Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Waxie's Dargle! Part 2. 1st February 2019


I'll have a pint with you Sir!

Since the snow and freezing pipes had meant that I was relieved from work, Mrs Caley and I were in town buying some bird food for the garden feeders when I received a message via Birdguides that 4 Waxwings were still being seen next to a church in Northchurch just the other side of Aylesbury and only a 45 minute drive from home. No brainer then!

A Waxwing fix is essential for any birder in the winter period, some years they are easy to catch up with but in others are difficult for Southern based folk like ourselves. They are predominately a Northern European species that are prone to "irruptions" when the berry crop, their favourite winter food fails on the continent, and when it does there will be thousands in the UK and they spread far and wide throughout the country in search of sustenance. In good "Waxwing years" we've seen them in our home town itself and have had them just a few hundred yards away from our house but not yet in the garden, hence me planting half a dozen Rowan trees (the source of their most favoured berries) in an effort to entice them in. Last winter, numbers were low and we had to wait until the start of March to finally see some and that was in Elgin up in Scotland! This winter Waxwings had been present in the UK early in the period but not in any massive numbers but we had been waiting expectantly for some to our area. On January the 13th we had failed to connect with one that had been frequenting a Supermarket car park in Aylesbury so these 4 in Northchurch were an opportunity not to be missed.

There was less snow in Buckinghamshire than at home but it was still pretty cold. The drive east had been on almost empty roads, obviously most people had been put off going out because of the weather and had stayed at home. Arriving into Northchurch just after midday and driving up to the designated spot near a church I noticed some birders stood by the side of the road next to a canal bridge. Luckily there was a parking spot right next to them but as I parked the car I noticed that they were all chatting rather than looking at anything which is usually a bad sign since invariably it means that there is nothing to see! However before I'd even got the seat belt off I spotted a Waxwing perched in a Hawthorn tree just across the road. Before Mrs Caley had taken her seat belt off, I was already taking photos!

All 4 of the Waxwings, or as I affectionately call them Waxies and hence the title of this piece, were in the Hawthorn tree, an unusual setting for the species I thought since they are normally encountered in Rowans or other berry bearing trees and bushes. It soon became apparent that they were feeding on Rose Hips the fruit of the wild Rose that was intertwined in the tree. Rose Hips are a big fruit for a Waxwing to consume and they appeared to be having some trouble in swallowing such a huge meal but with perseverance were managing to do just that. 

Such large meals were probably accounting for the fact that these were the most inactive group of Waxwings that I've seen, for the most part they just sat in the tree doing very little except for preening. Normally Waxies chose trees with much smaller berries and often have to perform acrobatics in order to reach the juiciest fruits at the end of spindly branches. For the Rose Hips they merely had to contend with negotiating a path through the tangle of the Hawthorn. Also you most often see Waxwings fly up to a high tree or a TV aerial to overview their feeding tree, and then descend to quickly grab a few berries when it's safe before returning when disturbed back to the loftier perch, these birds did none of that! But the inactivity did make for excellent photography despite the sleet, snow and heavy skies adding to the challenge.

Of course all those berries going in results in a fair bit of waste being produced. When editing the photos I noticed that I'd captured the exact moment that a bird had lightened its own load. From the looks of it they don't seem to get too much out of a Rose Hip since the excreted matter just looked like a streamlined berry! No wonder Waxwings have to eat so many.

Fortunately for the Waxwings there were other berries on offer with smaller Hawthorn fruits also taken. But they were harder to reach and the Waxies had to stretch right out occasionally to grab these but still had the stability of the thick branches to steady themselves on.

We were then treated to a behaviour that we'd never seen before, that of "berry sharing". An adult Waxwing, there were two adults and two first year birds in the group, procured a berry then very tenderly offered it to one of the younger birds. The berry was gratefully received by the juvenile that then seemed to hold the prize aloft as if it had won a trophy! The adult bird carried a look of puzzlement that the other should find it so rewarding. Waxwings do have that penchant of looking comical. I'm not sure why they were sharing berries, we saw the procedure repeated several times, but imagine that it must be a pair bonding ritual or act of affection (my budgies at home also share food with their own mates).

Despite the Hawthorn tree being right beside the road and in fact overhanging a footpath the birds didn't shift either for passing cars or for pedestrians walking by. Indeed even when curious locals, wondering what we were doing and looking at, peered into the tree directly underneath the birds they remained comfortable and unmoved in the branches. Neither were the Waxwings bothered by the likes of me taking photo after photo of them. I took over 600 shots in just 90 minutes, that's about 599 more than my football team manage these days!

There was ample opportunity to grab the most sought after images, those of the Waxwings adjusting and manipulating their berries before eating. I was particularly pleased to find that I'd managed to capture one bird tossing a berry in the air to manoeuvre it into position for swallowing.

Occasionally the Waxwings weren't quite dextrous enough and the spoils were dropped to the floor. This usually resulted in the "butter beaked" bird looking bemusedly at the ground below.

Flight shots were difficult to get, not because the Waxies move too quickly but rather because they hardly moved at all and rarely flew more than a few feet from one part of the Hawthorn to another! Towards the end of the stint though one bird did at least allow some direct flight action to be captured.

As I almost always do when watching Waxwings, the Pogues song "Waxie's Dargle" reverberated over and over through my head and hence my choice of title for this piece. "What'll you have, I'll have a pint!, I'll have a pint with you Sir!, and if one of you doesn't order soon we'll be chucked out of the boozer!"  Waxie's Dargle-The Pogues 

Off for a coffee then!

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Waxie's Dargle! Part 1 February 1st 2019

I'll have a pint! More of that later...

Thursday night brought snow to Oxfordshire and at home we must have had all of almost 3 inches of the stuff. Not quite enough to make getting out to work impossible but enough to make the going tricky. Most of the country had obviously decided to stay in bed and not bother venturing out so the roads were empty and I managed to get to my job with no problems. On arriving though I had neglected to consider one very important fact. It was around minus 7 degrees centigrade overnight and not much warmer as the day broke and as a result all the onsite water pipes were frozen solid. Other than my own willingness, water is the most vital ingredient for doing my work and without it I just can't operate so after almost 10 seconds of deliberation when I pondered the Clash song, "Should I stay or should I go", I went. Home!

Snow makes things hard for us and it makes things just as difficult for our wildlife. When the ground is covered then finding food becomes much harder and many bird species that normally avoid small suburban gardens such as mine are attracted in by feeders and by necessity. In heavy snow we almost always get a few Redwing and Fieldfare in our garden enticed by apples thrown on the ground and by the berries on a bush that actually grows next door but overhangs our fence. They have to compete with the local Blackbirds for the temptations which is tough work for the Redwing but no problem for the bigger and more intimidating Fieldfare. 

As I drank a warming cup of coffee I noticed a Fieldfare perched on top of the berry bush, grabbed the camera and took a few shots through the closed window. Normally quite shy birds this bird was unmoved by me pointing the camera at it so I adventurously opened the window a little so that I could take some clear shots. Thankfully the bird just stared icily (see what I did there?) back at me, seemingly content with the bounty that it had discovered. The snow covered background made for some nice wintery shots and I thought that next years Christmas cards were sorted.

After a short impasse whereby the Fieldfare continued to just gaze around it began feeding, nimbly picking the berries off the bush and dispatching them greedily. The said bush, a Cornubia, is loaded with ripe red berries and the Fieldfare had his pick of many without having to move anywhere. The bird ate maybe a dozen or so then rested for a few minutes before gulping down some more. It did this  eat, rest, eat, rest procedure for another 15 minutes without moving at all except to stretch for the berries!

The Fieldfare reacted to a Red Kite flying low overhead by adopting a Bittern like "Sky Pointing" posture, something I'd not witnessed before. It wasn't too concerned though and soon settled down again. It's interesting that the Fieldfare perceived no real threat from the Red Kite, if it had been a Sparrowhawk then it would surely have dived for cover.

A few more berries later, including some actually harvested from another sprig and the Fieldfare,  plainly sated now, flew off into a tree on the opposite side of my street.

Almost immediately the Fieldfares place in the Cornubia was taken by a trio of Redwings which all began raiding the berry store, albeit much more nervously. One of them found exactly the same perch that the Fieldfare favoured a few minutes before and pecked away at the bunch of berries just like its bigger cousin had. The Redwing also managed that same icy stare!

I watched the Redwing for a few minutes longer, being more active than the Fieldfare they allowed for many different poses in a much shorter space of time including a few where they would reach for berries and stretch their wings for balance.

More potential Christmas card shots followed as one of the Redwing prolonged its stay on the bush and feasted on the small red berries. Without me realising I had been watching and photographing the Thrushes for over an hour!

Once the Fieldfare and Redwings had left I pondered on the chance that the most sought after berry swallowing visitor, the Waxwing, would find the Cornubia at some point during the winter. Long odds maybe but we have had Waxwings just a few streets away twice before so I live in hope! With that expectation Mrs Caley and I decided to head into town for essentials and a coffee.

(continued in part 2)

Friday, 8 February 2019

Yellow River. 27th January 2019

 After the decent days birding in Northamptonshire despite the inclement weather on Saturday, Sunday morning saw us stood in the Cotswold Water Park near Cirencester. It was freezing cold and the wind was whipping across Pit 44, all of the pits here are equally as imaginatively named and distinguished by numbers although the adjacent pits are not 43 or 45 but rather something in the 100's or something, chilling us right to the bone. We had joined another birder or three who were already present, in the search for a small waif of a bird that we normally only see in Cornwall in October. In fact that one that we've only ever seen in the South West before, namely a Yellow-browed Warbler. This particular bird had chosen an area of trees and bushes close to a stream in this part of Gloucestershire just an hour from home. I can't get enough of Yellow-browed Warblers and would quite happily watch them every day so the trip was a no brainer.

As we had walked along the road that ran alongside Pit 44 we had seen a large group of Red-crested Pochards, both male and females. The drakes are looking resplendent in their freshly acquired breeding plumage and much display was going on.

Red-crested Pochard drake
The Yellow-browed Warbler had been seen just ten minutes or so before we arrived in a small tree that was already adorned with catkins so we studied the immediate area around the tree. A fellow watcher gave us the full run down of the birds exact movements and route around the area and then proceeded to look elsewhere 50 yards up the road! I know from experience that birds like the Yellow-browed usually adopt a small area and then systematically move around it in the search for food so it would definitely return to the same spot before too long. When the little sprite flew right over my shoulder from behind me and into the catkin covered tree, there was only myself and Mrs Caley that could see it. By the time the others had reacted to my calls that I had it, the bird had disappeared into a thick bramble bush. They should have stayed in the same place!

Yellow-browed Warbler, Cotswold Water Park 27/01/2019
Mind you the bird was difficult to pin down, as they often are for a photo, and most of my efforts were either blurred or of bits of twigs. It seems my own bad run with the camera was continuing! In my defence though it so bloody cold that I couldn't actually feel any of the buttons and changing settings was slow work. Too slow when trying to chase a quick moving subject like the Yellow-browed. I soon found the bird again moving through the tangle of bushes that bordered another stream that flowed into the one by which we stood. This time I managed to get the other birders on to it and we all enjoyed prolonged views before it disappeared once more.

The Yellow-browed soon returned, this time flying into the catkin tree from the bramble thicket. It rapidly moved through and then spent some time in the trees in the orchard behind showing really well as it hunted insects on the outer branches. Only trouble was it was now too far away for any great photos but at least it was easier to track.

A few moments later the Yellow-browed Warbler was spooked by a Sparrowhawk that flew in rapidly and low through the orchard, making a half-hearted attempt to snare one of the feeding Moorhens In the next hour we never saw the Yellow-browed Warbler again. I studied the Pit over the road once more and counted over 30 Red-crested Pochards and and five Goosanders before we gave in to the cold and headed off to find a local pub and lunch. 

Goosander drake 2nd left
While enjoying a pretty good Sunday roast in a pub in Ashton Keynes I looked through the bird news and noted that the Yellow-browed Warbler, bird number 104 on the year list, had not been seen again next to the Thames since being spooked by the Sparrowhawk (I hadn't put that news out, one of the others must have). I hadn't realised that the fast flowing stream that the Warbler had chosen as its wintering quarters was in fact the mighty River Thames having completely forgotten that the river that flows wide and deep through Oxfordshire springs as a dribble in this part of the world! Yellow River indeed!!!