Spoilt for choice

So continuing my developing desire to learn more about the wildlife, more particularly at the moment, the birds on my local patch I made an effort to go out with my ‘scope again this weekend – despite the dire weather forecast.  I had to go on the Saturday as we had agreed to help out with the countryside day on the Sunday, so off we set with telescope and tripod with the sun in the sky, and dark grey clouds massing in the distance.

Sure enough, by the time we had made it to the spot where I set up my tripod to watch the terns the distance to the aforementioned black clouds didn’t seem that big anymore (stopping for an ice cream was probably an error).  I had just enough time to notice that the terns were still there in numbers when we had to hunker down and wait out the pouring rain and fierce gusts of wind.  However, throughout it all the terns were still flying, but they have now been joined by dozens of swifts (as well as house martins, but swallows, not so sure).

Once the wind and rain had disappeared it was time to check out my terns and gulls.  Gulls were pretty much the same as last time – herring and lesser blackbacks at the far end and one or two black headed around.  I didn’t notice the common gulls, but then I was fairly distracted.  I checked the tern rafts – lots of birds around, but unfortunately most of the rafts were under water – I do hope that they hadn’t laid any eggs yet.  Unsurprisingly the big new tern raft (at least I assume that’s what it is) that rides high in the water was suddenly much more popular.  In the past there were only one or two terns sitting on it, this time though I counted eight around the top and there were at least two sitting in the raft – these are the ones I saw when a neighbour tried to land too close to them!

I watched the graceful terns patrolling around, tried to follow them in my ‘scope (there’s a reason they are also known as sea swallows) but wherever I looked I would see a dark shape zoom past.  The swifts are back!  I love sitting on the dam whilst they zoom up and over then zoom back down to fly just above the surface of the water.  Where terns appear graceful and serene (until they open their beaks at least) the swifts are manic, always in a hurry, careening this way and that across the water, or screaming high above, their unmistakable scythe shaped wings so dark against a blue sky.

From now until August I’m going to be spoilt for choice – terns or swifts – which to watch?

Nature Notes for the end of April.

Wow, what a busy week for nature this week.  First of all the most obvious signs of Summer appeared this week with my first swallow on Tuesday and my first swift on Saturday.  I saw a single swallow whilst driving back through the Northamptonshire countryside, but the swift was one of several in the sky above Daventry town centre.

Whilst out photographing architecture on Tuesday I noticed that there were a lot more flowers in the hedgerows and churchyards.  One of the most delicate of these is the Cuckoo Flower or Lady’s Smock, Cardamine Pratensis.  This flower (a member of the brassica family) has delicate pale pink flowers on a spike.  It grows best close to water, but can be found in churchyards and in ditches.  The plant is edible and is widespread through the UK.  It is also one of the flowers that is recorded as part of the Nature’s Calendar phenology study.  Cuckoo flowers are food for the larvae of orange-tip butterflies, of which I saw a number on Tuesday, but they were more interested in the nettle flowers than the cuckoo flowers.

Other flowers that are out, although thought to be a little late this year are the bluebells.  I went to photograph some on Tuesday at Everdon Stubbs and they were just starting to come out.  There were also a few wood anenomes still flowering along with celandines and stitchwort.  Also on the wing were brimstones, but I am still waiting to see my first speckled wood butterfly of the year – I did have a look along the old railway track on Friday, but there were none to be seen.

A trip to Badby Woods on Saturday was a different matter, the bluebells were much more in evidence, starting to give that hazy look when there are so many it is not possible to focus properly.  The bluebells, as expected were attracting a large number of bees and hoverflies.  I was hoping to hear a cuckoo in the woods, but was disappointed, perhaps it was drowned out by the racket made by chiffchaffs and great tits.

However, a very welcome sound heard as we were walking towards the woods was the wheezy song of a yellowhammer.  I used to regularly hear these in the fields around Daventry, but since Lang Farm has been built I have to travel further into the countryside to hear their call.

Today’s best bird.

I couldn’t decide today between a trip to Brandon Marsh and a visit with my spotting scope to the Country Park. I opted for the Country Park on account of a) it being closer so I didn’t have to get the car out and b) it being a weekday so it was less likely to be packed with dog walkers. In the end it proved a good choice.

I thought I would start by sitting on the dam and setting my scope up to watch the terns which have moved back in for the Summer. I love watching these birds, they are so graceful and languid as they hunt along looking for fish. I also caught glimpses through my scope of swallows and house martins darting across the water at high speed. The true harbingers of Summer (although I am not sure we have had a spring yet really) also turned up today as I got my first sighting this year of swifts (duly recorded on the Nature’s Calendar website). These birds know no fear, zooming along the dam and up the bank past the cuckoo flowers and startling those who happened to be walking past.

Whilst watching these I noticed something fluttering near the trees and turned my scope away from the water to get a wonderful view of a kestrel, hovering above the bank obviously watching its dinner. The colours in the sunlight (which made a briefer appearance than the kestrel) were so rich. However, on today’s visit to the Country Park all of these ornithological wonders were eclipsed. Whilst watching the terns fishing above the water I noticed something else, of a similar size darting across – Hobbies! (Falco Subbuteo) This is the first time I have seen them at the Country Park, I thought there were a pair there, but as I watched them zooming around, turning to show the russet red underbelly, sometimes almost stalling, yellow legs out, obviously catching some flying insect, I realised that there were actually four of them. According to the RSPB website they will also chase martins and swallows, but these seemed oblivious to the predators. I watched enthralled as they darted and chased across the water, even the rain didn’t manage to stop play. Eventually I had to leave them and come home (there was only so long I could sit in rain sodden trousers) but I will be back to see if they stay for the Summer or are just passing through.