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!

Freezing February Birds

It’s February and it’s freezing and being a bit of a fair weather nature watcher I’ve not been out much – other than to constantly top up the bird feeders and defrost the bird baths of course! So it’s been a month mainly of bird watching through the window or via the cameras in the garden. Our array of camera gadgets is slowly growing. Trouble is with each one you get, you tend to want more; or at least that’s how it seems in our house. No matter where we’ve got cameras pointed, there always seems to be something more interesting happening elsewhere in the garden!

Anyway like much of the country we’ve had snow yesterday and today – not a huge amount, but it’s never really got above freezing here.  So it was a nice surprise to download the trail cam in the afternoon and find a pair of goldfinches had visited our new niger seed feeder. Sorry the video is a bit dark, but it was snowing!

Goldfinches in snow

Inspired by our intrepid goldfinches, I got round to sorting through some videos we’d taken in the garden in the last week or so, to see what else I could find.

We’ve got a new GoPro camera which can be remotely activated using a phone. Perfect on a cold day for sitting on the sofa hitting record whenever something interesting appears. I’ve been trying out different angles and distances to see what works best. This video was shot with the camera only about a foot away from the action.

Garden birds

This next video compilation was the GoPro again, but this time filmed from a greater distance looking down. The greater distance does of course give a wider field of view and I think  the GoPro lens may be a wide-angle one too. You can still see lumps of ice in the bird bath although I had already taken two kettle loads of warm water out to defrost it.  Lots of different species of birds have been using the bird bath in this cold weather though, so it’s well worth thawing it out.

Bird bath birds

This next little compilation was filmed with the GoPro strapped to a branch next to some of the feeders. The GoPro has the advantage here over the old trail camera in that it is much smaller, making it easier to position closer to things. You can strap it to twigs that would be too thin to support the trail cam.

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But I have not abandoned my old faithful Bushnell trail cam. I had it pointed at the same feeders, but from a different angle. I was really chuffed that it filmed a couple of the siskins that we’d been so excited to see the previous week. It also picked  up the female blackcap, although the male still eludes us. It was nice too, that between the two cameras, there was footage of 3 of the 4 species of tit we get in our garden – blue, great and coal. The long tailed tits as usual refused to perform for either camera.

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One final surprise the cameras threw up was a visit from our squirrel – trying (but failing) to get into the peanut feeder.  I suspect he managed to get some of the other food out of shot.

Most of our regular bird species show up on one or other of the remote cameras but not all. So sometimes I just need to get off the sofa and sit in the garden with a “proper” camera. These jackdaws are regular visitors to the bird table and are particularly keen on the suet pellets. It does look slightly oddly like the one on the right is taking suet to the table rather than taking it away?

The wren of course seldom deigns to feature on the trail cam/GoPro videos. But this week he/she was more obliging than usual and did allow me to get a few shots. None perfect, but recognisable at least.

It even sat for a while preening itself, hence the next sequence of three “rumpled” looking photos.

So although it’s bloomin’ freezing, there’s plenty to watch in the garden. The bird feeders are busier than ever, so hopefully our garden birds will make it through this cold spell.

One final photo – a bullfinch, just because they are such gorgeous birds. Not actually taken in our garden but about a mile away near Chris’ work. He was feeding on wild cherry blossom buds at the weekend and he’s just too beautiful not to include in the blog (the male bullfinch I mean, not Chris!).

 

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.

Birding in Bewdley

Since the New Year I’ve been suffering (rather pathetically even by my own low standards) from the flu, but by last Sunday I’d finally had enough of my sick bed and was keen to get out and see some wildlife. While spluttering round the house, I’d kept seeing on Twitter that there were lots of Hawfinches in the UK this year and that in particular there was a group of them in Bewdley, which isn’t far from us. People were still tweeting sightings of the Bewdley birds there on the Saturday so we set off on Sunday with fingers crossed.

Bewdley is a lovely little town, right by the river Severn. We’ve passed through it a few times on the way to the Wyre Forest, but never stopped before. So this time we parked down by the river and set off to find Jubilee Gardens where all the Hawfinches were apparently hanging around waiting for their photos to be taken. Since there’s never any guarantee of spotting your target species, we always take photos of other things as we go and the Severn was full of birds as we walked along the towpath.

There were quite a few of these small pretty gulls, several of whom seemed content to perch on the bollards. A quick check on Google when we got home later confirmed they were Black Headed Gulls – in their winter plumage though, so no actual “black heads”.

Another bird that we more commonly associate with the sea is the Cormorant, but there was at least one happily paddling up and down the Severn in Bewdley. It was totally undeterred by the Canada Geese that not only outnumbered him, but were much larger too. The Cormorant faced down at least one goose to get the resting spot he wanted near the steps.

We found Jubilee Gardens tucked away behind the riverfront houses. It is really a small park completely surrounded by the town of Bewdley, but with some large mature trees and a small pond.  There were plenty of small birds flitting around, including a small flock of the lovely long-tailed tits.

A splendid Grey Wagtail was patrolling, with tail wagging, up and down near the pond. I always have to think twice about these, not to call them Yellow Wagtails, despite their obvious yellow colouring.

We knew we’d found the right spot though, when we turned a corner and were confronted with at least a dozen birders with cameras/binoculars/telescopes all pointed up at some of the tall trees. Clearly I’m not the only one who follows the reports on Twitter! There were also a few other, slightly bemused looking, non birders trying to enjoy a Sunday stroll through the gardens and wondering what all the fuss was about.

Anyway we followed the direction all the lenses were pointed in and sure enough there were a small group of Hawfinches, high up in the trees. They may have been distant glimpses, but we had found our first ever Hawfinches. Their powerful beaks were clearly visible even from a distance and they are have to my mind quite quirky, curious faces. We spent about an hour pottering round the gardens, hoping they’d come lower down. Not surprisingly, given the large number of people staring at them, they chose to remain high up in the trees. So these were the best shots we managed, but they are at least recognisably Hawfinches.

I don’t think we’d ever have spotted them on our own, but the combination of helpful Twitter feeds (thank you @WorcsBirding) and of course a large flock of Twitchers made it possible. We just need the equivalent combination for some Waxwings now!

From Green to White

What a difference a day makes. Since my Evergreen blog post our Malvern landscape has been transformed into a frosty white wonderland. It snowed all day on Sunday – the most snow we’ve had in years here and temperatures have barely got above zero. For the first day we couldn’t even see the Malvern Hills – the snow and fog completely blanketed them. But yesterday it cleared and our view was once again returned.

Our mistletoe, that was making me feel so festive, is now even more Christmassy with a frosting of snow.

I may not have been able to get to work, nor get the car out to go to the shops (chocolate supplies are getting dangerously low and I may have to start eating some wrapped Xmas presents!), but it has provided some great photo ops in the garden. I have spent a lot of the last few days freezing my proverbial off, sitting in the garden watching the birds. The bird feeders have needed constant topping up and the water baths have had to be defrosted regularly, but I have been rewarded with lots of bird activity.

As always I had the trail cam out in the garden. Although I didn’t get any particularly interesting footage during the day, that may have been because things were landing on it rather than in front of it!

Similarly my camouflage netting, that I hide behind to photograph the birds, got the same lack of respect from this blue tit.

Most of our regular birds came out during my snowy vigil. Starlings, sparrows and blue tits were all abundant and didn’t seem bothered by me lurking behind my camouflage.

The wren was as elusive as always and the coal and great tits only came out when I went in. The blackbirds and jackdaws made the most of the food, but I struggled to get a decent photo of black birds against a white background. There were some surprises though – the benefit of sitting outside just watching meant that I saw birds I haven’t seen for a while in the garden. So it was great to see this thrush jostling for food amongst the sparrows on the bird table.

Even better a rare glimpse of a chaffinch – we hardly ever get these in the garden, so I was delighted to get even this distant shot of him.

Of course the one bird I really wanted to get decent photos of in the snow was the robin. Fortunately we have two resident robins and one in particular is pretty brave and comes close up to me (not yet managed the holy grail of getting him to eat out of my hand yet, but I’m working on it). I took loads of photos of him – here are a few of my favourites. I think next year’s Christmas cards may be sorted!

While chasing the robin round with the camera, I noticed something larger in the bush right next to me – a redwing. We haven’t seen any of these in the garden for a few years, so I snapped away quickly before he flew off.

And then it got even better! I was keeping an eye out in case the redwing returned and spotted a group of birds in next door’s tree. Unfortunately the tree was at the far side of their garden so I crept as close to our fence as I could get, peered over and discovered it was a small mixed flock of redwings and fieldfares.

They may not have actually been in our garden, but I’m counting them as I’m sure they must have passed through it at some point!

The final star of the show yesterday, although also not technically in the garden, was this magnificent Red Kite, drifting high above. I thought at first it was just the usual buzzard; it was only when I downloaded the photos I could see it was a kite. The perfect finale to my snowy birdwatching day.

Winter Evergreens

I started to feel properly Christmassy this week and that was even before the winter wonderland of snow arrived this morning. Amongst the (many) weeds in our garden we have some lovely evergreen plants, right out of a Christmas carol – holly, ivy and mistletoe too. None have been planted deliberately, they’ve all just arrived. Feed the birds and they deposit berries around the garden, which grow and attract more birds, which deposit more berries – a birdy/evergreen circle.

The ivy must surely be one of the most useful plants in our garden. Not only do the leaves provide cover for a host of insects, the flowers provide a much needed late nectar source (particularly for my favourite Ivy Bees) and the berries provide food in winter for the birds. We are doing our best to encourage the ivy to grow over as much of the fence as possible.

Our holly “tree” is little more than a small bush, but since we didn’t plant it at all, we can’t complain. We first spotted it a few years ago when it was literally a tiny seedling with just 3 leaves on it – presumably a helpful bird had either dropped a berry, or deposited it some other way in the front garden. This was our magnificent tree back in 2013, less than a foot tall. Four years later and it is the same height as me (so approximately 5 times the size).

We first noticed mistletoe growing on our apple tree a few years ago. We now have several clumps, although no sign of any berries yet – don’t know if this is because our mistletoe is not mature enough or we’ve just got male specimens?

Mistletoe may have the romantic connotations of kissing traditions at Christmas, but the actual name may have slightly less glamorous origins. Some websites suggest the name derives from two old words – mistle meaning dung (from the way in which birds may deposit it) and ta meaning twig or stick. So it’s really just a dung twig – not so tempting to kiss under it now!

Given the meagre clumps of mistletoe in the garden, we won’t be harvesting any for festive decorations any time soon. Fortunately my Dad has a garden full of the stuff, I just need to clamber up to get a bunch. Dad has always wanted to go the Tenbury Mistletoe Auctions, so last week we finally got around to going. What an amazing thing it was, no wonder people come from all over the country to see and bid on these winter evergreens.

First up was a whole shed filled with holly wreaths – presumably intended for shops rather than individuals as they were in multiple counts per lot. The auctioneer whizzed along the rows of them, with people bidding for dozens at a time.

The main attraction for most though was the mistletoe – row upon row of berry laden bundles. It really was a very impressive sight.

Once again the auctioneer made short work of the lots – each bundle going in a matter of seconds. No sooner had each one been auctioned than it was carted off and the crowd moved on. The Tenbury Mistletoe sales usually make the local news and here is this year’s report – for those with eagle eyes, yours truly appears at about the 5 second mark – dumpy little woman right behind the auctioneer!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-hereford-worcester-42240007/tenbury-mistletoe-auction-draws-crowds-in-bumper-year

We probably won’t put our Christmas tree up for another week, but in the meantime it’s nice to have this midwinter greenery around the garden.

Wildlife Hides – Part 3 The Kestrel

This is the third and final part of the blog about our wonderful day spent at the Wildlife Hides near Droitwich. Our last hide of the day was the Kestrel one. Once again we were a bit worried when the previous 2 groups had all seen kestrels feeding – would they be too full to fly down for us?

Initially all we could see was a very distant kestrel perched on a telegraph pole way across the field.

distant-kestrel

Dead mice were positioned in front of our hide, so we just had to hope she was still hungry. While we waited (with everything crossed) for her to fly down, we could at least enjoy lots of the small birds that were flitting about. The blue tits and great tits posed obligingly on a branch in front of us and a chaffinch was poking about in the mud on the field. A wagtail and an absolutely stunning bullfinch also made appearances, but we didn’t manage to get decent photos of either.

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great-tit

chaffinch

While we’d been watching the small birds, the female kestrel had been joined by the male on top of the telegraph pole. After what seemed like an age they eventually both took off and after a bit of hunting about, the female landed on one of the posts in front of us. All 3 of us clicked away frenziedly, to the point that we didn’t even notice the male had landed until it took off again – d’oh! So we only got photos of the female, but she was stunning. I’d never been so close to a kestrel before and hadn’t realised just how beautiful they were.

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I think we made a bit too much noise and spooked her (and the male) off, but it wasn’t long before she returned. She was clearly wary of us though and decided to sit on the ground (actually on what looks like a great big turnip?) in the middle of the field for a while, probably hoping we’d go away.

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But as we stayed put in the hide and kept quiet, she decided to have another go for the mice.

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We could have happily stayed and watched the kestrels for a lot longer, but by now the light was starting to go. Before we packed up for the day though we had one final visitor – an inquisitive squirrel. I know it’s not a red one, but I still can’t resist them.

squirrel

As before while Chris was taking most of the photos, I had a go at videoing. They are such beautiful birds to watch, but you get a real sense of their strength when you see her pulling at the mouse. I wouldn’t want to be at the wrong end of those claws or beak!

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All the hides featured in these last 3 blog posts were at Nature Photography’s site near Droitwich, which is only a half hour’s drive from Malvern – brilliant! Other hide rental sites are no doubt available, but we were very happy with our day and couldn’t have asked for better views of the birds. If anyone’s interested in trying something like this for themselves, here’s their website: http://www.naturephotographyhides.co.uk/  They also have hides in Scotland for red squirrel and mountain hares – very tempted for next year!!

I know in an ideal world we would have gone out and found these animals for ourselves, but when you have limited time and resources, sometimes it’s good to take a short cut. The birds were all still wild and there were no guarantees of seeing anything, so it was a big thrill for us just being able to watch them. For beginners like us, it was also a good way of practising taking birdy photos – it’s very hard to practice if there’s nothing there to photograph!

Wildlife Hides – Part 2 The King of Fishers

This is the second part of the blog on our amazing day out on Saturday at the Nature Photography Hides. After the Reflection Pool Hide we moved to the Kingfisher Hide. The group before us reported seeing the kingfisher feeding about half a dozen times, so we were a bit worried that it might be full and not visit while we were there! We were joined in the hide by another photographer (nice to meet you Dave) and the three of us settled down to wait.

First bird to appear was not the hoped for kingfisher, but a rather round looking robin. I took a photo of him anyway, just in case this was all we were going to see!

robin

Turns out I needn’t have worried. An absolutely stunning kingfisher arrived fairly quickly and sat on the bulrush perch. It then moved to one side to sit on the reeds. He (or she) then proceeded to sit in the same spot for about 25 minutes. It was there so long, we actually started to get  a bit tired waiting for it to do something different! (never could have imagined before that I might tire watching a kingfisher, not that I’m complaining) But it gave us plenty of chance to take loads of photos – here’s just a very small percentage of the ones we took at this point.

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After about 25 minutes, it decided a bit of preening was in order.

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It then regurgitated a pellet of presumably unwanted fish bits. This was something neither Chris nor I had ever heard of and was fascinating to see. It also explained how it had managed to scoff so many fish earlier that morning. It only digests the good bits and spits out the rest! Chris just about managed to catch the fishy pellet being expelled.

kingfisher-regurgitating

Once the fishy waste had been disposed of, it obviously felt it now had room for more fish, so flew back to the bulrush perch.

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The bulrush was positioned over a tub containing small live fish. After a while bobbing up and down to judge distance through the water, we finally got what we’d been waiting for – it dived for a fish.

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Once caught the still wriggling fish was flown back to the perch. The kingfisher then manoeuvred the fish around to get a good grip, before bashing it repeatedly to kill it and then of course eventually swallow it.

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It tended to fly away for a few minutes between fish, but came back and repeated the process a couple of times. It didn’t always catch a fish when it dived, but was successful more often than not.

The thing about taking wildlife photos is that it makes you greedy. Before we started, we thought we’d be happy just to see one. Once we’d seen one, we thought we’d be happy to get a few good photos. Then we wanted to see and photograph it catching fish. Then the ultimate goal became to catch it diving down towards the water. I clearly don’t have quick enough reflexes as I didn’t manage it at all. But Chris managed to get this (admittedly after several missed attempts) – quite possibly his best shot of the day.

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Since I’m not as good a photographer as Chris, I had a go at videoing the kingfisher instead. I took several short video clips, so here’s just a selection of our beautiful bird in action. (the clicking noises on some of the videos are the sound of camera shutters frantically going in the hide!)

Kingfisher
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Kingfisher

The hide was so close to the kingfisher we got stunning views for the couple of hours we spent there. It was so much better than either of us had dared to hope. Kingfishers must be one of the most sought after subjects for any British wildlife enthusiast and to have spent 2 hours watching one like this was a dream come true.