This time we have a Frampton first. It is now well established that the red kite is spreading all over the country, having first been introduced in small numbers from Spain and Norway to the Chilterns some 20 years ago. Before these introductions their stronghold was in central Wales where some 50 pairs maintained a foothold when they had become extinct everywhere else in the British Isles. I well remember my excitement when I first saw a pair over the woods in the Rhyader area in the late 1970s. The first Dorset sightings came from the Portland observatory a few years ago and Ken Scott was fairly sure he had seen one in the Sydling valley last year. The first Frampton record came in early November and was noted in the Echo. Roger Slade from Stratton had seen a red kite “near Frampton church.” Since then Tony Grace has seen it over Metlands Wood and no doubt so have other people but I have not heard from them as yet.
John and Christine Chappell told me they have seen a little family of crossbills in Thorncombe Wood. These curious finches really do have the end of the upper mandible of their bill overlapping the lower. I had always associated crossbills with Scottish woods and it is a satisfactory state of affairs to have them in Dorset.
There is a sequel to last month’s buzzard and rabbit story. Kim Elliott rang me up to say that some years ago he had seen a buzzard pick up a fully-grown rabbit. This one got clean away with his rabbit.
Several people have reported that ravens are occasionally seen (and heard!) over the western end of the village. This may well be another instance of a bird species extending its range. At one time not so long ago ravens were largely clifftop birds – I used to watch them from the top of Golden Cap. Kim recalled seeing ravens (and so did I) around the Helford River in west Cornwall. This is not a river but a long inlet off the sea south of Falmouth.
Paul Stopford-Adams sent me pictures of their domesticated pair of red-legged partridges. They regularly appear on the lawn at Steppes Farm because they know they get fed. Paul saw the last of the swallows on 10th October.
Starlings are suddenly in the news. For some years they have not been seen in any numbers; at best 5 or 10 on telephone wire or fences. Lately I have seen them in bigger numbers of several dozen but a really large flock numbering perhaps 500 to 600 seems to be hanging about the area of the Dorchester by-pass, near Poundbury hill fort, seen twice by Doreen Smith. Perhaps the smaller groups assemble from time to time to form the large flock. The time has not yet come for the thousands we used to see at dusk, looking like dark clouds or smoke from a large fire, but if starlings have found the outskirts of Dorchester to their liking, then just give them time. I have no idea how they manage to perform their co-ordinated aerial manoeuvres; it seems as if they behave like a single individual.
I envied Anne and Henry Wheatcroft their long walk. I know all the footpaths described by Anne and with the exception of the peregrine I think I have probably seen all the birds she mentions in much the same sort of locations. I particularly remember the yellowhammer seen from the footpath above the railway line at Maiden Newton. Alas, I am now too ancient and arthritic to undertake that sort of excursion but I cling to my memories!
Some unusual bird stories this month. On 19th September a young female kestrel was found injured on the little slope outside the village hall. Peter Wren was working on a landscaping task and, as he was wearing a pair of gloves, he took it across the road to Dave and Joan Drake’s. Dave phoned me and when I arrived the bird was apparently perching bright-eyed and happy on Peter’s wrist. There seemed to be no injury to either wing and both legs, too, seemed to be in good order. However, when she was placed on the ground she staggered away, obviously with the sense of balance impaired, and she made no attempt to fly. Joan produced a sliver of bacon but the kestrel would not feed. Dave succeeded after several attempts to get through on the phone to the RSPCA who promised to pick up the bird the following day. She was placed in a suitable padded cardboard box to await the bird ambulance. The story does not have a happy ending, for the next morning she was dead. Our diagnosis was that she must have had a blow on the head, perhaps from a passing car, causing a brain injury.
During the first week of October John Chappell witnessed something very unusual. A buzzard busied itself on the ground with quite a large object. A view through the telescope revealed this to be a fully-grown rabbit. The buzzard managed to stagger about two feet into the air with its gigantic cargo but then had to let go. The buzzard had grabbed the rabbit’s head and it did not become clear whether its feet actually left the ground before it was dropped. The bird flew of and the rabbit sat there dazed for a few minutes before hopping away, perhaps to the nearest vet’s surgery for a check-up. Much more usual prey for buzzards would be small mammals like mice or voles, or, more often, carrion.
John Chappell’s other interesting observation was a large group of perhaps 50 meadow pipits feeding on the ground between Peacock Lodge and the stone bridge. Unlike the very rare tree pipit, the meadow pipit is far from being an endangered species, but the location of this group was certainly unusual. I have seen them in the park, usually in rather small groups or singly. I associate very large assemblies of meadow pipits with more open fields at greater elevations, notably between Notton Barn and the hills surrounding Compton Valence and occasionally hundreds on the Dorset Ridgeway above Martinstown.
These notes are being written rather earlier in the month than usual and if I say that the swallows have now all gone, someone will undoubtedly ring me up to say they have seen some stragglers.
I forgot about one of the North American birds I saw in July. It was sitting perfectly still on a rock a few yards off the northern Long Island shore, undoubtedly a member of the heron family, and quite white. I immediately thought of our familiar little egret but a closer look made it clear that it was a much larger bird. It turned out that it was the great egret. It has the distinction of having had the largest number of names in North American ornithology. Until they settled on great egret, it had been known as American egret, common egret, large egret, white egret, great white egret and great white heron, but it is undoubtedly Casmerodius albus. It breeds on the west and the east coasts of the USA, as far north as New Jersey, so it could easily have strayed a little eastwards to Long Island. Incidentally, the little egret in America is called the snowy egret; at least the photograph in my book is unmistakeable. And yet I wonder. Its scientific name in America is Egretta thula but our little egret is Egretta garzetta. How can two different species be so very alike? Even our very similar marsh and willow tits do show subtle differences which one can pick out with care.
Late in the season swallow gather in large groups prior to migration. These assemblies sometimes take place surprisingly early. I saw just over 70 on 25th August in the big field opposite the Metlands junction on the park track. They were flying excitedly about but at one point all but a few settled on three parallel wires between two electricity poles. I thought it was a pity that there weren’t five wires and that the swallows could not read music. Otherwise they might have arranged themselves as a tune. Seventeen Come Sunday or the Lincolnshire Poacher, perhaps. More than two weeks later in mid-September they were still flying in small numbers of less than half a dozen, so they certainly have not migrated yet.
My south-facing garden has never had any big problems with butterflies - until this year. The numbers and the variety are distinctly poor, with some exceptions. This state of affairs reflects conditions in other parts of the country too, so we are told. Two exceptions are the meadow brown and the both the early (March) and the late (August) brood of the brimstone. Of course the unconquerable cabbage white has been flying in undiminished numbers and its caterpillars chomping away at the cabbages. However, my usually frequent sightings of red admirals, peacocks and small tortoiseshells have been well down this year. Indeed I had to wait until 12th September before I saw the first tortoiseshell, although Doreen Smith had reported them from Sheridan Close at least a fortnight before that. The point is that there were none in the earlier part of the year; therefore the few we have seen this late summer must have belonged to the second generation of 2008. Small tortoiseshells often overwinter and emerge in April, or even March and then breed again in the summer. This does not seem to have happened to any great extent this year. I have managed to spot one or two common blues and skippers as well as orange tips earlier in the year. A more complete Frampton butterfly record can be found on Doreen’s website.