Saturday 12 September 2015

Moving house, and finding a new patch

As you might be able to tell from the title, I've now moved house! I'm only a little way away from where I used to be, and all my old sites are where they used to be, as reachable by public transport (or not, as the case may be) as ever. But ever since I made the decision to leave my old patch at the end of last year, I've been looking for a new one.

My mum tipped me off that you could easily walk to the Itchen Navigation from where I live now, so one day I set off to check it out. Only I didn't have a map and assumed this wouldn't be a problem. Of course I ended up in two dead ends, one in a quarry and one that ended in a playing field instead of an interesting walk. I was about to give up but decided to go just a little further, and had just gone past the sports centre the playing field belonged to when I suddenly had a flash of memory, like I'd been there before. I crossed the carpark, and at the other end was the start of a path to the navigation! I remembered, years and years ago, being invited to a bat walk there with a friend of mine who was about to go to uni to do environmental science. We were shown some pipistrelles in the hand by the leader of the tour who was licensed to handle them, and then as it got dark we used bat detectors to find pipistrelles (possibly both species? I don't remember) and Daubenton's bats, the latter of which were a new species for me and I learned often hunt over water.

It was a really great bat walk and also, for me, one of the only times I've ever been able to share my wildlife enthusiasm with a friend. It's hard to find people my age who are interested in wildlife. So it made me very happy to find that place again. I've walked there a couple of times now and it's a lovely walk. Currently there are tonnes of Swallows and House Martins everywhere, and I glimpsed a Sedge Warbler in some reeds- the summer visitors getting ready to go soon. I was struck by how enormous Long-tailed Tit flocks are at this time of year, their ranks swelled by this years youngsters that no longer look like youngsters, and I saw a few Goldcrests including a cute, scruffy youngster with no crest at all. The signs say there are Water Voles and Otters in the river, and though I know seeing Otters is unlikely I could still look out for their spraints and maybe even paw marks. I haven't seen a Water Vole for years but they certainly come out in the daytime and it seems to me that the more you visit a river, the better your chances. :) All those were wonderful things but my favourites are the Jays that are in one particular area, because they are so hilariously loud, mobbing Magpies and alarm calling crossly as I go past. I spotted one swallowing an acorn whole, something I knew they did but had never actually seen! Presumably it only goes down into the crop for safe keeping before it can be stashed somewhere, not into the stomach.

So that was local patch contender number one- a lovely stretch of river with all kinds of potential. My next idea was to try and get to this place I can see from the train when I commute into work. It's where the river runs through a big field surrounded by woods, with a small herd of horses roaming about on one side of the water and cows on the other. From the train it appeared to be just further along the navigation, meaning I'd get there if I followed the path I was already walking a bit further, but when I tried this I found that the path goes under the railway line and ends up at the wrong side. But I knew you could get to that field somehow as I'd seen people walking there. Yesterday I decided it was time to go and explore. But again, no map! So it was going to be a bit trial and error.

My first plan was to go to the sports centre again and walk on the other side of the water this time. But that path almost immediately came out into a suburb. I decided the thing to do would be to follow the main road and check all the cul-de-sacs on each side for a footpath entrance back to the river. I knew it had to be there somewhere as you could sometimes glimpse it through the houses. One block of flats even had signs up forbidding anyone other than residents to walk by one particular stretch of river or sit on the benches! I mean, come on.

After a few of these detours I still hadn't found anything. The road was starting to lead me out of the suburb again, but things were looking more promising as it went uphill, as I could see fields opening out to the left. Just beyond a quarry (that I didn't quite have the nerve to try wandering round) was a little gate leading into trees, labelled 'Water Vole way', which was a big hint that it might eventually lead to water. It seemed I was finally on the right track!

I followed the tree-covered path a little way and it opened up into the most gorgeous patch of woodland I've ever seen! I've been lucky enough to spend a lot of time in lovely Crab Wood, but this was different somehow. It was all on a slope, and the trees meant there was barely any sunlight under there at all. Very mysterious! I could hear what sounded like two Nuthatches making their incredibly loud car-alarm calls, and then the huge shape of a Buzzard suddenly lifted off from one of the trees and flapped away, after which they quietened down, their goal accomplished. I could hear the Buzzard mewing overhead, though I could no longer see it.

The trees were filled with Long-tailed Tits again, so many that it seemed like every tree was filled with them. There were also Chiffchaffs, Great Tits and a Coal Tit, while a Treecreeper suddenly darted onto a nearby tree. Then I noticed a Badger sett opening, surrounded by a big, sandy spoil heap. I looked for paw marks in the sand but it was too trodden about.

I made up my mind then and there to visit this wood again later in Autumn, I bet there will be fungi springing up everywhere! It's a bit early for now and I only saw a couple of different ones. There was a fallen trunk covered all over in the pure white, shiny, domed caps with big gills that I've previously IDed as White Milking Bonnet (this post) but I'm still not sure. I love them, anyway, they always look too delicate to be real, like they just sprang up overnight. I wish I'd brought my camera.

The wood was thick, but luckily the paths were signposted and there were steps down. I came out of the gate at the bottom to a field, which I immediately recognised as the one I had been looking for. It was such a good feeling to finally find it! But that wasn't even the best thing. There was a flock of corvids overheard mobbing something big, which I at first assumed must be the displaced Buzzard again. But one glance through the binoculars and 'Osprey!' sprang into my head. Filled with excitement, I nonetheless checked it carefully in case it was somehow a very pale Buzzard (like 'Osprey' from my old patch, who was not only practically all white underneath but also had a noticeable eyestripe, hence the nickname). But there was no mistaking it. For one thing it was utterly huge, with wings that were long, proportionally narrow and swept back. It had a white face and chest and the eyestripe was huge and bold brown, making 'Osprey' my pale Buzzard's attempt look very weak by comparison. Here was the real thing.

The corvids, which I think were a mixture of Rooks and Jackdaws, were mercilessly mobbing the huge bird as a flock, buffeting it around the sky. But it was a sunny day and the Osprey let itself catch a thermal and drift upwards, high enough so the corvids lost interest in following it. It soared higher and higher, and I could faintly see tiny hirundines it met up there bothering it as well! But then it began to fly purposefully towards the North East, quickly disappearing from view. It was an absolutely amazing thing to see, and was only my second Osprey in Hampshire (the first being a fly-over at St Catherine's Hill, around this time of year too). In this county you can't predict them, you just have to be lucky and be in the right place at the right time. I don't know if its all the media attention Ospreys get in the country but every time I see one I want to know more about it. Where did it come from? Was it born in this country? Was it this year's youngster or an adult, a few years old? I'd lean towards an adult as it had a primary missing on its left wing, more like a moulting adult rather than a fresh-plumaged juvenile. If so, did it nest here? Where did it leave that primary? I bet their primaries are stunningly massive.

So that was local patch contender number two, starting things off with a bang! I have to say that despite the fact that its further away, I'm really leaning towards the second one at this point. Leaving aside the fact that its already proved its potential in a big way, its interesting in that it has two distinct habitats: the woodland, and the river and its surrounding fields. I'll hopefully have lots more chances to explore both these places and build up some good records again. It's very exciting and I'm sure I'll have lots to fill this blog with in the coming months! Before that, though, I still have to write about Norfolk this year before I forget it all. Dammit I've been slack with my blogging recently!

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