Saturday, 1 February 2014

Thunder crashes, lightning flashes,

and secretly a Blackcap sings . . .

At last January has ended, disturbingly warm for mid-winter, with record rain levels, gales, thunder, lightning, even hail, a truly tempestuous start to the New Year.  Difficult to remember, but during the mayhem there were days when all was calm . . .

NEWBRIDGE     January 11th, bright, cold.

A walk through the wood as the morning progesses,  a single wintering Coot chugs by on the canal opposite the Double Pennant wharf as a pair of Stock Dove fly in to perch high up, wing-flapping in an exaggerated slow-motion display over their nest site.  A single Buzzard circles against the bright light, turning slowly and slanting away to show its dark underwing patches, eventually floating off towards Stockwell End, possibly one the valley's nesting birds already responding to the warm weather.  Soon pairs will be reinforcing control of their breeding grounds, driving away last year's progeny and defending territories against adult interlopers.  Bushes above the feeding station at Newbridge canal wharf produce a female Bullfinch, a male Greenfinch, a Goldfinch and a female Chaffinch, but no sign of Brambling.  They're thin on the ground this winter.
As dusk descends there's a slim brown shape on the garden fatball holder, a female Blackcap sneeking a last feed before roost time.  She's seen again at the same time next day, following another appearance in the morning by a male of her species, a bird first seen on 6th and still visiting at the end of the month, using the birdbath on 18th.  Regular garden visitors throughout January include two Coal Tit, at least three Woodpigeon and a pair of Robins, the male flying frantically back and fore as he tries to drive away two Dunnock and at least 15 House Sparrow.  Sheer weight of numbers eventually prevails in a piece of pantomime repeated daily. The redbreast, it seems, never learns.
NEWBRIDGE     January 15th, dull, damp, calm.
Across the field the wood stands cold against a grey sky, the winds have lifted, the rain has stopped. Low over the trees a familiar shape emerges from the gloom, small head, long-tailed, broad-winged, flying up over the canal before circling, barred wings spread and tail fanned, dropping into a shallow dive towards the trees before rising, the slow, laboured wingflaps a token of territorial possession to other females and a contact signal to any male that may be watching. The female Sparrowhawk is back.
NEWBRIDGE     January 22nd, dull, calm, cold.
A walk round to the corner shop, everything's quiet, back towards home, paper under arm.  A sharp "tac tac" from a corner garden privet, so  stop, silence, but the bird won't call again.  Give it a minute, turn the corner and, wait, there's the faintest of sounds, a soft chuntering warble, the pattern and pitch of notes the same as in those subdued songs heard in bushes and ivy-covered trees along the Smestow Valley on quiet, sunny mornings in March.  Still can't see the singer, no bins on me, so let's confirm this if we can by resorting to the twitcher's "schup, schup, schup" inticement call.  Yes, in under a minute a slim grey shape comes out to the edge of the bush, a male Blackcap, very likely my garden visitor, pecking at the leaf stems and then flying off in the general direction of my house. The bird, the only Blackcap I've ever heard singing in mid-winter, will almost certainly be one of thousands of his species which now come in ever increasing numbers to lowland areas of the UK in winter from Central Europe, appearing after our breeding Blackcaps have left for southern Europe and Africa.  The incomers eat berries and other natural foods, but also visit garden birdtables, particularly in harsh weather.  It is estimated that 90 per cent of Central European breeding Blackcaps migrate to Spain and north west Africa, with the rest finding a winter home with us.  There is now even a theory that the physical characteristics of the UK wintering birds are slowly changing, so that their wings are becoming more rounded because of shorter migration flights, and their bills are becoming longer and narrower due to a fat and seed diet provided by humans.  Evolution before your very eyes.
DUNSTALL PARK    January 30th,  cold, easterly wind, snow flurries.  
A quick visit to the lake before the bad weather closes in reveals three Grey Heron by the shoreline, a single Snipe motionless at the base of the island, at least 12 Coot starting to defend territories, and  a Mute Swan pair gliding out to preen and feed.  Duck numbers have increased, with at least 12 Teal, two Mallard pairs, seven male and two female Shoveler, five male and five female Tufted Duck and a pair of Gadwall present.  One of four large gulls moving northwards over Stockwell End turns out to be an adult Great Black-backed Gull, flying with two of its Lesser Black-backed relatives and an adult Herring Gull.  This powerful species is not often seen along the valley, so a good bird to report as the month ends.
NB  Dunstall Park is a commercial restricted site.  Access is strictly controlled.   


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