Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Northamptonshire's ancient woodlands: hanging onto willow tits..just

The past couple of days I've had some leave and taken the opportunity to explore local sites in Northants in the hope of finding some more willow tits and maybe one or two surprises.

Tues 24 February
I focused the morning on High Wood Wildlife Trust nature reserve near Everdon.  Breezy and cold conditions were not ideal for birding, but this woodland sits in the shelter of a small valley and there was actually plenty of bird activity.  I soon located a pair of marsh tits and a small flock of long-tailed tits.  A treecreeper was feeding busily on the shiny trunks of cherry trees.  Just as I was about to give up hope, a willow tit appeared, calling noisily, posing for a while, then heading off towards the tiny stream.  I also disturbed a sparrowhawk from a half-eaten pigeon.
willow tit in flight, High Wood
The stream, though tiny, is delightfully natural, with marshy patches and small carpets of opposite-leaved golden saxifrage along the banks.  Just one or two plants are already starting to bloom; tiny yellow flowers and glossy green leaves.
opposite-leaved golden saxifrage

this is also a good site for fungi
In Everdon village, a carpet of winter aconites grabs my attention.  These are naturalised, not native, but look great and are thriving.  Snowdrops are seemingly everywhere along the roadsides at the moment.
winter aconites and snowdrops
aconites close-up
In the afternoon, a trip to Halse Copse near Helmdon is less productive for marsh and willow tits (there are none) but I was fortunate to flush a woodcock from the path and had good views of three roe deer and a few brown hares.
hazel catkins, Halse Copse
I also met the farmer on his rounds and he explained that HS2 is coming right through this area, cutting through part of the woodland.  The site was also bioblitzed last year and nearly 1000 species are likely to have been recorded once everything is identified.
Roe deer.  If I'd had my camera at the ready there would have been three!
Weds 25 February
Having been successful at an ancient woodland site yesterday, I decided the try my luck at Badby Wood this morning.  This is the largest area of ancient woodland in the Northants part of the Banbury Ornithological Society area, and much of it is an SSSI - best known locally for an impressive show of bluebells in early May.  It is part of the Fawsley Estate, who allow access to the whole wood, and this means it is also a great place to look for nature.  The Woodland Trust promote access via their website, you just need to park sensitively in Badby as the lanes near the church are very narrow.
This is a really interesting woodland - many of the large trees are oaks and it reminds me a little of the Forest of Dean or Wyre Forest, albeit on a much smaller scale.  Great-spotted woodpeckers are drumming, green woodpeckers yaffling, song thrush singing brightly.  I encounter a flock of tits - coal, long-tailed, blue, great and a pair of marsh.  Further on, a ride cuts across the wood and there is a little more hazel and bramble. 
woodland ride
I feel this might be the place for a willow tit.  And I'm proved right for once: a single bird responds to playback and then continues to feed quietly in the brambles.  Another pair of marsh tits are in the vicinity too, and are more confiding.
marsh tit, Badby Wood
I meet a local man out walking his dog, we chat and he describes a willow tit visiting his feeders in the village a couple of weeks earlier in the cold weather.

After well over two hours exploring, I head off for a coffee, capturing the village and woodland scene from a roadside viewpoint.  The two look intertwined, which is good to see.  Habitat corridors connecting wood and village.
Badby Wood and village
 I continue on to Fawsley itself and stop to watch a flock of goldfinches in roadside alders, there are also a very few redpolls and siskins.  On the main lake: a drake gadwall and a pair of great-crested grebes; a water rail calls from the reedy fringe.  The car thermometer reaches 10 degrees centigrade and after yesterday's chill, it starts to feel like spring is getting closer.

My last stop is at Canons Ashby, not the national trust house, but the lake and woodland nearby.  A footpath leads along the edge of what is a very wet woodland and potentially very good for willow tits.  But I draw a blank.  A little egret is nice to see, plus my only reed bunting of the day. 
little egret

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Shotteswell: winter random square survey

Sat 21 Feb
My priority for the morning was to complete the BOS Winter Random Square survey, a long standing survey that is creating a fascinating record of the changing fortunes of our countryside birds.  Over twenty observers take part and this winter it seems to be as popular as ever.

BOS bird recorder Trevor Easterbrook generates the randomly selected squares, so the surveyor's job starts by looking up the square on an Ordinance Survey map and planning a route, normally making use of rights of way.  It is a good way to get to know new parts of our local patch.  There is often something a little unexpected to be seen during the two hour survey period.  

Shotteswell was my destination this time around, a small village north of Banbury, a short distance west of the M40.  The village sits on a steep slope facing towards the motorway, with small lanes winding through picturesque cottages and an ancient church.  There is a biting wind, but in sheltered spots the bright sunshine felt springlike.  Around the village, lots of house sparrows were chattering around well stocked bird feeders.  In the surrounding pasture fields noisy flocks of fieldfares were seeking out the best feeding sites too.

My surprise of the day was finding a grey heron atop a sizeable nest of twigs, built in an ornamental willow on a tiny island in what was no more that a large pond.  I tend to think of herons as nesting in secluded places, usually high up in trees, well away from habitation.  In London they are much less wary and nest in some of the Royal Parks.  Even so, this was a surprising location for a heronry in rural Oxforshire, but a very welcome discovery for me.  I later found a further two adult herons in a nearby field, so it is possible more than one pair will attempt to nest here.  There are very few sites where herons nest in our area - normally only two or three.
Shotteswell grey heron nesting tree
A tree sparrow has started to visit our feeder and I managed to grab a photo through the patio windows, posing with a house sparrow.  I've ordered some red millet seeds, known to be their favoured food, so hopefully I can attract a few more!
tree sparrow on the right, house sparrow on the left
Sunday 22 Feb
Driving across to Cambridge in the morning I saw three Northamptonshire red kites, one close to home near Greatworth, one in the Nene Valley somewhere in the Rushden area and one on the Cambridgeshire border.  It looks like the kites are successfully filling in the gap between the two re-introduction areas in the Chilterns and Rockingham Forest.  They are still scarce to north and east of Banbury but may be starting to gain a foothold here at last.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Upper Wardington: fieldfares and tree sparrows

Saturday 14 February
Fieldfares have discovered rich pickings in a couple of fields next to the village where muck spreading is in progress.  Parking up on the verge enables me to get some good views of the flock dotted across the pasture. After a couple of minutes something spooks them and they flock up into the tall ash trees.  I return a little later and find them drinking from roadside puddles, a big flock of starlings has now joined them but as far as I can tell no redwings.
Not a very good photo but you can see the habitat created by the muck spreading: thrush heaven!!
A flock of about forty lapwings are scouting around fields at Thenford.
Again, not the greatest of photos, but captures most of the flock
I'm wondering if any of them are the local birds returning with thoughts of breeding soon? This is one of the very few patches of farmland still suitable for them to nest in. It will be interesting to see if/when they start to establish territories here: the farmland looks suitable and I hope three or four pairs may settle to breed in March and April.

Sunday 15 February
A tree sparrow on the garden feeders is the first for quite a few weeks. March and April are the months they most often visit the garden, sometimes a dozen or so. There seem to be fewer around the village at the moment and I'm not optimistic we'll see such numbers again this year - hope I'm proved wrong.

In the afternoon I had a bit of time to look for willow tits again, but the only site that proved positive was Glyn Davies Wood, the BOS nature reserve threatened with major damage as it lies bang on the HS2 route.  A willow tit was trapped by ringers over the winter, but marsh tits are more numerous at this site.  The wood was alive with small birds: noisy nuthatches the most prominent.  A good place to look for all our lowland tit species in one site.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Farmland in February - into the "hungry gap"

February and March is the peak of the "hungry gap" for our farmland birds: winter food supplies are becoming very depleted and spring food resources are yet to appear.  At this time of year, farmland birds can sometimes be seen in large flocks, attracted to the few fields where good supplies of food remain.

On Saturday afternoon, a visit to Otmoor RSPB nature reserve with friends was memorable not just for the starling roost "murmeration" over the reedbed but also for the crowds of reed buntings and linnets that have gathered along the track beside the Wetland Watch hide. Seed has been scattered on the track on a daily basis and has already attracted the flocks - easily a hundred of both species. This plentiful supply of seed will no doubt help to see them through the hungry gap.

On Sunday morning I returned to a cultivated stubble field near the village of Thenford, east of Banbury, where I'd noticed a large flock of yellowhammers the day before.  This time I had more time to study the birds, but they were very flighty and not tolerant of my presence - even though I stayed in the car.  I was able to estimate at least 80 yellowhammers, searching in the stubble for the last remaining cereal seeds: quite a large gathering .  It's a reminder how precarious an existence it is some of our farmland birds - take away these stubbles and our yellowhammers would be in real trouble.

After watching the yellowhammers I continued to Thenford Church, a lovely spot overlooking part of the arboretum established by Michael Heseltine.
Thenford Church
Snowdrops are coming into full bloom, the first primrose flowers appearing too. 
A little further on, a flock of 160 fieldfares were busy looking for worms in a large pasture field, with a few redwings and starlings scattered among them.  I then visited the Farthinghoe nature reserve and searched to willow tits, without success, but had an enjoyable stomp around.