Saturday, 22 December 2012

21st December - On the First Day of Christmas

Today started dry and cloudy, and then gradually through the morning the sun appeared.  With the forecast for the weekend a complete wash out, I decided to pop out at lunchtime to make the most of the dry and sunny weather.   I decided to start at Plain Farm, and as I walked up the road all around me were signs of the birds also taking the opportunity to enjoy a respite from the heavy rain we have been having.

This Blue Tit was all puffed up, either as a result of a bath or just heavy preening.

A little further on at the back of the farm yard the hedge was full of Chaffinches just sitting in the sunshine.  You have to look closely, but they are there.

Ahead of me on the road was a lot of spilled grain, and where there is grain there are usually sparrows.  A group of House Sparrows would drop down from the bushes and very quickly pick up grain, and then return to the safety of the bushes.  On the road the maximum would be about twenty, I waited to try and catch the maximum number but every time I tried to catch them they would fly off, and I would end up with either a few, or some in flight.  That said I quite like this photograph though, the blur of the wings adding a nice effect to the picture.

I walked up the road towards the fields, and stopped to look across the field towards  the lone tree.  A kestrel was sitting at the top of the tree, preening in the sun.  I stopped to talk to a man who lived in the cottage close to the field, and he referred to the tree as "The Owl Tree".  It is apparently home to a pair of Little Owls.  I scanned the tree thoroughly but couldn't see any.  He informed me that they are almost heard every night squeaking from the tree, and are seen in the evening on the fence posts.  I'll keep looking because they are always entertaining birds.

There was one bird in the field though, and it called as I exchanged sightings with the man from the cottage.  It was a Pied Wagtail and it was sitting on the water trough, again in the sunshine.

I turned away from the tree, and headed along the road.  The Kestrel that had been in the tree was now sitting on the post looking out across the field.  I find kestrels quite lovable looking birds, but I wouldn't expect a bank vole or field mouse to have the same opinion.

I crossed over to check the field to the south.  There was a patch where a considerable amount of hay had been spread, and I disturbed a large flock of about 50 plus Wood Pigeons that were feeding on it.  As well as the pigeons there was also a good sized flock of Yellowhammer, and again they would sit in the hedgerow, and then in smaller groups fly down to the field, where they would stay for a short while, then fly back to the hedge and the sun.

Large flocks of Linnets were also flying around, but the only chance I managed to get to photograph them was with this lone bird sitting at the top of a tree, again in the sunshine, by the road.

I passed through a gap in the hedge to check the field to the north.  I scanned across the field and could see the large flock of linnet, and also quite a few Skylark flying around and feeding in amongst the green shoots that were appearing.  As I scanned I picked up a bird sitting on the ground well over to the back of the field.  From the shape and the fact that it sat still I considered it to be a raptor, but I wasn't sure what.  It seemed like the bill was yellow, and the underparts showed very white.  The head was grey, and the back was a darker maybe a cross between dark blue and a maroon, with dark primary feathers.  I stood and watched it hoping it would fly which would give me a better chance of identification.  The best shot I could get of it is this heavily cropped picture.

My view is that it is probably a Sparrowhawk, but there are things about which do not add up.  The lack of markings on the head would indicate an adult male, but there is no rufous on the underparts, although this could be hidden.  The browner appearance of the upper parts would also not be consistent with an adult male.  It will remain a mystery, so if anyone has any suggestions I am open to ideas.

At one stage I decided to move a little to my right, to maybe get a different view.  As I did so I disturbed some birds about two metres away from me.  I knew they were partridges, and I hoped not Red-legs, and they weren't, they were Greys.  For once they did not fly off, but just slowly walked away from me, glancing back every so often to check where I was.

They are really beautiful birds, that probably just get dismissed as brown partridges in the same way a female pheasant looks dull.  The rusty feathers on the head contrast wonderfully with the slate grey neck and chest feathers that give the bird it's name, while the brown streaks on the wings and flanks  really stand out.

There were six birds in the covey, and they moved along the edge of the field going in and out from the longer grass to the field.  As you can see the birds all have rings on their legs and are part of the project being run by the Rotherfield Estate and the Game Conservancy.  It is lovely to see these native birds once again.

Leaving the partridges I went back to check the mystery bird, but it hadn't moved and didn't look like it was going to.  Skylark and Linnet flocks continued to fly around the field, and it seemed to show no interest at all in these, and I began to wonder if it was a feral pigeon, but it seemed unlikely.  In the end I had to leave it, and I made my way back down the road.

The Kestrel had returned to the tree, but there was still no sign of the owls.  As I made my way to the farm buildings I could hear some strange calls from across the field.  Scanning across i found another covey of Grey Partridge

The grey partridge is one of Great Britain's most endangered species, and is in serious decline, mainly on open grassland and arable farmland.  Reasons for the decline are considered to be varied, a combination of a break in the food chain caused by the increased use of insecticides and herbicides, killing the insects that are vital for the young birds diet, and as a result the young become vulnerable to predators as they have to travel further to find food.  Intensive farming has led to fewer suitable nesting sites for instance hedgerows and other habitats have been destroyed or degraded causing increased predation.  Wet weather over the last decades during late spring has caused death to the young birds, but the most likely cause could be the reduction in spring-sown cereals, which cause a loss in the winter of stubble fields that would be available as a food source.

Although the shooting of grey partridge can continue, only a maximum of 25% of the population can be shot, but only when it is considered the partridge population can sustain it.

I managed to count 18 birds in the field, although this group of 10 seemed to be the most settled with the other birds running around calling by the edge of the hedgerow.

This meant that I had seen 24 Grey Partridges on the farm, a record count for me and not a pear tree in sight!

I then drove round to the pond, flushing two Red-legged Partridges along Lyeway.  From the pond I walked to Old Down Wood and and had to wade through some deep puddles as I entered.  The Long-tailed Tits were in their usual place, calling loudly, and a Mistle Thrush could be heard over by the cottage.  However a little deeper into the wood and it went quiet. 

I walked round to the larches by the the Kitwood footpath, and just stood and listened.  A few Goldcrests were about, so I decided to "pish" and very soon there was some Great Tits and a Nuthatch calling.  These were joined by a Great Spotted Woodpecker, but they were all very high in the trees, and extremely mobile.  Eventually I found what I was looking for, high at the top of the larches feeding on the cones was a flock of seven Crossbills.  They were very distant but the red of the males stands out against what was now an overcast sky.

I made my way back to the car, negotiating my way through some very muddy patches.  At the pond a single Moorhen made its way across the water, speeding up as usual when it saw me.  I wonder why they are spooked so easily here, maybe they are chased by dogs.  The sun had now gone, and the clouds were threatening rain again.  The window of dry weather was closing so I made my way home, hoping that there might be a chance to get out again before Christmas.


  1. A mystery bird indeed. I seems like it could be parts of all manner of different species. My thoughts are , juvenile big on the head? Sparrowhawk..markings def not quite right. Buzzards can have very pale appearances and do like to sit on the ground fairly often..I stopped and watched one a couple of weeks ago. Its the head markings that confuse but I would seriously consider a male Hen Harrier..for this time of year it is possible for the area. By its bulk it seems to be a raptor? Some lovely shots of the Grey Partridge by the way..lovely birds. And also the Spadgers pic is superb.

    1. I was thinking Hen Harrier when I was watching it. The head was uniform and no markings, the underparts white and there is the indication of yellow legs in some other shots I took. I really wished it had flown because that would have clinched it. That is two raptors I am uncertain about this year. There was the possible Black Kite at the end of May. There has been a male hen harrier at Alresford a few weeks ago so it might be

    2. So frustrating! Been checking out lots of pictures and videos online and my money is definitely on Hen Harrier, some males have slightly different shading dependant on age/moult etc. There have been the odd sighting in Hampshire as you say. Lets hope it stays around the area as Sunday looks like a better day for flying.

  2. Hi,

    just stumbled upon your blog; you have some nice photos, I particularly like the Grey Partridge images.

    I too agree that that is a male Hen Harrier by the way.

    All the best, Ashley


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