Sunday 10 January 2016

Harriers at the Haven

Happy New Year! Normally it would be time for my new year's roundup but I admit I'm a bit behind on everything. It was a hectic last part of the year with nothing but job drama, then my housemate took the internet a while ago and I won't have it back till Tuesday. I'd like to say that was why I haven't written for a while but actually it's because I've been overwhelmed by everything I've seen and didn't know where to start. That combined with the job drama meant I didn't write. Now that I'm borrowing some wifi I'm going to put a hold on the new year's post until I'm reconnected and for now concentrate on my visit to Titchfield Haven yesterday!

I've been out of touch with bird news without internet but my mum happened to check Titchfield Haven's twitter feed and found out about the Penduline Tits.  Three have been reported since mid-December, starting out at Titchfield Haven, moving to the IBM lake in Cosham, and have now returned to the Haven. Despite the blowy, rainy weather we made our way down there yesterday to find that they were currently at the Meadow Hide.

The hide was much more action-packed than usual, both with people (as we were expecting) and with birds. Later after visiting the Meon Shore Hide, which usually boasts the highest numbers of birds, we found that practically all the islands were underwater, possibly explaining why most of the birds were at the Meadow Hide. There were ducks, Canada Geese and Curlews feeding on the field, and a suspicious amount of fluff floating around a patch of bullrushes just in front of the window, even though it wasn't that windy at that point. The bullrush heads were mostly bare but there were a few that still had a good amount of their fluffy seeds on them, and some birdwatchers directed us to the source of the flying seed, the small bandit masked beauty that was the Penduline Tit!

I would judge it to be about the size of a Great Tit, with colouring that reminded me of a Red-Backed Shrike very much- the brown back, grey head and black mask are very similar and I think the Collins Bird Guide mentions this too. Looking at the picture in that book I think this was a female because it had a small mask, whereas the male has a larger one (which would probably make it less reminiscent of a shrike), and our bird seemed pale while the males are apparently brighter. I believe there are two females and a male about but the other two never showed. Not that anyone in the hide minded because this bird was showing fantastically well, it was no more than 10 metres away and was feeding right on top of the reed where everyone could see, pulling out clumps of the fluff to get at the seed. Cameras were clicking and I have no doubt they got some fantastic photos!

Meanwhile, the rest of the birds were putting on a show too. All the ducks were fully post-eclipse and the drakes were strikingly bright (I don't think I've visited wetland since the tail end of eclipse season where everyone's still looking a bit dingy). Not to mention the mild weather was definetly effecting them and courtship behaviour was breaking out everywhere. We spotted a pair of Gadwalls bobbing their heads up and down, mimicing each other. Clearly their courtship was at an advance stage already because they started to mate on the water, the male grasping the female on the back of the neck with his bill and pushing her under. He mated with her several times, allowing her head to come up to breath in between. Duck mating does tend to look brutal but this didn't seem as bad as what I've heard about Mallard mating (I've never seen it but birds have been seen to die during this spectacle). It was more like the Black Swans I saw at the Haven, written about here. Only no swan is going to have a problem with its head going under, and the courtship seemed much simpler with the Gadwalls.

I haven't extensively observed wildfowl courtship but it does seem like mimicry is common. I saw several pairs of Canada Geese doing this too, and noticed that there is quite a sexual size difference when you see two that are clearly male and female together, the male is definetly a size bigger. One pair had a very flirty male who in between mimicing would hopefully peck at the back of her neck, and I'm sure I know what that meant, but she didn't seem ready yet. Interestingly as well as mimicing each others movements, they would also take turns pecking at the other's feathers. Do geese ever preen each other for courtship, I wonder?

This was all very interesting but an even more interesting thing was about to happen. Suddenly the cry 'Marsh Harrier!' went up in the hide, and a large, familiar sillhouette started to glide over the reeds, followed by another and still another. I saw familiar not because Marsh Harriers are common at the Haven (far from it, I've only seen them there once before) but because I've watched them extensively when I lived in Kent, at reserves like Dungeness and Elmley Marshes, and their shape and flight style is very distinctive. They fly low over the marshes, wings in a shallow V, and you can see their head looking down below the level of their wings, looking for prey. On Kentish marshes a harrier's appearance will cause every bird to go up- wildfowl, waders and gulls- and some to mob the bird and try to drive it away. I've seen this many times, but I've never seen a Marsh Harrier actually make a kill. While they probably do sometimes kill small ducks and waders, usually you see them dropping into the reeds and not come back up, and it can be assumed that they caught a small mammal of some sort, or maybe a frog in the summer.

I say this to try and explain a weird thing that happened when the harriers came: despite there being three of them at once (actually four because an adult male appeared a little later on- we decided it was probably an adult male, an adult female, and their two youngsters), none of the wildfowl and waders on the water or the meadows flew up. It was really odd, as normally a bird of prey sillhouette unsettles smaller species whether or not they are actually likely to be caught by it. The four harriers spent a lot of time circling around and gliding slowly over the reeds (they seem to let the wind take them along before turning around and flying into the wind back over the area to carefully comb it for prey) and it caused practically no disruption, and also none of them were mobbed. Are these birds just not used to harriers, unlike the Kentish birds? The harriers certainly didn't breed in the area and probably didn't arrive that long ago so that was all I could think of to explain it.

The two young birds looked very similar to the adult female in plumage, but you could tell which was which by their behaviour. The adult female kept being harrassed by one of the youngsters while she quartered the marshes. Birds of prey seem to keep bothering their parents for food for a long time, which makes sense as hunting is so difficult and they have so much to learn, and I've seen other species do this with calls. For example a young Peregrine trying to get food from an adult is a sound impossible to miss, it's a continual shrieking that immediately alerts you to the presence of a put-upon adult bird being chased around the sky by an insistant and very noisy youngster! And I've seen a Kestrel being bothered by its youngster, which was the only time I've ever heard a Kestrel make a sound, it was a 'ke-ke-ke' kind of noise (possibly where the name Kestrel came from?) and it was also somehow doing the little begging wing-flutter young birds do while in a glide. (It didn't get any food and was in fact probably hindering the adult's hunting efforts!) The Marsh Harrier youngsters didn't seem to be making any noise, unless it was very quiet, but the one that was bothering the female kept flying just under her and swinging its talons upwards to almost connect with hers. I know that Marsh Harriers sometimes pass food to each other in this way during courtship (never seen it but I'd love to!) where its part courtship feeding and part showing off their flying skills and therefore strength, but it seems illogical that they'd waste energy feeding babies this way. However maybe the mimicing of food pass behaviour was supposed to be a way of showing the youngster wanted to be fed? Presumably it could see the female didn't actually have food in her talons right then, but this was a way of saying 'hey, hunt me something!'

I wondered if there was a bit of hunting teaching going on as well. At one point the female and one of the juveniles were on each side of a small flock of Mallards, floating just above them. The ducks seemed completely unbothered until the youngster made a small lunge towards them and they decided to swim away from the area quickly. There didn't seem to be much intent towards the lunge a far as I could tell, but who knows? I don't know how long Marsh Harriers stay with their parents, I'd love to find out more. They are lovely birds, some of my absolute favourites ever, great to watch and known to fly in almost all weathers. I hope they stick around Hampshire for a long, long time.

How was your 2015 everybody? Stay tuned for my look at my 2015!

Saturday 31 October 2015

Top 5 scariest British wildlife sounds!

It's Halloween, a holiday I don't celebrate but do generally appreciate, because it gives me a chance to talk about scary animal sounds! These mostly focus on ones I've personally experienced, so I have been able to judge for myself how horrifying they are rather than just hearing from others. That said, let's kick off with a species group I don't have that much experience with but cannot be forgotten:

5. Owls
I'm terrible at owl watching, and don't really have that much experience at owl listening either. When I first heard a Tawny Owl hoot I was 19 and sleeping in a tent, and it was right outside and sounded so much like sound effects on the radio and TV that I thought it was a trick, because I'd assumed the sound effects were exaggerated in some way. It's a weird, wavering hoot that most people in this country are familiar with even if they don't realise it because its used so much as a sound effect to indicate night time. The 'kew-weeeck!' sound most often uttered by a female Tawny (though sometimes a male I believe) is quite well known too, and is a very distinctive noise of the night that I always feel lucky to hear. I'm less familiar with the Barn Owl's screeching call, which I hear if unexpected can be a shock especially if combined with the ghostly pale bird. Also apparently the Long-eared Owl has a very eerie hoot, which I hope I might hear one day. But for me it's the Tawny Owl's hoot all the way. It's exactly what you don't want to hear just behind your tent in an icy cold campsite!

4. Nightjar
Another night bird, this one even got named after its weird sounds. On heathland in late Spring and early Summer evenings, a weird churring sound may start up, wavering up and down and altogether being creepy. It is far carrying and presumably calls the females in so they can watch the male do his display flight and show off the white patches on his plumage. But when dusk is falling and you're suddenly surrounded by creepy mechanical churring, would you guess that? A weird, weird sound. I've only heard it once (maybe twice?) but it was very memorable.

3. Jay
You can hear this one in the daytime. Jays are generally more shy than most corvids, but they certainly fit in with their family in having loud and abrasive call which they will to deter anything and everything they feel is a threat. This could be a roosting Tawny Owl in their tree, Magpies getting too near, or even poor old you going for a quiet walk in the woods. It sounds like an unearthly, never ending screeching. Jays have beautiful plumage but probably the ugliest call of any bird in this country. Keep an ear out and if you hear something utterly horrible in a wood or a field, it's probably this bird scolding something and it might be you.

2. Fox
This one's quite famous but it was only recently that I heard it for myself. It was early on Christmas morning a couple of years ago when I was staying at my Uncle's in London, which meant we were probably surrounded by urban foxes patrolling their territories that night. Even though I knew this, I was still shocked by this incredibly loud scream from outside. I'd never heard it before, only read descriptions, which couldn't get across the utter weirdness and scariness of it. No one wants to hear that sound when they're trying to get back to sleep! Apparently vixens usually make the call but sometimes dog foxes too.

1. Marsh Frog
This one might sound weird because how can a frog be scary, you might think. But I used to live in Kent, and when I went birdwatching I'd sometimes hear a weird laughing sound that seemed to be coming from very close by. I at first assumed it was a bird, but it baffled me because where was the bird hiding? The sound would be coming from the vegetation right in front of me, and would carry on even if I walked closer. Not to mention I couldn't think of a single species of bird that could be making this sound. I only found out what it was by accident, and it wasn't a bird at all. The Marsh Frog is an introduced species to Britain and the marshes of Kent are one of its strongholds, which was why I'd never heard it before. Its weird laughing call has added an extra dimension of eeriness to the already weird landscapes of Dungeness and the Sheppey Marshes. This isn't just a case of not knowing what it was making it creepy either, even now the sound still freaks me out. I hope you all get to hear it, if you haven't already, so you can see what I mean!

Thanks for reading my slightly rushed Halloween post! I'd love to hear about what other people would pick for their scariest sounds, either from Britain or from another country. Let me know!

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!

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Watching Little Grebes Build a Nest

If you're reading that title and thinking 'aren't we a bit past nest building season at this point?' you'd be right! The nest building happened in early May. But it was so amazing that even though it was over a month ago I couldn't not write about it. I have posts cooking up in my brain about wildlife things that happened years ago. Who knows when they'll get written?

Wednesday 20 May 2015

Auks and Jellyfish at Portland Bill!

This is actually a post I meant to write in April but I've got really behind on my posts recently. In late April I took a drive down to Portland Bill, in the hope of finding migrants and seeing some lovely seabirds.

Saturday 11 April 2015

A Very Gothic Experience (not really) and more courtship displays

Yesterday I was in a cemetery next to an old church, walking among the graves, when I heard the distant croaking call of a Raven. Looking up I saw the huge, flying cross silhouette of this great and most gothic of corvids, soaring majestically over.

...Well, that would leave out the fact that it was a glorious sunny day, the graves were covered in beautiful floral displays, and a Raven's croak never sounded particularly gothic in my opinion! I've always been struck by how oddly polite their call is, and while it can be heard from a great distance there's nothing loud or fussy about it. Compared with the screeching of Rooks or the harsh 'chak!' of Jackdaws it's really not sinister at all. But it is great for finding them, as the call is unmistakable, and as soon as you hear it just look up and you'll no doubt see a big black bird flying over.

This particular church was at Minstead in the New Forest, whose graveyard is notable for having Sir Arthur Conan Doyle buried there (among the new graves because he was buried far from the church due to his spiritualist beliefs being a bit suspicious to the clergy at the time). There's also a grave which originally had the words 'faithful husband' but after finding out some things to the contrary after his death his widow cut carefully around the word 'faithful' and removed it, so now it just reads something like 'he was a husband'. I guess sometimes that's all you can say. ^^

After visiting the church I went for a walk around the area, and on a field I saw the black and white blur of two Pied Wagtails fighting. It seemed very violent as one kept pinning the other onto the ground, but then as they stayed still for a moment I got a good look at their plumage and realised they were a male and a female. They female crouched down and presented her tail to the male, and began to flutter her wings, and he jumped onto her back and quickly mated with her. In fact it was so quick that I wondered if it had actually succeeded at all. As I wrote about in my Black-headed Gull post, birds mate by touching their sexual organs together, which are similar in males and females and are called the cloaca. (There are a few exceptions to this as in some species of birds the males have penises, I think Ostriches and ducks, but not may others.) With these Pied Wagtails their tails were so long that it looked like a struggle to get them out of the way for long enough to expose the cloaca to each other. It's possible they had the same thought I had as I saw them mate twice more afterwards. The female can only produce one egg a day, and the pair must mate successfully beforehand each time.

Most people know about well-known courtship displays like the mating dance of the Great-crested Grebe, but I'm starting to realise that other species all have their own courtship rituals too, and if you watch them carefully enough at this time of year you might see them for yourself. I never would have guessed that a Pied Wagtail gets in the mood for mating with a vicious fight! To see it for yourself keep an eye on pairs of common birds that you see at this time of year, especially of species that you never normally see together, like Robins. You might see the female being fed, displays of behavioral mimicry, mutual preening (like the famous 'billing and cooing' of pigeons) showing off by the male, and after mating some birds have rituals then too such as calling or spending time close together afterwards. It's tempting to anthropomorphize these birds, and I think we all do to some extent, but all these behaviours have reasons behind them and it's interesting to make a guess at what they are. Feral birds like ducks and pigeons, and even escaped birds if they are living in a natural enough environment, can be great to watch as it's easy to get close to them. I wrote about seeing the Black Swan's mating dance here, and about watching a Woodpigeon feed his mate 'pigeon milk' here.

As I walked through an area of heathland surrounded by conifers I was lucky enough to hear the song of a Firecrest, and get a good view of this wonderfully colourful bird. Firecrests are a hundred times more striking in real life than in pictures, and the yellow-ochre splash of colour on their shoulder is particularly dazzling, especially in contrast to their olive backs and black and white striped heads. Their song is a series of speeding up notes, a little like the Goldcrest's song but all on one note. I've always found Spring Firecrests to be very confident birds, easy to see at close range once you hear them. And they always seem bigger than Goldcrests, though whether they actually are noticeably bigger is perhaps not true. It's the colouring that makes them seem so, and perhaps the confidence soon. Firecrests are one bird I'm proud to say I'm 'getting better at'- I saw my first one with help in 2010 and since then I've been finding my own locally, and can recognise their song.

It's still early April and it's weird to think that while some birds, like the Pied Wagtails, are well on their way to breeding, some of our breeding species are not even here yet! Later on in the Spring if I travel to their New Forest again I'll be able to hear Cuckoos, Redstarts, Wood Warblers, Woodlarks and Tree Pipits, but heard not a peep of any of these species just yet. Meanwhile, the Raven I saw earlier is one of our earliest breeding birds, and could have already fledged his young for the year. It's amazing to think about. One migrant I did see yesterday was the first Swallows of the year, for me at least! It's always lovely to see them come back.

Finally, as I walked through the wooded New Forest enclosures I was impressed to see a species I don't remember when I last saw- I kept passing mounds of earth covered in great swarming masses of Wood Ants! These beasties are about 3 times the size of a black ant, and are more fussy about their habitat. I'm not sure if they actually eat wood but they certainly chew it, as one nest was near a pile of logs that had become riddled with holes!

Happy Spring, everyone! I'm certainly full of the joys. :)

Wednesday 14 January 2015

A Look Back on 2014 at Barton Farm

Happy New Year everyone! This time last year I wrote a yearly wrap up of 2013 including first and last records of certain species, and I was planning on doing something similar this year only something came up. This post is a little late anyway because the past few evenings have been devoted to my first ever bone cleaning! The bones are now all clean and are drying out, ready for a full post at some point in 2015. I can't wait until they are dry so I can start to try and figure out which bone is from which part of the body, take some photos and generally use my find to learn more about this particular animal, species which will be kept under my hat for now. But it's an interesting start to the year for me wildlife-wise.

I'm writing today a little sad because building work has finally started at my local patch, Barton Farm. It's been scheduled for development for many years now, and the earliest guess I heard for work starting was June 2014. That didn't happen, but on Sunday I arrived to see an area of the big field had been stripped of soil, right down to the chalk underneath, and diggers were waiting at the edge of the site. The small horse paddock that's behind a house at the bottom of the farm and is often covered in Rooks was also gone. (The Rooks were still around enjoying the freshly exposed earth though!) So it looks like 2014 will be my last complete year at this patch. I know there will still be something to see for a while as building work doesn't happen overnight, but will I still want to visit after they start cutting down the trees and removing the hedgerows? I don't know.

So instead of last year when I wrote about things I saw in 2013 and the sightings were from all over, this 2014 post will mostly be about Barton Farm and the records I made there. I didn't have a lot of time to watch wildlife this year so when I did get away, that's where I went. And the beauty of patch watching is that a bird can be common as anything but when you see it on your patch it's super exciting because you've never seen it there before. You can watch the changing of bird numbers as the seasons progress and notice patterns. You'll start to make educated guesses about the location of nests, even when you never see the actual nest, just from the behaviour of birds.You start to notice signs of hidden mammals and birds. That's how much this patch means to me, that I will lose this place I know so well. I know it will be missed by many, as it is popular with dog walkers, picnickers, cyclists and joggers. I won't lie and pretend I didn't sometimes wish there were less people about, being the shy person that I am! Barton Farm was farmed by someone who wanted to give wildlife a space on their farm, given that there were wide margins at the edges of the fields that were allowed to grow wild, and the fields spent time in stubble and became covered in feeding birds.

In Spring, these were the dates of my first and last sightings:

  • 16/2- My first butterfly of the season, and it wasn't a Red Admiral like it is most years but a Peacock
  • 6/3- Last Redwings and Fieldfares
  • 13/4- Four Swallows flew North- one day earlier than my 2013 record, (but still much later than some people's records of course!)
  • 19/4- The House Martins returned to the farm.
  •  27/4- The first Whitethroat reappeared, a singing male.
  • 11/5- The first Swift was seen.
  • 11/5- A female Blackbird was seen with food
  • 18/5- The first young bird, a juvenile Robin!

2014 was a great year for new additions to my patch list, with six new species! I bet I'm not the first birdwatcher who made predictions about what birds they thought they would see next on their patch. My predictions at the start of this year that totally failed to come true included: Mallard (which I thought I had a reasonable chance of seeing fly over during their early Spring 'wandering' period), Raven (I've seen them a few times the other side of Winchester and am still holding out for a flyover!), and Brambling (still haven't picked one out among the Chaffinches, but then Winter 2013-14 was not a Brambling year and it doesn't look like this winter is either, at least not so far). But I did end up adding some species that I never would have predicted! So let's take a look.

  • 15/1- My first new species of the year, and one that I actually did predict beforehand, Pheasant. It does seem odd that when it comes to game birds, my patch list got Grey Partridge first (ask me about that story and how excited I was when it happened sometime!), and then Red-legged Partridge (several records but it's still only occasionally I see them) before I finally recorded a Pheasant! But Pheasants don't seem to be common around this particular part of the local farmland, even though I had suspected they lived on the farmland on the other side of the road. When I found a few plucked Pheasant feathers, the remains of a kill, back in 2013 I guessed it wouldn't be long before I saw one. And I have a couple of records now, but the fact that I see them so rarely suggests there is no shoot near here.
  •  16-2- Another one that seems obvious, but I didn't really predict- a Sparrowhawk glided over on this lovely sunny day! It seemed strange that I hadn't predicted it, as we get Sparrowhawks in our garden which really isn't that far away. But I already knew that garden wildlife is in some ways a world away from what shows up on the farm, with birds like Greenfinches common in our garden and yet a rare sight at Barton Farm. So the Sparrowhawk joined a rather illustrious list of birds of prey that I've been lucky enough to see here, alongside Buzzard, Kestrel, Red Kite, Peregrine, Hobby, and signs of Tawny Owl and Barn Owl. Wonderful!
  • 6/7- One of my favourite moments of the Summer was when I walked to the mature trees in the middle of the farm and suddenly realised the trees were filled with Spotted Flycatchers! There were at least three youngsters, and two adults feeding them! I love Spotted Flycatchers because what they lack in plumage prettiness they more than make up for in personality. If you know the bird even a little bit you will recognise the way it sits confidently out in the open, very upright, and then suddenly flies into a little hover before perching openly once again. You can watch them for ages because they don't flit away and hide like some birds do, and when they fly they never seem to go far. And even when the adults seem to be wrongly named because they are quite pale and not spotty at all, if you see the young birds you'll see where the name came from! They are adorably spotty. Spotted Flycatcher was not a bird I ever could have predicted would once be on my patch list, because even though the trees on the farm are lovely they are not all that good for birds, or only the commonest species anyway. It was wonderful to see the flycatchers appreciating them, though I'm positive they didn't breed on the farm.
  • 3/8- Another amazing record. I was watching the bushes next to the railway cutting and was amazed to see three House Sparrows feeding in an elder bush! There were two males and a female. Once a common farmland species, it's rare the farm that has them now. I haven't seen any before or since, but was still chuffed to bits that I got to see them just that one time. Far from predicting them, I actually wrote them off as a bird I would never see at Barton Farm because it wasn't a farm that had sparrows already, so it probably never would again. And ok, they aren't resident there, but it did make me see that sparrows sometimes travel in search of food! 
  •  17/9- I spotted what I thought at first glance was a Wheatear in the mature trees, which would have been exciting enough...until I realised it was far too brown and streaky on the back, and too small, with a neat splash of orange on its chest. It was a Whinchat! I've recorded Wheatears every Autumn since I started watching this patch, but never a Whinchat, which aren't all that easy to find in Hampshire sometimes. I was honoured to see one passing through on its migration!
  •  14/10- In one of the field margins, I thought I saw the Whinchat again. The bird sat on top of a bush instead of diving into undergrowth, which is classic chat behaviour, and it was about the same size. But soon I realised this was a totally different bird, with barely any eyestripe and a dark patch behind the eye, and a noticeable white wing bar. All these signs pointed to the Whinchat's close cousin, a Stonechat, and possibly a young one judging by its dull colouring. Needless to say I was thrilled to bits that my patch hosted both the 'chat' chats (Robins and Wheatears are also chats but hey, it's not in their names so doesn't quite count!) in the space of just over a month.

And here are my first and lasts for Autumn:

  • 8/9- My traditional Autumn Wheatear record! I get one every year, but only one and not in Spring yet. Sadly my patch may not be around long enough to see if the streak would have been broken.
  • 2/10- My last visit of the Autumn where I saw butterflies, which were Red Admiral, Small Tortoiseshell and Small/Green-veined White (I didn't note which so must have not got a very good view)
  • Also on 2/10, I glimpsed what I thought were Redwings flying over, but sadly they went out of sight too quickly for me to properly identify them.
  • 14/10- about 100 winter thrushes flew over in a Westerly direction, though I couldn't identify if they were Redwings or Fieldfares or a mixture of both.
  •  2/11- The first winter thrushes actually in the site were a small number of Fieldfares.
  •  Also on 2/11, my second ever Firecrest at this site was spotted moving its way along the boundary hedge,

As for mammals, it wasn't such a bad year either. At the end of 2013 I saw a hare and hoped for more sightings in 2014. Well, on 21/2 I saw two hares together, sitting stock still on the field as hares do, nose to nose as if they were a pair. I hoped to see more but as the crop grew up it was impossible to tell if they were there or not.

Also, remember when I wrote that post about signs of foxes? I finally saw the fox! On the 25/6 I saw it creep out into one of the lines in the barley, apparently not noticing at me at all for a moment, until it did and in one quick leap disappeared into the crop again. It looked healthy, with thick fur and a big fluffy brush with interestingly no white on the end at all.

A Roebuck with lovely antlers were seen on 11/5, just outside the farm. Other than that there wasn't much Roe Deer activity this year.

In 2013, I realised Tawny Owls were in the area in quite a sad way when I saw a dead one on the railway lines. But on 6/3 2014 I found some more positive signs, in the form of what I originally thought was a cluster of droppings at the base of a large tree, until I saw they were made up of fur with bone fragments and what I was really seeing was owl pellets! I collected them and finally did what the tracks and signs books say you should do, which is soak them in water to get rid of the fur and break them down to look at the bones. I'll look at the contents in more detail in a future post! It was the first time I've ever found pellets, or found pellets and known it because they do look a lot like poo. ^^ I think the Tawny Owl was roosting in that tree for at least a few days.

The pellets before...

....and after!
I have a very short moth list that began this year when I saw a lovely Scarlet Tiger in midsummer and a Magpie Moth in late summer. Only day-flying species got the chance to be on my list as I only visit during the day. ^^

As my interest in fungi only grows stronger all the time, and I found a lot of fungi at the farm last winter which I wrote this post about, I started a fungi list this year which includes Yellow Brain, Crystal Brain, Common Jellyspot and some lovely, huge Dryad's Saddle brackets.

So it was quite an amazing year wildlife-wise at this little farm. I feel privileged to have gotten to know it so well, and I know I won't be the only one sad to see it go. I'll make sure I keep my notes so I won't forget my sightings and experiences.


On a more positive note, just a few quick things about the rest of the year: I got to go to Norfolk which was of course amazing, and you can read all about that here, here and here!

I finally completed the epic Black-headed Gull colony sketchbook post that I've been working on since 2012!

And perhaps most excitingly of all, I got to see birds being ringed, including a Kingfisher!

I added only three new species to my life list this year, but they more than make up in quality what they lack in quantity! The first two were on the same day and were Long-tailed Duck and Lesser Yellowlegs, both from the New Forest area, the latter being the Lesser Yellowlegs that stayed most of the winter at Lepe Country Park. The Long-tailed Ducks were especially lovely and my mum and I made a special trip to see them after we saw them reported on because we love ducks. And I finally saw my first Razorbill, on a lovely trip to Portland Bill in April. Yes, Razorbill for me was one of those odd species that's common but you just haven't seen it for some reason. But now I have! Next year: Tawny Owl!

I hope you all had a wonderful 2014 and that this year is shaping up really nicely. :) Thanks for reading my blog and sharing my passion. Stick with me and we'll explore nature together!