There are a number of very interesting observations from several people. The first of these came from Liz Napier who was working in the conservatory of her house in the Park. There was a knock on the glass and she saw a very groggy little goldcrest on the path outside. Liz waited to see if it would pick itself up but it did not. She went outside in the pouring rain to put the bird into the shelter of some laurels but the rain still dripped heavily off the leaves, so she bent over to protect it somewhat. This turned out to be a good idea for after a few minutes the goldcrest turned its head and flew off into some bushes. No doubt this incident was followed by a soaked Liz returning indoors to dry off. I have had a number of experiences of birds flying into closed windows, the majority being blackbirds or thrushes. In very nearly all cases this misjudgement proved fatal for the birds. The explanation is not far to seek: it is a matter of elementary physics. The force with which a bird hits a pane of glass is its momentum at that instant and is calculated by its weight multiplied by its speed. It follows that a heavier bird like a thrush has a much greater momentum than a tiny goldcrest, arguably the lightest British bird, although both may be flying at the same speed. Hence the lighter bird has a better chance of survival, though perhaps with a subsequent headache.
Michael and Fiona Johnson report from Southover that a weasel scuttled across the gravel on their drive and disappeared into the hedge and then probably into a nearby bank where there was a hole not quite two inches across. In much the same spot a hobby was seen subduing a blackbird. Not surprisingly, the whole incident took a while to complete, for the hobby is one of the quite small falcons and is not really much bigger than a blackbird. Michael had plenty of time to observe the large white patch under the hobby’s chin and on the side of the head. The Johnsons had seen this bird in their area before and concluded that it nests close by. We may be witnessing another outcome of global warming here: until recently the hobby was regarded as a summer visitor and more or less confined to wooded areas. It is a definite change to see it so closely associated with human habitations in winter.
A fox has been making a nuisance of itself in the Village Hall area. Joan Drake saw it in their garden in broad daylight and David had to rush out to make sure the poultry were all right. Kevin Merritt was not so lucky: a number of his bantams became victims. It is a little surprising that the geese did not manage to send the fox on his way. They are usually such good bouncers. Again, in broad daylight the fox strolled leisurely past Heather Merritt on the Christmas tree pitch in the Village Hall car park. It even stopped briefly to take a good look at her. David Drake showed me a marvellous photograph he had taken of a kingfisher waiting above their little raised goldfish bowl. It had apparently managed to take a few of the small goldfish but could not manage the fully grown ones.
The egrets are now back in their usual winter numbers. Jeanette Grace counted 22 in the big field across the road from her house. I have not yet managed to take a proper count but I did see a few taking off at dusk to their roosts in the trees beside the river.
We still occasionally see quite sizeable flocks of lapwings in various parts of the county but we certainly would not regard them as town birds in any sense. However, my daughter Jane saw a flock of about 100 engaged in their characteristic untidy but acrobatic tumbling flight over an industrial estate quite near the centre of York.
Bill Oddie uses the word jizz to describe features of birds which makes it easy to identify them instantly. Starling-sized birds frequently fly in flocks which you cannot possibly miss. They are usually either starlings or redwing. The jizz of starling flocks is that they always fly in perfect formation wheeling and turning in unison. Redwing are far less disciplined and a flock looks ragged and untidy. If they are feeding on the ground and then fly off into trees they do it in spurts, a few at a time. Assemblies of starlings in trees or on wires always take off simultaneously. The same behaviour on the part of knots, the seaside waders, was seen in a recent programme in David Attenborough’s current TV series “Life.” Identification by jizz can go wrong. Nobody could mistake the hovering of a kestrel, head down, prospecting for prey, facing the wind. Another name for the kestrel is in fact the windhover. But on an exceptionally windy day in early November I watched a bird flying purposefully in my direction with steady wingbeats, like a jackdaw perhaps. When it got nearer, it was clearly a kestrel. I presume it wanted to get somewhere to the south and couldn’t quite manage to hover against half a gale.
The egrets are reported to be back in our valley, in very small numbers, but I saw my first one in the Sydling valley. John and Christine Chappell and Tony and Jeanette Grace on separate occasions saw the first flocks of redwing which have also been seen at Metlands by Gillian Winsey. I might have seen some in the park but I was without my binoculars and they were too far away. The mallard are now in pairs preparatory to mating and egg laying. I saw three pairs on a weedy island in the river just below the stone bridge, perfectly peaceably ensconced within a yard or so of each other. What a contrast with the raucous anti-social behaviour one sees so often in the summer when several males will sometimes fall upon a solitary female in a sort of gang rape, or females fiercely defending their brood of young against intruders into what they take to be their territory on the river. The kingfisher is still present around both of the bridges but I am such an unlucky birdwatcher that I have not seen one for some years.
I think I forgot to mention a month or two ago that Dave Drake had seen a hornet attack and do away with a bee in mid-flight. Apparently the hornet made straight for the bee and met it head-on. Within a day or two of this event I saw a hornet engaged in a less warlike pursuit. It was sitting on the top of a fence post quietly chewing away at the wood. I think hornets make their nests out of a sort of papery substance, just as wasps do, and possibly the wood was a raw material for nest building. I tend not to hang around when I see a hornet, being very allergic to wasp stings and unwilling to experiment with hornets. Talking of insects, butterflies are still seen on sunny days. I had a brimstone and a tortoiseshell flying close together in my garden in late October and a peacock in mid-November. I have several clumps of Sedum in the garden; in past years they have attracted a good many butterflies in September and October but this year there were none on the red flower heads of Sedum, at least not while I was watching.
The Parish Council would do well to appoint a Foreign Secretary to deal with all the unusual visiting birds from overseas. First the stork and now a pair of most unexpected parakeets. Hilary Woodall alerted me on 21st September that two strange birds were to be seen in the tall tree behind the churchyard. I went along to join her and Peter Barton to look at these oddities. At first they gave the impression of being birds of prey, as all parrots do from a distance. In the morning light, coming partly from behind the birds, I thought of the overall colour as grey and the African grey parrot came to mind. But that has a black beak and these two, even at a considerable distance lurking among the leaves definitely showed their bright red beaks. At one point one of them flew off trailing its long tail behind. John Chappell sent me some photographs of both birds. At that time they must have been much lower down than the treetop on which I saw them, for they were interested in some ripe and ripening blackberries. John said that Ann and John Watts saw them first. From the photograph in which both birds are shown it is obvious that one, presumably the male is intensely blue while the female is indeed grey. I spent a lot of time on the internet looking at parrot pictures but without success. However, John Chappell identified them as Indian Blue ring-necked parakeets. There can be little doubt that they were escapes from somebody’s aviary and one must hope that they eventually found their way back.
While looking at the parakeets Christine Chappell saw a hobby, which, along with the merlin, is a smaller hawk than the more familiar kestrel. The last time I saw a hobby was some 10 years ago when Dave and Joan Drake found a dead one near the village hall.
After I had mentioned the departing swallows and housemartins in last month’s notes, Mike Keene told me he had seen about a 100 housemartins assembled on a silver birch near his house. As if on a signal, they all took off together and flew purposefully away. This is typical migration behaviour and was once spectacularly observed by the late Bill and Maureen Putnam in central France when about 20 000 swallows took off together and streaked away to the south.
The jay used to be seen (and its unmusical croaking heard) in Frampton at intervals best described as occasional. But I have not seen any, nor received reports of sightings for several years now. It is a somewhat shy bird which does not hang about when you have spotted it. It was a surprise to see two jays in two days in widely separated locations. The first one was on a shrub in a very well-kept cemetery in southern Germany. This one was not very shy and stayed where it was until we were quite close. The other one was on the lawn at my son’s house in south west London. This one was gone so quickly that I only caught a half-second glimpse but Andrew had identified it. People who have raised and kept jays at home have reported their astonishing ability to mimic sound of other birds, of mammals and even of inanimate objects like doorbells and telephones. One such report tells of a disturbance at night in an outdoor aviary. When the owner dashed out with a torch the resident jay distinctly made the “ker-wick” sound of a tawny owl, as if to indicate what had been the cause of the uproar. Jays feed on seeds and insects and in the autumn avidly collect acorns which they hide for use in winter. They have an uncanny ability to locate their stores (just like squirrels) but a few are inevitably left behind which is a good thing for the regeneration of oak woods.
July 25th was a Lady Day of a kind, painted ladies that is. These handsome butterflies are having one of those years in which large numbers are present in the country. The ones which we are seeing just now are the offspring of the immigrants which came from the continent in the early summer, perhaps a little earlier than usual; but then the hot weather in late June may have speeded up development of the caterpillars and chrysalises. On that Saturday Doreen Smith and I drove through the park and saw quite substantial numbers of Painted Ladies on stands of thistles. This increased to great crowds by the time we came to the Buddleia bushes by the roadside at Southover. There was no way in which we could count them. Among them were several peacock butterflies, a few tortoiseshells and a single red admiral. The cabbage whites, regrettably, are beginning to fly in numbers and we saw a few of the little dark gatekeepers. What extraordinary names butterflies have! Jeanette Grace gave me a list of butterflies which she had seen in her garden in early August. They included the ones I have already mentioned, but she reports the red admirals as “numerous”. Additionally there were 2 large skippers, 2 pairs of chalkhill blues and 4 small coppers on the list, as well as numerous gatekeepers. To all these I can add some meadow browns from my garden. The second brood of the 2009 brimstones are also appearing and Jeanette has seen some orange tips, rather late in the season for them. Among the moths there are magpies, six-spot burnets and garden tigers from the Graces’ garden and the humming bird hawk moth from mine, the first time on a horribly wet day when no self-respecting moth should be flying and the second time on a pleasant summery Sunday. A silver-Y moth appeared in our bathroom one night. The little whitish mark from which it takes its name was quite conspicuous on the forewing. I wonder whether anyone else has noticed that when many painted ladies and tortoiseshells are feeding together on Buddleia, the painted ladies are by and large higher up than the tortoiseshells.
During the last few days of July Rene Green told me that a single daffodil was in flower in Colin and Heather Pook’s drive. I went to have a look and sure enough, there it was among the more summer-flowering plants. What had made throw up another flower about 4 months after its due season? Mike Keene sent me a photo of a plant with a few long narrow leaves at the top of the stem. Held in the middle of the few leaves a cluster of what I took to be flower buds of one of the wild growing leeks. I don’t think they are very common.
These are supposed to be bird notes but there is not much to report. The small birds about which we make such a fuss in the winter are still there but almost impossible to spot in the dense August foliage. I sometimes see a wren flitting away into the hedge and sometimes robins venture out, but apart from that most of what we see are ground-feeding birds such as blackbirds, magpies, pied wagtails. Of course rooks, carrion crows and woodpigeons are everywhere, summer and winter! An interesting sidelight is that we seem to have a resident kestrel across the road in Davis Hooper’s plantation and also at least one buzzard. I saw this one flying right across my lawn at a height of about 10 feet.
A recent slight accident stopped me from taking my occasional walks in the park, but when I resumed in mid-July it was on one of those magical days of bright sunlight with a moderate breeze blowing. The tall willows which fringe the park on the north side are among the glories of Frampton. The wind blew across the whitish-green leaves just as it might across a cornfield. It reminded of the wave-like movement of the little hairs called cilia on the single-celled microscopic creatures known as Paramecium. They propel themselves through the water in this way; the wafting of the cilia is called the metachronal rhythm which is one of the few scientific terms with a touch of poetry about them. Strange thoughts on a bright day. On the same occasion I watched some very nearly adult mallard ducklings and some equally near-mature moorhen chicks feeding peaceably together on the river below the stone bridge. No dark thoughts here about violent behaviour just because the young birds belonged to different gangs. By contrast, there was an adult female mallard viciously setting about another female, presumably because she had strayed from her territory and come too near the ducklings. “Take that, you bitch, you don’t belong to this post code.” We are familiar enough with rooks noisily harassing buzzards in flight, but recently I saw a new version of this. Two rooks were chasing a buzzard in and out of dense willow foliage. Whenever the buzzard settled well out of sight on a branch, the rooks found him and winkled him out again, and all this without a sound from any of the birds.
Reverting to ducks for a moment: the Lazenby’s and Maureen Stephens at Southover had a mallard duck hatching 10 ducklings in their garden. By early July there were 6 of the youngsters left and the mother bird had become very tame, even wandering into the kitchen uninvited. The swallows are really well established now: I saw about 20 on a drizzly day sitting on a barbed wire fence in the park while a pied wagtail was patrolling just underneath in the wet grass. At the beginning of the summer we thought that there was a shortage of housemartins but Mike Keene told me that they were nesting again on the houses at the west end of the village, perhaps a little later than usual, but by mid-July at least one brood had already fledged.
Rene Green brought back an article taken from the Times of Malta in which a big invasion of painted lady butterflies was recorded. These were on a migration route, and indeed a much larger number than usual have been seen in this country. I have only managed to see one, and that poor thing was in its death throes. In late June there was a comma butterfly in my garden in the early morning of a sunny day. Dave Drake has an unusual photograph of three hoverflies in formation: one feeding on a flower and the other two hovering precisely above it at different heights and facing in the same direction. Liz Napier has seen an adder in her garden. They have been seen before in the Frampton area, but not very often and, other than keeping dogs away from them, are best left alone.
I won’t disinter the old controversy about whether to go on feeding peanuts, fat balls, Niger seeds and mixed seeds through the summer. Some people say that it makes birds too reliant on humans, others that feeding throughout the year is a good way of keeping birds in the garden where they are relatively protected. Cats and Sparrowhawks are counter-arguments. I have not emptied my peanut feeders nor the Niger seeds. The result is that both kinds of bird food are down to less than a third of each feeder. Birds now come seldom to the feeders, tits not at all, which makes me think that they find plenty of food elsewhere. However, a nuthatch very occasionally drops in for a snack of peanuts and a single goldfinch enjoys the Niger seeds, but not often, and never in small groups as in the depths of winter.
I read about some remarkable experiments at Cambridge University which suggest that rooks might well rival chimpanzees in problem-solving skills. Four hand-reared rooks were each presented with a transparent tube and a collection of stones, one of which fitted the tube and if this was dropped into the tube a worm was released at the other end. Each rook solved this problem at the first attempt. Another test involved a narrow bucket tall enough to prevent the rooks reaching the bottom with their beaks. In the bucket were some worms and next to the bucket a length of wire. The rooks manipulated the wire into hook-shaped ends and used them to fish out the worms. Chimpanzees have scarcely reached that stage: they merely use twigs to stick into termite nests and lick off the insects. A similar type of behaviour has previously been observed in a species of crow in New Caledonia, but of course the wire-bending trick is a great advance on this. Rooks are far from beautiful, but then, beauty and brains don’t necessarily go together.
Gillian Winsey reports the re-appearance, after some years, of two hares (hopefully male and female) in the field opposite their house.
The first dragonflies to appear in the summer are usually the broad-bodied chaser (Libellula depressa). I saw two females on 8th June, a bright and warm day. The predominant colour of the females is light brown on the abdomen where the male is sky blue. Joan and Dave Drake showed some of us the brilliantly fluorescent green emerald beetles on their mint leaves. They are confined to mint and do very little damage but gladden the heart by their sheer beauty.
Last month I mentioned the cuckoo heard by Kim Elliott at Poundbury in early April. So seldom has the cuckoo been heard in Frampton in the last few years that I was inclined to think that the Poundbury one was a one-off. Not so. On 1st May, the most appropriate day for the cuckoo, Paul and Susie Stopford-Adams heard it twice at Steppes Farm in the early morning. That’s not all. Only three days later David and Joan Drake, John Chappell and John Watts heard it in their area. I’ve been listening carefully but Village News readers know all about my bad luck by now.
The marsh tit has been a very occasional visitor to my feeding stations: it appeared very briefly on a nut feeder on 4th May. Also in early May I had endless fun watching a particularly greedy young robin being fed by its parent. There was not the slightest reason why it should not have done its own pecking at the fat ball. It was perfectly capable of flying around outside our kitchen window, but I suppose being fed every 30 seconds was easy pickings. In early May the field opposite the village was being ploughed. This was the signal for crowds of gulls to appear in order to feed on worms and other invertebrates turned up by the plough. I attempted to estimate their number by counting a proportion and then multiplying. I arrived at a figure of between 150 and 200. They were mostly black-headed but with a few great black-backed. All the while a buzzard was circling overhead waiting for an opportunity to join in, but no luck! Talking of birds of prey, Mike Wright sent me a picture of a hawk with the leather tresses and bells of a trained hawk on its legs. Of all the unexpected places, it was photographed on a wall at Somerset House in the Strand. No doubt the motive was to discourage the London pigeons from fouling the stonework. The same low-tech method is used by the RAF on airfields to lessen the danger of bird strikes on take-off or landing.
I mentioned the two swans in the river which looked as though they might be preparing to nest. This turned out to be a false alarm. I saw them again this month lower down near the stone bridge slowly swimming upstream with no sign of the female pen settling on a nest. But I did see a female mallard with 8 ducklings on the river near the white bridge. In fact they all swam downstream under the bridge. The youngsters were perhaps 3 weeks old and very lively. They may well have been the same family that Doreen Smith spotted some time earlier. Another fine duck story came from David Drake. He saw a female with some very tiny ducklings attempting to cross the road near his house. He and Joan did the right thing in picking them all up and depositing them in the river. The swallows are well settled now. Gillian Winsey reported her usual residents in the stable as early as 9th April. By early May I saw a group of about 6 swooping low over the ground next to the park track. They exhibited a sort of humming bird behaviour, hovering briefly next to the growing vegetation just as though they were picking insects off the leaves.
The speckled wood butterfly (brown with yellow spots) is not exactly uncommon. I have seen it repeatedly in Metlands Wood and occasionally in my garden but I hardly expected it in the grounds of the County Hospital in Dorchester, on a warm, but not particularly sunny day. The orange tips seem to be unusually plentiful this year, with perhaps slightly more females (all white, but smaller than a cabbage white) than the males with the orange tips to their forewings.
First things first. Frampton has now joined the limited number of places which have welcomed vagrants. This rather unflattering term is applied to birds which appear spontaneously in singles or very small numbers well outside their normal range. On the morning of 17th April a single white stork appeared before 8 a.m. in the field opposite Tony and Jeanette Grace’s house. In accordance with best twitcher practice they rang round to tell people to come and see. Soon a little party had assembled, including John Chappell with his camera and a little later Mike Keene, who was also lucky enough to get some excellent shots, including one when the stork took off and flew in the direction of Bradford Peverell. This would have been before 9 a.m. The white stork is unmistakeable: a little bigger than a heron, with a white head, neck and back, jet-black flight feathers and conspicuous long red beak and legs. It paced around the meadow in its deliberate way, and looked very much as though it had found small creatures to feed on. Storks spend the northern winter in Africa and breed in Europe as far west as eastern France, Germany, Denmark, Austria and then in quite substantial numbers all over the Balkans. They like to build their untidy twiggy nests on structures associated with human activities, such as roofs, chimney pots, telegraph poles and cartwheels deliberately mounted on tall poles by farmers in the Balkans. Only two attempts at nesting have been recorded in this country, a successful one on the roof of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh in 1416 and an unsuccessful one in West Yorkshire in 2004. The stork is mentioned in only three of my bird books, the Peterson Guide to Birds of Britain and Europe (obviously), Birds Britannica published in 2005 (which says that in a good year there are about 50 records of storks in this country), and my modern edition of John Gould’s mid-19th century engravings of Birds of Great Britain. This one shows an adult and two nestlings which are almost unbelievably ugly.
I saw a single brambling on the top of one of the tall lime trees at the top of the park track. The breast was markedly more orange than that of a male chaffinch, and the head darker. A sign of advancing spring is the chiffchaff giving voice to its two-note call. Gillian Winsey heard it on 16th March at Metlands and I have picked it up since then at my end of the village. On 2nd April Kim Elliott rang me up to say that he had heard the cuckoo at 6.32 a.m. on Poundbury. Someone else told him that he had also heard the cuckoo at Charminster on the same day. What a contrast last year when there were no reports at all of the cuckoo in our area. I spotted two grey partridges crossing the road on the way to Maiden Newton at the end of March. This was unusual because the greys are outnumbered by the red-leggeds in most parts of the country now. Unusual, too, was the sight of an immature but full-grown goldfinch on my Niger seed feeder. It differs from the adult in displaying only the yellow wing bar, with no markings on the head at all. It is buff below, shading into brown on the upper parts. Ann Harris showed me a photo she had taken in her garden of a sparrowhawk. Apparently it just sat there on the bird feeder, presumably waiting for its lunch (a small bird) to arrive (as if!!). In the end Ann had to shoo it away. The swallows are now well established. Peter Cox phoned on 11th April to tell me that Audrey had seen a single one that morning. As it happens I saw one on the same day, sitting on a wire between Sydling and Frampton. No doubt other sightings before that date would have been of swallows on passage from their winter quarters. By the following weekend I counted about 10 in flight above the stone bridge, with a single housemartin among them. I was intrigued to see two mallard drakes on the river peaceably feeding together. More usually at this time of the year when you see two males, they are hanging around a female and show signs of aggression. I wondered about these two drakes. Would you call that a civil partnership? A pair (definitely!) of swans seem to have settled on a weedy island in the river above the stone bridge. It will be worth watching to see if a family of cygnets appears. I believe the usual incubation period is 47 days.
I have not seen a tortoiseshell butterfly since the one I reported last month. They have indeed become less common and nobody knows why. On the other hand, brimstones and peacocks have been plentiful and the orangetips began to fly a little before mid-April.
On a wildflower topic: every year we have seen the cuckooflower (aka lady’s smock) in the wet field on the right of the park track before you get to the stone bridge, but this year they are unusually plentiful, spreading right along the northern edge of the field and into David Hooper’s paddock. This mirrors the situation on Dorchester Weir where Doreen Smith has seen great crowds of these handsome pale lilac flowers which are said to bloom when the cuckoo arrives.
Strange reversal of roles:- moorhens are normally waterside birds which stray onto adjacent grassland quite frequently. Wrens are garden and hedgerow birds which flit neurotically in and out of dense foliage. However, one morning I saw a moorhen quietly stalking around on our lawn, perhaps looking for worms. A few days later a wren dashed around the dead vegetation on the north bank of the river only a few yards below the stone bridge. I watched it for fully 10 minutes during which time it was often within half an inch of the water surface.
John and Christine Chappell were fortunate to see a black redstart on a garage roof next to their garden. John managed to get a very good photograph of it. It is by no means a rare bird, it is just a matter of people seeing it rather rarely. The only one I ever saw in this area was near Steppes Farm about 20 years ago. John and Christine also spotted no fewer than three kingfishers near the stone bridge. Two seemed to be marking out a territory and one was fishing in the river.
The past winter has been a thin season for egrets. They have been around in numbers of less tan half a dozen (except for the flock seen by Mike Keene in the field behind his house, and reported previously in these notes). However, Peter Cox saw about 10 flying upstream at dusk one evening. My guess would be that they were making for some riverside trees to roost for the night.
One sunny morning I made a special effort to spot the lapwings which so many people have seen on Dorchester Weir. There were just a few; nothing like the large assemblies seen by others, and indeed back on their former stamping ground in the field on the left of the Dorchester by-pass just below the Monkey’s Jump, observed by Tony Warne. What struck me that morning on the Weir was that there were a good many greater black-backed gulls scattered among the hundreds of black headed. One doesn’t always see the g.b-b gulls in substantial numbers away from the coast.
I used to watch little bands of siskins in the winter, feeding on the remains of alder seeds near the stone bridge, but not for many years. It was therefore consoling to hear that they have not deserted us; Gillian Winsey saw a pair on the nut feeder in her garden.
An extraordinary report came from Doreen Smith’s brother who lives near Bristol. He saw a bush which bore red berries almost covered in waxwings. These striking birds with their yellow tails and bright red spots on the wings and their black hat-like crests are native to Scandinavia and come to Britain in some years when their local food supply fails. In some waxwing outbreak years very large numbers arrive and eat anything with red berries, like cotoneaster or pyracantha, at a prodigious rate, up to 1000 berries in a day.
The bumble bees made use of the sunny weather in late February. I saw a large buff-tailed one in my garden on 20th February and they have been regular ever since. I am not familiar enough with the different bumble bee species to identify them properly; I just become aware that they differ in size and the colour of their backsides. The first butterfly was, as might be expected, a brimstone seen by my neighbour Lois Bullivant on 23rd February. By the time I got there it was gone, to nobody’s surprise. I’m always unlucky. To make up for it I saw a brimstone and a tortoiseshell on 16th March. Talking of tortoiseshells, did anyone else notice one fluttering about in the village hall during a performance of the pantomime? It must have been hibernating among the rafters and woken up by the heat given off by the stage lights.
An interesting story came from Alan, son of the late Frank Blundell, who is a regular reader of the Frampton Village News. It deserves to be quoted in full, and if anyone can explain it, I should be glad to hear. “….a strange experience in June in the Lake District. The day after a violent storm we went up high above Ullswater and found swarms of small brown caterpillars all over the hillside. Great clumps on the paths and even in pools as though they had been deposited by the storm. On the opposite hillside there was a great gathering of gulls and some crows – more and more arriving from down in the valley until the whole hill was covered. They seemed not to be eating anything – just waiting. Then suddenly, without being scared by an intruder, they flew off in a huge mass quite quietly up the valley.”
There is a sequel to the incident I described last October. The body of “young” kestrel which did not survive the night of 19th September found its way to the British Trust for Ornithology who reported the details of the ring on the bird’s leg to Peter Wren. It seems that it was ringed as a nestling in June 2002 at Chapperton Down on Salisbury Plain, a distance of about 41 miles from Frampton and indicating a lifetime of about 6 years and 3 months, so obviously not a young bird.
The plague of starlings disappeared about the time of the onset of the great freeze at the beginning of January. I now see them in ones and twos in the park. The recent TV programme “Swarm” featured the starlings of Rome to which I referred last month. The mess under the trees on which they settled for the night can be imagined. The Italians’ countermeasures were intriguing. People in space suits went round the nocturnal city streets sounding starling alarm calls on outsize loud hailers, whereupon the birds took off again in great flocks, no doubt to make the mess all over again in the suburbs.
My bird feeders went up in the garden before the cold weather. I had bought some new “squirrel-proof” feeders. The one with the peanuts is patronised by small birds much as last year but the one which takes small seeds goes down at such a rate that it has to be refilled once, and often twice, a day. The main villains are a pair of nuthatches which feed in the most untidy manner, spilling lots of seeds on the ground which is good for dunnocks, occasional sparrows, blackbirds, robins, chaffinches and even a magnificent cock pheasant who calls regularly. The coal tits are much more numerous than last year while the blue and great tits are present in nearly the same numbers. A marsh tit comes regularly and goldfinches patronise the Nijer seed feeder, which, surprisingly is also visited by a robin. Greenfinches come and go, but I have seen no long-tailed tits so far this season.
The great spotted woodpeckers in the park start their hammering on the park trees whenever they think it’s spring: this time on Christmas Eve! The mallard have started to pair up and a pristine grey wagtail is also seen quite often on the river. The river has become a highway for cormorants, Joan Drake has seen up to 8 at a time. I see them in singles or pairs. On 19th December Jeanette Grace saw a treecreeper in her garden, the first in years. My own garden used to be home to treecreepers over 10 years ago. Jeanette had also spotted a female bullfinch, rather an uncommon sight these days.
The snipe has made a welcome reappearance: John and Christine Chappell saw one in a sedge patch near Peacock Lodge. The Frampton water meadows used to be regular haunts. On the same day they saw two teal by the stone bridge. Years ago I saw teal regularly from Muckleford bridge.
The egrets have begun to come back to our valley. I see a single one occasionally by the river or perching on a tree, but things are different behind Mike Keene’s house. There the cattle are churning up the ground, so allowing egrets to feed on the worms, slugs and other invertebrates brought to the surface. Mike has counted up to 14 in that field and even more, perhaps 20 in the field above the railway line. He sent me a wonderful photo of four egrets preening and sunbathing.