19 January 2020

2020 / 04

0745 – 1000
Cold and clear. Hard frost overnight -2C.

No breeze


The ground is hard at the east end this morning. All the ruts and ridges are full of frozen water, and that which lies in the ditches at the side of the track also carries a layer of ice 5-10mm thick. I am in half a mind to look now for frogspawn, appearing in some sheltered areas already. The smaller clearfelled area is crunchy underfoot – I am picking my way round the edge in the hope of finding ‘something’.

The re-stock is beginning to look more established now.
But I rather think it is too early on a winter’s day and nothing is inclined to move around yet. There is plenty of birdsong though and I can hear two different Song Thrushes.

I am currently reading Stephen Rutt’s excellent book Wintering – A season with Geese’in which he explores the wildfowl around the Solway Firth and Caerlaverock, Dumfries. Rutt loves the place, and the geese in particular. I do like narratives like this and much prefer them to fieldguides and conventional birdbooks.


Being in the Wood ‘with’ birds as I am here is an extension of ‘birdwatching’ that I have enjoyed for 40 years. I started as Young Ornithologist in the RSPB local group, attending ringing sessions at Pitsford Reservoir and Northamptonshire woodlands. Almost exclusively Coal Tits and Great Tits. The reservoir ‘got hold of me’and for years was my ‘local patch’ where i guess i learned more fieldcraft than I thought at the time. I gradually expanded through my teens and 20s to gravel pits in the Nene Valley and then twitching all over the country. I watched Farmoor Reservoir in Oxfordshire for four years almost daily, and learned ducks and gulls.
Norfolk holidays with the family – the Northants Bird Club taught me wildfowl and waders, while trips to nationwide specific locations and habitats pushed my ‘list’ to over 400 in the UK.

I have been hitherto least familar with woodland birds. Like every other habitat, wathing birds in woods requires particular skills – and perhaps a greater degree of patience than some other places. Second to seawatching..? Most of the time, one’s encounter with a bird in a wood is little more than a flit or a glimpse; a squeak or a call and I have learned over the last three years in here more about how to identify birds from that snatch of information than at any other time over 40 years.
There was a period of a year of so – maybe one season, memory exagerrates – when I ‘watched’ Farmoor (andother places I recall but not exactly where) deliberately without optics, getting ot know jizz and calls and ‘clues’ about the birds I was seeing. It really helped me learn a lot of fieldcraft.
Temminck’s Stint call in flight when recalling experience of that species in Norfolk, for example…

Here in Hut Wood it has proved possible to get physically closer to the resident birds than I have even known in any other environment. At marshes, lakes and coastal reserves – even using hides – one is always at a remove from the subjects. Here, I have learned to be ‘among’ them. With them almost, as far as they will permit and at their discretion. It takes time, patience and perhaps (I flatter myself here) and understanding of the inscape, the setting, the seasons, the time of day, the weather: in fact a whole tapestry of factors that one learns by osmosis; by presence.


So this experience has become more than ‘birdwatching’ of course. Age, state of mind, circumstances and health have all played their part in bringing me to Wood as a whole, and learning it as an ecosystem. I can stand, or sit, leaning against a tree, and birds will come close – within feet. They look at me, but are (generally) undisturbed by my presence. I like to ‘watch’ them unaided by bins, in much the same way as I like to listen to music ‘out loud’ (without headphones).

Paul and Simon are here – the local BTO ringing group, and from my vantage point at the sitting spot – still covered in frost when I get there as the sun is just about level with the top of the Chilworth Pines – I have a long chat with Simon. There ar emore or less no finches in the Wood now. In fact, he confides there are few anywehere in this part of Hampshire. His theory is that they have all gone to Germany and Poland.
And he suggests that – although the FC population here is remarkable – most of the birds I see in October will be continental migrants. It is impossible to tell them apart from UK birds though. European migrant finches, in general, are heavier apparently.

And where have all the Redwings gone too?


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