In the last few months I have been spending some time watching the ducks at Daventry Country Park. There don’t tend to be any unusual ducks there (at least not when I’m looking) but there are usually lots of them in the winter and several of the usual species.
One duck that I usually find there all year round is the gadwall. At first glance it is just a brown duck – the drakes and ducks are both brown. But, when you look more closely (unfortunately something my photo is not good enough to allow), there is an awful lot of detail – grey stripes and speckles – which makes them look very dapper indeed. The female looks very much like a mallard female, the picture above is a drake. Both sexes have the white flash on the wing bar, but the drake has that black patch at the rear end along with a black bill (the female’s is black on top and orange at the bottom) and beautiful chestnut feathers on the wings above the white bar.
Although the gadwall is here all year round, the numbers are boosted in the south east and midlands with birds from eastern Europe.
I don’t remember seeing gadwall when I was growing up (even on visits to Martin Mere). This might be because I just didn’t notice them or because back in the 1970s and 80s there weren’t many in the UK, especially not outside the south east. Numbers have increased about 5 per cent a year for the last 25 years. The release of captive birds, including a large number in Leicestershire, is a possible reason for their increased range and numbers.
So, next time you decide not to notice a grey-brown bird with a white wing patch – have a change of heart and a closer look – they really are a lovely dabbling duck.
It seems that these days mother nature has quite a few surprises out there waiting for me. But, then, it might be because I am going out looking for them more. So far in my morning / lunchtime nature ramblings I’ve been privileged to watch a kingfisher fishing on the River Nene most mornings for a couple of weeks, spied a treecreeper and goldcrest in amongst a flock of long-tailed tits and seen a goosander diving up and down. All within 10 minutes walk of Northampton Town Centre and all around 8am. I’ve also had the misfortune to listen to a very screechy jay several times – no problem with the jay, but that sound, now I’ve heard it, is unmistakeable.
My latest surprise came on Tuesday lunchtime – a sunny but breezy December afternoon, when I decided to go for a walk away from town and chose to wander down to Barnes Meadow Nature Reserve. I have to admit, I’ve not seen many water birds down at this end of the river, not that you can blame them, it’s a bit noisy and barren. Today though there were quite a few swans and Canada Geese. But, my big find of the day, were some Little Grebes, aka Dabchicks. These are dumpy, fluffy, compact little brown birds – a bit smaller than a moorhen. In the summer they are quite smart in their chestnut-red and black plumage, but in winter they are a little more subdued in their brown feathers. But, if you see them within a river’s width away they are quite distinctive, both in size and shape and the way they dive into the water. They dive more frequently than coots and moorhens and stay down for longer, looking for insects and small fish to eat. They also seem to almost throw themselves in the water, they are so fast.
I was quite surprised to see a couple of them quite close to the bridge over the river. I was even more surprised to see three more a little further on. What was even more surprising was the noise they made – I resolved to get back there in the same week with some sound recording gear to see if I could cut out some of the construction and road noise. It sounded much more tropical than you’d expect from a bird found on Britain’s muddy waters – I couldn’t decide if they were laughing or squabbling. Further along the river I found another couple, one that had been successful in its fishing ventures with a relatively large fish soon dispatched down its beak, both looking much brighter and redder in the sun. Then, I found a third group, and a fourth.
I know that these are quite a common bird, but it has been years since I saw one. Then, a couple of months ago I spotted three at the country park and now more than ten on the River Nene. The little devils are everywhere!
You can’t easily make them out – but there is a pair on the far side of the river in front of the scrubby tree in the centre.
Despite my best intentions, I haven’t been to the country park since the last bank holiday in May even though I know the tern chicks should be hatching any time now. After a warm, sunny day spent unsuccessfully trying to photograph bees, I went looking for the chicks and I wasn’t disappointed.
I counted four chicks on the two new rafts – a couple looked slightly bigger than the other two – these latter were from one nest and stayed close to their parent. The older chicks were more mobile and spent some time wandering in and out of the pipe shelter that they’d been provided with. These were just the ones I can see. There are another four tern rafts that don’t give good views. I have a theory that those on the very old rafts might be the lower ranking or younger terns that might have had to make do with what they could get, in which case they might hatch a bit later. I could be completely wrong though. The oldest looking chick was just where I expected it to be following the early courtship and mating of the parents.
I also saw another tern removing bits of broken eggshell from the nest area, so hopefully there are some more fluffy little ternlets there.
The swan was at its grumpiest again. This time the family of greylag geese bore the brunt of his ire. Fortunately the adults were giving back as good as they got and, once again, they were both attacked by the terns dive-bombing their heads – serves them right.
I don’t know what has happened to the Canada goose family, but it appears to be the place to hang out for Canada geese – I gave up counting when I reached 84.
I was a bit concerned about the heron chick – I couldn’t see him anywhere and thought he’d either fallen into the water or was much older than I initially thought. I saw one of the adults across the water, and eventually saw the chick in the nest. I think he’d wandered up the branch a bit and was hidden from view behind a tree trunk.
Over the noise of traffic and terns I managed to use my new found powers of warbler ID and heard a willow warbler calling away as well as blackcap and chiffchaffs. These seem to be much noisier in the evening – I haven’t heard any in the last two weeks when I’ve been in the park early in the morning!
My new highlight though was a couple of little ringed plovers. I’ve seen them before at Brandon Marsh, but never at the country park – it seems there’s always something new to see here. Who needs exotic locations?
I went for a couple of walks last weekend, not entirely with birdwatching in mind. One was round the country park – I know now that there is both a reed warbler and a sedge warbler there at the moment. I have also realised that the sedge warbler that I thought was singing from the reeds in the Industrial Estate all these years was probably a reed warbler – or at least it is this year. And I can confirm that despite trying to confuse me by duetting with a reed bunting, there are more reed warblers around Barnes Meadow than sedge warblers and quite a lot of common whitethroats this year too.
Even better though, I found my first ever willow warbler on my local patch. I had wondered if they were there, but I just didn’t know it and they were. It was singing its little drifting down song from the top of a willow tree on the old railway track, 5 minutes from home. I even managed to pick it out with my binoculars. So a lifetime first for me – that’s four new warblers that I’ve seen this year, and one new one that I’ve heard but not seen.
Hopefully I will remember everything from my warbler ID course after a long winter when there are no warblers about to bring sunshine into the grey.
I am eagerly awaiting the first chicks from the common terns at the Country Park so I am going to try and get down there once or twice each week for the next month or so (not a hardship). There are no signs of chicks yet, I am sure there would have been more bringing of fish if there were, but I think there are at least 6 or 7 nesting pairs. The new tern rafts give a pretty good view of the terns and there were several looking as though they were quite settled, some were on scraped up shingle, one was redistributing shingle around the ‘nest’ and I saw a change over between a pair – so definitely some eggs incubating going on. There was quite a bit of bickering and fighting amongst the terns on the raft and even some mating, so I think chicks might be hatching over the space of a few weeks.
However, the terns are not the only nesting birds at the Country Park. For the first time I have found a grey heron’s nest. The last time I was there the heron was sitting there, looking pretty comfortable. This time it looked empty. Fortunately, when I had another look a bit later on, one of the parents had come back and was feeding a youngster. It seems that there is only one in there , so perhaps they are new parents, or the cold weather has reduced the brood. Either way, the chick didn’t look very old – it was definitely grey and tried to flex its stubby little wings. I shall have to keep an eye on this nest as well as the terns!
Anyway, back to the high drama. Other than the herring and lesser black backed gulls that the terns often had to chase off (we watched one almost drowned after being forced into the water), they also had a go at some canada geese and a mute swan. But this isn’t the drama I am referring to.
As well as a mallard with eight ducklings and a pair of greylag geese with four goslings (very different parental approach between the ducks and geese), the aforementioned pair of canada geese also have four goslings. The reason that they incurred the wrath of the terns was because they had been chased halfway along the reservoir by a male mute swan with a huge attitude problem. I know that despite appearances swans are not at all serene and peaceful, but this one seems to see everything as a threat. Suffice it to say there is only the one pair of swans at this end of the water (and they have six cygnets).
At no point did this family (four adults and four goslings) go anywhere near the cygnets, but he chased them across the water and at one point seemed to separate out one of the goslings from the rest (a bit like the sheepdog on One Man and His Dog). The adults would attack the male swan, diverting his attention so the gosling could get further away. But, sometimes this wasn’t enough and several times one or more of the goslings dived underwater (they can stay under for quite some time) to avoid being killed. One poor gosling got completely separated and was chased away from the family group by the swan. Two of the adults worked together to try and get the gosling to safety, whilst the remaining goslings appeared to be under the care of the other two geese. This chase / attack lasted for a good fifteen minutes or so, with the gosling going on land, under water and in the reeds. Eventually it was led to safety by one of the adults and shepherded up to the far end of the water with its siblings whilst the other goose kept the psychotic swan occupied.
A few weeks ago I went to Brandon Marsh and bemoaned the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference between a reed warbler and a sedge warbler. Fortunately I had already booked myself on a course to learn to identify warblers that was run by the local wildlife trust (Beds, Northants and Cambridgeshire).
So, I set my alarm for 5am this morning so I could get up in time to meet the instructor at 7am at the lovely Summer Leys reserve. Despite the gloomy weather forecast, the sun was shining and the sky was blue (although it was still a bit chilly) as I joined 12 other people hoping to be able to tell their Sylvidae apart.
Fortunately for those of us in the middle of the UK, there are only about 10 warblers that we are likely to encounter which is just as well because they all tend to be somewhere on the spectrum between grey and olive passing through brown. Out of these, the grasshopper warbler is distinctive in song, and tends to just pass through the area (which I didn’t know) and the Cetti’s warbler (new to the UK since the early 1970s) has an explosive, loud burst of song. Hmmm, I need some practice at birdsong recording methinks.
The main goal of the course was to be able to tell four groups of similar warblers apart; willow warbler and chiffchaff (look almost identical, but sound completely different), garden warbler and blackcap (look different, sound very similar), reed and sedge warbler (look different, superficially sound the same, but difficult to see), common and lesser whitethroat (look similar sound very different).
We were lucky enough to hear and / or see eight out of the ten warblers; unfortunately we didn’t find a lesser whitethroat, a bird that I’ve never seen before.
We started with a walk around the reserve, which was filled with birdsong, and some less tuneful birds like the gulls and greylag geese. Even better, there weren’t that many people about. After nearly two hours we headed off to see some pictures and hear some recordings of the birds (the BTO website has some brilliant ID videos) before going back to see if the birds were still singing. (Some were in exactly the same spot, but the road noise was horrendous, even though we were in the middle of nowhere).
So, am I now wise in the ways of warblers – other than the lesser whitethroat, I think I am. I heard the willow warbler (unfortunately I didn’t get a good recording of it)
– and now I wonder if I have been hearing them all the time, but mistaking them for chaffinches. They really have a lovely song – the instructor likened it to a falling leaf. I will have to go out and see if I can find one in the local country park. I think I can tick these two off my can recognise list.
Sedge and reed warblers – this was trickier at first, but there is a big difference in the pace and the complexity of the songs – the reed warbler is quite plodding whereas the sedge warbler is more frantic with lots of whistles and changes in pitch – they also sing in the air as well and are found away from the reeds, usually in scrub, unlike the reed warbler. So, I will have to go back through the recordings I have made at Barnes Meadow and go back to Brandon Marsh, but I think I have these two sussed as well.
Common whitethroat – much shorter song and I think I can visually recognise one.
Blackcaps and garden warblers – probably the trickiest and at times the instructor couldn’t say for certain. However, the blackcap, to me, sounded as though he knew he was going to finish, whereas the garden warbler just garbled on for some time before stopping. Besides, they look different and, although we saw one garden warbler during the day, we saw a lot more blackcaps – they are much showier. I think I am on about a 90% confidence with these. I just have to learn their other calls, as I didn’t realise that it wasn’t only the blackcap that makes a noise like two pebbles being bashed although to my ear the garden warbler call sound was more like a squirrel than a pebble.
In the end we saw a Cetti’s warbler (very rarely seen and a first spot for me), reed and sedge warblers (so now I have seen a reed warbler, although only briefly), blackcap and garden warbler (my second ever garden warbler, the first being last weekend during a run), heard a willow warbler, saw and heard a chiffchaff and saw and heard a couple of common whitethroats. Stick in a little egret and about 8 hobbies and I would call that a good morning’s birding. Oh, and yes, I think I can say that I can now ID warblers (most of the time).
So, the moral of the story is, get up early and go out listening, then stand and watch.
This year I saw my first common terns back at the country park on 19th April – this is about the same time as last year, give or take a day or two and is one of the many signs of summer. Even better news is that there are now two shiny (figuratively speaking) new tern rafts with a much better view of the nesting level. Thank you Daventry Country Park!
I’ve been over a couple of times since they returned and will try and get there more regularly going forward (weather and work permitting). The first time was about a week after they had arrived. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, but very little fish catching in evidence. I only saw them dipping towards the surface, perhaps finding very small crustaceans or just taking insects.
None of the terns seemed particularly settled on any tern raft, so I don’t think they had particularly paired up. However, I did see what might have been courtship / pairing as described in the Tern book that I recently read. I saw two birds circling in the air, slowly gliding downwards passing past each other – called high flight in the book. I missed the ascent, but the book describes it as ‘a gliding descent in which the birds sway from side to side so that their paths repeatedly cross’. That’s pretty much what I saw.
Other things I noted that day was a grey heron’s nest above the water, three sandpipers and an absence of Black Headed Gulls – I guess these have gone off to breed, and a sedge warbler singing.
So, fast forward almost a week and I was back at the country park to check on my terns. This time there seemed to be even more terns making more noise – they are difficult to count, but there must be around a couple of dozen now. Quite a few were sitting on the tern rafts, both old and new – although the ducks seem to quite like them as well. I did see some fish being brought in, but not how they were caught. I think one was trying to impress a female, but had it stolen just as he was about to hand it over – kleptoparasitism is apparently relative common in these terns and some get the majority of their food this way! The female flew off unimpressed. However, the majority of the terns still seem to be skimming the surface.
I did see some battles above the old tern rafts but also a lot of posturing with wings lowered and heads in the air which I believe is a sign of non-agression. Showing the black caps to another tern is an out and out sign of aggression. I did see a pair that were quite settled on one of the new rafts (the lighter green one for future reference) and I did see them mating so there should hopefully be some chicks in just over three weeks – I will have to put a note in my calendar to go and have a look on or after 26th May! At least they were on one of the raised platforms so I only have to worry about the gulls, not flooding!
OK, not an afternoon of birding, but a couple of hours at Daventry Country Park on a grey, chilly and blustery Saturday afternoon. It was the one afternoon when rain wasn’t forecast though, so I thought I would go and check on my terns (more on those in another blog post). I also hoped to hear the sedge warbler that I heard last weekend (the first time I have heard one at the Country Park).
After the excitement of Brandon Marsh, I was prepared for a quiet couple of hours watching the terns go by. And, by and large that’s what I got. Most of the black-headed gulls have gone (taking the Little Gulls that I missed last week with them) but there is a flotilla of Lesser Black Backed and Herring gulls at the far end of the water. Most of the ducks have gone too (although I did see some teal last week) and the cormorants are much reduced in number (down to just five or six from ten times that number in the winter).
I spent most of my time watching the terns, but having house martins and swallows zooming by, and twittering up high. I got some really good views again through my scope. Following my last blog when I mentioned that Brandon Marsh was the only place that I saw sand martins, I now have to make a retraction, because I saw at least one in the groups dashing about above the water. It definitely didn’t have the white rump, was smaller than the swallows and was a lovely warm brown when it turned to flash the upper side of its wings into the sunlight – noticeable different to the smart midnight blue of the house martins and swallows. A new for me on my local patch.
It was whilst I was watching these that I happened to notice a very yellow looking bird flapping about along the dam. It looked like a wagtail, but it moved to fast for me to find it in my bins. Then I saw three yellow birds on the path – they were so yellow that I thought at first they were yellowhammers – but they were scared away by some children pedalling towards them before I could get a good look. They looked and sounded like wagtails though – probably grey wagtails as I’d seen these on quite a few occasions at the Country Park.
I also fancied I heard a skylark in the distance so I thought I would have a look around the fields on the south side of the water (and also see if I could see the wagtails along the dam). No joy on the wagtails, but I did hear something singing in the distance that could be a skylark – I hope so. I heard another call coming from the fields that was unfamiliar – then I saw a yellow bird fly upwards and back down into the crops – yellowhammer? I stood watching for a while, then the yellow bird flew up out of the field. I was in luck – it landed at the top of a tree near the path and didn’t fly off when I came close. I got a good look, definitely a wagtail – long tail, but very yellow underneath, long black legs, olive-green on top and with an olive eye stripe. I was hopeful that this might be a yellow wagtail. I checked the RSPB website when I got home, which also has a recording of its call which I listened to for quite a while when stood under the tree. It was definitely a yellow wagtail – a lifetime first for me and in my local patch as well! How cool is that.
On my way back home I bumped into a lady who asked me if I had seen anything interesting. We chatted about the tern rafts and I mentioned that the swifts would be back soon – I usually see the first ones about the 5th or 6th May. WRONG! I was wandering out of the Country Park and looked up to see 22 swifts coming over the trees (yes, I did count them). I am hopeful this means that warm weather is on its way!
So, the reason why I often find myself disappointed with Brandon Marsh is because on my first visit there I was spoilt with fantastic views of kingfishers and a hobby from the Carlton Hide. I haven’t seen a hobby there since and it’s a while since I spotted a kingfisher there (I have in fact seen both of these at Daventry Country Park). The Carlton hide should offer fantastic views of waders and water birds. But it doesn’t. Last time I went the bird count was similar to that at the Teal Pool Hide – aka nothing. So I was set for disappointment when I opened the shutters (there was no one else there). But, today, my view was filled with house martins and swallows darting about in front of the hide, chasing insects over the reed beds, twittering to each other and performing aerial acrobatics.
View from the Carlton Hide
I saw another whitethroat at close range and saw my first black cap of the year – a male (I’d heard plenty, but not seen any so far). There were reed or sedge warblers about – I think sedge and I got a good view of a female reed bunting darting about in the reeds – as they do I suppose. There was a cuckoo up here too, although I still couldn’t see it and it sounded some distance away.
In the last few years they have extended the reserve, the latest addition being some screens up at Newlands, overlooking more of the reed bed. Or at least that was what was there last time, now they have a new hide!
The Ted Jury Hide
These are the views left and right through the screens:
But when I went in and opened up the shutters, oh my, what a view, it nearly took my breath away:
There was a constant burble from the house martins hunting in the reed beds in even larger numbers, but there wasn’t a lot else that I could see. Still, it is early days and these things tend to take some time to settle down. I waited a while in case an osprey turned up – after all they’d kindly erected a platform for him to land on, but not surprisingly, he didn’t show. Still there were plenty of house martins and sand martins to keep me mesmerised. I realised that the sand martins were much easier to differentiate than I thought, even at speed (theirs, not mine). They don’t have the white rump that their cousins the house martins have and they also make a very different sound, more squawky than the tweeting of the house martins. I hate to say it, but a hobby would have had good hunting round there today.
I worried about getting back before they closed the gates, but couldn’t resist going towards one of the hides and out towards a different part of the reed bed in the hope that I might find a Cettis warbler as I’ve heard them round that side most years. However, on this occasion they disappointed and I didn’t hear anything. I wandered further along and met a couple of gentlemen who were going the opposite way and told me that there was always a grasshopper warbler singing in the nearby marshy areas if I just stopped and listened. A grasshopper warbler – that would be a lifetime first for me. Although, going by my sedge / reed warbler dilemma the chances of me actually recognising it were close to zero. Still I stood and listened. And, I heard a sedge warbler or was it a reed warbler. I waited and then I heard it, very faint, but definitely, something that really did sound like a stridulating grasshopper. Amazing – what a day.
I didn’t hear it again, although I wandered along the path by the reed bed. I did hear other warblers and, some sounded less scratchy than the sedge warblers I’d been listening to and they didn’t seem to stop to start again. Hearing them side by side I am pretty sure that I did hear a reed warbler, so, although I still haven’t seen one, I have now heard one. After all, the whole point of warblers is their song.
I have had a love-hate relationship with Brandon Marsh for many years, but whenever I am feeling at a loose end or a bit grumpy then I plan an afternoon over at the reserve. Today was one of those days as I paid a traditional holiday visit to what is really a giant reed bed with some other watery bits.
I was greeted by three swallows flitting across the entrance way, shards of summer against an leaden and cloudy sky – perhaps these were a positive portent for the afternoon. I started with a traditional stop at the Badger Tea room – no badgers and not really much cake either, so just a hot chocolate for me. The tea room was noisy but all conversations blended into a general hubbub. There were two large tables of people, I don’t think they were connected, one populated by older, mainly male visitors to the site, the other younger and with more than one token woman.
There were no birds to be seen on the feeders outside, but as only the nut feeder had any contents this was not really a surprise. I downed my hot chocolate with more speed than the £2.20 cost deserved but I was eager to go out birding. It was a bit cold and breezy, although the sun did come out at times (as did a bit of rain) so today was all about the birds and I had no expectation of seeing any insects.
At the start of my walk, the sound of the cement works pretty much drowned out everything, even the most vociferous of chiffchaffs. I was briefly distracted by what I thought was a Volcuella Bombylans (or bee mimicking hoverfly) sitting on the dragonfly ID board and doing a not very good impression of a bee, but it stayed no time at all, so I am not one hundred per cent convinced. A little further on greylag geese honked in numbers to drown out the cement works and then I heard the whisper and rustle of the wind in the just opening leaves of the tall poplars.
I headed to the main set of hides and suddenly came across a carpet of violets which was a bit of a surprise; round the corner there was a bank of primroses still in full flower. I bent down to take a photograph of a cuckoo flower and heard, just twice, cuckoo, cuckoo off in the distance. How appropriate!
There are still long tailed tits contact calling, a really comforting sound from what is probably my favourite bird (although on another day I might have to admit that a red kite is in fact my actual favourite).
Whilst I was looking at what were probably the holes made by some species of mining bee, it was too cold for them to venture out, I happened to look up briefly and got a cracking view of a whitethroat in the tree in front – my first for the year. It then darted off into some nearby scrub, but started singing at me. I also heard a sedge warbler.
Mining Bee Holes?
The first proper stop that I made was at the Teal Pool Hide. I usually wander in just in case there’s something interesting on the pool outside the windows, and every time I usually find that there are actually no birds at all, not even dull ones. Today there was a family of mallard; mum and ten or eleven chicks. I should have been able to count them, but they kept zooming and careening about.
View from the Teal Pool Hide – note the lack of teal or other birds
I often describe Brandon Marsh as an all or nothing place – today it had almost all. There were some ringed plovers patrolling the edge of the water. One of them looked a little different to the others, it had more black on it and, on closer inspection (using the magnificent zoom capabilities of my telescope) I discovered that it had a black tip on the end of the orange bills. Likewise, the zoom also showed a distinctive eye ring on the other birds – so that would be one Ringed Plover and several Little Ringed Plovers. They were quite active and flew about the different islands. They also looked quite tiny compared with the redshanks that were wandering around in the slightly deeper water as well as along the shore (I love the whistling of the redshanks). Whereas the ringed plovers spent their time looking along the shoreline, the redshanks stuck their head in the water up to their eyeline. The sandpipers (common or green, no idea which) wandered along the mud, bobbing away, but not getting in too deep. There were also lapwing and oystercatchers on the islands, possibly nesting. A sleeping oystercatcher kept one eye on proceedings and a white butterfly wandered past – the sun must have come out.
Sand martins were there in abundance, zooming about and checking out the two sets of nests that have been provided for them – this is the only place I’ve seen sand martins – I hope they do well. There were a couple of terns near the tern raft – but the raft was occupied by two sleeping greylags – apparently they hand’t read the tenancy agreement.
There was a reed warbler singing outside the hide making his presence known. It would make brief flights upwards into the air, chest puffed out, wings back, then plummet down into the reeds and slowly climb up one of the stems and sit warbling away for ages. I can’t tell the difference between reed and sedge warblers and thought it sounded like a sedge warbler – shows how much I know. Someone recently told me that reed warblers just don’t stop singing. I always think of sedge warblers as being more scratchy and reed warblers being more rounded in their song. There was a man in the hide with an expensive camera lens who got some great shots who said it was a reed warbler. Later on he admitted he couldn’t remember whether it was the sedge or reed warbler that had the eye stripe – it is the sedge warbler and this had an eye stripe – I still have never seen a reed warbler! But at least I was right about the song – it was scratchy and he did sometimes pause for breath.