Goldfinches

View from Charlotte's
View from Charlotte’s Ice Cream Parlour, Whitley, on Monday.

We’ve recently started feeding the birds again after taking a break over the summer. This was partly to reseed the bare patch in the lawn trampled by the pheasants that had spent so long pacing about in tight circles below the feeders, pecking at the spilt sunflower hearts but also because two or three small mounds of earth had appeared at the edge of the lawn.

We thought that this might be a sign that brown rats were moving in but a neighbour has since told me that at that time there was a lot of mole activity in his garden, which is the most likely explanation as there were only piles of soil but no sign of any entrance holes.

Today the feeders were visited by coal tits, blue tits, great tits, nuthatch and greenfinch but outnumbering all of them were goldfinches. At one stage all eight perches on the feeders were occupied by them, with another ten on the ground below and six or seven waiting their turn in the branches of the crab apple.

Pigeon Food Pyramid

At breakfast time, a loose flock of wood pigeons flew over the house, followed later by a grey heron, which appeared to be struggling to clear our roof.

Top Predator

Calder & Hebble Navigation at the Strands, Horbury Bridge.

sparrowhawkThis evening down by the canal, a sparrowhawk perched briefly in a tree then flew off on its rounds. I suspect that a sparrowhawk killed the pigeon that we found on our back lawn a few days ago. It’s not going to be short of prey with so many wood pigeons about.

Buzzards at Breakfast-time

8.00 a.m.: A sparrowhawk flies over the rooftops followed by a loose flock of smaller birds, which appear to be mobbing it. The sparrowhawk swoops down on one of them, but misses out on its breakfast.

On the sunflower heart feeders, a pair of bullfinches are joined by a siskin.

8.45 a.m.: A buzzard circles over farmland beyond the houses. Buzzards are such regulars now but because I first got familiar with them in the Lake District and on Speyside, at a time when they were far less common than they are today, they still conjure up a feeling of wild places for me. It’s great to be able to sit on the sofa with a mug of tea after breakfast and see one soaring in the distance.

First Frogspawn

We had a single clump of frogspawn in the pond yesterday; today there are thirteen.

Buzzard v. Sparrowhawk

buzzardWhitley WoodWe glimpse a large brownish bird swooping up into the branches at the edge of a small wood in the Smithy Brook valley. It can’t be a grey partridge as they wouldn’t perch so high in a tree and it wasn’t small enough to be a mistle thrush.
sparrowhawkAs we walk on there’s a commotion; a buzzard is circling, gaining height and it’s in dispute with two much smaller birds of prey. They both look like sparrowhawks. sparrowhawkOne flies off down the valley the other returns to the wood while the buzzard heads off up the valley, presumably happy that it has shown them who is boss.

Sparrowhawk in the Fir Tree

sparrowhawklimesA sparrowhawk swoops down across my mum’s leafy back garden and perches in a tall fir, its head hidden amongst the branches as I draw it. In a neighbouring garden the tall lime trees have yet to start springing into leaf.

Sparrowhawk by the Pond

FujiFilm FinePix S6800

I HAD AN OPPORTUNITY to try the zoom on my new camera, the FujiFilm FinePix S6800, the day that I bought it (14 August) when a Sparrowhawk made a kill in the back garden.

At full zoom, 30x, I struggled to keep the camera still but as the Sparrowhawk seemed so intent on picking up every scrap of its kill I had time to get a tripod set up and I took about 20 minutes of film.

I missed the kill itself and missed filming the moment when the hawk finally flew off, perching briefly in next door’s sumac. It left only a few feathers, not enough for me to guess what its prey had been.

Mobbed

1.10 p.m., Horbury; A BARRED brown Sparrowhawk is being mobbed by a flock – a ‘charm’ but I’m sure that the Sparrowhawk doesn’t see it that way – of about 20 Goldfinches over the trees by the Memorial Park. It swoops over the town hall then soars up towards the convent, pausing occasionally at the top of its arc of flight, as if it’s considering stopping to hover like a Kestrel.

Blacklight

The new Field Guide to the Micro Moths of Great Britain and Ireland by Phil Sterling and Mark Parsons, illustrated by Richard Lewington, has inspired me to have a go at setting up a moth trap at the end of the garden in my recently mown and hacked back ‘meadow area’.

Having asked a couple of friends who’ve done a bit of moth trapping – in fact one of them has done moth surveys for a living since since he left college – I’ve decided to go for the cheaper but more fiddly option of making my own moth trap.

The basis of this is a low energy flourescent blacklight; a 20 watt ultra violet light as used in discos.

Martins

As I walk down the garden to close the greenhouse, 14 House Martins are circling and chattering a hundred feet above the meadow. A reminder that autumn hasn’t totally set in although it won’t be long before they set off back to Africa.

I pick a couple of Supersweet tomatoes in the greenhouse and a couple of raspberries from the canes as I walk past, none of which makes it back to the kitchen.

Sketchy Impressions

First page in a new A4 Pink Pig cartridge paper sketchbook.

By the way, apologies for the scrappy drawings but there’s a reason for these. I’m out of the habit of regular sketching, particularly of wildlife subjects so I decided that to get myself back in drawing mode for the autumn I’d go back to the main method that I used for my Wild West Yorkshire nature diary in the early years, drawing the day’s wildlife observations from memory in as simple a way as possible, in this case fountain pen and watercolour crayons.

To get over the time that I spend sitting at the computer writing and revising text, I decided that I’d also write my notes in the sketchbook.

Writing by hand makes me slow down and think about what I’m writing and it usually turns out to be coherent enough not to need the revisions and tweaks that I always find myself doing when I’m typing my thoughts directly to the computer.

Grey Feather

I PICKED UP this feather by the stream in Coxley Valley. The most obvious bird to leave a 6 inch (16cm) wing feather (a secondary?) like this in the wood would be a Pheasant but this feather is greyish brown and whitish, rather than the brown and tan that I’d expect a feather from a female Pheasant to be. If I’d picked it up on the coast I would have assumed it was from a juvenile gull, and of course it could be; they do fly over the wood.

Another thought was that it might be a Tawny Owl. We do get them in the wood but there’s no sign of a downy fringe to this feather, even under a microscope at 60x. It’s this downy fringe to the feathers that makes owls so silent in flight, compared, for instance, with the clattery take off of a Wood Pigeon.

It’s just occurred to me, looking out of the window that the pylon wires cross the valley at that point. Any bird sitting on the top wire – or for that matter in a tree-top below – could have dropped this while preening and one bird that will occasionally sit and preen on a perch overlooking the wood is a Sparrowhawk. The colour and pattern would be about right for a large female.

The adult female is dull brown on the upper wing, barred on the lower wing, so if you imagine this as a right wing feather the right (plain) side of the feather would show on the upper wing while the barred (left) side would be overlapped by the adjacent feather of the upper wing, so the barring would be visible only from below.

The Chocolate Brown Sketchbook

AFTER THE appropriately aubergine-coloured sketchbook that I used for our week in Greece, I’m starting a new pocket-sized sketchbook for urban excursions. At A6, about 4 x 6 inches, it’s no bigger than a chunky bar of chocolate and it has a chocolate-coloured banana paper cover.

A6 Pink Pig sketchbook

It’s literally a pocket-sized sketchbook and I’m trying to decide what would be the most portable form of colour to go with it.

This morning I took an ArtPen tin loaded with a selection of a dozen watercolour crayons but, for a subject like this anyway, they don’t work as well as watercolours. I try to mix an approximation for the grey of the sky by shading it with the lightest blue and ochre that my small selection of crayons allow.

I don’t find crayons anywhere near as versatile as watercolours. With watercolours you can add the smallest speck of ochre, crimson or blue to a grey mix to get the colour you’re after. You can then add water to get the tone or gradation of tones that you need.

Birdstrike

‘PTOMPH!

It’s happened again; a Goldfinch hits the patio windows and lies senseless on the patio. Luckily by the time we’ve had breakfast it has gradually recovered, looked around and, though we didn’t see it go, flown off.

In the afternoon it’s a Wood Pigeon that hits the window, leaving a dusty outline of its wingspan and a powder puff impression of it’s breast. The Wood Pigeons do this fairly regularly but never seem to come to any harm.

The photograph is the impression of a bird that hit the patio windows 6 weeks ago. You can even see an eye-ring in this picture. It might have been another pigeon but the eye-ring reminds me of a Sparrowhawk.

On the morning that this appeared a smaller impression, perhaps a Goldfinch appeared on the other window.

When you see the two impressions together it looks to me as if both birds hit the window together, the hawk chasing the finch.

In this over-enhanced version you can speculate that the Goldfinch had been on the feeder and the Sparrowhawk had swooped over the hedge. A moment of drama captured in feather impressions.

Snow White Feathers

Basketwork box, drawn at my mum's this afternoon.

IT SEEMS that white feathers didn’t camouflage this bird against the snow. My guess is that it was a Fantail Pigeon, killed by a Sparrowhawk, but as the feathers are near the back door at my mum’s some incident involving the bird hitting the window isn’t impossible.

Whatever it was, it happened on Sunday around 11 a.m.. I was painting at the school but when Barbara called on my mum she commented on the small area of snow that my mum had cleared by the back door but when she left an hour or so later small white feathers – like a fresh sprinkling of oversized snowflakes – had appeared. It wasn’t until today, when most of the snow had melted that we saw just how many feathers there were and that there were larger feathers amongst them.

Time for some Crime Scene Investigation:

Under the microscope this feather, which I think is a right secondary or possibly a tail feather, shows the tell-tale marks of having been plucked by a Sparrowhawk. It has twisted its beak around the base of the quill as it pulled out the feather.

Gull Feather CSI

I PICKED up this feather, a primary from the gull’s right wing,  on the pavement in front of the Bingley Arms, an old pub that stands on a narrow strip of land between the river and the canal at Horbury Bridge. Having a feather as a temporary bookmark in my sketchbook proved handy when I found myself sitting in a waiting room with nothing else available to draw.

The underside is a shade lighter. There’s a scallop-shaped indentation at the tip of the feather. Was this the result of the gull preening; tugging out an old feather that was past its best?

Under the microscope, half way down the unfeathered end of quill, you can see this scratch. Is the ‘V’-shaped impression on the underside of the quill an impression left by gull’s bill when it was preening?

Scratches like these around the base of a feather can be a sign that a sparrowhawk has gripped and twisted with its beak as it plucks feathers from it’s prey. Could this be evidence that the gull was taken by a sparrowhawk?

Smoking Shelter

A few yards from my suspected avian crime scene, down the side of the Bingley Arms, there’s a smoking shelter, one of the most picturesque I’ve seen, with petunias, geraniums and garden mint in pots and runner beans and sweet peas growing up the trellis.

If I was visiting a pub on a summer’s day, I’d find this more tempting than sitting in the public bar. But I’m still not tempted to take up smoking.