A walk around Westwood, Wiltshire with my good birding friend Robert Kelsh and our families was notable for some super sightings of a Hawfinch, flushed at first from a hedge near the church. It was feeding on field maple seeds and quickly descended for more. We had some very clear views though the light was rather dull in the mild, misty conditions. For a time it sat at the top of an ash tree dwarfing the Goldfinches around it. Then it took to the air giving us great views of its bulky form on bounding flight. It was great to become well acquainted with a Hawfinch again- they are birds of great character and not easy to find. They are also fun to draw and like Puffins their oversized bills make them look like cartoon character birds. However if you hold one they are no joke for that bill can crush cherry stones, an evolutionary masterpiece. There were many Redwings and Fieldfares in the pastures making the most of unfrozen damp ground. We also had good views of a female Green Woodpecker, Marsh Tits, Yellowhammers, Treecreeeper and Goldcrests.
Christmas day was memorable for sightings of a Woodcock in a front garden near our house. Perhaps more unusual was a Lapwing on the verge just outside the same garden. This is the first Lapwing I have seen in the area for weeks. The Woodcock started the day sunning itself by the front garden wall then moved to the lawn to feed. It was feeding very successfully pulling plenty of worms from the snow covered lawn. It did so for the whole of Christmas day meaning the whole family could watch a Woodcock at anytime. Christmas day here was a true white one- there was plenty of snow on the ground, temperatures remained well below freezing after a bitterly cold start and we had some snow showers early in the afternoon.
A few attempts at photographing the light on snow last night. My aim was to reproduce the colours and brightness of the landscape as I saw it. Although the pictures are quite grainy I was pleased with the true representation of colour and tone of moonlight on both land and clouds. The moon phase was a waning gibbous approximately 96% of full. The second photograph shows part of the constellation of Orion. The most distinctive feature of Orion is his belt. His right shoulder point is marked by the super giant star Betelguese. Estimates vary wildly as to the size of Betelguese and astronomers believe that its size fluctuates but I have read that it could be about 650 times the diameter of the sun- so it is massive. Orion makes a fine sight in the southern sky on a clear winter night especially with snow lit by the moon.
A glorious walk around the Hole of Horcum yesterday afternoon. At 2pm the temperature was just minus 7 celsius. Legend has it that the Hole of Horcum was formed by the giant Wade, who angry with his wife, scooped up a handful of soil and threw it at her. His finger marks can be clearly seen in the sides of the hollow. He missed fortunately and in doing so created the 800ft Blakey Topping. Others believe that it was formed as Levisham Beck cut through hard rock and revealed soft clay underneath. This clay was then moved away in the ice age!
On a bitterly cold morning I stood on the beacon to watch the lunar eclipse which began soon after half past six. A slow darkening on the left hand side of the moon gave way to beautiful red shadow which slowly spread left to rightacross the moon. Eventually the moon was covered by the earth’s shadow. Dawn was approaching and Redwings and Fieldfares were calling in a nearby holly bush as they set out to survive yet another hard winter’s day.
The Woodcocks found new feeding grounds during the slightly warmer weather but with the return of freezing conditions they are back. This afternoon I was able to watch four Woodcocks feeding together as the sun went down. The temperature has not climbed above freezing since Thursday morning and with cold weather set to continue I am hoping for more opportunities to sketch these fascinating birds this week.
We are very fortunate to have Marsh and Willow Tits visiting our garden. We seem to have one Willow Tit and a pair of marsh Tits. I have heard both species calling which is a sure way of identifying the two species. But when you see them side by side regularly the small differences become more obvious. The Willow Tit has rich buff coloured flanks a pale wing panel but perhaps most obvious a really thick neck. Willow Tits excavate their own nest holes in rotten tree stumps. The Marsh Tit has a rounder head and generally paler plumage, its flanks not as rich in colour. There are times, particularly at the end of the breeding season when the plumage of the adult birds is worn and they are virtually impossible to separate unless you here them call. Both hoard food. The Willow Tit seems to prefer chopped up peanuts where the Marsh Tits prefer sunflower seeds.
The Yorkshire Post featured an article written by John Woodcock about me last Saturday. If you would like to read the article please click here.
With talk of a thaw at the end of the week I spent some more time observing the Woodcocks today. They are still in the same few yards of ground and still feed by day. I am aware that a thaw will probably mean they feed at night again. It will be interesting to see if they return to the same patch during a later feeze. This tiny piece of habitat has clearly kept at least three Woodcocks alive through an extreme period of winter weather. If they don’t return I will always feel priviledged to have spent so much time studying these elusive woodland waders.
After half an hour or so watching the Waxwings I decided to walk a stretch of the River Rye where it winds through Duncombe Park. Soon after leaving Helmsley I flushed a Woodcock which flew low through the park against a backdrop of Helmsley Castle which was brightly lit by the low wintry sunshine. A little further upstream my attention was drawn to a small wader near the fast flowing current. It was a Snipe in an area I would not have expected to find one. Its usual damp meadow habitat would now be hard as iron. Also this bird was in a wooded area so unlike its usual open habitat. The Snipe did not look too good. Its eyes looked rather lifeless and it fed slowly, presumably finding a few morsels of food in the river. Like the Waxwings, Blackbirds and Redwings this Snipe was doing what it could to suvive, finding a new habitat to as a last resort. The temperature was still minus 11 and sketching was all but impossible but I did manage to produce the following icy image. The river was flowing with slushy ice and ice had formed on its edges away from the strong current. A pair of Goosander flew downstream, the male looked stunning with its soft peach coloured breast feathers contrasting with the dark cold water. A pair of Teal was flushed further upstream and a Dipper betrayed its presence with a harsh call as it flew swiftly downstream in its quest for food.