Monday, March 3, 2008

Patch-watching

Production editor Matt Merritt writes:

I was on holiday last week, so managed to get out and about and do a fair bit of birding. There was a definite feeling of spring in the air, and I had high hopes of finding a few waders on the move through my local patch, plus filling in some strangely elusive year ticks (where have all the local Little Grebes gone?). I had a loose schedule of local gravel pits, pools, etc planned.

One of the best things about birding, though, is that it springs its best moments on you just when you’re least expecting them. On Monday, I was strolling back to my house from the nearby leisure centre, and was moderately alert for raptors, having noticed the Jackdaws, Rooks and Woodpigeons getting a bit noisy and edgy. Nothing was in sight, though, so I strolled on and was about to turn the corner into my road (pictured above). Suddenly, above the trees in Whitwick churchyard, there were two soaring Sparrowhawks, one of them an impressively large female, and the other a much smaller male. As I watched, the female dropped like a stone into the trees, while the male swept in a shallower dive across the road towards me, scattering pigeons and Jackdaws as he came. Woodpigeons, of course, are hopelessly slow off the mark, and the hunter streaked towards one, gaining all the time. I braced myself for the collision a few yards ahead of me, expecting a sickening thump and a cloud of feathers, but at the last moment he slammed the brakes on and glided gently over the pigeon’s head, clearly having realised at the last moment that his quarry was just a bit bigger than he had thought.

Later that day, I was up at Charnwood Lodge, a Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust reserve a couple of miles away. On a blustery day, as it was, it can be a pretty bleak place, with the granite outcrops and bracken giving it far more of an upland feel than you might expect in the supposedly gently rolling East Midlands. In the woods around the little reservoir, tit and finch flocks were noisily moving around, and there was regular yaffling from a nearby Green Woodpecker. Best of all, though, was seeing two different pairs of Treecreepers. Presumably the breeding season was already getting into swing, because in both cases, two birds arrived on the same tree, then pursued each other up it in quick spirals like little clockwork toys.

As I made my way back towards the entrance, I made my usual stop to scan a particular bare tree on the edge of the reserve (pictured above). It often holds Great Spotted Woodpeckers (sure enough, one was there), as well as winter thrushes (again, my luck was in, with three Fieldfares and a couple of dozen Redwings). The field beyond, looking towards Mount St Bernard’s Abbey, is good for Red-legged Partridges and Yellowhammers. As I searched for them, my attention was caught by what looked like a large crow but quickly resolved itself into a Raven, increasingly familiar around Charnwood Forest. Quite apart from the sheer size, its cross shape in flight is distinctive, and it flew with power and grace, occasionally tumbling and rolling seemingly for the sheer pleasure of it. If I’d had any doubts as to its identity, they’d have been dispelled by the three loud ‘gronk’ calls it made as it headed towards the monastery (one friend has told me that they occasionally turn up there to look for scraps around the picnic tables). Where the cawing of crows and rooks immediately calls to mind gentle, typically British farmland, the croaking of Ravens says wild, untamed landscapes, and even something supernatural.

So, the waders remained elusive, save for four flyover Oystercatchers and a solitary Redshank at Cossington Meadows later in the week, but they can wait. Sometimes you just have to take what’s on offer.

1 comment:

BW said...

If I recall correctly (from my youth) from the Edwardian book Familiar Wild Birds Vol 4:

"In some parts of the country the flight of a Raven across one's path is enough to make the heart of the boldest rustic quake, whilst to hear its unspeakably horid croak from an adjacent bough is held to be prognostic of the direst calamities"

...but it may be the other way round.

Mike W