Thursday, 26 March 2020

Birdsong during lockdown

Yesterday Sue and I went for a cycle ride,  for our daily exercise as encouraged by the government. It was a beautiful day and we were able to hear lots of birdsong. The first things we heard has turned onto the main road from our house were a Robin singing, quickly followed by a Blackbird alarm calling, a singing Dunnock and two Chiff-Chaffs, one on either side of the road. The Chiff-Chaff sings its name .... repeatedly ... chiffchaffchifffchaffchiffchaff etc. This is a small greenish yellow warbler which used to be exclusively a spring and summer visitor to this country but now winters here in small numbers (the bulk of the population still migrates to sunnier southern climes in the winter).
Further along our route, but still in built up suburbs of Middlesbrough, we heard a male Chaffinch doing his imitation of a fast bowler, a Greenfinch wheezing his simple song, a Woodpigeon telling his woes to his wife (“my toe bleeds, Betty”) and a Magpie with its rattling call. Up to this point we had hardly actually seen any birds apart from a sadly deceased Herring Gull on the road (it was a very small residential road so the driver must have really been trying), but then we saw a couple of Blackbirds picking up little bits of food from the middle of the road. 
As we got off roads and onto cycle tracks among golf courses and playing fields we heard Wrens, Great Tits, Blue Tits and more of the same species that we had already heard. We also saw our first Jackdaws and Carrion Crows, looking for worms, beetles and other tasty morsels on the playing fields. After a while we got into proper countryside and the lovely village of Stainton, where there was a pair of Long-tailed Tits in a bush in someone’s front garden (cute, fluffy little balls of feathers with a long thin tail sticking out) and a Goldfinch singing his scratchy, bubbly, joyful song from the top of a tall tree. Just after the village we decided to turn around in a little lay-by by a field and as we stopped we heard the beautiful heavenly sound of a Skylark song, high in the air above our heads. After searching for a few minutes we were able to see it, like a miniature kite which had lost its string. Then it was time to turn and head home. 

Monday, 16 March 2020

Woodland wildflowers

On Saturday afternoon I went on a plant hunt for an uncommon species that was reported several years ago along one of the becks in Middlesbrough (Linguistic Note - 'beck' is a word of Viking origin used for a stream or brook in much of the north of England). The plant I was looking for was Coralroot (Cardamine bulbifera) and this is one of very few sites in the north-east of England where it has been recorded. I was armed with a handy app on my phone to find grid references on the ground, plus an eight-figure grid reference for where it was found, which theoretically should take me to the 10x10m square that it was found in, assuming the GPS used by the original finder was accurate. 

Coralroot, also known as Coralroot Bittercress, is a close relative of the bittercresses which you might have as weeds in your garden, and also the pretty meadow flower known variously as Lady's Smock, Cuckooflower and Milkmaids. Unlike those species however, Coralroot is a plant of calcareous woodland and in the UK is mostly restricted to well-known sites in the south-east of England. It has delicate pink flowers on tall slender stalks and flowers for quite a brief period in early spring. 

My walk was mainly on a path through a narrow corridor of woodland along the beck, although I did scramble across the stream a couple of times and found some promising little ponds where I found Glaucous Sedge (Carex flacca) and a little bit of Common Reed (Phragmites australis) - not enough to qualify as a reedbed though. It is still quite early in the spring but nevertheless there was plenty to look at - mostly on the woodland floor. Although when people talk of woods, you might think of trees first, the thing which often distinguishes one area of woodland from another, and which tells you how healthy the woodland is (and maybe how old it is, or which part of the country it is in), is the ground flora. When woods are cut down or otherwise degraded, it is relatively easy to replant trees, but this doesn't replace what has been lost, particularly if the woodland was a real 'ancient woodland' with its suite of Ancient Woodland Indicator species (AWIs). To be honest, I didn't expect much from this particular bit of woodland (one old record of Coralroot notwithstanding), and so I was pleasantly surprised to see carpets of Dog's Mercury, with its little green flowers and Red Campion, mostly not yet in flower, interspersed with lots of Cuckoo-pint. 
Dog's Mercury (Mercurialis perennis)
The only flower of Red Campion
(Silene dioica) that I found

The leaves of Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) (aka Lords and Ladies,  Jack in the Pulpit,
Adam and Eve, Friar's Cowl and many other (often fairly lewd) names). Later in the spring its
distinctive flowers (a brown spike and leaf-like green sheath) may give a clue to the origin of
some of the names. In the autumn it looks different again, with its spike of bright red berries
There were scattered patches of several other native woodland species - Primroses, the carnation-like leaves of Greater Stitchwort, the deep purple 'bunny-eared' flowers of Early Dog-violet (told from the closely related Common Dog-violet by the shape and colour of the spur at the back of the flower), a few  bluebells (probably mostly hybrids between the native species and Spanish Bluebell, although one clump with very narrow leaves (but no flowers yet) looked promising) and one patch of Woodruff sticking up its fresh new shoots amongst a few sad-looking stems from last year - later in the spring there will be clouds of tiny white sweet-smelling flowers (hence the common name 'Sweet Woodruff' and the scientific name Galium odoratum). 

Primroses with a few Early Dog-violets sneaking
into the picture. The leaves at the
bottom are Red Campion
Early Dog-violets. On a couple of the flowers
you can just see the spur, which is straight
and darker than the petals.
The scientific name, Viola reichenbachiana
always makes me think of Sherlock Holmes


The thin carnation-like leaves of
Greater Stitchwort (Stellaria holostea)
  
The fresh green whorls of Woodruff
           leaves poking through the dead leaves from last year

Not unexpectedly, given the earliness of the date, not many species were in flower, but you might be surprised at how many plants can be identified from their leaves alone and how pretty those leaves can be - as well as some of the species mentioned already, Herb Robert (a pink-flowered relative of the geraniums you might have in flower pots), Wood Avens (a relative of roses with small yellow flowers) and Cow Parsley (from the carrot family) fit into this category. 

Herb Robert leaves
(Geranium robertianum)
Wood Avens (Geum urbanum) leaves. It is also
called Herb Bennet - I don't know why


Cow Parsley aka Queen Anne's Lace
(Anthriscus sylvestris). 
     

Although it was early for most things, it was actually almost too late for some - notably Snowdrops and Lesser Celandine, both of which have been flowering pretty much since New Year's Day this year.

          
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)
Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna)

Along the sides of the beck were many clumps of a plant which you might recognise as 'that thing that I can't get rid of from my garden and which cut my hands to shreds when I tried to get it out' - Pendulous Sedge (Carex pendula). There were also a few patches of the much smaller (and scarcer) little yellowish flowers of Opposite-leaved Golden-Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium) - both its names perhaps seem deserving of a bigger, more showy plant but I still really like it. Its even scarcer relative Alternate-leaved Golden-Saxifrage (Chrysosplenium alternifolium - Really!!! Who names these things??!!!) is found in similar stream-side habitats in some woods locally but I haven't managed to track it down yet.

The broad pleated leaves of Pendulous Sedge.
The drooping inflorescences that give it its
name will appear in the summer
The inconspicuous flowers of Opposite-
leaved Golden Saxifrage can be found along
muddy stream banks in woodland. The spot where
 these are was underwater a couple of weeks ago
As well as plants there were a few birds - Robins, Wrens and Chaffinches all singing to attract mates and ward off rival males, a glimpse of the white rump of a Bullfinch flying away from me and the sharp 'chik' call of a Great-spotted Woodpecker. Also, a small grey bird flying away along the beck as I arrived may well have been a Grey Wagtail (see The Making of a Pond and an Unexpected Visitor and More about Grey Wagtails for more about this species).

Oh and I almost forgot to say - I didn't find the Coralroot, although I think I may have found the area where it was - near where the Greater Stitchwort, the Early Dog Violets and the promising-looking bluebells were. It may well have died out (there's a strong chance that it originated as a garden-escape/throwout anyway) but judging from my previous experience of this species it might have been there all along, hiding from me (and possibly laughing at me).

Nevertheless, even though my hunt was unsuccessful by one way of looking at it, it was very successful from another point of view as I found a lovely strip of beck-side woodland and I am really looking forward to going back there later in the season and seeing what other treasures it holds.

Thanks to my father-in-law, Brian Eden for help with photo-editing.
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Friday, 7 February 2020

Remembering the Bird Pub

For two years in the late 1990’s (when I was in my late 20’s) I lived in Poole, in Dorset, on the south coast of England, having moved there from Manchester. Although I was working as a nurse in the local hospital, my real reason for moving to Poole was so that I could do as much birding as possible in a part of the country which I knew had some great birding hotspots and lots of birders.

One evening a week, for almost the whole time I lived there, I headed down to the Blue Boar pub in the town centre, to meet up with a group of other birdwatchers to talk about birds - what birds they’d seen that week, what rarities might be around, what trips they had planned, tricky questions about bird ID, bird-ringing, conservation etc. etc. Numbers varied although it was hardly ever less than about ten people, and sometimes much more. To a non-birder it probably sounds really geeky and a bit boring but to me it was something I looked forward to every week. It was the first time in my life that I had had friends who were interested in birds - and I don’t mean just vaguely interested, in a ‘feed the birds, know what a Chaffinch is’ kind of way. These were SERIOUS birders, some of them with  British lists more than twice as long as mine was at the time, and who spent nearly all their spare time birding. The group was very varied and included RSPB employees (as you might expect), a teacher, a golf-course groundskeeper, a trading standards officer, a bank manager who was also an extremely talented bird artist, a hospital microbiologist with a world bird list approaching 5000 (it’s over 8000 now I believe), the co-founder and CEO of a now global cosmetics chain based in Poole (30 seconds on Google should tell you who this was) and several young birders who, like me, had relocated to Poole specifically for the birding. Some of the other people  (unlike me) might actually have passed as 'cool' to a casual observer in the street. I finally knew that if I was weird and a bit boring, it wasn't because I was a birder (😏).

Quite a few of us were fairly committed twitchers/listers (i.e. birders who chase around the place following reports of rare birds to add them to their lists) and some of them even had special bird-pagers (cutting edge technology at the time) to alert them immediately when a rare bird was found anywhere nearby. For those without pagers (e.g. me) there was Birdline Southwest (which I discovered you could listen to for about 10 seconds, free, on a pay-phone before it cut off - enough to get the headlines and decide whether it was worth putting some money in). I became skilled at cadging lifts with those twitchers that had cars and managed to add 58 species to my British list in 1997. I also regularly ventured along the coast to Weymouth and Portland for potential lifers, and I would frequently bump into others from the Poole bird pub group while I was there.

However, many people in the group were very committed to encouraging local birding in and around Poole Harbour. We had an annual competition, the Poole Harbour Birding League (or something like that) in which you got points for each species you saw in the area. Scarcer birds got more points and you got bonuses for lifers and for rarities you found yourself. A ‘telephone-loop’ ensured that all local bird news got to everyone who wanted to know - if you found a rarity or interesting bird you phoned the people on either side of you on the loop and told them. They then passed the news on to the next person in the chain until everyone knew about it. Within a few years of me leaving, this was superseded by mobile phones and the internet, but it worked well at the time.

Although we birded the whole of Poole Harbour (a large natural inlet made out of many bays and islands), there was one particular area, Lytchett Bay, which we had a special interest in and members of the group used to go there frequently to record all the birds, including roosting waders and many other species of wetland birds. It was all privately owned and we had to go along the side of a sewage farm to get to the water’s edge, and then record what we had seen in a notebook, which was kept in a water-proof box hidden behind a garden wall (the owners were friendly). In 2013, after years of faithful work documenting its importance by local birders, the area became an RSPB reserve (RSPB Lytchett Fields), and is now acknowledged as one of the most important wetland sites in Dorset, but at the time it seemed like a secret site that no-one else knew or cared about.

As well as the weekly pub meet-up there were occasionally other social events such as quizzes, guest speakers, bird races (teams have 24 hours to see as many bird species as possible in a certain geographical area) and trips further afield (the Isles of Scilly (a major rarity hotspot every October) and a three-day mini-cruise to northern Spain (literally thousands of shearwaters, petrels and other seabirds in the Bay of Biscay) being two that I particularly remember).

Since then, I have been lucky enough to be able to travel all over the world working for and with birds and I have made many more friends who are as nuts about birds as I am, but I've never found anything quite like that group in the pub in Poole. I've heard that the weekly bird-pubs don't happen any more in Poole. Several of the people involved are still there, working hard for the protection of the harbour's birds and habitats, while others have moved away (at least one has had an even more globe-trotting life than me, working as a guide for a specialist bird-tour company). 

I would really love to be able to do something similar in Middlesbrough, where I live now. However I think maybe that particular time and place (which I was able to dip into for a brief period) was something unique, partly because of the people who were there and the very special part of the country we were in. Having said that, Teesside and the areas around (Hartlepool Headland, the North Yorkshire moors and coast for example) are also amazing for birding and there are hundreds of birders here, so if any of you are out there reading this and want to try and replicate something like the Poole Bird Pub (or are already doing it), give me a bell and save me a seat. Mine's pint of IPA.

Thank you Terrry, Shaun, Mark, James, Steve, Ian, Ewan, Nick, Nick and Jackie, Nigel, Roger, Robin, Mike, Chris, the other Ian, Stan,  Andy, Tony and many more whose names I've forgotten, for taking a shy, rather awkward and inexperienced birder under your collective wings and letting me be part of your cool birding group.