Saturday, 25 May 2013

Fisher and fish

At last I have a week off, my first since October but a busy few days lies ahead. The Southdown Sheep Society is holding its National Show at next weeks Suffolk Show and with 9 sheep entered I've got my work cut out getting them ready. Washing them for the Hadleigh Show was the easy bit. For Suffolk, and the following shows the sheep have to have their fleeces turned from fluffy to plush velvet by a process of repeated carding and trimming. I think the Victorians started it and the equipment used hasn't changed, a carder, hand shears and a secret concoction to spray on the fleece to tighten and fix it. No one has come up with an electrical device to get the work done quickly or easily so its a case of good old elbow grease and a lot of patience.
I was outside much of the day working on the lambs but concentrating on what I was doing meant a procession of patch ticks and rarities could have flown over and I wouldn't have noticed. However two high pitched peeps drew my attention and I looked up just in time to see a flash of blue shoot along the nearby dyke, my first Kingfisher of the year on the Patch bringing my patch total to 109.
Late afternoon I went for a refreshing stroll around the marsh. There was nothing else new just the usual Marsh Harriers and a Little Egret with splendid plumes. Swifts were around in good numbers along with a couple of House Martins. There was still not a single dragonfly out but this was hardly surprising given the cold northerly wind blowing across the open pastures. Stopping on the bridge over our main sluice my husband pointed out a shoal of hundreds of baby tiger-striped pike just downstream of the outflow presumably enjoying the current and the food particles it might be bringing. Pike are just about the only fish we ever see in the dykes and they range in size up to 3 feet in length. We assume their main prey is smaller pike plus the occasional duckling. Viewing the shoal through bins I noticed a different small fish with a scarlet belly close to the mud at the bottom and a second similar fish without the red belly nearby, our first record of presumably Three-spined Stickleback.
Back at the house, the House Sparrows have become regular visitors. Note the plural. Last week we saw a female regularly and now we're seeing a male but not the two together yet. However they seem to fly in from the same direction so just maybe they're breeding close by.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013


I set up a Trail Camera on a mink raft out on the marsh a couple of weeks ago and this evening collected the card to see if it had captured anything interesting. Flicking through photo after photo of roosting Moorhens and Mallards this suddenly popped up!

Then this:

And also these:

If you look very closely there's actually 2 Otters on that last photo so I suspect this is a family party. Is this mum?                                                                                                                                            
As you can tell I'm rather pleased with this little collection. It's what you always hope for when you put out a trail camera.                                                                                                                             
After last week, Water vole sightings have been coming thick and fast, particularly along the dykes along the edge of the marsh with some tree cover. I think they feel safer here from the depredations of the many Marsh Harriers further out on the marsh so don't spook so easily when you approach.    

Monday, 20 May 2013

Not the Dusky Thrush

Warning: This blog contains some rubbish photos:
The less said about the Dusky Thrush the better. As I doubt I'll last another 54 years to the next twitchable one I'm pretty gutted I wasn't able to get down to Margate on Saturday.
On Sunday I consoled myself with what my neighbouring county Suffolk had to offer and headed first to the Denes at Lowestoft to see the pair of shrikes that had turned up there. First to be perused was the Woodchat, barely 50 yards from where I saw one in October 2011, favouring a large bramble patch adjacent to the Links Road car park. It was relatively unconcerned by the numerous dog walkers and fed very actively on the numerous insects flying in the sunshine.

 It was just a short walk on to the male Red-backed Shrike, in my opinion our handsomest shrike. This shrike too was banqueting on the abundant flies which you can see if you click on the photo.

With the sun still shining I moved on to Lakenheath Fen. I've been meaning to visit this reserve for some years and the Red-footed Falcon finally gave me the impetus to get over there. The last time I went to Lakenheath was 1988 when it was still a huge poplar plantation and Golden Orioles were relatively easy to see there. My memories of the site then are vague, I was in my pram after all (if you believe that you'll believe anything) but talking to other birders who also remembered the site from the 80s did begin to stir those memories back in to life. The few remaining stands of poplars are looking a bit sickly now and I didn't see or hear an Oriole but the Red-footed Falcon was superb, hawking insects over New Fen almost continuously whilst I was there.

The air was ringing to the sounds of numerous Cuckoos, and Reed and Sedge Warblers sang from the reed beds. I also saw my first dragonfly of the year, probably a Hairy. The day was made even more pleasant by bumping in to several old friends and I rounded it off by a brief but successful stop at Weeting to see the Stone Curlews.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Cuckoo at last

Whilst out halter training the lambs this evening, a Cuckoo started calling from the arable fields in front of the house. Spring at last!
The lambs, meanwhile, have got to the "I think we're getting there" stage. They might actually behave in the show ring on Saturday

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Garden Garden Warbler

It was my half day today but I had a busy afternoon ahead. Just before I got started my husband alerted me to a Garden Warbler (an unexpected Patchwork year tick) he had just found singing in the plum hedge in the garden. At first there was complete silence and I feared the bird had moved through but after a short wait it started singing again and soon popped up on top of the hedge. Fantastic! The Patchwork list now stands at 107.
I moved on to the main task of the afternoon which was shampooing the show sheep in preparation for this weekend's Hadleigh Show. As I got everything set up and ready I was surprised to hear and see a Bullfinch, the first in the area for some time. I spent the rest of the afternoon washing 8 sheep and by the time I had finished I was about as wet as they were, not just from the rain but also the frequent showers when they shook themselves dry.
If you happen to be wondering what you wash a sheep with it's this of course:

Yep, you can actually buy special sheep shampoo!
Returning to the house to change in to dry clothes the other highlight of the day was another House Sparrow on the feeder, the second of the year, and this time a female. Shame it didn't turn up at the same time as the male a few weeks ago.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Patchwork milestone

It's been a quiet weekend here but at least I hit the 100% milestone for Patchwork Challenge when a distinctive tu-tu-tu call after dark, whilst bottle-feeding a lamb, added Greenshank to my Patch list for the year. That's only my 3rd new bird for May but then looking at the birds I can reasonably expect in the year there's only 8 to go and I have concerns about 2 of those. Drastic action is needed and that scrape is going to have to go in. Natural England are keen we do it sometime June to August, just right for wader passage so maybe I'll be able to add a few waders to the list.
The Cuckoo Flowers have suddenly come in to bloom on the marsh. Their name derives from them flowering at the same time as the Cuckoo arrives but their companion is still missing.

From a distance they look white but close up they have a lovely purple blush on the underside with delicate purple veining. Worth getting on your hands and knees for!
In the absence of any other birds to photograph I took a photo of this, now resident and breeding on the marsh. I'm not sure whether it is a welcome addition to the breeding list or not.

Birds of note today were 2 Hobbys and at long last a decent arrival of Swifts, about a week late. Yesterday a Little Egret graced one of the dykes near the house and I saw another Barn Owl quartering the distant marshes in the evening but that is about it.

Friday, 10 May 2013

Water Vole

This evening I was out after work halter training lambs on the marsh near the house when a dark brown rodent swam across the dyke 20 feet from me - a Water Vole surely? With a recalcitrant lamb on the end of a rope I was unable to get to the dyke edge either quickly or quietly so there was no sign of it by the time I made it there with lamb in tow.  A Rat scuttling out of the lamb pen had me briefly doubting myself but the rat was a much paler creature. After working my way through 6 lambs I had a more thorough explore as the sun was setting and happily found a Water Vole sitting on top of one of the now empty Moorhen nests I've been monitoring. We know we've got Water Voles in our dykes but it's always reassuring to see them.
If anyone is wondering why I'm halter training lambs, the show season is rapidly approaching with the Hadleigh Show a week tomorrow and the sheep have to be ready to be shown in a ring on a halter. It's not an easy job getting a lamb to stand and walk calmly whilst a judge runs his hands over them to check how much muscle (ie meat) there is on them! I'm still at the "this is never going to happen stage" and my patience is severely tested every night after work at the moment. At least there have been no birds to miss whilst I'm doing it.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Patch round up and Bank Holiday birding

It's been a little quiet on my patch the last couple of weeks. There was a steady trickle of new arrivals during April but after the 23rd they seemed to dry up. A hunting Hobby hawking insects over the marsh was a welcome sight on the 2nd May and Swift was finally added to the list today, somewhat later than usual. Worryingly I have yet to hear a Cuckoo. These emphatic heralds of spring have become steadily scarcer here over the last few years in line with the national trend. A spring without one would be unthinkable. Turtle Doves used to feed under our bird feeders but these have also all but disappeared locally too. I've checked a local haunt regularly and drawn a blank each time. At least there is still time for them to arrive. On the plus side there seem to be plenty of Whitethroats this year, Yellow Wagtail has been a much more regular sight than in previous years and the marshes are filled with the sound of singing Reed Buntings. The warm sunshine of the weekend brought out a good number of Orange Tip butterflies, my first of the year but we're still waiting for the first dragonfly of the year.
I've also started checking our 28 nestboxes for the BTOs nestbox challenge. Only 14 show any evidence of occupancy so far as against 18 last year and I've only positively identified Blue Tits in them, no Great Tits yet. Sadly during my search of the alder wood I found the body of a Barn Owl confirming my fears of what had happened to 'our' birds in the cold March winds.
We had friends over for the Bank Holiday weekend, one of whom had a shopping list of birds to see. We started on Sunday at Westleton Heath to catch up with Dartford Warbler and quickly found a pair although getting decent views took a little longer. Minsmere was packed to the rafters with people. It's clearly becoming a tourist destination, not just a birding location, as many of the visitors were wandering around without bins. We managed to see the Ferruginous Duck behind South Hide and caught up with various summer migrants such as Wheatear, and Common and Little Terns that were year ticks for me. By the time we visited the cafe at 4.15 the cakes were reduced to a meagre selection such were the numbers through the visitor centre! Our principle target that evening was Nightingale. As far as I can recall Nightingales usually sing most of the day at this time of year at Minsmere but that afternoon they had been stubbornly silent. We heard 2 brief snatches of song coming from the depths of the wood behind the volunteers hut but that was it. We moved back to the bushier parts of Westleton Heath and at last we were serenaded by a bird giving its all from the middle of a dense gorse bush. It seemed within touching distance but it was impossible to see apart from the merest flick of a wing. For me, hearing the song is far more important than seeing the bird. Like the song of the Cuckoo, the spring is not complete without it but my friend needed a view of the bird for her list so it was a little frustrating when it moved off. Dinner was calling and we had to head home.
Bank Holiday Monday found us twitching Turtle Dove. My friend needed Turtle Dove too and a Tweet about 3 Turtle Doves at Beighton had us crossing the Yare at Breydon Water (seeing the 2 White Storks from the car as we drove by) to get to the north side of the valley. A male was purring in a tree across a small field next to the church as we arrived and obligingly flew into a tree above our heads. As it turned out from Tweets from other people that day, we weren't the only people to twitch these birds, a sad indictment of their increasing rarity. With Strumpshaw so close we paid a brief visit there. Again the car park was packed but we managed to find the last space. At reception hide the first birds I lifted my bins to look at turned out to be a pair of Cranes. This must be my best year ever for them and surely reflects a conservation success.