before the solstice, Gail and I visited the site to complete a survey under full cloud cover, with a light easterly wind. There are a number of habitats to be found on the farm, including ponds, ditches, hedgerows, arable land, permanent grassland and broadleaved woodland. The farm isn't too far from the Ribble Estuary, and as such skeins of Pink-footed Geese flying over from roost sites on or close to the Ribble to feeding areas on the Fylde is a common sight, and this morning was no exception, with 257 'wink-winking' birds flying over. 
Still on the subject of wildfowl, three Teal on a woodland pond was notable in that it was a first record for the winter surveys. I suspect over the coming months there will be more Teal on the more open ponds. Just two species of raptor on our walk round, a 'mewing' Buzzard and a male Kestrel

There were other firsts for the winter as well, including two Ravens, a Goldcrest, a Nuthatch, 20 Tree Sparrows and a Yellowhammer. All species that regularly occur at the site I don't doubt, but it is good to record them and add them to the database. One of the main habitats on site are the network of fruit laden and mature hedgerows that support good numbers of wintering thrushes, and on this morning, we recorded eight Song Thrushes, 69 Redwings, 16 Blackbirds and 25 Fieldfares. Not bad.

Those were the highlights, and it was all good stuff. 

Let's head back to the Galwaithegate. I blogged about the Old Scotch Road in 2019, and if you wish you can read this post again HERE. When I was researching the history of the Galwaithegate back in 2019, I found an article about it in the Westmorland Gazette from 2015 by a local historian called Alan Wills, and I have posted it in full below, and I hope you find it as interesting as I do.
How many walkers, enjoying the scenery as they stroll down the lane past Killington Reservoir, know that they are following in the footsteps of thousands of drovers and their herds of cattle?

The ancient route from Low Borrow Bridge to Old Town, Mansergh, was known as the Galwaithegate (the Galloway Road) and was referred to by that name in the 12th century when Roger Fitz-Ranfray gave some land to William de Arundel.

Most of the cattle were from Galloway or further north in Scotland, even the Highlands, although some had come from Ireland. They were usually black like the modern Galloway breed.

Although they would be passed from one set of drovers to another if they were sold at one of the cattle fairs such as those at Falkirk or Carlisle, a lot of them had the same drovers for the full journey to the south of England.

The Highlander in his plaid would have been a common sight on the Galwaithegate.

The various routes south from Orton converged at Low Borrow Bridge, where there was an overnight stopping place. Other overnight stopping places were at Lambrigg Park, Three Mile House and Old Town.
The drovers could stay in the inns at those places although the Highlanders often preferred to sleep under the stars with their charges. They were also noted for their frugal diet of oatmeal and onions.

From Low Borrow Bridge some cattle went down the Roman road towards Sedbergh but most went along the Galwaithegate, which crossed and then re-crossed what is now the A685 Tebay to Kendal road at Grayrigg Common.

The route can then be followed along the wide lane which is known as the Old Scotch Road to Lambrigg Park, apart from where it has been interrupted by the M6.

Here it was joined by many cattle, which had walked from the west coast via Wrynose Pass, Ambleside, Troutbeck, Kentmere and Longsleddale. It then continues south to Old Town, which had its own cattle market every October.

The opening of the Lancaster to Carlisle railway in 1846 ensured that by 1855 cattle droving on the Galwaithegate had all but ceased.
On the Solstice, my plan was to do a bit of seasonal shopping to get some presents for Gail, and my first port of call were the bookshops in Sedbergh. As I came off the M6 to head to Sedbergh on the A684, I decided to stop on the Old Scotch Road and have a walk along it to stretch my legs. 
The noise of the M6 is always in the background, but in places it is invisible, and when your mind starts to wander, you can picture those drovers from the highlands, walking their cattle to market along this ancient highway. 
Looking towards the M6 from the Galwaithegate
It was a bit of a dreich morning, so I knew it would be quiet, and the views of the Howgills were indistinct because of the murky conditions. There were a number of Fieldfares and Redwings, 31 and 45 respectively, feeding in some of the sheep-grazed pastures, taking advantage of the short sward to access invertebrates. A group of thirty Starlings and two Mistle Thrushes were doing the same. 
With the relative reduction in persecution from game keepers these days (I say relative, because there is still a great deal of raptor persecution in the uplands), Ravens are very much a part of the lowland avifauna, but to me they still epitomize the uplands, so it was a pleasure as always, to have two croaking individuals flying past me over the Galwaithegate. A Buzzard, and a three quarters of an hour walk later, and it was time to return to my quest to purchase a present or three for Gail! 
A dodgly shot of one of the Ravens