Crossbill corner

On 12 January I returned to my tetrad for the River Thame Conservation Trust survey; I am required to make two visits between November and February.  It was a grey morning and I had no expectations.  But I had two good experiences.

On the day of my last visit, 11 November 2018, I reported to Buckinghamshire County Council that Stokenchurch footpath 86 was not marked out over the field as required by law.

3 not reinstated

Unrestored footpath 86 goes diagonally across the field, 11 November 2018

Now it has now been sprayed and is clearly visible across the field.

stc fp86 marked out after my complaint

The second good thing was that I saw a female crossbill.  She was on the top of a fir tree outside the house which is on the bend of the road down Kingston Hill from the A40 (grid reference SU745973).

Prominent beak
The light was poor and I couldn’t see the crossed bill, but the bird had a prominent beak and so crossbill was my obvious conclusion.  I hadn’t seen a crossbill since 7 February 2010 when I was doing the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) bird atlas survey in Cowleaze Wood, so this was a rare treat for me.

crossbill

Crossbill

It was also a treat for the River Thame Conservation Trust.  Nick Marriner, who coordinates its bird surveys, got in touch when he saw my entry on the BTO website.  It was a first for this project, and when I sent him the photo (above) he confirmed it as a crossbill.

As I walked back to Stokenchurch along the A40 I looked over the fields to where the crossbill was and could see the coniferous wood behind, into which it flew.

crossbill tree marked in red

Crossbill tree is in the group in the red circle

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There’s always something on Otmoor

An early visit to Otmoor, the RSPB reserve in Oxfordshire, always boosts my year’s species count and so on 6 Jan I ventured forth.  Before my visit I had seen 41 species this year, now that figure has gone up to 54—despite it being a quiet day with not much bird activity.  And I could not have predicted that I would see my first water rail for nearly a decade.

I was accompanied by the chuntering of fieldfares for the first part of the walk.  The colours of the landscape were muted browns and greys, the shapes of the trees standing out.

1x willow

Willow tree

Near the hide I saw my first yellowhammer of the year on the top of a bush.

2x yellowhammer

Yellowhammer

There was a lot of chattering in the beautifully-shaped tree where linnets gather.

3x linnet tree

Linnet tree

There wasn’t much going on at the hide, so I walked to the screens.  At the second screen there was only a tufted duck on the lake but a marsh harrier flew up as I arrived.  Beyond there was a tree with red kites and at one point they mobbed the harrier.

5x 2nd screen and kite tree

The tree with the kites is just visible above the reeds

Back at the first screen, helped by another bird watcher, I saw two male and two female pintails.  I hadn’t seen one since 2016.  I also heard the call of a water rail.

6x 1st screen, pintails

Pintails in middle distance

I returned to the hide where someone had thrown down seeds.  The linnets had moved in a great flock from their tree to the ground; here they pecked and fluttered like falling leaves.  They were joined by chaffinches, goldfinches, yellowhammer and reed buntings.

7x linnets feeding on ground

Linnets and others feeding, they look like fallen leaves

From the hide I was lucky to catch a glimpse of a water rail, also enjoying the seed on the path, though it quickly scuttled away.  I have only once before seen a water rail, fleetingly in Lincolnshire in February 2010.

8x where water rail was

The track on the left is where the water rail was feeding

So all in all, it was a very satisfactory visit.

 

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Listening to silence

On the last day of 2018 I walked with my visually-impaired friend, Marika Kovacs, from Burford in Oxfordshire, in the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.   I used to do this walk with my partner Chris when he lived in Burford as editor of The Countryman magazine.

We set off eastwards along the River Windrush towards Widford.  It’s a peaceful path over the fields.  Soon we came to a ‘stile’ which was dangerous even for those who are not visually impaired: the barbed wire strung round the posts is plain nasty and the structure in no way conforms with the British Standard.  This route is popular with families.

Stile at 26350 11440

Obstructive stile with barbed wire

A bit further, on the boundary of Burford and Winbrook and Widford parishes, we came upon another awkward structure with a broken step.

Stile on Burford-Widford boundary

Stile on the Burford-Swinbrook boundary

Here a sign proclaims that the farmer receives a grant from Defra for managing the land under the Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme, so it is particularly poor that the stile should be in such a state.  I trust that, under the forthcoming agricultural-grant scheme, farmers will be required firstly to remove any unnecessary structures and secondly to ensure that any essential structures are in good order.

6 Sign at GR269114

We came to the tiny mediaeval church of St Oswald at Widford, with its exquisite wall- paintings.  Widford was a small enclave of Gloucestershire until 1844 and Pevsner says that the church is ‘unspoiled and unsophisticated’.   He also says that to the west are the clear remains of the earthworks of a deserted mediaeval village, although I didn’t think they were all that visible.

7 Widford church

Widford church

Then we walked up Dean Bottom, coming to yet another obstructive stile.

Stile Dean Bottom

‘Stile’ in Dean Bottom

I have reported all three stiles to Oxfordshire County Council.

We reached the lane at the top of the valley and took the restricted byway towards Paynes Farm, turning onto a footpath which was slightly further but proved to be a worthwhile diversion.  For if we had not gone this way we would have missed the little copse at Handley Plain.  As we walked through we heard long-tailed tits and so we stopped to listen.  We were rewarded with a whole host of chirruping birds—blue, great and marsh tits, goldfinch, nuthatch, robin and blackbird, with a buzzard calling overhead and two red kites in view.  We stood there for some time listening.

11 copse at Handley Plain

Marika listens to birds in the copse at Handley Plain

Then we continued to Paynes Farm and took the footpath first north-west and then south-west across the fields to Fulbrook.  We sat in the churchyard for a bit and then went into the church.  It has a Norman door.

17 Fulbrook church

Norman south door of Fulbrook church

‘Shut the door,’ said Marika, so I did.  She knew that it would be silent in there and indeed it was, the thick walls screening any sound.  Again, we stood listening to the rare silence.  I hear so much more when I am with Marika

16 Fulbrook church

The silent Fulbrook church

We walked the last lap to Burford on a footpath alongside fields and then on the road, with a great view of the church spire over the meadows.  A lovely way to end the year.

21 Burford from road from Fulbrook

Burford from the A361 south of Fulbrook

 

 

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Prestwood in winter

Since 2007 I have been visiting Peterley Wood and the adjoining farmland at Prestwood in Bucks to carry out my breeding bird survey for the British Trust for Ornithology.  So it was strange to return there in winter, to walk the same route for the farmland-bird survey.  I explained this survey when I described my Stokenchurch walk here.

It was a grey, misty day with nothing to commend it except it wasn’t raining.  The woods were drab and muddy.  Normally, when I start at 6am in spring the woods are alive with birdsong.  Today they were quiet except for some tits, chaffinches and a goldcrest.

1 section 1

The road through the village was far busier than it is when I come soon after dawn.  The Polecat Inn is much changed.

3 section 3

Polecat Inn undergoing refurbishment

The little meadow behind the pub, where I have seen mallard and moorhen, was a building site.  But there were three redwings in the bushes to the right of the path.

4 section 3

Building site

I crossed the meadows, again very different.  Whereas in summer the grass can be long and damp now it was short and devoid of cattle.

8 section 4

Looking west towards Bryants Bottom

At the start of the second transect I normally see a yellowhammer, but I scanned the hedge in vain.  However to compensate, in the far distance there were fieldfares in the trees.

9 section 6

Where the yellowhammers ofter are

An ash tree had fallen in the parkland.  Wrens were calling from a bramble patch in the centre of the park.

10 section 6

As I entered woods again I found evidence of a sparrowhawk’s work.

13 section 8

Sparrowhawk evidence

A great tit was singing ridiculously early but otherwise it was mainly robins and blackbirds, with three jays having an argument in the trees.

I shall return in January, February and March to repeat this survey.  Then it will be springtime and I’ll be up at dawn for the breeding bird survey—and the wood will be noisy once more

16 section 9

Peterley Wood

 

 

 

 

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Fifty years of diary-keeping

From fifty years ago today, 2 January 1969, I have kept a daily diary.   There is an entry, however short, for every day since then.

50 years

Fifty years of diaries: 1969-2018

For the first ten years I used the World Wildlife Fund’s diary; I was a member of the WWF’s Wildlife Youth Service.

Then for five years Mum passed me her unwanted diary from AA Fisher, the grocery store in Gerrards Cross which is now Fisher Butchers.

Assortment
After that there is an odd assortment.  The Country Gentlemen’s diary (Dad was a member of the Country Gentlemen’s Association (CGA)) features three times: I used the 1981 edition in 1987 and the 1979 one in 1990—the days and dates were the same for both years; I had to amend the 1974 one for use in 1994.  I was given two copies of the Dartmoor Diary for 1991 (published by the Dartmoor National Park authority to celebrate the park’s 40th anniversary) and, rather than waste the second one, I amended all the dates so as to use it in 1992.

Dartmoor diary

The 1993 diary was an amended version of the 1982 diary, etchings of the Norwich School, produced by Norwich Union Insurance (I was working for Noble Lowndes insurance in Exeter at the time); the days and dates were the same so the transformation was simple.  Ditto for the conversion of the 1980 NEL diary (National Employers’ Life Assurance, also obtained from Noble Lowndes) to 1988—both were leap years.

After 1994 the diaries were provided by the bank and then I moved boringly to WH Smith’s diaries from 2002, a day to a page so at least my writing didn’t have to be too small.  I cannot say that they are all legible now, I struggle to read my handwriting!

Since the 1980s I have kept a list of nature notes and books read at the back of each.  The birds seen greatly outnumber the books read.

The first diary
And so to the first diary, 1969, and the entry for 50 years’ ago today, 2 January 1969 (I don’t know why new year’s day is blank).  Not very informative I’m afraid: ‘Went to Sabine’s.  Rode Weeks’ pony with Veronica, then Firecracker’ (Sabine was a friend in Denham Village, and Firecracker was a skewbald pony which was residing temporarily in our meadow at Denham).  At the time of this diary I was in my second year at boarding school, and the news is mostly brief and not very stimulating, with schoolgirl slang and abbreviations.

1969 diary

1969 diary

It is possible that I was inspired in this by my friend Sally Forster.  In 1966 she gave me a diary with a poem she had written.  I have recorded this on a previous blog but it is such a good poem that I repeat it here.  I used that diary as she suggested, to record odd notes rather than my daily activities.

These things I must remember e’er they fade.
Distorted by the passing rush of time,
These things I must record and have arrayed
For future use in either prose or rhyme.
These things are not the chores of day by day,
All jotted down with nought of any note,
But sights that I have seen along the way
And dreams I’ve dreamed that had me by the throat,
That made me laugh or made we want to cry,
These fleeting things set down in black and white
Must all be re-discovered by and by
And used relentlessly if I would write.
These things experienced become my own
For they are part me—and mine alone.

References
Despite the lack of an index, I find my diaries invaluable references as I can look up what I was doing on every day of my life since 2 January 1969.  But they are solipsistic and say little about what was happening in the world so are unlikely to be of interest to anyone but me.

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My bird year 2018

Considering I haven’t been to that many places, I am pleased with my total of 112 species seen and a further three heard this year.  Those heard but not seen were nightjar, garden warbler and grasshopper warbler.

It seemed to be the year of the wood warbler, a joyous thing for me as I love that whirring high in the trees.  I saw them first at Gregynog in Powys in April when I was there for the Ramblers’ Welsh Council.

Gregynog

Gregynog

Then I saw them again in my traditional spot of White Wood on Dartmoor in May,

White Wood

White Wood, Dartmoor

and heard them during the Big Welsh Walk in June in Coed Cwmnewydion-uchaf wood near Devil’s Bridge in Ceredigion.

12 Coed Cwmnewydion-uchaf

Coed Cwmnewydion-uchaf: Marika Kovacs and Gywn Lewis

Early the next morning I heard them once again in Coed Rheidol, with my visually-impaired friend Marika Kovacs.

22 Marika in Coed Rheidol

Marika Kovacs listens to birds in Coed Rheidol

On my way to Devil’s Bridge I stayed with Peter and Elizabeth Newman in Dolau, near Penybont in Powys, and saw my only siskins of the year in their garden.

A first-timer for me this year was a goldeneye at Little Marlow gravel pit in March.

Where the goldeneye were

View across the lake at Little Marlow to where the goldeneye were (in the middle but not visible)

At Otmoor in November I had my third-ever sighting of a bittern.

small 8 2nd hide

At Otmoor where the bittern was lurking. A marsh harrier was on the red-coloured bush

On 27 May I took an early walk up Tavy Cleave on Dartmoor with my friend Hil Marshall and we saw ring ouzels and whinchat.  Later that day I had a fleeting glimpse of a pied flycatcher and a female redstart.

Tavy Cleave

Tavy Cleave

I did better with redstarts on a walk on the River Lyd on west Dartmoor, with Hil and my sister Sue, in June.

2 where redstarts were

Where the redstarts were on the River Lyd

I saw my only peregrine of the year unexpectedly as I was crossing the Solent, having visited the Isle of Wight Ramblers for their 50th anniversary in June.

9 peregrine spot

Peregrine in Lymington Harbour (not visible)

I was pleased to get a flashing glimpse of a kingfisher on the Thames near Shillingford in August,

Kingfisher spot

Kingfisher spot on the Thames near Shillingford

a knot at Little Marlow in May, and turnstones on the pier at Cromer in October.

Turnstone 2

Turnstone at Cromer

The meadow pipit near Stokenchurch in December polished off a satisfactory birding year.

15 meadow pipit sec 10 small

Meadow pipit near Stokenchurch in Bucks

But on the very last day of the year, when I was once again walking with Marika, I had a happy discovery of a copse at Handley Plain, near Swinbrook in west Oxfordshire.  We paused to listen and gradually the birds around us increased, so that we heard blue tits, great tits, long-tailed tits, marsh tits, goldfinch, nuthatch, robin, blackbird and buzzard.  A little way off two red kites were wheeling.  If we hadn’t stopped we would have missed this lovely winter chorus.

11 copse at Handley Plain

Marika in the copse at Handley Plain

Happy new year everyone, and happy birding.

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Cromer’s crabsters

Cromer in north Norfolk, which hosted the Walkers Are Welcome towns annual get-together last October, has a proud fishing industry.  Cromer crab and lobster are great delicacies.  As I walked around the town in the interstices of the conference, I was struck by the rich fishing-heritage.

19 Heritage trail

Heritage trail

I also witnessed a fishing boat being launched by a tractor.

17 fishing boat

Launched by a tractor

The life of crab and lobster fishermen is tough, they work long hours during the season with a 3 am start.  The costs of the licence and the boat are considerable and it is a hard life.  It’s not surprising that there are far fewer fishermen nowadays.

Eighth generation
An article in the North Norfolk News last August quotes John Lee, eighth-generation fisherman who has been fishing for 40 years.  He says that when he started work there were almost 50 crab fishermen in Cromer, now there are only ten regulars.  The catch is affected by long winters such as the last one, and is at the mercy of sea temperature: a drop in temperature causes the crabs to become sedentary on the sea bed.

It is amazing that, with a 90-100 hour working week during the season, John Lee finds time to be a North Norfolk District Councillor.  He came to our get-together to welcome us.

18 John Lee

North Norfolk District Councillor John Lee addresses our get together

Later I passed his shop.

20 sign

John Lee’s crabs

The chalk beds off the Cromer coast make it an especially good habitat for crustaceans.  The beds are protected as a recently-designated Marine Conservation Zone.  They comprise one of the longest chalk reefs in the world.

Walking destination
It was a memorable visit with much more to learn than there was time for.  With a declining fishing industry the town is sensibly promoting itself as a walking destination with a fascinating heritage, geology and natural history to discover.

WAW memorabilia

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