Same Nature: New Viewpoints

Sometimes in the course of my hobby as a birdwatcher I am conscious of moments of expansion in my experience and understanding of all things avian. With that increase comes a deeper and richer enjoyment of the pastime of a lifetime.

It is as if in walking the well-trodden corridors of my seasonal birding habits that a new door suddenly appears and opens, ushering me into a fresh and vital new experience of the natural world in which I live.

I am sure this is true not just of my hobby, but of others too. David Attenborough is a testament to the fact that 91 years on, new doors are opening with each new exploration, most recently the discovery of not just life in the deepest recesses of the oceans but also abundant, extraordinary life. Nature never fails to surprise and delight and is apparently boundless in its ability to do this. My own hobby is but a small part of that world, a lens through which I access that immense and beautiful whole.

Every autumn thousands of birds move across our skies as they either leave for warmer climes or arrive for the winter. It is a well known fact and even those with no natural interest will be aware of certain bird species vanishing at the end of the summer and others arriving. But do we ever see it happen? Is it possible to actually see the birds moving from A to B, after all there are thousands of them? The answer is of course yes, but you have to look up and preferably, but not essentially, you need to be on high ground.

This autumn past has seen and an extraordinary ‘visible migration’ across our skies involving many common birds such as woodpigeons, chaffinches and skylarks but also the less common as well – bramblings and redpolls. Already this autumn I have seen more of the latter two species that during the whole of last year. One bird in particular has arrived in unprecedented numbers – the chunky hawfinch. Usually a scarce bird seen perched high on a hornbeam or feeding quietly in the woodland leaf litter, most birdwatchers would consider themselves lucky to see even one or two in the year. However, this autumn, possibly as the result of storm Ophelia, hawfinches have been recorded in almost every part of the UK flying over in flocks, often totaling 50-100 birds over the course of a morning.

hawfinch 01

A Hawfinch – photo by Steve Round

This movement has prompted a renewed interest in hilltop viewpoints with longtime favourites such as Parliament Hill in London’s Hampstead Heath providing daily reports of sightings. Most of the time the visible migration involves smaller birds making short journeys, maybe from one county to the next. The exciting element comes from the fact that amongst the commoner birds almost anything could appear – winter geese and swans, waders and birds you wouldn’t normally expect to see in your area. It does help of course if you are able to identify the birds by call, or to have someone with you who can, but the spectacle of continuous streams of flocks flying overhead is nevertheless worth witnessing. For me it is to be caught up momentarily in nature’s ageless seasonal shifts: just one movement in a great symphony of soft flight calls and wing beats, orchestrated across continents.

This year’s migration is largely over now, (although as I write this, hawfinches are still being reported across Hertfordshire daily), but the memory will stay with me. It is a ‘new room’ in my bird watching experience – it has always been there but now I have consciously ‘walked into it’ and begun to enjoy it. With it I have added a new verb to my vocabulary: “visi-migging” – the act of watching visible migration! It is another world with its own Twitter hashtag of #visimig that connects me with “visi-miggers” and their sightings across Britain.

As I parked my car on top of the Maltings Car Park in St Albans today (a kind of concrete hill and great viewpoint) I paused to observe the skies around me. A flock of over 30 fieldfare passed overhead and then a chaffinch, followed by 9 goldfinches. A peregrine patrolled, maybe hoping to cash in on the ‘visi-mig’. I left the car park but in just five minutes I had recorded 10 different species, but more importantly, like a breath of fresh air, I had connected anew to that wider world all around us that, in our busy lives, we are apt to overlook to our loss.

Please click on this link to read my article as it appears in the Herts Advertiser:

Nature Notes – Herts Advertiser 30th November 2017

 

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Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

Please click on this link to read my November 2017 “Nature Notes” as it appears in the Herts Advertiser: Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

Winter Chills but Nature Thrills…

I had been wondering if she would be there. I had encountered what looked like the remains of her feasting along the path. The telltale circle of piled feathers that indicated a pigeon devoured, plucked breast up, the carcass taken for final pickings by its captor.

Usually I would attribute such feathery leftovers as the work of a sparrowhawk but today the pile is huge, with a wide radius, as if something far more powerful has torn and plucked the bird. Around me too the landscape has shifted closer to winter when I would most expect to see her again.

And there she is, perched midway up the pylon, busy preening and cleaning herself. Her size and plumage tell me she is an adult female peregrine, returning hopefully to her wintering grounds – my ‘local patch’. Her dark black hood speaks suitably of the skilled executioner she is. Indeed at my very feet another pile of pigeon feathers ruffle in the breeze. She has been busy and now clearly is engaged in a post-postmortem cleanup.

Juvenile Peregrine

A juvenile Peregrine with its prey (a Moorhen) – photo by Steve Blake

Peregrines must bathe daily to clean off the inevitable blood and guts of their hunting lifestyle. It is a little observed behaviour of the bird, known better for its aerial supremacy and powerful stooping dives on prey. It is behaviour that I have been lucky enough to observe at a local gravel pit. I watched, in that instance, a young peregrine, bedraggle itself at the water’s edge, unusually vulnerable and ruffled. Nothing mobbed it, no crow swooped down to take advantage of the predator’s pause. I wonder if it was just simply because the peregrine was unrecognizable, stripped of its threatening prowess and hidden in its bath-time obscurity.

Such behaviour was written about by that great admirer of the peregrine – JA Baker, who found his local peregrines returning again and again to a quiet spot along his local river in Essex. More recently a peregrine has been filmed washing at the edge of the River Thames in Central London, observed by the many tourists along the embankment.

The peregrine before me today may be a bird that has bred not too far away. Increasingly peregrines are being observed in the breeding season in nearby larger towns such as Watford and Luton, usually perched high on an industrial structure, always with a precipitous view and teetering ledge. Wherever this bird has come from, she commands the airways as she hunts from her pylon peaks – her own corridors of power.

Peregrine on pylon

A juvenile Peregrine looks down from its pylon perch – photo by Steve Blake

I, for one, welcome the return of the peregrine – I expect the local farmer does too for it is the ultimate bird scarer! The bird never fails to add a thrill to the wider landscape and makes those ugly pylons objects of interest, to be scrutinized carefully lest they conceal a roosting peregrine.

Autumn has its own spring for while leaves fall and plants die back there are new arrivals, like the peregrine, that are as welcome a sight as returning migrants in March. Though they arrive on cold winds to a damp landscape they revitalize it with their busyness and the drama of their flocks. On the dullest day there is never a dull moment and this is nature’s gift to us if we can brace ourselves in the cold months ahead and leave the dull subfusc eye of electric bulbs and ceilinged spaces to get outside in it!