Birdy Benefits of the Beast from the East

Well if February was freezing, March so far has been all about the snow. The so called Beast from the East weather front certainly dumped a whole lot of snow on us in Malvern. I couldn’t get to work on Thursday or Friday due to the drifting snow, so have spent much of the last few days birdwatching in the garden. The upside of all this snow is that it has brought lots of birds in from the fields looking for food. In particular, the Beast from the East has brought us fieldfares and redwings – lots of them!

But first surprise was to find a very large gull on the bird table. We see them flying overhead quite a bit, but this was the first time I’d seen one actually land in the garden. I’ve nothing against gulls, but I don’t think I can afford the seed bill if they start regularly hoovering up the bird food!

When the snow arrived at the end of last week, I was hopeful we might get a fieldfare or two, but there was a whole flock of them. Of course being wilful, they seemed to sense that I was the one on the street desperate for a photo, so stayed mainly just out of photo range in the neighbours’ gardens. But eventually a couple graciously honoured our garden. This first one looked distinctly unimpressed by the weather though and sat hunched in the bush with snow settling on him.

He did however discover some berries we’d got left so I could get a few more attractive photos, although unfortunately these had to be taken through our grubby windows so aren’t as sharp as I would have liked, but better than nothing.

Having bagged a few fieldfare photos, I then started to wish there were some redwings around as well. Right on cue a small flock of these turned up too. (Maybe I should have wished for a Golden Eagle or a hummingbird?) Again it took me and Chris a few attempts stalking around the garden to get some half decent shots, but persistence paid off in the end.

Chris took my favourite photo of the whole weekend – this grumpy, fluffed up redwing on the fence.

Not to be outshone by his bigger and showier cousins, our resident song thrush was a frequent visitor this weekend too. Counting the blackbirds too, that’s 4 members of the thrush family in one weekend. Not bad.

I would have been quite happy with all of the above, but the goldfinches decided finally that they would like to spend some quality time in our garden. There were 4 in total, although I never managed to get more than 2 in one shot. Absolutely beautiful birds, I’ve always loved goldfinches.

I read on Twitter that goldcrests sometimes come into gardens when it’s snowy and again much to my amazement one appeared in the buddleia bush. Only the second time we’ve seen one on our garden. Sadly I was too slow to get a shot of it, he was just too quick. But Chris came back from a walk in the local wood with this beautiful photo of a goldcrest in the snow – a perfect Christmas card shot!

So March has come in like a lion, let’s hope it goes out like a lamb. All this snow and birdlife has been lovely, but I’m starting to long for butterflies and bees and moths – roll on spring!

Snowdrops and Goldcrests

The grey skies cleared for a few hours yesterday and we headed out to nearby Knapp & Papermill reserve. I absolutely love snowdrops and had seen on Worcestershire Wildlife Trusts social media that there were lots at Knapp, so it seemed a good excuse for some fresh air (the air got very fresh for a while as we got caught in a bit of a snow flurry). Cold it may have been, but as usual it was lovely there and there were indeed plenty of snowdrops around.

It did feel slightly odd being at Knapp & Papermill in the winter – we tend to go in the summer as it’s a good place for demoiselles and butterflies. There were some signs that spring was on the way though – these Hazel catkins dancing in the chilly breeze for a start. The Woodlands Trust is asking members of the public to log sightings of certain “first signs of spring”. Catkins are one of these, so I’ve logged our sighting.

Having bagged a few snowdrop photos, we carried on the walk along the side of Leigh Brook. The sun was sparkling off the weir, which was in full flow following recent rain.

As always we could hear (but not see) lots of birds all around us on our walk. Not much showed itself though until the last half hour. We had hoped to see some dippers, but were more than happy with this colourful Grey Wagtail – tail bobbing up and down as it picked its way along the water’s edge looking for insects.

There’s plenty of mistletoe on the reserve and lots of it at the moment is glistening with berries, looking like pearls in the sunshine.

We weren’t the only ones appreciating the mistletoe berries – we spotted movement up there and found a pair of large thrush like birds. They seemed so much bigger than the thrushes we get in the garden, I was initially dubious that they were thrushes – half convincing myself that they were something more exotic. But thrushes they were – Mistle Thrushes to be precise. I’m wondering now if this is the first time I’ve seen Mistle Thrushes as they are so much bigger than the Song Thrushes I’m used to. They’re also a lot more solidly built with a bit of a paunch going on!

As we headed back I spotted a wren, behaving much like the wagtail – flitting up and down the edges of the river bank looking for insects. As is usual with most of our attempts to photograph wrens, it refused to sit still, but Chris did manage to get this one half decent photo.

Just as we were about to go through the gate to leave, Chris spotted the birdy highlight of the day – a Goldcrest. It was flitting around in a large ivy covered tree – too high up for me to get a decent photo. Chris has a better lens for this, but even he was struggling until he came up with the bright idea of using me as a tripod to rest on to steady the camera (the advantages of a short wife!).

We’d thought initially that they were simply feeding on the ivy berries. But having read up on them now, it turns out they are insectivorous, so must have been picking out tiny insects from amongst the berries. Even smaller than the wren they are Britain’s smallest bird (along with the Firecrest) and on average only weigh about 4.5g. An absolutely gorgeous little bird and the perfect ending to our walk.

Scilly Isles – Annet and St Agnes

So this is the final blog post from our trip to the Scilly Isles – this time visiting both Annet and St Agnes. In terms of wildlife, this is maybe saving the best until last – that is if you like puffins! If you’re not into puffins, maybe better to stop reading now. There are a lot of photos in this post, but it could have been worse. We took over 600 that day alone, but I’ve managed to whittle them down to 24!

This was a two island trip – we spent an hour or so boating around Annet before being dropped off on St Agnes to be picked up again a few hours later. The whole island of Annet is a bird sanctuary and an important breeding ground for seabirds. Because of this we were not allowed to land on Annet, so we could only view the birds from the boat. This wasn’t a problem, as in many ways, watching the birds from the boat was the best way to see them.

As befits a bird reserve, there were birds everywhere. One of the prettiest species we saw was the Common Tern. When you see them flying it’s fairly obvious why they are also sometimes known as the Sea Swallow.

We’d had drama on a previous boat trip when a gull killed a cormorant. This time we saw a gull meet its match with a crow. I don’t know if the gull was trying to catch the crow or the crow was mobbing the gull, but in the end they both gave up and flew off.

Of course the birds we all really wanted to see were the puffins. We’d feared we might be too late in the season, as they move away from the coast after breeding and head out to sea. But we were in luck and we saw puffins – loads of them! Chris and I got a bit carried away taking photographs, but who could resist with puffins all around.

At first we saw them near their burrows on the low cliffs of Annet.

Seeing them by their burrows was great, but then they started flying and it just got better and better.  They flew all around the boat, up to a dozen at any one time. When trying to take a photo you realise just how small and how fast they really are – it’s not easy focussing from a bobbing boat, but take enough photos and at least some turn out OK!

At first we only managed fairly distant shots, but then Chris must have got his eye in and started getting better close up ones.

Like a lot of iconic wildlife, when you see them close up they can seem almost too good to be true – but they are absolutely beautiful birds and it was a dream come true to see them like this.

After flying around for a bit they started to land on the water. So again after many, many fuzzy attempts, here are a few of the best ones of them bobbing about.

Puffins rely extensively on sandeels for much of their diet and one of the classic images of them is with a mouthful of fish. At first I thought we’d not got a photo of this, but after a second trawl through our pics, I found I’d got one – and it was actually one of my photos for a change – hence the slightly blurry effect! Still I was very happy to get a picture of a puffin with his lunch.

After watching them fly and swim around for a bit, our guide spotted some on a rocky outcrop and we managed to get close enough (without disturbing them) to get some more photos.

I did try and cut back on these photos (honest), but in the end they were just too adorable to watch – so here’s a few more.

We could happily have spent the whole day watching the puffins, but our boat eventually took us on to St Agnes. Not that this was a bad thing either, because St Agnes was lovely too. The Turks Head pub was just as I remembered it from childhood (I started young!) and we had an excellent lunch there sitting out by the sea. The pub is in the perfect location, just a few yards from the quay.

As with all the islands, there are beautiful views in all directions.

After an excellent pub lunch, we took a stroll across the sandbar to Gugh island, which is only accessible on foot at low tide. I’ve always fancied staying on an island like that, where you are completely cut off when the tide comes in. There weren’t many houses on Gugh, but plenty of wildlife. This male stonechat was a nice addition to the day’s photos.

We headed back to St Agnes (thankfully we’d judged the tide OK and not got cut off) and continued round the island. We found a lovely café (Coastguard Café) with yet more amazing views and equally good cream teas. We had one very delightful teatime companion – a particularly inquisitive (i.e. greedy) thrush. I think it was a Song Thrush. We saw loads of thrushes on the Scilly Isles – way more than we ever see at home, there must be something about the islands that agrees with them (besides the scones).

So that’s it for our trip to the Scilly Isles. 1 week, 5 boat trips, half a dozen pubs, loads of seals, butterflies, birds and beaches and 1 beautiful wasp. And it still felt like we’d only scratched the surface of what there was to see and do. I know I’m probably sounding like an advert for the Scillies, but I can’t recommend the islands enough. If you are into wildlife like us, then they are heaven, but even if you’re not so nature obsessed, the stunning scenery, sunny weather and friendly people still make them a great place to visit. We are already looking forward to going back.

The final photo from our whole Scilly Isles trip has to be this little ornamental duck, which was sitting on the wall outside our accommodation. Although it looks nothing like a real bird, every time we walked passed it, we all did a double take. Maybe we’ve spent too long looking for wildlife everywhere, or maybe we just want to believe there is wildlife everywhere. Either way, I grew quite fond of this Iittle duck and it will always remind me of a very happy holiday.