Gazing in Garrigill

Gaze on a landscape, breathe it in and inhale its wholeness.  Hear its words; read its story. Eyes can move from the coarse resolution of the entire landscape down to the fine tuning of an individual field, gully or turn in a path. I am on the summit of Hartside Pass, almost 600 metres up into the intoxicating upland air.  Before me a landscape, beautiful yet contrived; behind, the bleaker lands of the northern Pennines also bearing scars of human influence.  This location is the favoured destination of motor cyclists who prefer to gaze on landscapes of mean machines – Harleys, Yamahas, Suzukis– and where talk is of speed, acceleration and implicit aggression.  I prefer to speak to the land.  Here is to gaze on what Rob Cowen has called “the deep past and the far future”.  Here I can discern what was and what might be in the landscape.

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To gaze on the deep past and far future, Hartside Pass

From this vantage point, the horizon is marked by the Lakeland fells, testaments to an era when the earth trembled.  This was a time when, with much rifting and writhing, the earth’s crust was crumpled and crenulated to form the hills of today. Casting my eyes to the middle distance I gaze on parts of the Eden valley.  Here are fields and woodlands, fragments of what once was.  Here are delineations and divisions almost certainly a fraction of what they once were.  Hedgerows replete with hawthorns for nesting, damp recesses for Jack-by-the hedge were removed to make for larger, more efficient economies (or so we were led to believe).  There is a beauty in this landscape, but in our dialogue it is talking to me of lost habitats, neglected niches and diminished diversity.  I can linger for only a short while, yet in that time I neither see nor hear a single bird.  Now I must head to Garrigill.

My companions to the north are the blanket peats of Benty, Meethaw and Scarberry hills.  Coarse, bleached cotton grasses soon to boast fluffy, cotton-ball flower heads intermingle with vulgar heathers and secretive Sphagnum mosses.  Later in the year bilberry will flaunt its fruits.  Occasionally, the blanket is torn and I catch sight of the beautiful black peats furtively secreting sagas of ecologies gone-by.  Ornate pollen grains, faceless macro-fossils and smooth spherules of burnt carbon can all tell tales of land-use change through the centuries.  To the south, lands drain into Black and Rowgill Burns.  Here the landscape wears a very different face.  This is a landscape of mosaics, the practice of moor burn writ large.  This is “prime grouse shooting moor”: birds dare not linger here on the Glorious 12th.  As I enter Garrigill my doused spirits are boosted: birds are abounding here!  House martins chatter around the lane, perhaps sharing reviews of village nesting sites: here is rampant fecundity.  I catch sight of a swift scything across the skies.  Soon I realise there are more.  I can’t look for long – I’m driving!  In minutes I arrive at my cousin’s home to be greeted with tea and cakes (always delicious!).  Flitting between the lounge (where bird feeders are in sight) and the kitchen I am given updates on the recent birding activity: which birds are nesting where, what has been seen recently and what has been the impact of some tree felling in the adjacent churchyard.  My cousin and I are soul-mates and our souls are sharing news of the natural world.

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Black peats furtively secreting sagas

It is now 04:30 and I am wide awake.  This is not unusual for me, nor is my getting out of bed to head for the window.  I gaze out on a lingering gibbous moon soon to cede to the ever-advancing dawn.  For now it is an opalescent orb presiding as a sentinel over a sleeping world.  These are the secret hours when all seems quiet and clandestine.  Movements are slow and steady, predator and prey skulking to eclipse the other.  In a few short minutes the sun will rise, so with the strengthening light I can see more.  The mist over distant Cross Fell is splintering into wisps that will succumb to the growing warmth.  The break of slope opposite me is marked by an array of buttercups, a ranunculaceous display of yellow, amber and gold.  Momentarily I think I sense movement, but perhaps it’s the day-spring light playing tricks.  Rabbits begin to mooch, but then there is a different movement.  A curlew has awakened, its decurved bill prospecting the soft soils for earthworms, insects and larvae.  It appears to be alone: is there a mate nesting somewhere awaiting the bounties of its partner’s probings?  More light and a scuffle.  A Carrion crow and lapwing are tussling in the sky. This is not a head-on, battle to the death, more a ‘keep off my land’ warning.  The ungrazed fields and wet grassland nearby provide the low cover the Lapwing needs for nesting, but can leave it vulnerable to marauding corvids.  Lower down the field one rabbit is motionless.  I fear it is dead.  Suddenly, those fears are assuaged.  The violet head and red face-sides of a male pheasant appear and, as the bird wanders languidly across the field, the ‘dead’ rabbit scampers off. Day is now with us and my increased acuity enables me to look to distant fields to an unexpected sight.  Roosting on the fields are many Black-headed gulls.  With no large bodies of water nearby I puzzle over their wanderings.  Cow Green reservoir is 15 km away.  Would they travel from there to spend their days in a field in a Pennine village?  Perhaps these were failed breeders, gathering to share their disappointment, a collegiate commiseration of sterility.

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A ranunculaceous display of yellow, amber and gold

The final gazing experience of my stay was along the banks of the emergent South Tyne River.  Storm Desmond had wrought its wrath here and all had changed.  The river no longer flowed along the meandering curve of its north-east bank preferring now the ease of a straight channel.  Perhaps it was in a hurry to join its cousins to become the great River Tyne as the waters neared Newcastle. The abandoned channel, now bereft of water, revealed the energies of past storms with pebbles and boulders evidence of upstream geologies.  As I approached the river a noisy and excitable cacophony of sound erupted: the oystercatchers were nesting nearby.  My cousin always reports their arrival, but this was my first experience of their piping gatherings.  No-one would dare interfere with their nursery.

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Channel now bereft of water

My bird watching always provides opportunities to watch and gaze, whether on birds, landscapes or habitats.  My north Pennine wanderings this time were not abundant in diversity, but were rich in sights that touched my soul.  I had reflected on the deep past and the far future and was the wiser for it.

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A (very) Good Friday

Good Friday.  For some a day of solemnity and liturgy. For many a welcome escape from work, while for others an opportunity for a lie-in or a shopping expedition.  For me the day of solemn reflection and worship.  Despite this, my river was seducing me, urging, compelling, and calling.  I would succumb.  My sojourn could be one of quiet reflection as befitted my version of Good Friday.  My worshipping commitments could still accommodate a quick visit.

En route to the river I stopped at a field edged by a reed bed.  It was an apology for a habitat, but it was a habitat nonetheless.  Recent rumours had whispered of a bittern lurking here.  Here was another seduction.  This small, degraded fragment of reed bed on the margins of a field was not typical bittern habitat. It might though appeal to a weary bird in search of a temporary roost.  The reeds fingered the edges of ponded water that had delusions of something larger.  This was to be a visit of sounds, not sights.  Fragmented the reed bed may have been, but there was sufficient to conceal those treating it as a temporary refuge.  Sadly, a bittern booming would not be part of today’s soundscape.  If it was there, it was lying low and camouflaged.  This absence was countered by the whinnying presence of Little grebes. The dab-chicks were courting or arguing: it was difficult to tell which.  Suddenly, a burst of beige and energy and a Jack snipe silently took flight from the margins of the bed, only feet away from me.  It would provide only a brief sighting before it took a rapid dive down to another reedy covert.  Mallards called to each other, while coots pik-pik-ed.  From the inner recesses of nearby Big Boar Wood a Great Spotted Woodpecker drummed.  Here were sounds of a rising spring, of urgency and increasing energies.

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my river was seducing me, urging, compelling, and calling

These post-equinoctial days seem to have acquired a light that imposed a different palate on the estuary.  The day was hinting at warmer ones to come. The estuary looked good, very good. The bronzes and ambers of last year’s exhausted marsh plants contrasted with hints of emerald, sage and aquamarine of newly emerging shoots.  Soon the sea scurvy, samphires and sea asters will begin their daily battle with the tides.  A gentle breeze whispered around the cliffs, the tide had just turned, the waters scurrying in filling creeks and gullies and evicting Redshank, Shelduck and Canada geese.  All felt very alive.  Skylarks carolled, each bird reaching a crescendo with its increasing height.

The more extensive reed beds here harbour one of my favourite birds of wetland margins: the Reed buntings.  Unlike their flaggy namesake these birds are noted for their veiled presence.  I sat awhile hoping that buntings might appear, my watch accompanied by a distant, gentle murmur of a bee.  The battalion of reed stems shivered and there was a movement, a subtle stirring.  Another nervous flick confirmed that my birds may be there.  Perhaps a female reed bunting was exploring the depths of these blond stems for a suitable nesting site.  Then, they emerged and were off.  A pairing of buntings shot out of the reeds, flying in unison then making a synchronised landing on a nearby hawthorn bush.  I raised my camera to capture them when, perhaps in fear of some perverse paparazzi, they took flight again.   Soon tiring of this avian hide and seek, I went on my way.  Then, only metres along the path, they were there.  This time confident and defiant picking out whatever might be lurking among the particles of the gravel path.  Grab camera; click, click, click.  Secretive birds now preserved for public showings.

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Reed buntings: secretive birds now preserved for public showings

Buoyed by this contact I then noticed a man sitting on the next bench.  Two terriers sat patiently at his side seemingly knowing that he needed to be quiet and reflective.  He then emerged from his reverie: had I disturbed him? He smiled, stated “I am not a birder” (a confusing statement given the binoculars around his neck) and then reported that he was “a bit dyslexic” and with “a touch of autism”.  Interesting, but strange disclosures given that, at this stage, I had not uttered a word.  An enthusiastic conversation then ensued in which he disclosed that cats don’t eat starlings because they are very greasy birds (I wondered which feline had reported this culinary fact) and that he loved the Latin name for species.  Sturnus vulgaris is the species name for starlings and “the Latin phrase for today is Erithacus rubecula, the Latin name for the Robin”.  With that he strode off along the path and I was left marvelling at this brief interlude in which I had learned much.  Distracted by my reflections I almost missed a longed-for arrival.  A flash of blue-grey merged among the grey-brown clods of the ploughed soil.  Then an orange flush and I could have flushed with it. My spirits and excitement soared. A wheatear had landed only metres away.  It was the first of the season and a definite harbinger of spring.  Here was Oenanthe oenanthe – yes, my dyslexic, autistic encounter had made an impact.  This beautiful, pert, erect visitor had voyaged from its wintering grounds in central Africa to grace the edgelands of the River Mersey.  What sights had it seen en route and how could it look so alert after all its travails?

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Wheatear: the harbinger of spring

Further along the path another bench was occupied by a mum, dad and two little girls.  Mum was taking photographs while the others pointed out the location of birds, trees and other natural features that they deemed worthy of her endeavours.  We shared greetings then I just had to proclaim excitedly that I’d seen the wheatear.  The parents looked impressed; the children looked confused.  Once I explained that it was a bird and that it had travelled from Africa the children smiled broadly and I could sense their awe.  The natural world was weaving its spell.

Time was pressing so I was forced to leave my river.  I passed a house where a man was working a pile of rich brown topsoil.  Sighting my camera he called out, “Did you get some good photos?”  “I saw a wheatear, all the way from Africa”, I enthused.  “Faaan-tastic”, he replied.  I wanted to reply that I thought his soil pile was fantastic, but I restrained my exultation!  My visit was over.  It had been a visit of two halves.  The first was a time of quiet reflection while I interacted alone and in silence with the river, its sediments and its wildlife.  Then the second half was a time where my love of the natural world could be shared with others.  It had indeed been a very good Good Friday.

Four larks and a wren

Humans seem to find the act of counting birds strangely beguiling.  Thus, our metric towards Christmas includes four calling birds, three French hens, two Turtle doves and that old partridge in the pear tree.  Edward Lear’s hirsute gent bemoaned the two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren populating his beard while, as a child, I was introduced to the two little dicky birds sitting on a wall (“One named Peter, one named Paul”!).  It would appear that birds invite us to count them.  So, it is for me during October and November.  I am compelled to observe and count birds during that most enthralling of natural phenomena, the autumn migration.

Each morning Lady Aurora taps at my window to alert me to the dawning of a new day.  Her awakenings are later at this time of the year yet they still leave me wanting to remain cocooned in my bed.  Once fully roused the reality of the joys that might await me urges me to dress and head out to the riverside patch.  The streets remain largely unpopulated and cars are few on the roads.  Most drivers look impassive possibly reflecting on their arduous day ahead.  I, in contrast, am uplifted, eager and readied for another voyage of discovery.  What birds will we see today?  What geographical stories could they tell of places seen and climes to come?

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“the blushing skies of sunrise”

The dawning of days in October and November is more exciting than at other times.  They challenge my knowledge of meteorology to determine whether a morning’s dismissal of Morpheus would be worthwhile.  Migration at our patch is at its prolific best when the winds are from the south-east.  My friend uses the direction of aircraft over his house to determine the suitability of the day.  I live too far from the airport to use that litmus test so I have to refer to weather forecasts.  I watch these assiduously, but generally then ignore them because, for me, any day out there with my eyes to the skies is valuable.  It is immaterial whether I am greeted by the blushing skies of a sunrise so warned of by sailors or the gunmetal grey of a rain-threatening, lowering blanket of stratus.  So-called ‘poor’ days enable me to value much more those rich days when bird traffic is almost too great to measure.

The process of ‘visible migration’ (or ‘vismig’ to use the ornithological vernacular) involves watching, identifying and counting any birds that pass over a particular location.  I discovered only a few years ago that a lane most familiar to me was a migration ‘hot spot’.  How could such a mundane lane, bounded on either side by hawthorn hedges which in turn marked the transition between wayfare and field be of such significance? This area that abuts the ‘edgeland’ of Marion Shoard or the ‘bastard countryside’ of Victor Hugo (q.v. Ch. 8, Landmarks, Robert MacFarlane) cleaves desperately to its rural character while on the opposite bank of the river the land has ceded to the march of industry.  How could this be a migration magnet?  Apparently, the juxtaposition of river and highways provides a nexus of reference points that enable the birds to orientate themselves. Thus, I have my ready-made, off-the-peg, local migration hotspot.

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the juxtaposition of river and highways”

It is for this reason that I can be found with several others many mornings in autumn with my neck craned to the skies.  Join us and you will soon hear a strange litany: “Eight chaffies and two Brambling”, “One hundred and twenty Woodies”, “Forty Fieldfare and eight Redwing”.  My fellow scrutineers are of great expertise and eminence.  I marvel at the speed with which they can integrate the size, shape and call of the bird to identify and then count them.  My paltry contribution to the process is simply to alert them to groups of birds heading from different points of the compass.  Old Birders do learn albeit slowly.  I can now differentiate the Redwings from the Fieldfare, the Stock doves from the Wood pigeons, and on a good day the Bramblings from the Chaffinches.  I have learned how to count large groups of birds.  Count to 10 then work out how many multiples of these are present.

I am invigorated by the spectacle and, occasionally, the excitement is enhanced by the passage of relative rarities.  Thus, one morning, one observer seemed beset by a sudden bout of stammering: “L-l-la-la Lapland BUNTING!!!” his voice cascading upwards ever louder.  The thrill of this traveller’s fleeting presence was so great that my friend’s tongue contorted strangely conspiring to strip him of an ability to cohere.  Another day, this same friend alerted us to the presence of a Hawfinch.  We could neither hear nor see it, but our colleague’s bionic skills set could detect it from the top of the lane.  The rest of us waited, our sight and hearing stretched to their limits until suddenly, it was there.  We could see and hear it, this giant among finches.  This bulky brute with its huge conical bill was soon gone, but we were enriched by its presence.  A lone bird on a lonely journey.

Occasionally, some birds looking steadfast in their flight plan suddenly change course returning from whence they have come.  It is as if they have hit some invisible barrier which prevents their onward movement.  That barrier may not be invisible, but may be the river at the end of the lane.  To a bird’s eye this may look uninviting, a potential source of danger.  It is not uncommon for them to make several attempts at crossing often not progressing until they have been joined by other flocks reaching an apparent critical mass.  Perhaps confidence comes with numbers.

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“flocks reaching an apparent critical mass”

Each year there seems to be one spectacular day when the count exceeds expectations and may provide a record for our site.  This year it was a day at the end of October.  It was relatively balmy for the time of year with almost complete low cloud cover.  The birds were flying at relatively low altitude – much kinder on the observer’s neck.  Five of us covered the observation period from 07:00-11:30.  Redwings were soon flying through, followed a short while later by the more robust Fieldfare with their characteristic ‘chack-chack’ call.  Passage soon increased apace with flocks of Wood pigeon in excess of one or two hundred.  Then more notable visitors graced our eyes: Hawfinch, Lapland bunting and Woodlark, the latter a real rarity for our site.  Our adrenaline was flowing.  This day was to be a mega-watch, a special day.  Birds seemed to be coming from all directions but, as is common for this site, all were flying south-east, heading for those warmer lands whose call they were responding to. On that amazing morning we counted at least 18,000 birds flying over our lane.

See the Hale head bird count for 31st October 2015 here

Vis mig raises so many questions in my mind.  Perhaps I’ve been a scientist for too long.  Where have these birds come from?  Where are they going to?  We know the answers to these questions for some species, but not for all.  They will not all make it.  Migration is physically challenging.  Some will not have accrued sufficient fat reserves to survive.  Others will succumb to depressions and storms.  Those creatures that left me awe-struck may not reach the other side, but I am grateful to have encountered them fleetingly.  Humans have been fascinated by these annual movements since ancient times.  John Ray, writing in the 17th century, asked:

“What becomes of Swallows in winter time … To us it seems probable that they fly away into hot countries, viz. Egypt of Ethiopia etc. then that either they lurk in hollow trees, or holes of rocks and ancient buildings, or line in water under the ice in Northern Countries.”

We now know the answer to where the Swallows go, but until such time as funding is available to enable us to answer these questions for other species, I shall simply wonder and marvel in my lane on balmy or chilly autumn mornings.

Robert MacFarlane (in Landmarks) uses migration as a synonym for his discovery of new words:

“I have had such pleasure meeting them, these words: migrant birds, arriving from distant places with story and metaphor caught in their feathers”.

Visible migration for me allows encounters with birds who may never pass my way again and who may not survive the arduous and threatening journey of migration.  In that brief morning rendezvous during October and November I am touched by them.  I cannot know the story and metaphor in their wings, but I have had the greatest of pleasure meeting them and I shall return to my lane by the river next year to repeat the process.  Fare thee well dear birds.  I await your arrival back here in spring.

 

DREAMS

September has dawned and with it thoughts of summer’s end, school returns and seasonal changes.  To meteorologists this first day of the month marks the beginning of autumn.  This is a time when my real world and my dream world are filled with anticipation and trepidation for that most inspirational of natural events: bird migration.  Scott Weidensaul describes this time as one of the “great pivot points of the year … when the continents are swarming with billions of travelling birds”.

There are signs already that it has started.  The whinchats have graced my patch with their presence in recent days.  Rarities are touching down, catching breath, boosting fat reserves then continuing their southward journey.  This natural event never fails to impact on me, that impact is visceral.  By early October I will be down at ‘the patch’ daily, watching, holding breath and urging onwards those swarms of Fieldfare, Redwing and others that use our river as their navigation.  I’m leaping ahead, though.  Let’s return to August.

Skeins of geese will soon fill our skies.
Skeins of geese will soon fill our skies.

August began and ended with pivotal birding events.  On 9th August I joined many hundreds in the magnificent Goyt valley to raise our voices in support of the Hen harrier.  The paths to the meeting site streamed with people, veins of fervour leading to the heart of the event.  It was a day of friendships renewed, new friendships made, of shared applause and despair as we reflected on the plight of this masterly bird.  It provided an opportunity for me to meet those wonderful young naturalists who I befriended on Twitter, but could now put faces to names.  It was good to meet you Georgia Locock, Findlay and Harley Wilde.  Those great warriors Mark Avery, Charlie Moores and Chris Packham were amongst many who spoke eloquently and passionately about the battles ahead to save this bird.  We were inspired and returned along those valley paths, now arteries of zeal each compelled to spread the news of this bird’s plight and to reverse its decline.  In his excellent book Inglorious, Mark Avery writes, “one year there will come a time when driven grouse shooting is a thing of the past.  What, I wonder, might that look like?”  This must not remain a dream; this must become reality.

At the Goyt valley event.  I am on Henry's right.
At the Goyt valley event. I am on Henry’s right.

The birding event at the end of the month was in marked contrast to that in the Goyt Valley, but driven also by a fascination and fervour for all things avian.  It was the BirdFair, an annual event held at Rutland Water.  This was my first visit and we decided to include an overnight stay so that we could imbibe all matters birding for 2 days.  They were a magnificent two days; we returned both inebriated and sated.  It is difficult to highlight one event, but a special moment for me was listening to Iolo Williams’ inspirational presentation of the Wildlife of Wales.  Wales has always been in my bones (that surname Jones might have something to do with it!), so the talk already held promise.  I have given presentations all my professional life so can be critical when watching others.  Iolo leaves little to criticise.  He combined passion with knowledge, humour with wisdom and had the audience entranced for 45 minutes.  Passion was the feature of the two days.  The superb organisation of this huge event, together with shared knowledge of and love for the natural world provided a greater ‘high’ than any drug could achieve.  I was left with thoughts and dreams of ‘if only’.  If only there had been more young people there; if only my friends and family knew what they were missing; if only, if only, if only ….

With this ardour pumping through my veins I had a dream (with apologies to Martin Luther King).  I dreamed of a land that might have been.  It was a land where soil was cared for and no longer bled into the seas.  It was a land where the waters were crystal clear, where they skipped then meandered to the oceans, carrying only a chemical load it was right to carry.  It was a land where oceanic gyres were no longer burdened with plastic waste, where marine organisms would no longer mistake microplastic spheres for food.  It was a land where birds flew freely to the heights and back.  Hen harriers flew across moorlands liberated from the tyranny of gorse butts.  Songbirds made their southward journey free from the risk of entanglement in nets or the scourge of being killed for ‘sport’.  Hedges and acacia forests thrived to provide habitats for Turtle doves and Spotted Flycatchers were no longer threatened.  In this bountiful and flourishing land insects abounded, no longer threatened by those chemicals used so perversely to make life ‘better’.  In this land the air was clean and clear, freed of its burden of humanly-generated particles and noxious gases.  It was a land where the climate could find its balance, where glaciers would no longer meet their watery death, where seas would no longer be forced to flood or where drought-ridden soils were no more.  This was a land where children knew to treasure every organism.  Freed from the inane world of social media and computer games, where bedroom walls were too confining, these children sought the outside world and explored wide vistas to distant horizons.  They relished every moment.  They no longer berated the ecological sins of their parents and grandparents.

I had a dream last night.  It was a dream, but some of it could become reality if only we would listen to the lament of our ailing planet.  The young naturalist Elliott Monteith (www.birdboy101.co.uk) writes “Mother Nature is slowly and painfully slipping into darkness never to return”.  I and many of my friends will ensure that doesn’t happen, Elliott.  I had a dream and I want my dream to become a reality for all.

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… a land where the waters were crystal clear …

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF AN AVIAN KIND

It’s 05:30.  My aching joints implore, “stay in bed a little longer”; my brain proclaims, “it’s a glorious morning, get up and enjoy it”.  The brain won.  With comforting mug of tea in hand I glance out of the window and realise that much is afoot in my suburban garden.  It draws me in and for the next hour or so I am to be entranced.  It’s Day 10 of 30 Days Wild, the Wildlife Trust initiative that is encouraging us all to connect with nature daily during June.

My mother always warned that ‘blue and green should never be seen (together)’, but this morning the cobalt blue sky complemented perfectly the many shades of green of the vegetation.  I was grateful that the natural world was ignoring my mother’s caution.  Beech leaves flickered subtly as gentle zephyrs skipped across the garden.  Sycamores sported their leaves newly released from the velvet cocoon of the leaf case.  The flaxen leaves of the variegated ivy contrasted beautifully with the lime green of the St. John’s Wort bushes planted to provide cover for smaller birds.  My brain was right; it was indeed a glorious morning.

My eye was drawn instinctively to the avian visitors to our garden.  The first to arrive were those intelligent corvids, the Jackdaws.  Five were squabbling around one of the feeders.  Two contorted themselves on the feeder while the other three were on the ground ready to collect any falling titbits.

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As soon as one had finished feeding it flew across to the bird bath to drink.  For some reason, I am beguiled by the sight of a bird drinking, in part because we don’t often witness this.  Meanwhile, panning across to the other side of the garden, I noticed the arrival of a Starling.  Departure of the Jackdaws provided some subliminal signal for three more Starlings to occupy the feeding station.  At this point I felt that there was something different about these birds.  They lacked the glorious blues and greens (which should never be seen!) that I expected of these passerines.  These birds were grey-brown and rather bland.  Then I had a moment of realisation.  I was viewing juvenile birds.  These four were this year’s brood.  I was watching avian adolescents.

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A faint flicker at the corner of my eye drew me to another quadrant of the garden, this area now colonised by smaller visitors.  The tremor that had alerted me was the movement of a House sparrow rummaging for insects in the lawn.  Close by was a Blue tit and at the edge of an adjacent apple tree was a Great tit.  These observations were a signal for another moment of clarity.  Bird feeding in my garden seems to have a chronology.  Each species appears to have its own temporal niche.  That chronology seems to be related to size, the large species feed first while the smaller ones follow on behind. This fact may be well known, but it had not occurred to me until now.  The 30 Days exercise had motivated me to linger longer with my garden watch and I was seeing so much more.

At this point my already heightened senses were excited further when I caught a monochromatic flash.  A Great Spotted Woodpecker (GSW) had landed in the Mock Orange bush.  This species has visited our garden regularly since last year.  At that time I was entranced by the arrival of an adult and a juvenile, a novel experience for us.  Since then an adult had visited our feeders regularly.  This time I concluded it was the same bird on its scheduled daily visit.  Then the imperative of observation stimulated me to look more closely.  This was not our usual adult visitor.  This bird was sporting a smart red beret on top of its head and the normal scarlet of this species’ nether regions was much subdued.  It was a juvenile GSW.  I was having a morning of adolescents!  Within minutes a feeder on the opposite side of the garden featured more monochrome: an adult GSW.  It was woodpecker party time.  The dynamic between these two birds was captivating.  The juvenile flew up into a tree and began to peck at the trunk.  Was it practising for adulthood?  It was then joined by the adult who proceeded to feed the juvenile.  How glorious to see this juvenile transitioning from fledgling to adulthood.  On the one hand feeding independently and drilling; on the other, readily accepting food from the parent.  I watched this pair for fifteen minutes and was transfixed.

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Juvenile Great Spotted Woodpecker at bottom of feeder. Note the red cap.
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Adult (R) and juvenile (L) Great Spotted Woodpecker

The bird numbers lessened and the feeding rave seemed to be ending.  Suddenly I was alerted by the alarm call of a Robin at the bottom of the garden.  This became louder and more frantic so I decided that I should leave my window hide and head outdoors.  The cause of the Robin’s anxiety soon became clear.  Next door’s cat was lurking in the undergrowth.  I despatched her to her own garden, but then had the glorious realisation that the impetus for the Robin’s angst was that it had a nest in our ivy hedge.  So much going on in my garden, but my failure to linger and watch had shielded this from me.  Thirteen bird species visited my garden that hour.  In addition to those reported already, I saw Blackbird, Wood pigeon, Feral pigeon, Goldfinch, Long-tailed tit, Dunnock and Magpie.IMG_3470_C

In his Introduction to the 2005 Edition of J. A. Baker’s wonderful account of The Peregrine, Robert MacFarlane suggests that bird watching is “a sacred ritual”.  If that is true then I was witnessing creation’s Glorias and Hosannas as the natural world proclaimed the arrival of a new day.  These birds had crept into my heart and my mind.  The emotional impact was visceral: my heart beat more rapidly, my stomach jumped with joy and my breath took on a different rhythm.  Yet again, the natural world gave me a memorable experience.

AGE AND ENLIGHTENMENT

Natural history came easily to me as a child growing up in rural Lancashire.  Our mother was a passionate advocate of the value of fresh air so we were encouraged out into our rambling garden by 7am each morning – yes, rain or shine.  This belief in the benefits of the ‘outside’ probably stemmed from the prevalence of tuberculosis and of her experiences as a patient in a TB sanatorium.  My brother and I didn’t know of, or care about, the ravages of this awful disease.  We just loved the riches that the rural world afforded us.

Our home was surrounded by farmland.  The passage from garden to the back field was marked by a mini woodland with a huge beech tree (well, it seemed huge to us), hawthorn bushes (which were very prickly when you tried to crawl among them) and lots of nooks and crannies which provided comfortable homes for reptiles and invertebrates.  It was adventure land.  It was our wildlife Narnia.  We knew where to find the best frogspawn; we could say (but didn’t tell others) where the Lapwings nested and what colour their eggs were; we knew which stones the lizards preferred to hide under.  We began to recognise birdsong: the rich, clear tones of the Blackbird or the iterative repertoire of the Song Thrush.  On our regular walks to the cottage hospital for my mother’s TB checks we would marvel at the battalions of Swallows balancing on the telegraph wires.  We would pause to applaud the blue hue in Gypsy Wood, a bluebell wood.  Our days in May would feature the unmistakable aroma of those flowers coupled with that of hawthorn flowers and the gentle song of the many sparrows that lingered in the hedge recesses.  They were probably Tree sparrows, but we were unaware that this species would become endangered in our lifetime.  We came to learn about the Red admiral, Large white and Small tortoiseshell butterflies that explored our environs.  Occasionally, if we were disciplined enough to still our impatient limbs, one of these papilionaceous glories would perch fleetingly on us; we marvelled at the experience.  Mud pies were made regularly; we got dirty; we would fall and bruise knees, but none of this mattered.  We were allowed and encouraged to experience as much as we could.

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Our learning of all that this natural universe proffered was passive and achieved more by a glorious osmosis.  Our fertile, pliable minds absorbed it all.  We were enlightened in everything that the natural world could offer.  Our parents, brought up in the city, lacked some insight into the biosphere, but they did have an innate love of all that it enclosed.  They too wondered at the intricacies of the seasonal phases of the flora and fauna.  They taught us to observe and to question.  Many times they could not answer our questions, but encouraged us to discover for ourselves.  How I loved the arrival of the mobile library when I would ravage the shelves of their books.  Always intercalated with the fiction were books about different elements of the natural world.  Here I could learn about the diversity of bird species, their nests and their eggs.  Visits to the ‘seaside’ were rare, but I still learned of Mermaid’s purses, Jelly fish and Bladder wrack.  Beautifully illustrated books helped me to discern the geometries of tree bark, leaves and fruits.  School offered me ‘nature study’ classes.  Here I would learn via brief and rather dispassionate sessions something of woodland, field and rivers, but they left me voracious for more.

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So, why all this musing on my childhood experiences of the natural world?  Well, let me fast track through to 2011. Retirement was beckoning and I was determined that departure from the world of work would not be an ‘end’, but a ‘beginning’.  In fact it has turned out to be a ‘return’ to the joys and passions of childhood.  I discovered and joined my local RSPB group and that marked the genesis of a new adventure for me.  My passions for the avian world, for birds and their habitats grow daily.  My binoculars and I travel whenever possible, more often than not only to my local patch, but what a rich patch it is.  I’ll report on this in a future blog.  I was naïve about the intricacies of bird watching.  I discovered quickly that being a novice birdwatcher is an enticing, but challenging pursuit.  Bird identification is fraught with obstacles.  I can just about discern the different colours sported by a species in spring/summer when they then moult and are clothed in the hues of eclipse.  Then there’s bird song: the loss of parts of my hearing register add to the challenge of mastering this.  Some months ago I was bemoaning all this to a birding friend who retorted, “Well your age is against you”.  I may be in the latter part of my life, but I feel 21 inside and expected my brain to understand this. Yet, here I was being challenged to learn new facts, but with a brain that struggled to assimilate it all.

That isolated comment about my age triggered a restless train of thoughts.  The year I retired proved to be a pivotal year for communications on age and observation of the natural world.  Richard Louv’s excellent book Last Child in the Woods was published.  This brought the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder’ into the public lexicon.  Simultaneously, the journalist George Monbiot wrote of a second environmental disaster namely “the removal of children from the natural world”.  He warned that we were in danger of losing a generation that could and would fight for environmental issues.

Many of my companions in the RSPB group are remarkable birdwatchers.  They are highly knowledgeable and remarkably skilled and just as I did in childhood, I absorb all that they offer me.  Most of them have acquired their proficiency by having studied the natural world for 30 or 40 years.  I don’t have that luxury of time, but am determined to learn as much as I can in the time available.  Our field meetings are noticeable for their absence of children.  Similarly, when I am down at my patch I rarely meet any children and have not seen a single child with binoculars.  So the treasure trove that is my patch is hidden from them.  I feel that nature deprivation is serious and needs to be reversed.  We must help our children to engage with the natural world.  They must experience a muddy ooze squeezing through their fingers.  They should be given time to stop and listen to bird song.  They should be able to marvel at the wonders of bird migration.  We must let them get dirty, feel cold and wet and, yes, fall over and cut or bruise their limbs.  They will be the richer for it.

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This conjecture on age, enlightenment and learning prompted me to search for evidence of today’s young naturalists.  I am heartened to see that there are some highly motivated and diligent young people who will be at the vanguard of future environmental campaigns.  I have the utmost respect for their skills, not just with respect to identification of flora and fauna, but in their abilities to communicate their experiences, joys and learning to the wider world.  Their facility with electronic media ensures that many of them compile blogs, blogs far more competent and engaging than this one!  I love the fact that they complain about the challenges of revision and exams, the reality of obstacles facing the young naturalist.  Some of them are excellent photographers and already I have identified those who we will hear more of in future.

Scrutiny of these young blogateers shows that their focus is across a spectrum of birds, wildlife and photography.  Some, like the lovely Stephen Menzie (www.stephenmenzie.com) ), progressed to make a career in avian science and inspire many of us decades older than he is.  Much younger birders include Toby Carter (www.grimstonwarbler.blogspot.co.uk) Ellis Lucas (www.elliswildlife.blogspot.co.uk), Ben Moyes (www.moysiesbirdtrips.blogspot.com) and Zach – a small dude with a love of nature – (www.yearofnature.blogspot.co.uk). They all report eloquently on their birding adventures.  They inform and educate us.  Others have wider horizons reporting on birdlife and other inhabitants of the natural world.

I marvel at how they marry this with their skills with electronic media.  Josie Hewitt (www.blog.josiehewittphotography.co.uk) is already proving highly competent at her photographic captures of the natural world.  Similarly, Max Brown is showing mastery (www.maxrbrown.com) beyond his 20 years.  His blog alerts readers to the need to care for our planet: “Maybe one day when my voice can be heard a little louder …” I am sure, Max, that your voice will be heard loud and clear and we will all listen.  Two teenage naturalists are gathering a national following thanks to their exposure on BBC TV.  They are showing themselves to be nascent broadcasters with knowledge, enthusiasm and passion that can only endear them to the watching nation.  Georgia Locock (georgiaswildlifewatch.wordpress.com/) uses her trail cams to bring some of the simplest animal behaviour to those of us who cannot see such things in our home area.  Her appearances on Springwatch Extra showed not only her knowledge of the natural world, but also how the broadcasters respect all that she has to say.  Similarly passionate is Findlay Wilde (www.wildeaboutbirds.blogspot.com).  Findlay came to the attention of the wider viewing community when he figured in the Save the Hen Harrier campaign.  He too has appeared on Springwatch/Autumnwatch.  He is championed by Mark Avery and Chris Packham and rightly so. Take a look at his impassioned plea to politicians before the last election.  These are just a few of the younger naturalists coming through: I salute you all.  I beg you to maintain your interests and enthusiasm and continue to blog so that we can share you knowledge and experiences.  You are not nature deficient, but here’s hoping that many other young people will follow you.  You have enlightened me and I am richer for it.

LOST AND FOUND

I discovered early in my birdwatching forays that one branch of the birding family seemed preoccupied with numbers.  They assiduously kept a list of birds seen for each year. There was extreme competition between them as to who achieved the highest total by the end of December.  You may think that Premier League competition can become frantic towards the culmination of the footballing year.  Well, you’ve obviously not witnessed the competitive nature of some birders.  I vowed that I would not be one of these folk who headed off to distant places to catch site of a rare vagrant to add another tick to my list.

That’s what I thought until earlier this week when I found I’d joined the realms of the twitcher!  As I was struggling to identify simple, indigenous birds I knew that my capacity to spot rare birds would be zero.  However, the Twittersphere had been abuzz (mixed metaphors there!) with news of a rare bird that had the temerity to land on shores relatively close to my home.  So, with bus pass in hand – yes, another joy of being an Old Birder – I headed off to the Wirral peninsula.

Sandwiched as it is between the Rivers Dee and Mersey the Wirral peninsula is a Mecca for birdwatchers.  Saltmarshes, mudflats, woodlands, heathlands, dunes and beaches are all enticing to a variety of birds.  Birds from distant shores also seem to have heard that the Wirral is a place to visit.  The avian Tripadvisor must score it well.  In this case I was heading for New Brighton on the north-western tip of the peninsula.

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It is something of a paradox that the location of any rarity is often marked by a horde of binocular or scope wielding people.  Surprisingly, many birds seem to tolerate this invasion.  This time was no different.  I headed towards the Marina and didn’t need any help as to the precise location of the bird I hoped to see.  I needed only to follow the orientation of the scopes and, hey presto, there it was.

The bird that had beguiled me was a Laughing Gull.  This bird breeds on the Atlantic coast of North America, the Caribbean and northern South America.  Apparently, it is evocative of summer on the east coast of America.  The moniker ‘laughing’ led me to expect to hear this bird before I even sighted it.  My ears were tuned to listen for a ‘ha-ha-ha’ or a ‘hee-hee-hee’ or even a ‘ho-ho-ho’.  Actually, the last is what I would be most likely to hear.  So, there was some sense of anti-climax when I arrived to discover that the gull was silent that morning.  Not only would I not hear it, initially it was a little difficult to see.  My binoculars were really not up to the task so I was delighted when a man nearby offered me the use of his scope.  No, that’s not the birding equivalent of being invited to see someone’s etchings!

The gull was on the pontoon nestled among a group of waders including Turnstones, Dunlin and a few Purple Sandpipers.  Its head was turned backwards and downwards in typical roosting mode.  I could just make out delicate crescents of white above and below its eye.  Periodically, the platoon of waders changed its position to enable others to move within the group to keep warm.  A wise strategy as it was a particularly chilly morning.  Then there was an imperceptible movement and the gull had lifted its head up.  I was not able to see it clearly, but could discern the geometry of its long black bill.  I cannot say that this was a particularly handsome bird, but then it was in its winter garb.  By summer it will be sporting a black head and a red bill.  Its appearance may not have captivated me, but its journey to Wirral did.  This young bird must have become entrained in an Atlantic depression which had transported it to UK shores.  What trials must it have experienced on its journey?  Now here it was thousands of miles from home.

Gull on pontoon surrounded by waders

I moved a few hundred yards alongside the pontoon to see the gull from a different perspective.  Binoculars aligned I searched among the waders, but there was no sight of the bird.  Was it lying low?  Another birder told me that it had taken flight.  My vision of this North American visitor had lasted all of 5 minutes, but at least I had seen it.  Apparently, a group of gulls had flown across the marina and our Uncle Sam bird had joined them.  A couple nearby seemed to be having an argument; I discovered that the husband was blaming his wife for the departure of the gull!  The bird probably enhanced the local economy with nearby coffee shops doing a roaring trade.  The bird’s presence even made the pages of the Liverpool Echo.  Now there’s fame for you!

Heads up gull. Black bill just visible.

Having found one lost vagrant I became greedy.  Word had it that another vagrant could be found along the tip of the peninsula.  I could kill two birds with one stone.  Well, actually ‘killing’ definitely wasn’t on the agenda.  The bird was a Snow Bunting.  It may not have the rarity status that the Laughing Gull had, but it was still quite a find for this part of the country.  It breeds in high-alpine habitats and also along northern rocky coasts and on open, treeless high moors and tundra.  It may have been a bit parky this month, but the Wirral peninsula cannot be described as tundra.  This bird was clearly out of its comfort zone and was worth a look.  Now, I didn’t have too good a record with this bird.  Snow buntings had been seen around the same location last year.  A friend took me to search for it, but all that I managed to see was a flash of feathers that took a lot of convincing for me to believe that it was a Snow bunting.

Once again, the location of this bird was made visible by the crowd of scope-bearing men.  Yes, I was the only female.  In contrast to the Laughing Gull confraternity, this group was characterised by lying on their stomachs on the beach.  Despite the help afforded by the orientation of their scopes and cameras it took me a while to see the bird.  Then I saw one.  In fact, there were TWO of them.  Brilliant!  They are brown, streaky birds so well camouflaged among beach debris.  In contrast to our American visitor, these tourists are rather pretty and enchanting.  Amazingly, they seemed undeterred by the paparazzi lying remarkably close to them.  I watched them for 20 minutes inspired by their capacity to sort through the debris in search of food.  Sand grains adhered to their beaks and I wondered at what stage these would be lost.  People stopped to ask what we were all looking at.  Expecting snorts of derision I was delighted that most seemed interested and one even thanked me for telling them about the birds.  Yes, education can be achieved on a cold morning, straddling a (low!) sea wall and looking at small brown birds.

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Snow bunting in among beach debris.

Time was against me and soon I had to head back for my return train journey.  I was happy and fulfilled.  A short excursion across the River Mersey had given me two species of vagrants, one very rare and the other relatively so.  I felt humbled that we were able to give these travellers a respite before they have to head off again to begin breeding for yet another year.  I don’t intend becoming a twitcher; it is expensive both in time and money.  However, I had more insight into the pleasure that can be gained from seeing international avian visitors on our shores.

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Mud, mud, Mersey mud

My grandmother’s advice to potential homebuyers was always to visit the house of interest on the coldest, wettest, greyest of days.  She reckoned that if you found the house attractive under such conditions you were bound to like it on warm, sunny days.  A recent foray to Frodsham Marsh on the banks of the River Mersey had me wondering if I should adopt Grandma’s philosophy for bird watching.  If one can get wet and cold, squelch through the squelchiest of mud, and still come out smiling then that has to be a site with much to offer.  Add to that some bird watching ‘ooh’ moments and it is clear that this is a site not to be missed.P1030503_C Sixteen of us gathered in the light drizzle (it did not remain light for long) and exchanged New Year greetings.  We had all been students of Jeff’s Birdcraft courses so it was good to catch up with old friends.  That’s another benefit of bird watching: you make new friends.  Jeff is an enthusiastic and highly skilled ecologist who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of birds so it’s always good to spend time with him. Frodsham Marsh is to some extent a man-made environment.  Dredgings from the Manchester Ship Canal have been, and continue to be, pumped into bunded lagoons.

Dredgings from the Ship Canal are pumped into lagoons
Dredgings from the Ship Canal are pumped into lagoons

When pumping ceases soil formation processes take over: the land becomes colonised, plants take up water and the land surface dries out as water evaporates.  Over time, a more physically stable environment forms.  So, conditions range from wet lagoons or bare mud (in the areas where pumping still occurs) through to grazed fields where a more functioning soil has established.  These diverse soil environments provide excellent habitat diversity for birds.  Consequently, you can feast your eyes on an exciting range of birds.

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Areas no longer pumped make good grazing land
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Current lagoons are wet in parts or drying on margins

Around the lagoons our eyes could feast on countless Lapwing proudly sporting erect crests, or a carat-rich shimmering bloom of Golden Plover.  Shelduck sported their rust-orange cummerbunds clearly visible despite the gloom while gulls taunted us to identify them.  The site is not just about ducks and waders (including the Wigeon, Black-tailed godwits and Mallards); there were plenty of little brown jobs to keep us on our toes.  Shrubs, reeds and grasses provided suitable stopping off points for Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Wrens, Long-tailed tits and the magnificent Goldcrests.  The Goldcrest is Europe’s smallest bird (with the weight of a 20p piece) and is a joy to see.  Another ‘ooh’ moment. A quick food/drink break then had us heading for the Weaver bend.  No not some strange yoga position, but a bend in the River Weaver.  How logical all this bird watching is!

View of R. Weaver at the Weaver bend
View of R. Weaver at the Weaver bend

En route, friend Sean suddenly stopped and uttered a strange rapid mantra: “bnll, bnll, bnll, bnll”.  Indecipherable mantras are frequently the domain of birding folk.  Now allow me to slow that down for you.  What he was reciting excitedly was “Barn owl, barn owl, barn owl”!  And there, after much patient guidance from Sean, I had full sight of this magnificent bird.  An even greater ‘ooh’ moment than the Goldcrest had evinced.  Sitting in the tree with its white heart-shaped facial disc and light plumage clearly visible it was a privilege to gaze on it.  Such moments do affect one’s physiology and I’m sure my heart rate had just leapt, that increased beat that comes with joy. Our remaining wanderings had us negotiating thicker, more tenacious mud but we were rewarded with sights including  a legion of Linnets festooning a hawthorn tree, and a party of lemon budgies … no, I jest; just checking that you’re taking all this in!  It was a conclave of Yellowhammers which, at first sight, could indeed be taken for escapee budgerigars.  The total of species recorded at the end of our day was 61 although we didn’t all see 61, especially me.  Usually, I sight in the vague direction of a particular bird only to discover that it’s flown! Such are the trials of the novice. My wise old Grandma was right.  Grey and wet doesn’t always mean gloom.  Industry may abound on the margins of Frodsham Marsh, but I can’t wait to return on a bright, sunny day when I’m sure even greater wonders will await.

New Year, new birds?

It’s unseasonably warm – 10 degrees C.  It’s the first day of a new year and already I’m thinking about numbers.  Last year was 191.  Not as good as I’d hoped.  No, I’m not following some strange dating system.  I’m referring to the number of bird species I saw in 2014.  A marked improvement on my 2013 total of 153, but I didn’t make the 200 total I’d hoped for.  I’ve decided to set 200 as my goal for 2015.  Experienced birders will laugh at such a lowly total, but to those who are mere novices like me, it still feels quite a mountain to climb.

I discover that I’m not the only one with numbers on my mind and bird numbers at that.  This new year was only in its infancy when Twitter accounts revealed a strange pastime.  What was the last bird that you saw at the end of 2014?  And what was the first one you saw in 2015?  A friend reported seeing a Redshank at 01:36.  That has to be the earliest sighting of the new year.  I can’t recall precisely which the last bird was that I saw in 2014, but it’s likely to have been the Grey Wagtail that I saw on my cousin’s lawn.  Three years ago I wouldn’t have been able to identify that bird so I feel a real buzz at the evidence that I have progressed with my bird identification, albeit slowly.

My numbers for today are a lowly 9 all seen in my urban garden.  The first 3 to show themselves were Blackbird, Robin and Magpie, but the gem for me was a New Year visit from ‘our’ Great Spotted Woodpecker.  This bird has been visiting since it discovered our garden as a juvenile.  It has a definite behaviour pattern which it repeated today.  Arrive on the dead sycamore, head down to bird feeder then retire to live sycamore.  I may thrill at seeing species I’ve not encountered before, but somehow there is a different pleasure in seeing ‘my’ birds, the birds that happily share our garden throughout the year.  The Blackbirds, the Dunnocks, Jackdaws, Collared doves that seem to relish the haven that our garden offers throughout the year.  The garden where some of them will nest and rear their young, while others view it as a valuable feeding station when natural sources of food are scarce.

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My birding plans for the year are already pretty full.  Local sites will be visited as will those farther afield.  Numbers may figure in my pastime, but they are not the be all and end all.  I relish the prospect of all that I shall see: the habitats to be learned about, the birds and other organisms to be seen and the birders with profound knowledge and experience who I shall learn from as if by some avian osmosis.  Today, may be a grey rather dismal day, but the New Year is a time of promise and none less so for the novice birder.