December 2010/January 2011
Long-tailed tits are in the news, it seems. Steve Isaacs who now lives in our erstwhile house in the Dorchester Road saw a little group of them in the garden on 29th December. I used to see them too on the various bird feeders but the end of December is certainly a record. No doubt Steve also sees many of the other small birds which used to be regulars in my day. Even more sensational is the appearance of three long-tailed tits on a small tree near the corner of Somerleigh Road and Princes Street. Who would ever have thought of these typical countryside and garden birds appearing right in the middle of the town, but they are absolutely vouched for by a near neighbour of mine in Hascombe Court. Another miraculous sighting was of a yellow wagtail seen by Gillian Winsey on the pavement outside the pet shop in Trinity Street. The grey wagtail has some yellow on the breast and we have seen it quite regularly on the river at Frampton, but we would have been astonished to spot one in the town. The yellow is really quite rare (I have only ever seen one – in the Midlands). Gillian was quite sure of its yellow neck which is the main distinguishing feature between it and the grey which has a black neck. How it came to appear in the middle of the town is a total mystery. There is one “townie” wagtail, the pied. I have seen it repeatedly in Bowling Alley Walk and in South Walks Road.
Ann Wheatcroft has seen a dipper in the river below Cruxton bridge. In Dorset we are very near the dipper’s southern limit, but it does occasionally turn up in the Frome. I last saw it near the weir by the pill box about 15 years ago. Ann also spotted 8 ravens in a field east of Cruxton, an unusually large number. In late November Dave Drake had an unusual collection of birds on his feeders, a greater spotted woodpecker, bullfinches and goldfinches among them. The Drakes also had a single fieldfare in their garden.
After the celebration of Helen’s life (I dislike the word funeral) I went to stay with my daughter Jane in York and had quite a lot of opportunities to do some birdwatching. A company of sparrows had their headquarters in a pyracantha hedge in the garden next to the big seed feeder and monopolised it for most of the day. Starlings were frequent visitors to the bird bath where they splashed vigorously about rather like a rugger team. Among the blackbirds was a male with a little white mark in the wing. He thought he was the owner of the garden and made it his business to chase the starlings away and, occasionally, even half a dozen or so pigeons feeding on the ground. Less frequent visitors were a few goldfinches, an occasional great tit and a blue tit and, surprisingly rarely, a robin.
The river Foss is a tributary of the Yorkshire Ouse and flows near the bottom of Jane’s road. Here there were so many mallard that one could not count them, encouraged by walkers with bits of bread. Also there were coots and moorhensand even a few tufted ducks at times, and about 40 greylag geese with a single stray pink-footed goose among them. The pink-foot is rather daintier with a darker neck and a yellowish-and-black beak contrasted with the bright yellow beak of the greylag. Also present were four Canada geese and two families of swans.
On the campus of the University of York is a large lake with its own population of waterfowl, including a group of snow geese imported when the University was founded in 1963, so there must have been a good many generations since then. Another import were Cayuga ducks, superficially similar to mallard but with no green on the neck of the male. Instead the neck is black and there is big white area at the base of the neck and on the breast. The snow geese have stuck to the lake but the Cayugas have spread: I saw one once on the Foss.
If you go to Photos/HybridGeese you will find an extensive report of various hybridisations of domestic and feral geese, with many photographs. One example is a cross between greylag and Canada which has been named Grenada. There is even a report of a cross between a swan and a goose, inevitably called a swoose.
We start with the migrating swallows as we do every year. The crucial observation was made by Paul Stopford-Adams who counted 112 strung along the electricity wires in the park at 9.30 a.m. on 18th September. They were not difficult to count as their white fronts showed up clearly against the background of the dark foliage of the trees. By mid-day they were all gone. At about the same time there were still swallows and housemartins around Whispering Heights, so Heather Pook told me. Right through the summer I had been watching small groups flying at varying heights over the Dorchester rooftops. My last sighting of a single one was on 20th September, but just over a week later swallows were still swooping low over the fields in west Cornwall, within about 100 yards of the cliff top. This is quite normal: they withdraw from inland areas and spend some days near the coast stocking up on insects ready for their long flight via the main western route over France, Spain and Gibraltar.
In the early days of the study of ecology scientists used a system of recording the relative abundance of plants or animals, denoted by the letters d,a,f,o,r standing for dominant, abundant, frequent, occasional, rare. This came back to me when I thought about the tit family. None of them are dominant. The only birds which could be described as dominant were chaffinches feasting on spilled grain in farmyards or sparrows in suburban gardens, both greatly reduced today. Of the tits in our gardens the blue and the great are perhaps abundant, followed by the coal and long-tailed which at times are frequent and the marsh is occasional. At least I found it so in my Dorchester Road garden and Gillian Winsey was pleased to see it return to her garden recently. There are some rare tits which are only seen in limited environments, such as the bearded in the reedbeds of East Anglia and the south-east.
Kim Elliott has also been in West Cornwall recently, just round the corner from us on the Helford River (not a river but a drowned fjord). They saw two ravens on the same tree at Frenchman’s Creek in 2009 and this year, and, must unusually, two little auks frequently and energetically diving near the boat. These tiny relatives of the puffins are very dumpy with an almost invisible beak but very clear-cut black and white markings - white throat, breast and belly and all the rest black. They occur in small numbers all round the coast but occasionally fly along the shore in great numbers, usually some hundreds of yards offshore. Kim also reported greenshank on the mud at low tide. In past years I have seen both greenshank and redshank at the head of the Helford River at Gweek.
The beautiful goldfinches are still in Frampton. In mid-September Mike Keene saw a group of about 20 in his garden. They almost always gather in little groups, but sometimes in big ones. One summer, years ago, I saw an entire hedgerow apparently covered with goldfinches, just above Maiden Newton station. When they all flew up I reckoned there must have been well over 500.
An interesting bird report arrived in late October by email from Malta, sent by Heather Pook. She told me of the return of their annual visitor, a melodious robin. No doubt Malta is at the southern end of its migration route which must be the east European one, so it might well have spent its summer in Russia. Of course in this country robins are resident all the year round. Sparrows appear to be dominant in Malta (see above). Heather’s masterstroke was to spot a Sardinian warbler. This looks very like a blackcap, except that it has a completely black head instead of just a cap and the rest of the plumage is predominantly grey-blue. Sardinian warblers are distributed over most of the Mediterranean but have been recorded in this country as a rare vagrant. I was glad to hear from Heather that the shooting of small birds by the Maltese seems to have decreased somewhat. The slaughter of migrating birds in the central Mediterranean used to be quite horrific.
Towards the end of October Mike Keene sent me an excellent photograph of a group of about a dozen ladybirds clustered close together around an air vent on a window frame. These little beetles often exhibit this kind of assembly in the autumn and stay there until the following spring. Mike’s group showed several kinds with different numbers of black spots, including the somewhat less common two-spot variety.
The recent BBC series Birds Britannica began with garden birds. It was a delight to see superb shots of all my little Dorchester Road friends: the great, blue, coal, long-tailed and marsh tit, the greenfinch, chaffinch, bullfinch, goldfinch, the dunnock with its disgusting sexual manners and quite a detailed dissertation on the robin. The producers did not neglect the less frequent visitors like nuthatches and the green and great spotted woodpeckers. Great play was made of the decline in numbers of the house sparrow. Once they were everywhere and nobody bothered to watch them until people suddenly realised that they had become less common. The reason, it turned out, was that the nestlings were dying of starvation because the adults found it difficult to find enough insect food. Until the point was made on the programme, I had not realised that garden birds are a relatively recent grouping. In a state of nature the habitat of most of them would be woodland edges. Come to think of it, gardens in the countryside in centuries gone by would be the formal gardens of the great houses, not really a suitable habitat of many bird species. By the 19th century farm labourers were too poor and their hours of work too long to allow them to maintain gardens. I should think that cottage gardens did not really come into their own until about the beginning of the 20th century. As for the epicentre of garden birdwatching, the outer suburbs of the big cities, it is clear that these gardens hardly existed until the suburbs began to spring up after World War I. Finally, it is only about during the last 30 or so years that we have started to feed garden birds and a multi-million pound industry to supply a bewildering variety of specialised bird food has grown up, quite apart from ever more fanciful bird feeders.
The electricity pole in Oscar and Gillian Winsey’s garden has long been of interest to greater spotted woodpeckers. The wood is too hard for them to attempt to excavate nest holes but tiny insects lurk in the little crevices. Gillian noticed an unusual reversal of roles between the woodpeckers. The green, usually seen on lawns foraging for ants, was busying itself on the pole while the great spotted was on the ground below, perhaps feeding on the items dropped by its green cousin. In fact there were two greens, one of them less definitely coloured, with the red back of the head rather paler, and therefore probably a juvenile. They were rather wet, possibly from a bath in the stream and were busy drying themselves and even hanging on with one foot while scratching with the other.
Tony Grace sent me an amazing photograph of a slowworm in his garden while it was eating an earthworm. About half the worm was already gone. I looked up the usual diet of slowworms and found that they subsist mainly on slugs. Surely they can’t be called slowworms because they eat slow-moving prey! Be that as it may, it is obviously a protein-rich diet, so that there are probably long intervals between meals which is why we don’t often see them feeding..
Ravens are far and away the largest, and least often seen, of the crow family. My own last observation was at Golden Cap about three or four years ago, until early August when I saw a pair above the gardens at Kingston Maurward. The first impression was of the stately flight of a pair of birds of prey but all of a sudden they started to tumble about the sky for all they world as if they were a pair of stunt pilots. Indeed my first thought was of buzzards but the briefest glance through the binoculars revealed the overall black colour and the wedge shaped tail. My guess would be that they were flying at about 1500 feet.
Strange goings-on in John Watts’ garden in Church Lane. Late one evening two badgers were fighting noisily on the lawn and had to be made to leave. Another noisy badger activity in the small hours was an individual chomping away at the bottom of the wooden gate and the fence. John’s theory is that the dry weather has driven worms, their usual diet, deep underground, so that the badgers are desperate for food.
It has been on the whole a poor year for butterflies generally. Indeed I pass a Buddleia in full flower every day with not so much as a cabbage white on it. However, there seems to have been something of a turnaround. A little while before the middle of August Doreen Smith told me that she had seen nine species in the space of 48 hours, namely brimstone (second brood), small tortoiseshell, red admiral, peacock, meadow brown, gatekeeper, speckled wood, all somewhere in Frampton parish and common blue and small skipper in the east of Dorset. Indeed Frampton seems to have staged a late resurgence of butterfly population. In Geoff and Lois Bullivant’s garden a few days before the end of August I saw all the usual suspects:- tortoisehelll, red admiral, peacock, small white, brimstone and just to round things off a humming bird hawk moth helping itself to plenty of nectar on the flowering buddleia
I have reported previously on the re-appearance of the spotted flycatcher at Metlands, after several years’ absence. It now seems that they have even bred successfully. Gillian saw three of them, presumably the original pair and one youngster. This is a welcome return to the state of affairs in the 1990s when spotted flycatchers bred regularly in the Rectory garden and at Crockway. A less happy circumstance was reported by Gillian from Metlands: the female blackcap (brown head!) which she had been watching for some time had flown into a window and killed itself
Buzzards in Frampton are really rather unremarkable birds: one sees them often, occasionally in quite large numbers, flying over the village or the park. However, I did not expect one over Dorchester. At the beginning of September the unmistakeable squarish wings with splayed outer flight feather were quite clear, approximately over the Cornhill at about 2000 feet at a guess. Come to think of it, there is no reason why the odd buzzard should not soar over the town; there must be plenty of small rodents or even items of carrion in people’s gardens or in public green spaces, leftovers from the depredations of cats.
Two unusual invertebrates have turned up and both of them posed for photographs. Mike Keene got a good shot of a female giant wood wasp. It is not a true wasp but belongs to the sawfly group, all the others are much smaller and rather insignificant (unless their caterpillar-like larvae have denuded your gooseberry leaves or certain kinds of roses - the gooseberry and rose sawfly larvae respectively). The giant wood wasp has an all-yellow abdomen and a black thorax and no waist like true wasps. The female has a long, stiff “tail” which takes the total length of the insect up to 38 mm. The “tail” is known as an ovipositor which the female uses to deposit her eggs into the rotting timber of Scots pine or larch or silver birch. The eggs hatch into larvae which feed on the decaying wood for up to three years before emerging as adults, often when the tree has been cut down. I used to see giant wood wasps regularly in my Frampton garden in the days when there was plenty of decaying timber in the wooden fence at the bottom, before the pavement was constructed. Another large and conspicuous wasp is the hornet. There is also a connection with old timber: the colonies are constructed in rotting tree trunks or similar places. Superficially hornets look like wasps but are half as big again and have a fierce sting. It is best to keep out of their way, especially if, like me, you are allergic to wasp stings. Hornets became very scarce but seem to be on the increase again in recent years. They are insect-of-prey, taking butterflies and suchlike from the air or from perches. Jeanette Grace told me that she and Tony observed a number of hornets in their garden and recently saw one making a meal of a wasp. Rather a bold step, perhaps akin to one of the newly released wolves in Scotland getting a fox.
Another of Tony Grace’s photographic triumphs was of a spider which I had certainly never seen before. It proved to be the wasp spider, scientific name Agriope bruennichi or Bruennich’s Agriope (how I should love to have a granddaughter called Agriope). It is about an inch long with green, silver and black stripes on the abdomen and alternating light and dark stripes on the legs. An unpleasant habit of the female (copied from the praying mantis?) is to wrap the very small brown male in silk during mating. The web is built amongst tufts of grass and catches mainly jumping insect such as grasshoppers. The distribution covers Europe and temperate Asia as far as Japan. Strange that we have this month two creatures with “wasp” in their names, neither of which is a true wasp. (WASPs in politically correct jargon are White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).
I started last month’s notes with the record of the spotted flycatcher at Metlands and remarked that this little bird had not been seen at Frampton for some years. As it happens, we can now nail down the exact date of its last appearance. Mike Keene has sent me a photograph of a spotted flycatcher taken near the stone bridge on 29th May 2008. This must have been quite near the time of its first appearance after migration, for these birds have always been the last summer visitors to arrive.
The cuckoo stopped calling at Frampton by the end of June as is almost always the case. However, things are different in east Dorset. Doreen Smith reports from her daughter’s house between Blandford and Wimborne that the cuckoo has been heard there every day in May and to within a couple of days of the end of June.
Did I say that there was a shortage of small birds in Dorchester? My computer sits on a desk just inside a window with a bit of sloping roof to one side. That is where a goldfinch landed briefly, looked at me, didn’t like what it saw, and flew off in about one second. How about that in the middle of Dorchester?
I can’t actually see any herring gull nests on the rooftops and chimney pots from our windows, but there can be no doubt that they do nest in Dorchester. This is borne out by the fact that I now increasingly see immature birds. First year herring gulls are notably speckled and by the second year they look grey all over from a distance but appear somewhat patterned through the binoculars. Their beaks and legs are much darker than the adults’. Immatures do not have the graceful sustained flight of the adults, rather they proceed in short hops or swoops. On the ground they are extremely awkward, with a agonised waddle rather like an arthritic duck. However, whatever their age, I don’t like what they do to my car several times a week. When I moved from Frampton I did not foresee a future of descending from the third floor with a bucket of soapy water and one of clean water and a roll of kitchen towel.
Many years ago I saw a pair of swifts mating in flight above the London Road in Dorchester. Swifts do all their feeding on the wing (flying insects exclusively) and it is said that they even sleep in flight. They do have nests for their young, usually under the eaves of buildings. All this was brought back to me while watching a group of about a dozen swifts energetically wheeling above the trees at the top of West Walks. As happens so often, the Dorchester swifts fly in the company of swallows. At least I think they are swallows: As they are a long way from my study window I can’t tell whether some might be housemartins. I believe swifts have not been as common over Frampton in recent years as they used to be.
I have borrowed from Gillian Winsey a few copies of a magazine called Bird Table, published by the British Trust for Ornithology. They are the people who collect observations from members’ gardens on which a good deal of the information we have about the numbers, and in many cases the decline in bird populations, depends. Besides the statistics, Bird Table also contains articles of general interest. One such is about the chaffinch. I had often wondered about its scientific name Fringilla (Greek for sparrow) coelebs (Latin for unmarried as in celibate). On the face of it this seems an inappropriate name, for in the spring the distinctive song of the male is often one of the earliest contributions to the dawn chorus. This is a territorial behaviour and in due course the females turn up in each territory. Nothing celibate about that. However, once the pair bonding is established, the male tends to take a back seat, contributing little to nest building and subsequently nothing to feeding the young. The female is kept very busy supplying caterpillars to the growing nestlings, 3 to 4 visits per hour, increasing to 8 or 9 as the chicks get nearer to fledging.
There is another aspect to male/female inequality. The bulk of the chaffinch population consists of residents but there is an element of migration too. In winter immigrants from Norway, Sweden and Finland arrive. The immigrant males on the whole stay in the eastern parts of the country whereas the females tend to advance further west. So it comes about that in the West Country and in Ireland there are female-dominant flocks in the winter whereas in East Anglia and the Home Counties the males may well be in the majority. Locally there seems to have been something of a decline in chaffinch numbers overall. Years ago hundreds regularly used to haunt the trees and the farmyard of Littlewood Farm (incidentally about equal numbers of males and females), but since the turn of the century I saw markedly fewer in that area.
It is now some years since I last heard of the dainty little spotted flycatcher in Frampton.. They were always the last of the summer visitors to arrive in our garden where I often watched them darting out from a tree branch to snatch an insect on the wing and return to the same perch. Gradually they withdrew to such outposts as the rectory garden and the Lewis’s cottage at Crockway. This year they have turned up again in the Metlands garden and Gillian Winsey has seen one picking up a beakful of dandelion petals – a very unusual behaviour pattern.
In Bowling Alley walk I saw a pied wagtail hopping about on the grass verge. This used to be a common sight in Dorchester but I have not seen one in recent years. Also swallows are flying above various car parks. You see, I am making a little progress with small birds, and I fancy that the dreaded gulls are slightly on the decrease. Perhaps they are retreating towards the coast to breed. I certainly hope so.
Mike Keene has had an email to the effect that a pair of cattle egrets had been spotted on the Fleet. This ties in nicely with our Frampton record of two years ago when a cattle egret appeared in the field behind Mike’s house among all the numerous little egrets.
Last year was marked by a dearth of cuckoos. I can recall only one rather vague report. This year is different. .Paul Stopford-Adams told me that he heard his first cuckoo at Hampton Plantation on 14th May. Paul counted 31 successive calls and another14 a week later at Cocked Hat coppice and again on 23rd May nearer to Steppes Farm. This time he lost count! The question arises whether Paul was listening to the same male cuckoo each time or a different one on each occasion. I think the locations are sufficiently close together to support the first of these theories On the day following Paul’s call I heard indirectly from Richard Rogers that he heard two cuckoos, one upstream and one downstream of his house at Notton. This points definitely to two males. The females are silent until about July when they very occasionally make a bubbling sound. I once heard this at West Compton. It is of course very well known that cuckoos lay eggs in other birds’ nests but an interesting sidelight is that every female cuckoo has a preference for a particular species’ nest, say a robin’s, and lays eggs which are quite similar in appearance to the robin’s.
I did not mount a special bird watching expedition to Frampton at the end of May but I did notice that the great majority of the swooping birds in North Park were housemartins but almost exclusively swallows around my old garden in Dorchester Road.
Another triumph for Richard Rogers at Notton. He spotted a male garganey on the Frome from his riverbank garden. The male has a very broad white stripe across the eye and is quite unmistakeable. This duck is the summer equivalent of the rather more familiar teal. The garganey has a wide distribution all over Europe and western Asia. We are on the extreme western edge of its distribution which accounts for its comparative rarity.
Another bird with a wide range is the bar-tailed godwit. The European race breeds in summer in the high Arctic and the American in Alaska and northern Canada. We sometimes see large numbers feeding around Poole Harbour in the winter but a recent study has revealed a remarkable insight into the migration of the American bar-tailed godwit. The Alaskan populations were assumed to travel to their winter feeding grounds in New Zealand and New South Wales by a series of stages taking them down along Japanese and east Asian coasts. Prior to departure from Alaska the birds fed hugely on clams and worms until they were like “flying softballs” according to researcher Robert E. Gill Jr. In 2006 he succeeded in implanting satellite transmitters in the birds and, sure enough, tracked them non-stop over the open Pacific Ocean, a distance of 7140 miles. Other Alaskan birds were found to cover similar or even bigger distances, but in the case of the Arctic tern and one species of Alaskan curlew, a certain amount of island hopping was involved.
In a recent Springwatch programme viewers were invited to submit photographs of familiar animals displaying unusual colours. One picture was of a completely albino sparrow, identical with the one that was seen a few years ago at Maiden Newton. Another showed a so-called leucistic chaffinch. John and Lesley Elliott saw one of these at Southover last winter. In their case the chaffinch’s colours (but not the pattern of the plumage) were diluted so that an overall orangey impression was created. The chaffinch on Springwatch had a white head down to the middle of its chest while the rest of the bird was normal. It is not often that the Frampton bird notes manage to anticipate a major television programme!
There is an addition to the “early swallows” records of last month. The very day after Michael Johnson saw a group of about 20 at Southover, Oscar and Gillian Winsey saw a similar number flying around the area of the stone bridge but they had gone an hour or two later. I wonder whether they were the same as the Southover contingent or another group, also on passage northwards. The river would be a good place to stop and refuel with insects near the surface of the water. A sort of swallows’ motorway service station. Since that time the resident swallows appeared in the Metlands stables, just after the middle of April. Mike Keene reports the usual housemartins looking for nesting sites at the western end of the village, and some swallows seemed to be regulars towards the end of April in the field between Mike’s house and the railway line. There are now two pairs of bullfinches in the Metlands garden, to the detriment of the buds on the flowering trees. In addition, a female blackcap was also seen at Metlands on 26 April, the first in half a dozen years. Presumably the male is also in the area. The first orange tip butterfly appeared at Metlands on 16 April, during the spell of sunny weather notorious for blowing the volcanic ash cloud our way.
I had a report from Joanne Holmes of the birds which appeared on her newly acquired nuts, seeds and bread feeding station. This is next door to our erstwhile garden in Dorchester Road and I had a nostalgic feeling that we were back there. There were blue and great tits, chaffinches, robins, nuthatches, blackbirds, pigeons and even a great spotted woodpecker. Joanne has only recently taken up birdwatching and still has her L plates up but as time goes on she will easily double the number of species seen on and below the feeder. Joanne asks why nuthatches feed upside down. I can’t think of an immediately convincing answer. Certainly they are well adapted with their long toes, two pointing forward and two backward. Perhaps, with their chunky heads nuthatches look menacing to other birds when upside down. Feeding tits, finches etc. always fly away very quickly when a nuthatch appears.
My first small bird seen in Dorchester turned out to be nothing more exciting than a sparrow in the Borough Gardens, but it was a start. Sure enough, a week or so later I saw an unusually dark juvenile robin scurrying in and out of some bushes on the way from the Borough Gardens to the Trinity Street car park.
If ever there were a total wipe-out of wildlife in our countryside, I am sure that one island of biodiversity would remain - the riverbank between Southover and Notton. Oonagh Hubbard told me that they have been watching two pairs of kingfishers nesting in the river margin. This is certainly unusual because normally kingfishers rule over quite long stretches of river. Their territories seldom overlap.
Shirley Legg has reported a pair of red-legged partridges being seen several times in her garden in Dorchester Road. The general opinion seems to be that they were introduced in the19th century for the shooting fraternity and have since then largely replaced the native grey partridge. The red legs are not often seen because the birds crouch low in the grass but their white faces and black eye stripes are unmistakeable.
If you saw a sparrowhawk swooping on a bird table, taking a great tit, dismembering it there and then and eating it, you would feel sorry for the little bird but it’s an event that happens from time to time in Frampton. But in Islington??? Surely not! Simon Bullivant, son of Geoff and Lois of Dorchester Road Frampton, has not only seen this in his north London garden but photographed it.. Ring-necked parakeets (originally escapees from an aviary) are not unusual in London, but they don’t often feed at bird tables; another unexpected observation by Simon.
Ann and Henry Wheatcroft found a dead bat on their patio. Clearly bats don’t fly into closed windows like birds sometimes do; their navigational skills are highly refined. There were no external marks to suggest how the bat might have died. This will have to remain a mystery. Incidentally, it turned out to be a common long-eared bat whose ears are three-quarters the length of the head and body combined. They are good at hovering and can pick caterpillars and adult insects off leaves. Another, much rarer species of long-eared bat is the grey, a few of which have been seen in Hampshire and Dorset, but the Wheatcrofts’ was definitely the common.
The system appears to work quite well; birdwatchers in Frampton phone regularly to report their observations. Michael Johnson rang on the last day of March to say that he had just spotted a group of about 20 swallows, the first record for 2010, unless there is any truth in the rumour I heard in Frampton the previous week that someone (who was it?) had seen a single swallow in the village. I felt rather sorry for Michael Johnson’s swallows flying north, as they usually do as early in the season as this, straight into the teeth of the late blast of winter which hit the country the day after the clocks went forward! In fact this sighting turned out to be no flash in the pan, for the very next day Richard Rogers saw a swallow from his house at Notton.
The first chiffchaff was heard on 19th March by Gillian Winsey and a few days later she both saw the nondescript little warbler and heard again its unmistakeable two-note call which I always think of as a musical inversion of the great tit’s call. Chiffchaffs have increasingly been overwintering in this country but they are silent until the spring. However, I think Gillian’s bird must have been a genuine traditional migrant returning. I doubt whether it would have survived the bitter weather we had for such a long time around the urn of the year.
I do miss the small birds in Dorchester but I was richly rewarded on a recent visit to Metlands. There, on Oscar and Gillian Winsey’s feeders, within the space of about two minutes, I saw chaffinch, greenfinch, goldfinch, great, blue, and coal tit and a dunnock on the ground. Gillian says that bullfinches also appear quite regularly in her garden, as of ten as not in pairs, but I did not see any on my visit in late March.
The tail end of winter was quite unusual weather-wise. There were some lovely sunny days in late March and then a real blast of winter as soon as the clocks went forward. Nevertheless, the first butterfly was spotted by Doreen Smith on 21st March; not unexpectedly it was a brimstone. I had to wait until 9th April for my first butterfly sighting, a tortoiseshell and a peacock within a couple of minutes of each other. Where else but in my old garden at Frampton!
Everyone who has had occasion to be in the area of the junction of Trinity Street and South Street in Dorchester will know that I get a great many opportunities, too many, one might say, of observing herring and lesser black-backed gulls and their behaviour. Both species of gulls prefer to perch on the ridges of roofs but I did see two herring gulls rather unusually sitting down on the roof of a car. I doubt whether the owner was very pleased. Even more bizarre was a herring gull which appeared to have Parkinson’s disease. Seen from our kitchen window on the third floor its right leg seemed to be vibrating. The binoculars revealed that both legs were drumming alternately on the ground. I concluded that it was a form of worm charming. Beating the ground rhythmically with a stout twig is supposed to bring worms to the surface. The gull did not choose its worming venue very intelligently, it was the hard and untidy grass verge of a car park. I thought I saw the bird very briefly picking something up with its beak but it could not have much of a reward for 10 minutes of this curious running on the spot.
I shall continue to be pleased to receive bird or insect reports from Frampton or elsewhere. The phone number again is 01305 250795 (not ….705, as in last month’s Village News, and the e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our new flat is well above the numerous car parks scattered around the old hospital site so that we look directly across at trrtops and rooftops. This ought to make birdwatching a doddle but so far this part of Dorchester has yielded very little. Everybody must be aware of the gulls that haunt the town hereabouts. There are two species, the large herring gulls and the smaller black-headed, without its chocolate-coloured head at this time of the year outside the breeding season. Really experienced observers can identify the stages in the growth of gulls: the immature birds do not show the pure white of the adults. I am not having much trouble so far with the various degrees of speckledness of the juveniles; all the birds around here are adults. The herring gulls make a habit of sitting on chimney pots and roof ridges but when they take off they often do so in very noisy groups as if they felt the need to compete with the ambulances and police cars. By contrast the black-headeds seem to spend a great deal of time in the air which may account for the state of my car parked outside the flats. There used to be about half a dozen rookeries in the trees at the South Street end of South Walks Road. These have been reduced to a single one in a tall horse chestnut tree. There is some nest building going on in this rookery. I had been expecting some jackdaws but have drawn a blank so far. As in Frampton, there is no shortage of pigeons but for some reason they are not as noisy as their country cousins. I used to detest their irritating cooing. A few blackbirds search around among the bark chips on the borders of our little green space outside the flats, but I do miss all the familiar small birds which made our garden in Dorchester Road such a pleasant place. So far I have not seen so much as a robin. Even the feeders which some people from the ground floor flats have put out remain deserted.
Fortunately I have not been kept short of news from Frampton. (Just in case anyone failed to keep last month’s Village News: my phone number is 01305 250 705). Gillian Winsey has the satisfaction of seeing the treecreepers back in her garden after an absence of several years. Christine Chappell also spotted this unmistakeable bird skilfully walking up a tree trunk in the park. Christine also told me hat she had seen a water rail in the river between Southover and Notton. This wader lurks among the waterside vegetation and is extremely hard to see in spite of its red beak and barred flanks. It may be because its body is exceptionally narrow that it can skulk unobserved among the reeds. The call is oddly like the squeal of a piglet. I have seeen a water rail occasionally near the stone bridge, many years ago, and once in the Sydling valley. Christine also reported that the beautiful grey wagtail is back in the river near the stone bridge. David Drake saw a mistle thrush in the field opposite the village hall. This bird is certainly bigger than the familiar song thrush and the black spots on the breast are more definitely outlined. They are less common than song thrushes but have been seen in Frampton on a number of occasions over the years. They are said to sing, less melodiously than the song thrush, from a perch at the top of a tree, especially in bad weather, hence the alternative name of stormcock. A bullfinch has been seen by Lois Bullivant in her garden, next to our erstwhile patch. T As I reported a month or two ago, the only one I ever saw there was dead, having flown into a window.
Mike Keene has been watching the field behind his house since before the cattle were allowed in, some while before the big freeze started. As in previous years, as the animals’ feet churned up the ground, so the birds turned up in some numbers to get what food they could from the exposed soil organisms. At first they were egrets and black-headed gulls, a few redwings and a lone bullfinch, but when the ground hardened in the frost they were replaced by an unusually large flock of lapwings. Mike thought there might well have been 200. This is rather a comforting thought because lapwings are thought to be very much on the decrease. Perhaps they are staging a local recovery. Many starlings turned up too along with more redwings and a couple of fieldfares. As soon as the cattle departed, it was as if the bird tap had been turned off. They disappeared pretty well overnight.
John and Christine Chappell saw a green sandpiper fly up from the flooded field behind Peacock Lodge, just the sort of environment from which you would expect its characteristic white rump to disappear as you approach. I have seen much the same thing in much the same place under much the same conditions, but years ago. On the same occasion the Chappells also saw a very large flock, possibly over 200 of a mixture of members of the thrush family. They were mainly redwing with a few fieldfares and some song thrushes. Both Mike and the Chappells’ counts of fieldfares were markedly lower than the very large flocks reported last month. Have they moved off to where the conditions are more favourable? John and Christine also encountered two buzzards on fence posts in the park with outstretched wings to dry them, rather in the manner of cormorants. Christine calls one of them The Mayor on account of its chest markings which resemble a chain of office.
John and Lesley Elliott were puzzled by a little group of chaffinches in their garden. One of the birds looked distinctly lighter in colour giving an overall orangey impression. I thought at first of a brambling but the dark head was not observed. John had enquired at the Portland bird observatory and had been told that the likeliest answer was a leucistic chaffinch. I looked up leucism and found that while it is uncommon, it does affect a number of small birds. Blackbirds are well known to exhibit degrees of albino variations which seem to be inherited, varying from a few white tail feathers to nearly white all over. Leucism is an albino-like condition in more highly patterned and coloured birds in which the condition seems to dilute all the colours. Thus the bright black and white wings of the chaffinch and its brownish breast (at least in the male) may very well work out as generally orange in a leucistic bird. Subsequently John e-mailed me a photo of this bird along with one of the normal chaffinches. It really did look very light in colour, even the legs were yellowish. The Elliotts also had a little grebe on their garden pond. This wildfowl with its characteristic square-cut rear end used to be very common on the river but I have not seen it for many years. One of its habits, seen by John and Lesley is the remarkable speed with which it dives; it takes well under a second to disappear completely and then turn up just as suddenly several yards away.
I have complained often enough about never seeing a bullfinch when so many other people spotted them regularly in their gardens. Finally I have managed to get one in my garden but alas it was dead. A male had flown into a window and killed itself. It makes an interesting contrast with the goldcrest reported by Liz Napier a little while ago. If you remember, it flew into a window but just knocked itself unconscious for a while. The bullfinch is probably about twice the weight of a goldcrest and therefore has twice the momentum in flight. No wonder an encounter with a sheet of glass proved fatal.
We are moving to Dorchester in the middle of February but I will try to continue these notes. I hope that bird watchers will continue to ring me up to report unusual sightings. The new address is 62, Hascombe Court, Somerleigh Road, Dorchester DT1 1AG. Phone 01305 250 795. I am sending out change of address notices but not to readers of the Frampton Village News, so I hope that everybody who needs to will make a note of the new address and phone number.
Alan Blundell who lives at Child Okeford and is the son of my late neighbour Frank has always maintained an interest in Frampton and gets a copy of the Village News every month. He usually sends me some bird observations at Christmastime and 2009 was no exception. Last spring Alan and Rosemary visited a country house in Shropshire where there was an ancient cannon in the grounds. A great tit had nested in the bottom of the barrel and could be seen disappearing with food for the chicks and reappearing rather like a cannon ball from the muzzle. The Blundells also saw a prey-carrying sparrowhawk being chased by a buzzard into a wood. A noisy altercation could be heard from the wood and the buzzard emerged, chased by a larger sparrowhawk, i.e. the female which is up to 4 inches bigger than the male.
Some years ago I wrote regularly about a conspicuously white-fronted buzzard which used to haunt the area near where the road to Toller Porcorum branches off the A356. Sometimes I spotted it in the valley leading from Maiden Newton to Wynford Eagle. A few days before Christmas I saw it again, or another one with similar colouring, very much nearer home, in fact sitting on a stout oak branch directly opposite our house. I watched it for at least 10 minutes before it dived to the ground out of sight. Most bird books confirm that buzzards are very variable and even that the colouring on the breast is often very light. David Drake showed me a fine photograph of a buzzard sitting on the ridge of his neighbour’s roof. This is somewhat of a rarity, as buzzards, though not particularly shy, don’t usually perch on structures made by humans, except, perhaps occasionally, fence posts. David’s other remarkable photograph was of a male bullfinch in his garden. It was one of a pair, which both he and Joan had seen in their garden. They are also in John Chappell’s garden. Bullfinches are somewhat on the decline, no doubt to the satisfaction of the fruit farmers, for they wreak considerable havoc among the buds of fruit trees in the spring.
My daughter Jane spotted a single fieldfare in her garden not far from the centre of York. This was highly unusual because fieldfares are almost never seen except in flocks, sometimes numbering hundreds, especially near the east coast of England. A solitary one in an unusual environment such as a city centre probably indicates that it somehow became separated from its flock and became lost. It did not suffer any deprivation from having landed in Jane’s garden for there had been a large amount of food put out for the more usual visitors. In fact the fieldfare sent the very quarrelsome resident group of blackbirds packing. A similarly aggressive fieldfare was seen by Gillian Winsey on her bird table. Fieldfares in large numbers have also returned to Frampton. The Stopford-Adamses tried to count their flock but gave up after 170+. The fact remains that by the next morning they had eaten all the cotoneaster berries. Also on cotoneaster were about 20-odd fieldfares, observed by John Chappell and by me, in the Dorchester Road a few doors up from us. These must have been the same ones seen by Cynthia Whyte behind her house. The geography seems right.
Helen and one of our recent visitors watched a green woodpecker busily feeding on our lawn for about 10 minutes one morning at the very end of December when the ground was frozen pretty hard. The woodpecker must have found it difficult to get anything very nutritious from amongst the stiff blades of grass. The other woodpecker, the great spotted, can now be heard drumming on the tree trunks in the park. I am astonished every year that these birds always start being heard at the turn of the year. It is as if they had a built-in calendar which tells them that spring is now beginning to get closer. I can’t believe that they react to the increasing day-length, for this effect surely will hardly be noticeable for several more weeks.
Reverting for a moment to the matter of buzzards perching on man-made objects, Colin Pook saw a pair on the roadside rail above the sluice gate at Grimstone where the Sydling stream comes out of its culvert on the west side of the road. Traffic had slowed down somewhat, so Colin drove quite slowly past the two buzzards, not more than a metre outside his nearside widow. Apparently what interested the buzzards was a dead rabbit by the side of the road and they might well have been waiting for a lull in the traffic to grab it and eat it up somewhere quieter. Buzzards are carrion feeders as much as they catch living prey.
Wendy Frampton saw a mistle thrush in her garden. This is markedly larger than the more familiar song thrush and the spots on the breast are more clearly defined. It is some years since I had a mistle thrush report from within our village.
Mike Keene is unusually well placed for birdwatching and photography. At this time of the year the cattle are put into the field behind his house and the number of birds immediately increases, no doubt because the animals churn up the soil and thus enable the birds to pick up small organisms. Before the cold weather egrets and black-headed gulls predominated, along with a few redwing and a single bullfinch (N.B. not far from Dave Drake’s garden – perhaps the same bird?) Once the freeze set in lapwings and starlings were in the majority accompanied by a small number of fieldfares. Frampton is obviously having an unusual fieldfare winter which reminds me of an occasion one November some 40 years ago on the Lincolnshire coast. Thousands of fieldfares arrived from the sea on their winter migration from Scandinavia (I have seen them in summer in their breeding grounds in Norway) and in 24 hours they stripped every sea buckthorn berry from the dense bushes along 3 miles of sand dunes.