Firequest Reloaded

The Harris gardens. Firecrest habitat?

The Harris gardens. Firecrest habitat?

On Friday morning I took a brief stroll in the Harris Garden before starting work, seeking to make up for the lepidopteron disaster that had occurred there the night before. As I passed the small pond along the northern fence of the garden, I heard a brief series of thin rising notes among the general hubbub of great tits and robins and wrens. It hinted at the presence of a firecrest.

Vying with goldcrest for the title of Britain’s smallest bird, I have to say that firecrests (sorry, goldcrests) are the better of the pair in every way: brighter, sharper, livelier, and blessed with the aura of prestige that comes with scarcity. They’re really very smart-looking, indeed; charming to watch too, flitting this way and that with short flicks of blurred wings, breaking occasionally into a hummingbird-like hover whilst they pluck some small insect morsel from a leaf.

Firecrests are protected under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife & Countryside Act as a rare breeding bird. But I’d suggest they are approaching moderately common in many parts of the southeast by now. A survey a few years ago put the number of pairs in the New Forest alone (where the species was first recorded breeding in Britain in 1962) at around 270. That’s certainly a good place to find them, but I’ve heard firecrests singing away in woods from Wiltshire to Oxfordshire to Kent, suggesting that a great many of the suitable habitat patches in our region must already be occupied.

IMG_2157The Berkshire Bird Atlas would seem to support that assumption, with the presence of breeding firecrests either proven or thought highly probable in 28 survey squares, including two right on the southern edge of Reading. Outside of the New Forest, our little county is probably the firecrest capital of Britain – a very happy state of affairs, especially considering that the most valuable and cherished position the firecrest has attained is that of one of my favourite birds.

For firecrest devotees such as myself, their continued success in Britain may yet be one of the silver linings – or perhaps gold, in this case – that sails in with the dark clouds of climate change. They tend to favour warmer, more humid climates, and outnumber goldcrests in southern regions of Europe. An interesting Croatian study showed that dominance increasing in mixed forests, so to give firecrests a further leg-up, perhaps we should be discouraging pure coniferous monocultures in southern England. As it happens, conservationists are already busy on that front, gradually seeking to weed them out in favour of native deciduous trees (as well as lowland heath, which in truth is somewhat less than helpful as firecrest breeding habitat, but is certainly desirable for other reasons).

IMG_1960The more I think about it, the more suitable Whiteknights Park – for the last 50 or so years the home of Reading University – seems for firecrests. The part-planted, part-natural mix of woodland that covers one corner of the campus, scattered with exotic conifers, tantalisingly resembles ‘Le Jardin Public’ in St Omer, near Calais in France, where I heard firecrests singing the spring before last. Their songs rose above the calls of serins and a short-toed treecreeper to serenade us whilst we munched on a fine haul from a nearby patisserie. That’s a scenario I wouldn’t mind recreating here in Reading, buttery cakes and all.

Enough daydreaming, and back to Friday morning. For a moment the general chorus hushed, and I listened to the firecrest – for, indeed, it was one – sing solo for a few minutes, the clear and distinct sound travelling around a tall holly whilst the bird itself remained out of sight. Eventually I caught a glimpse of it buzzing around the more open lower branches, and for a few seconds had an uninterrupted view as it paused in the sun, plumage glowing. Just as it darted back out of view, I almost simultaneously heard the song once more rising up from close to the treetop. This bird was clearly very fast, or perhaps it was throwing its voice. Or, more plausibly, there may have been two firecrests hanging around the edge of the Harris Garden on Friday morning.

So is this potentially suburban Reading’s first breeding pair of firecrests? We may simply have been blessed with such a good number of sightings of late due to it being the early part of the migration season. But I’m keeping fingers and toes crossed that at least one pair will choose to stay.

See here for the story of how I first fell for firecrests. 

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Surviving

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Redwing at the University of Reading

It’s been a – how shall I say this? – somewhat unusual few weeks. Life hasn’t seemed to flow in any predictable, regular way and nor have the words from my fingertips onto the screen. I don’t know if all good writers require routine, but I suspect it helps. So might a safe and stable home environment, or at least some fixed reference points from which to write. Rest assured that we have survived and so will this blog, from which I hope better things are to come in the remaining 352 days of 2014. But consider this my apology for lack of normal service, especially the missing USA trip reports, some of which lie on my hard drive in a semi-completed state.

I had grand plans for this year, new things to learn and a thousand species to find. But at present I seem to resemble nothing more than a madman in a hat and rollerskates, clinging desperately onto the back bumper of 2014 as it veers off into the future. Serious listing natural history enterprises can wait until I’ve clawed my way back into the driving seat. For now, it’s enough to find consolation amongst everyday birds. It’s when life is at its most troublesome and frustrating that I turn to them more often, taking comfort in their familiar company. Great tits brash and strident; their softer, jazz-tinged cousins, the coal tits; the hurried dunnock darting into his hedgerow, weaving a thread of song into the wind as he goes. Amidst gale and rain, mud, flood and frost, they are still surviving, thriving. What else can they do? And for that matter, what other option do we have? Life persists.

Passing the university library at dusk on Monday, I noticed soft, sweet music wafting down from the rooftop. A small, dark shape was dimly visible above me: a blackbird, singing slow and gentle with head cocked, as though struggling to recall a favourite air from seasons past.  When I hear a blackbird in midwinter it’s usually in the dead of night, perched in a state of seasonal confusion by a streetlamp. This bird whispered his song into the darkness, increasing in confidence note by note, before stopping abruptly and striking up his usual nightly territorial alarm calls. Not confused, I would guess, but on the cusp of genuinely vernal vocalisations. Tunes with reproductive intent.

Similarly, our resident little owls seem to be getting noisier as the days grow longer, often calling to each other at dusk. They may be an introduced species in Britain but their curious hoots and shrieks add a welcome note of wildness to the Whiteknights soundscape. An unsuspected guest amidst the clamorous comings and goings of tens of thousands of students and staff. It’s a pleasing wildlife story, and they’re amongst the most characterful of birds – witness the world-weary expression on the individual I found sunning itself last Wednesday morning, wedged neatly in a tree-hole barely any distance at all from the recently constructed Henley Business School. It was clear that whatever business the owl has been attending to this week, it considers it to be of greatly superior importance to the financial education going on across the road. I quite agree. Who needs international capitalism when you have owls living on your doorstep?

Later that day, two goosanders were discovered loafing on Whiteknights Lake. The moment I saw the news I felt the first stirrings of competitive spirit for the year (there’s a contest afoot and I must help defend the university’s honour!), and set out to find them. Not much of a long-distance twitch – no more than a five- or ten-minute walk from my desk – and all the better for it. With just a little half-decent habitat, there’s no telling what could turn up close to home, or close to work, and whatever it is will be far more satisfying than a lost bird pursued along hundreds of miles of motorway. The best birds are local birds, from the song of the blackbird to unexpected ducks to the red kite breezing overhead. I can’t imagine what life was like before I began to notice them, nor could I ever imagine living without them again. I do believe my happiness and survival is tied to that of the birds.

In Praise of Gulls

Herring gull en-route from Calais to Dunkirk, 2012.

Herring gull en route from Dover to Dunkirk, 2012.

I rarely pass a day without seeing a red kite. Despite living in a town so blessed with Milvus that it’s almost like living in Shakespearean London, the sight of their bold, rangy frames lofting above Reading’s streets never fails to raise a smile. But even if no kite passed by to delight my eyes in the course of 24 hours, the sky hereabouts is full of other sleek, agile, beautiful birds. I’m talking about gulls.

Yes, that’s right. Boring old, common old ‘sea’ gulls, the smelly noisy ones which folk in my local park generally curse when they come swooping in for bits of bread – ‘hey, that’s for the ducks!’ These are large, powerful and intelligent animals, every bit as entertaining to watch as many a tropical species on a nature documentary. Yet many people seem more eager to chase them away than stand back and look on in admiration.

Even some birders are guilty of overlooking gulls. At least a few species probably fall quite often into the invisible-birds category, ones we look straight through whilst looking for something ‘better’. As though a herring gull isn’t worth looking at – which is odd, as I as much as any other birder have always been ready to acknowledge the visual appeal of rare gulls, which don’t look altogether that different. No May is really complete without picking up a passing little gull, for example, and Iceland and Glacous gulls are never short of admirers during their occasional forays south in winter. Looking even further to the north, the ivory gull is certainly high on many a birder’s global wish list: not surprising, with elegant looks like this.

Ivory Gull by Jomilo75 on Flickr.com (Creative Commons).

Gulls also offer the closest thing us residents of landlocked counties have to the spectacle of a seabird breeding colony. Just to the south and west of Reading, an impressive gathering of black-headed gulls nests each summer at Hosehill Lake LNR, on the gravel island in the lake’s centre as well as on two purpose-built rafts. Sit in the viewing screen, close your eyes, listen to their raucous, edgy screams and smell the scent of guano drift in from the islands: you might even be on Skomer or the Farne Islands, if you manage to screen out the dull roar of the nearby M4.

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Newly ringed black-headed gulls at Hosehill Lake in Berkshire.

Over 100 juveniles from this colony have been ringed every year since 2009, most fitted with a white plastic ring designed to be readable at distance on a live bird. Despite the involvement of a fumbling trainee (yours truly), this has been another successful year for the project, with over 70% of all this year’s ringed young already re-sighted and thus proved to have fledged. Past recoveries have come from as far afield as Cork and Brittany, so if you see a ringed black-headed gull anywhere in north-west Europe in the next year, make doubly sure to send a record in to the BTO. It might be one of ‘mine’!

Even outside of the excitement of visiting a nesting site, I’m starting to succumb to the charm of gulls. One morning last week I opted to keep my binoculars stowed out of temptation’s reach, since I needed to walk to work fairly briskly. Yet halfway there I couldn’t resist fishing them out of my bag to admire a superb specimen of an adult lesser black-backed gull perched on a lamppost, even if I knew perfectly well what it was without having a closer look. In their own dramatic, raucous way, the family Laridae offers a daily riposte to any inhabitant of suburban Britain who has ever looked out of the window and declared there’s nothing interesting or beautiful to see here.

Lesser black-backed gull in Brittany, 2011.

Lesser black-backed gull in Brittany, 2011.