The appearance of a small, dark stranger.

It all started with a tweet on Easter Sunday.  Apparently there were 24 arctic terns spotted at Daventry Country Park.  I wasn’t convinced, but thought I should maybe pop over and see if I could tell the difference between an arctic and common tern.  By the way, I’m not a twitcher, but if there is a chance to see a new bird at the local country park?  Well, I’d be a fool not to, especially on a bank holiday weekend.  Besides, this means that if nothing else, the common terns were back – if you’ve never seen a common tern close up, gracefully patrolling the shallower water, then you’ve missed out.

However, not willing to admit that I wanted to see if I could see arctic terns that possibly didn’t exist some subterfuge was in order and I suggested a walk but only a quick trip into the country park with my small binoculars to see if the terns had come back.  This worked and we happily sat for ten minutes or so watching the aforementioned common terns wheeling about.  There were other gulls there too, but I was only interested in the terns.   However, something else caught my eye, some of the terns seemed darker, but it could just have been a trick of the light – after all, there was some sun despite it being a bank holiday, and I did only have my little 8 x 24 bins with me.

I thought about them during the rest of our walk, wondered if perhaps they were younger terns or if I was just seeing things.  More information was needed, so I went back later in the afternoon (trying to reduce my exposure to the many families and their dogs off leads that were bound to be there) armed with my telescope and a notebook.

I was right, they were definitely darker, they moved a lot faster too and never stopped.  There were no arctic terns there, but there were a couple of dozen common terns.  These had the good grace to stop once in a while on the tern rafts so I could get a good look at them.  (Arctic terns apparently look like common terns but have no black on their beaks in summer and have longer tail streamers).  The dark strangers didn’t, so I had to resort to note taking, a habit that I need to get into.  (As I read on a completely different subject, about fungi as it happens, you should describe something first, then try and identify it, rather than trying to do it the other way round and therefore potentially miss some important features.)

Anyway, this is what I noted down;

  • darker wings than the common tern, darker below than above.
  • seemed slightly smaller than the common tern
  • white rump and greyish tail
  • lightish under the wing and the grey wings had white edges in flight
  • seemed to be faster than a common tern

Once back home it was time to hit my myriad of books.  There was only one conclusion, I had spotted some black terns, something I didn’t even know existed until Easter Monday.

According to the RSPB handbook of British Birds it is ‘smaller than the common tern’.  The Collins Bird Guide gives this description: ‘typical marsh tern.  In summer body black, under tail white; slate grey upper wing and tail, underwing entirely silver-grey; bill and legs dark red’ (although on this point the RSPB disagree and claim it has a black bill and it definitely looked black to me).  It is a ‘light airy bird that flies with great agility’.  This sounds exactly like the birds I had been watching.  Unfortunately I don’t have a photo, but there are plenty on the web if you want to see this pretty bird.

It is apparently a common passage bird through the UK (which means that you might see it in spring and autumn on its way to somewhere else) and has made a few unsuccessful attempts at breeding in the UK.  I was a little unsure as to whether I had really seen some of these until I noticed someone tweeting that there were some at Summer Leys nature reserve over the other side of Northamptonshire – I guess I was right after all and these were probably the same birds.

There’s a lot to be said for staying local.

Whilst the idea of staying local has many opportunities of expression in the world of sustainability, I am talking about nature watching.  I have a fondness for the Brandon Marsh nature reserve near Coventry and sometimes go over there for a treat  – especially when it is my birthday.  I think the fondness stems from my first sighting of a hobby there which chased dragonflies across the front of the Carlton Hide.   So, as I had some days off work I decided to pop over there, telescope at the ready for a bit of birdwatching.

Whilst in the past I have seen a little egret there and last year got great views of cuckoos, if I am honest, every time I’m asked ‘how was it?’  I always haverot answer ‘it was very quiet’.  When I look at the sightings page I see other people have spotted bitterns, redpoll, water rails – I don’t expect to see them myself (although the bittern is something I would dearly love to see).  So, I wonder why I go.  I think it is partly for the hot chocolate and cake – an additional treat that I allow myself from the tea rooms there.

I think I might have been too early in the year, but I have to say it was quiet there on my recent visit.  I did see oystercatchers, but other than that, there were goldeneye, gadwall, shoveller ducks, nuthatches and the usual gulls, crows and a chiff chaff.  Not bad, but with the exception of the oystercatcher I can regularly see all of the others at Daventry Country Park.  (I’ve also seen hobbies chasing birds and a little egret there as well)  I did see some bees that I wouldn’t see in Daventry, but that was about all.  And, as for the hot chocolate and cake – the usual array of homemade cakes wasn’t on display and the price had gone up.

I think I’ll stick to birding in Daventry in future – and maybe take my camera along to look for insects instead next time I’m tempted to Brandon Marsh – they also are home to some fantastic demoiselles!

Volunteers wanted to join World’s largest wildlife survey from the comfort of their own home.

This weekend (28th and 29th January) sees the next instalment of the world’s largest wildlife survey. The RSPB has been running the annual check on the state of garden birds each year for 33 years. It started life as a survey done by members of its Young Ornithologists Club before being made open to all. Last year the Big Garden Birdwatch had 609,177 participants who saw a grand total of 10,262,501 birds.

So, why is the Big Garden Birdwatch important? Each year it provides a snapshot of the status of the more common birds that we see every day (and some not so common birds) and, because so many people take part it gives a good average for the UK as a whole. Over the years it has highlighted the reduction in common birds such as house sparrows and starlings, which, although spotted by a large proportion of the public are not around in the same numbers as they used to be.
Male BlackcapIt also highlights when different bird species start visiting gardens in bigger numbers. One year may be an anomaly, several years establishes a trend. Recent increases have been seen from long-tailed tits, bullfinches and goldfinches, mainly due to the increase in bird food types offered by those feeding the birds.
A third reason that the birdwatch is important is that it has highlighted changes in migration patterns such as blackcaps which rarely overwintered a few years ago, but are now regularly spotted in gardens in Winter (in fact I have had one visiting my birdfeeders every year for three years).

The top five birds seen last year were House Sparrow, Starling, Blackbird, Blue Tit and Chaffinch, although there were some unusual sightings including ravens, buzzards and red kites. Not unexpectedly the top five were similar in Northamptonshire, but with Woodpigeons pipping the Chaffinches for fifth spot. What I find interesting about the results is that there are some birds such as robins and blackbirds which were spotted in high percentages of gardens, even if the average number per garden was not very high (also possibly hindered in some cases by an inability to tell the males and females apart).

So, how do you take part? Simple. Choose one hour this weekend (28th / 29th January), I find mornings are normally better for bird activity, write a list of the birds that you are likely to see (include a line for male and females if you can tell them apart) settle back and count the birds that come into your garden. Be careful not to count them twice, only count the maximum number that you can see at any one time. Then, submit your sightings online at . You can also find a useful guide to help you identify birds on their website.

So, happy birdwatching and thank you for taking part in a wildlife survey.

Big Garden Birdwatch

So, it was the time of year when all garden birds traditionally do a bunk to the hedgerows and rooftops so that they cannot be counted in the RSPB’s big garden birdwatch statistics.  Well, that is often the way that it feels.  Still, every year I sit by the window for an hour and try to count all of my little feathered friends.

There seems to have been extra publicity this year due to the concern that the recent cold weather may have done for half of the little birds that we would commonly find in the garden.  Is it the case – we will have to wait and see, but, for once, my garden was brimming with life – I struggled to keep up as birds flitted from one side to the other.  It appears that my tactic of early morning (9am) nature watching, when it was still cold, paid off.

I managed to see a total of 13 different species this year, more than the 10 that @naturesvoice for the RSPB tweeted.  The count started with the ever reliable pair of blue tits, so it should because I think one of them roosts in the pipe from the boiler.  They were sooned joined by blackbirds (I counted 5 at one point – not bad for a garden that is only 20’x30′) and chaffinches.  The male chaffinches are certainly starting to get some more colour as we move towards Spring, but they are still hard to keep track of as they zoom from one side of the garden to the other, one minute on a feeder, the next foraging around in the undergrowth.

I was particularly pleased that the bullfinches turned up within the allotted hour – they tie with long-tailed tits as my favourite bird – they have been visiting the garden all Winter.  I was worried that they would not show today, but, 3 turned up and stayed for a while.  (Looking on Twitter it appears that these lovely birds are becoming more common in gardens and, indeed, have recently been removed from the BTO’s Red List).  I was also particularly pleased when I saw some sparrows in the garden.  I am sure that you have all read the reports about the disappearance of house sparrows, and I definitely haven’t seen very many since the Summer, but, I got a maximum of four, including a couple that turned up just before the end of the hour and stared pitifully at the saucer of frozen water (don’t worry, we went out with fresh water just after the hour).

Song ThrushThe best surprise of the hour came from the song thrushes though.  Before the Winter we had only rarely seen one young song thrush in the garden in the entire 10+ years that we have lived here, although we can usually hear them singing from the old railway track.  However, this Winter one has started putting in an appearance, although he (or she) is usually chased away by a very territorial blackbird (as if there is any other type).  But today I was delighted to see two song thrushes in my garden at the same time – partly because they are another bird not doing well, and partly because I am a keen organic gardener and they will certainly help my war against snails.

The total species count as mentioned before was 13 and consisted of blue tit, great tit, greenfinch, bullfinch, chaffinch, robin, dunncock, blackbird, song thrush, starling, house sparrow, wood pigeon, collared dove.

The only regular that did not put in an appearance was the goldfinch.  Throughout the year we have up to 8 of these noisy, colourful characters in the garden, but, it appears that they are not very fond of the cold.  Throughout the 2 weeks of snow they did not put in any appearance as far as we can tell, but reappeared once the snow had gone.  Similarly, they appeared later on today, once the air had warmed up a little.  I am not sure where they go, but they are still welcome when they come back.

Winter bird watching.


As you are no doubt aware Winter can be  a great time for birdwatching.  Not only do you get the Winter visitors such as Redwings and Fieldfares, but the numbers of our ‘native birds’ are swollen by imports from the rest of Europe – coming for our supposedly milder climate – I guess they have had a bit of a surprise this year, but it is still probably warmer than back home.  In addition, they have fewer places to hide, unless they can find some evergreens.

Unfortunately I have found a couple of downsides to birdwatching in Winter – the weather is colder and, it is dark when I go to work and when I come home so ornithological opportunities are somewhat limited.  However, I have noticed a large influx of redwings and fieldfares onto the industrial estate in the last week – they have found the sea buckthorn berries that I walk past each morning – yesterday I saw about 20 fieldfares on my way into work, not a good view in the morning gloom, but, good enough.

An added bonus for me, if not the birds this week is that a grey wagtail was tempted into the warmth of the warehouse (joining the wren and robin already there) affording rather nice views, I think it has been coaxed outside now though.

Male Bullfinch
Male Bullfinch

Of course, come the weekend and the opportunities for staring into the snow covered garden increase – this morning was particularly good – well, once I had replenished the feeders.  As well as the usual suspects (i.e. blue tit, robin, chaffinch etc) I also spotted a total of 6 bullfinches – a record for my garden – three of each flavour and all there at the same time.  We had seen three last weekend, one pair and a lone male which was tolerated by the other two.  We had therefore assumed that it was one of the three chicks that had been about in the garden last summer, but to see 6 at the same time was sadly quite exciting after all, this is a bird that has just made it off the BTOs red list of conservation concern.  These handsome little birds that spend their time in pairs and make a sound like a squeeky bicycle pump tie with long-tailed tits as my favourite birds.  (They are edging into the lead at the moment as they are regulars in the garden so they earn extra points on the lovely birds register.)

None of these would be about if there were no food for them, so please make sure you feed the birds in winter, particularly when it is cold and the ground is covered and frozen – the ones in my garden are particularly fond of sunflower hearts.

Good News Stories

I was listening to a BBC Wildlife  podcast the other day, and one of the guests was asked to talk about good news nature stories, to make up for all of the doom and gloom climate change news that surrounds us every day.  I think they had a very good point.  This is not to say that the doom and gloom may not have some basis in fact, but not everything is bad news.

One of the news stories that I am beginning to take for granted now is the return of the Buzzard.  The use of DDT and illegal killing by farmers made the buzzard a rarity outside of Wales.  In the last 5 or 10 years, they have become much more commonplace to the point where I expect to see one nearly every time I drive anywhere outside Daventry (and I have seen them above the fields surrounding Daventry as well, it is just they are a more of an open countryside kind of a bird).  In fact I saw two yesterday perched in a tree minding their own business.

Another large predator which is being helped in its spread back across the British Isles is the Red Kite.  These are magnificent birds, and, until recently I had only ever seen one in mid Wales.  However, they are becoming a little more widespread, especially along the M4 corridor.  Yesterday, in one of my rare journeys that took me more than 20 miles from home (I was on business and it was a pointless trip, as is so often the case) I saw a large bird ahead with a long tail.  I hoped and slowed down a little, and, yes it was a red kite, just over the border in Oxfordshire.  It made my trip suddenly more worthwhile and less frustrating!

The Local Watering Hole

As you will no doubt be aware, the last two weeks have seen temperatures hover around or below zero almost constantly. The only break in the cold since Boxing Day being a day with some snow last week. Whilst this has curtailed all gardening activities it has provided many (mainly weekend) opportunities for birdwatching.

I think that we are one of the few gardens in the neighbourhood to have a pond, so we are always popular when the frosts come. Each morning either James or myself have been out diligently clearing a spot in the ice for them to drink from and bathe in, and have been amply rewarded by the large number of birds that have been coming in every day. (I think the sunflower hearts and peanuts haven’t hurt either.)

It has also been noticeable how territorial some of the birds get even in Winter, and how some are willing to risk a fight to get to the food and water. Of particular note around here is the abundance of blackbirds. We have a resident pair that tend to come in every day and throw as much compost and as many leaves around as possible. There also seems to be a younger bird (possibly one of last year’s brood) that keeps coming into the garden, much to the chagrin of the male blackbird (shown below having a drink out of the pond). He will chase him off as soon as he sees him, whereas the female will raise the alarm call if she spots an interloper, only going to the trouble of shoo-ing them away if the male doesn’t arrive.

 We have also counted three robins in the garden. These are highly territorial birds and as soon as the third one is spotted in the garden he is chased away, with fights breaking out in mid air and air-borne battles taking place over several gardens.


My only concern is that warmer weather is predicted in the coming days, and, with the RSPB’s big garden birdwatch less than two weeks away, they will all desert me. Just maybe my count this year will be better than one greenfinch and a sparrow!

The rest of the Winter guests have arrived for the party.

Just a quick update today on my birdwatching quest. For some weeks I have been on the lookout for the more obvious Winter visitors, fieldfares and redwings, which seem to have been regularly seen in the county for the last few weeks.

Following a week of frost and grey skies the weekend was surprisingly bright (and even quite warm in the sunshine). A walk into town along the old railway track yielded lots of birds (in contrast with a fortnight ago) but no overtly European visitors. (By this I mean that many of the finches, robins etc may be visiting from the continent, but I would never know.) The main surprise was a female blackcap. These are warblers that usually migrate south for the Winter, but in recent years more and more seem to be found in the UK in the Winter (although these may also be continental visitors).

A trip to the Country Park saw about 14 Goosander, as well as the usual gulls and ducks, but not many small birds. The highlight of the afternoon was watching a sparrowhawk being mobbed by a crow and chased off into nearby shrubs.

Sunday, another sunny day, not an opportunity to be missed. We went for a walk to the north of Daventry to an area where we had seen flocks of redwings and fieldfares last year when doing a bird survey. There were lots of small birds squeaking in the shrubs, but not the longed for redwings. We wandered towards the canal (mainly because we hadn’t been there for a while), still nothing. Finally, on the way back towards Daventry we think we saw a lone fieldfare flying overhead, a small triumph even if we had to go halfway to Braunston to find one.

Redwings? The final piece of the winter puzzle fell into place on my way back to work this lunchtime when I spotted one redwing sitting in the sea buckthorn, looking as though it wished it were somewhere else. (I also got really close to two goldcrests that were darting about some trees, almost oblivious to me, making small squeaks that almost sounded like tiny tinkling bells – something to brighten the dreariest of Mondays.)

Bare Winter Tree Against a Blue Sky

Unexpected finds at the Country Park.

A lull in the damp weather that has marked (or maybe that should be marred) recent weekends sent us out for a quick walk.  Not being sure how far we were going to go due to a bad back and the gathering grey clouds of doom and rain I was armed only with a small pair of binoculars and my small camera.

Destination – Country Park.  We came in through the back entrance, across the meadow and immediately spotted a Jay.  As my other half has an aversion to these birds since one threw a branch of an oak tree at his head, we headed in the opposite, and less muddy direction.  I immediately spotted a green woodpecker which flew across the path in the distance and perched on the fence.  As we got closer it helpfully flew back across the path flashing its bright green rump and flying with that unmistakeably woodpecker undulation.  A good start to the walk.

Next, a kingfisher.  It darted across the path like a bullet, stocky, but pointy, and flew arrow straight along the stream, a flash of electric blue. 

I didn’t think things could get much better really, but they did.  We walked through the woods, robins were ticking away (James thinks they are establishing their territory in advance of the european immigrants that often swell the numbers of song birds in the winter) and along the edge of the water.  There were a few more birds about than last week, and something caught my eye amongst a group of, as usual, slumbering pochard.  There was another bird in there, slightly bigger, with a chestnut head, white sides and a bright red beak.  It was a red crested pochard, something I have never seen before. It is a continental bird, and it is thought that those found in the UK are probably descended from escapees. Still, I was excited by this unexpected find.

Further round the Country Park the birds were having a harder time out on the water. There were flocks of gulls trying to remain still in the wind whilst they looked for food in the water, occasionally giving up the struggle, letting go and being swept off before coming back into position and starting again. Occasionally one would dive and catch something, whilst being watched by grebes for anything that got away.

Hovering Gulls

Still no redwings, and no goosander – Winter has not yet arrived.

Where to look?

I decided to pull on my waterproofs and go for a wander to the Country Park today. It has been a while since I have done much birdwatching, and, despite the rain, I felt the need to get out and about. I wasn’t expecting there to be much there, the Summer visitors will soon be going (if they haven’t already) and the Winter migrants are still in Summer mode.

For once it wasn’t windy, so I set up my ‘scope on the dam. The number of birds was quite impressive (it can often be pretty barren for such a large piece of water). To start with there were the terns, still patrolling up and down looking for fishing opportunities. This time, they were joined by some of the younger family members, constantly calling to each other, although it could be described more accurately as squawking. Watching them through the ‘scope, whilst not impossible (and not absolutely necessary as they do hunt close to the water’s edge) was difficult as the scoured the water, diving up and down.

More difficult to follow were the house martins and swallows, these careened around like crazies, swooping between the gulls that were bobbing about on the water. I sometimes thought they might get walloped by some of the larger gulls as they stretched out their wings, but I didn’t notice any casualties. From time to time a flock of black headed gulls would come streaming in, purposefully looking for their chosen place to land. I assume that they come here quite often, there was no circling round, deciding whether or not to land, they just headed in a line for the shore.
This was in marked contrast to the lapwing flocks that flew in. They wheel and circle around, making their characteristic peewit call, some dropping to land as they glide in, others turning away at the last minute as if they have changed their mind and have seen something they don’t like, only to do the same again a few seconds later, the flock gradually getting smaller until they have all put down at the edge of the water, or in the shallow margins.

Later in the year there may be some golden plovers in with the lapwing, they are often spooked when the lapwing go up in a great mass, but the plovers stand out. They catch the light (assuming there is some sun) and fly more purposefully than the lolloping flight of the lapwing, looking more like the flocks of waders that are often shown in strange formations on programmes such as Autumnwatch. At the moment there is a juvenile ruff (apparently) at the Country Park. I saw a bird that could have been the aforementioned wader, brown, wader shaped, beak probing the ground, a bit smaller than a lapwing, so I am going to assume that it was as described by more experienced (and fanatical birdwatchers than myself). This is a first ruff (although it was ruffless) for me.

One bird that I can recognise instantly however, which I have seen there only once before, was a little egret. I wasn’t expecting anything as exciting as this, the last time I saw one was at the end of October a couple of years ago, but in more or less the same place. I didn’t get a great view as it was across the water from me, but my scope did as good a job as possible, allowing me to follow it as it waded, fished and then rested, before going hunting again. It was near to a grey heron, so I got a very good impression of the difference in size of these two related birds. I watched it for some time, then felt that maybe I should watch the terns more, as they will be leaving soon, but then I was drawn back to the egret (it was, after all, only the third one I had seen). But was I missing anything else, there was a common sandpiper, but I have seen one of these and a lot of its green friends at Brandon Marsh, there was the ruff, but I couldn’t get too excited about a brown bird that I couldn’t have personally identified. No, I have to say, the egret was the highlight for me, its glowing white plumage certainly brightened the miserable, dull day.