Simply Birding

It’s one of those birding weeks when anything and everything can happen. The supposedly boring land-locked county of Berkshire has played host to a flurry of superb migrant birds. The first ring ouzel on (what should be*) my local patch at Lavell’s Lake in 25 years as well as a wonderfully elegant little gull; a Slavonian grebe coming into breeding plumage;  wheatears, redstarts and yellow wagtails passing through; the first nightingales, cuckoos and house martins of the year. Two pairs of garganey continue to pop up from time to time in and around the Kennet valley. Yesterday a hoopoe was seen in a suburban garden to the northeast of Reading, though it went cunningly undetected by the local birding community.

Most of this is happening to other people, for I have remained mysteriously unwilling to haul myself any further than the immediate vicinity of my home and workplace. Fortunately, they offer splendours of their own – following on from last week’s minor fall of willow warblers (i.e., one), lunchtime on Tuesday saw a relative deluge descend on campus. At least three sang from low trees near the weather station, mixed in with many chiffchaffs.

We were passing through them on our way to see redstarts, another passage-only species on campus and an even scarcer one than willow warbler. There are surely few finer-looking birds in Britain than a male redstart. The one we saw flitting from low perch to ground and back again was in immaculate breeding plumage, the pale silver on his forehead glinting in the sun like a sliver of diamond. To see one in a place that means as much to me as Whiteknights Park is almost indescribably special: that’s the magic of patch birding.

‘Hardcore’ birders will notice that nothing I’ve mentioned is stonkingly rare, but these birds are all the better for it. Mildly unexpected or even somewhat-expected-but-hard-to-connect-with birds are the best birds. A fleeting encounter with a beautiful species in the company of friends always beats joining the twitching paparazzi for some half-dead mega-vagrant.

It’s times like this I wonder why I don’t spend more time simply birding. There are many other distractions and pleasures in the natural world, for sure. I am proud and mildly amused to frequently find myself labelled an entomologist these days. The more my taste is for small-scale, local discoveries, the more entomology has an edge over ornithology in my affections. But still, there’s nothing quite like plain old birding. To go out with few expectations or cares simply to look at birds, knowing that anything and everything can, and sometimes does, happen.

Redstart song is a lovely, lazy summer afternoon sound. Alas that they’re uncommon as a breeding species hereabouts!

*I’m just too lazy – whyever I don’t visit what is a fantastic inland birding site more often I don’t know. Though of course I do have the many pleasures of Whiteknights Park on my doorstep every day.

Peak Bird

This is it. Over the next twelve months there will never be more free-roaming, independent birds at large in the northern hemisphere. Final, last-minute broods are fledged, post-breeding or post-juvenile moults are just about finishing, and the thoughts of a billion bird brains are turning toward winter. Blue and great tits are forming great mixed-species feeding flocks, joined by other tits, finches, robins, goldcrests, warblers – anything that ekes out some benefit from joining the in-crowd. After the relative lull of late summer, it is exhilarating to be out and surrounded by the life, sound and movement of so many birds.

At a small feeding station this past weekend we caught and ringed almost 100 birds, half of them blue tits, all hurrying into good condition by feasting on peanuts before the weather really closes in. It’s amazing how many hours can go by whilst yet more new arrivals come in. The turnaround at the average bird feeder is astonishing. It’s only through tagging individual birds in this way that you begin to realise just how many there are. That’s not to say that all is well in bird world. We may have reached peak bird for the year, but the peak bird point of history is long since past.

Times are hard for birds right across the world, particularly migratory species, depending as they do on conditions in both summer and winter grounds and all stop-offs in between. As I write they’re still pouring out of these temperate zones by the million, some carefully logged by birders but the bulk of them – despite the jokes about the position of every bird in Britain being constantly logged – simply melt away unseen, the majority never to return. It’s particularly poignant to hold a chiffchaff at this time of year. An eight-gram scrap of feather and bone made of insects and rainwater, quite possibly about to head off for North Africa. Now they’re in peak condition, but will they ever get back into the shape they need to return in spring?


For over a week now, the male blackcap that wintered in our garden has been warming up his vocal chords. Seemingly oblivious to the still cold mornings, all it takes is a bit of sun for him to let slip little bursts of liquid song. ‘Our’ blackcap will most likely leave us soon, and head to Germany to breed. Some years ago now a population of blackcaps began to find that what is known as reverse migration – heading in the wrong direction, if you like – was a successful strategy, since they wound up wintering in mild, food-rich English gardens, and they’re now becoming increasingly familiar as winter denizens of suburbia.

So as welcome as it is to have blackcap song drifting through the living room window during breakfast, we may yet find ourselves devoid of it for a couple of weeks whilst we await the arrival of breeding blackcaps. Even then, our garden might not look as favourable a place for raising young as it was for seeing out the winter. I’m enjoying these little command performances while I can.

Meanwhile, chiffchaffs are performing their own complex crossover. The divide between wintering and breeding populations for chiffchaff is less clear. It is certainly possible that some stay put year round, but on the whole the next fortnight or so will see a complete changing of the guard. Whether the two or three birds chiffchaffing away at Hosehill Lake on Saturday were departing overwinterers or newly arrived migrants is difficult to say, for chiffchaffs arrive on average a fortnight earlier than blackcaps.

A few ringing stations have already seen some definite returning migrant chiffchaffs, with pollen matted into the feathers on their face. I was fortunate enough to handle, and wonder at, a bird like this last spring. They must reach stop-off points on the Mediterranean exhausted, and be in need of a quick glucose hit. Dipping deep into spring blooms for nectar, they unwittingly end up plastered in sticky pollen and then literally carry these little grains of the advancing spring north with them as they fly on.

Chiffchaff from Chris Foster on Vimeo.