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Friday, 23 May 2014

Wolseley Wanderings

Common Pheasant family

Having dipped out miserably at Belvide Reservoir, a few days later we decided to chance our luck with somewhere closer to hand.  It was also time to investigate Fay's growing concerns that two public footpaths, running between Bower Lane and the Wolseley Road and which she had often used during her early teens, had somehow "disappeared."
While returning from Great Haywood [our home immediately prior to setting off to Australia for the second time] we diverted right into Bower Lane, towards Etching Hill, another of Fay's former regular childhood playgrounds.  Fay had failed to spot the signposts on an earlier drive although on this occasion I thought I'd espied one of the slim public footpath posts hidden behind an overgrowth of hedgerow.  Neither of us could pinpoint the signpost for the other public footpath..  It was definitely missing but why?
Parking beneath Etching Hill, opposite the old reserve football pitch once used by Rugeley RUFC, we walked back to the farm gate leading onto part of the Wolseley Estate where the public footpath sign had stood for many years.  It became obvious by its absence.
Double-checking the map and noting the dog walker approaching us from within the estate, we set forth.  As our paths crossed we received what seems to be the standard Staffordshire greeting, "Alright?"
The birding was meagre; the ubiquitous Common Wood Pigeon Columba palumbus, Common Blackbird Turdus merula, Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, etc, were around but only the passing Common Buzzard Buteo buteo really caused us to stop a moment.
A brisk walk though some quintessential Staffordshire  farmscape brought us  the Wolseley Road end of the public footpath, opposite the Wolseley Bridge - or, for those you more inclined to an Andy Capp frame of mind, across the road from the Wolseley Arms.  The signpost was there but almost totally obscured by small advertising boards.

Can you spot the Public Footpath signpost?
 We proceeded to the next known public footpath, a simple walk of some 100 metres.  Anyone unfamiliar with the area or the existence of this right of way would surely have failed to locate the start of the footpath from the road itself.  The signpost was missing.

Spot the Signpost

Fay knew it was there; the OS map indicated it was here.  A little way along the track itself there appeared signs confirming that this was indeed the public footpath through the Wolseley Estste- mostly warnings of dire consequences should the unwary step beyond the realms of the Crown onto private property.

The Common Skylark Alauda arvensis put in a welcomed appearance and the stone remains of some former, surely once grand,  dwelling provided a note of historic interest.

Stone ruins

The public footpath was signposted at the Bower Lane end,

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Dipping at Belvide

The Staffordshire Bird News blog had been carrying reported sightings of the Velvet Scoter Melanitta fusca at Belvide Reservoir since our arrival into the county [late Saturday 10 May] and while we were tempted by this potential Lifer, it was placed temporarily on the back burner, something to do once we had unpacked and settled in an had dispensed with the obligatory family reunion meetings and greetings.
Thoughts of the Velvet Scoter faded into the background but during a pause in the hectic familial schedule and over a glass of surprisingly pleasant Chilean red, Fay and I suddenly decided to explore Belvide the following morning.  Thoughts of the Velvet Scoter returned to the forefront.
Ever-present recollections of September 2010 suggested that perhaps we needed the service of "Tomasina" [our borrowed GPS unit].  On that previous visit we had seemingly and aimlessly circumnavigate the reservoir several times, all involving tight turns along narrow country lanes.  What should have been a journey of around 30 minutes took us over an hour,
In the event, or perhaps because we had "Tomasina" dictating our moves, we found the car park without a hitch - and well within the 30-minute ETA.  Punching in the gate code was another piece of cake...
... aside [stage left] I'd rejoined the West Midlands Bird Club for this very purpose; access to Belvide and Blithfield in particular.  The manner in which this had to be accomplished continues to puzzle me.  Our son, a non-birder, was in Staffordshire last year and it was Adam who arranged for my membership, giving my sister's [his aunt's] Rugeley address as my place of residence.  I collected a variety of bumph, including the all-important membership card and gate code, on our arrival.
It would appear that even in the 21st century, with the WMBC running a rather successful website, Internet banking facilities such as PayPal remain a foreign concept to them.  My membership expires later this year; what then?
We had barely started along the along the track, still within the plantation between the car park and The Scott Hide, when we encountered Graham [presumably the "GW" of the later Staffordshire Bird News entry?].  He had come solely to add the recently reported [Belvide Birding] Spotted Flycatcher Muscicapa striata, the first Belvide record in some 15 years.  We readily scanned the woodlands alongside him but thoughts of the Velvet Scoter tugged us away.
Fay and I scanned the water from The Scott Hide.  No scoter.  We re-scanned and then scanned again.  No scoter.
We repeated this from the Andrew Chappell Hide.  No scoter.  Indeed, compared to September 2010 there appeared to be few birds on or around the water.
Enroute to the Gazebo Hide we met up with Kevin [mentioned earlier by Graham as the birder who might be able to put us onto the Velvet Scoter].  Kevin suggested our best bet would be The Scott Hide, looking out towards the dam wall.
Having come to within a stone's throw of the Gazebo Hide we decided we might as well have at least a cursory look to see what was on offer from here.  The largish flock of Mute Swan Cygnus alor made for an interesting backdrop but there was little out of the ordinary around.
We returned to The Scott Hide.
Another 40 minutes of careful scanning from here failed to produce the Velvet Scoter.  Perhaps hardly surprising as it was later reported that following a stay of 84 days the Velvet Scoter appears to have departed.
We had dipped on both the Spotted Flycatcher and Velvet Scoter.  Such is life.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

HALFWAY: Rambling Reflections

Goa, back in 2012, presented no problems; it was purely a birding trip accompanied by other birders and with no added distractions.  This current trip is not totally about birding.  Whenever Fay and I come to these shores we enter into the realms of kith and kin which invariably involves time away from birding to be with brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces and, at our age, grand-nephews and grand-nieces.  Former close friends always manage to find the time to call in on us; closer old friends even manage a lunch at one of the many remaining quaint pubs dotted around the immediate area.
The past few days have seen us heavily involved in such familial gatherings: lunch with Fay's cousins at the George in the Tree; lunch with Fay's brother at the Spring Hill; lunch with my sisters at The Lockhouse restaurant; lunch with Fay's oldest and dearest school friend at The Horns in the village of Slitting Mill- they turned out to be birders and the only other birders we've ever met who have also been to the "Southwest Research Station" at Portal in Arizona.  We went back to their place for coffee and to view some of Nola's 7000 photographs.  That lunch stretched out to a little before 1700 hours! 

Later, we  even managed to sneak off alone for lunch at the Holly Bush Inn in Salt.   Other lunch dates await us in the second half of this sojourn.

Should anyone be under the mistaken impression that Fay and I have resented these intrusions into our birding activities let me reassure all and sundry that this is far from the case.  Apart from meeting up with family and old friends, it has been a welcomed opportunity to explore several of the county's quaintest public houses [although strictly speaking the George in the Tree is in Warwickshire],  We have had the opportunity to indulge in some good food, much of it difficult or right down impossible to access in and around Nanango: gammon [George in the Tree]; pulled duck [Spring Hill]; casseroled local venison [Holly Bush Inn]; etc., etc.

It has of course also provided us with the opportunity to taste a variety of British boutique beers with names that trip off the tongue as they puzzle the mind: Old Speckled Hen, Bombadier, Hobgoblin, Wyre Piddle, etc.  And it's beer not fizzy lager!  But perhaps you need to be a Pom in Australia to fully appreciate the sentiment behind that last quip.

One has to remain impressed by the number, if not [in Australian terms] size of areas set aside for nature conservation and/or recreational activities which can include birding.  Fay and I have barely scratched the surface.

Fay was born and bred on Cannock Chase, played in its woodlands, absorbed its very essence and she can still admire the flourishing of the beech trees and the continuing growth of oaks and silver birches- all set under the backdrop of towering conifers.  The birdlife is at times difficult to pinpoint amid the lush May foliage.

Belvide Reservoir is rapidly overtaking Blithfield as our favourite local birding location.  It provides far more ample parking and its hides are more accessible.

While the West Midlands Bird Club has clearly gone out of its way to provide local and other visiting British birders with excellent facilities, local and British appear to remain their operative protocols. The WMBC seems to have reached a hiatus in the early computer age.  It seems nigh on impossible for overseas aspirants to join.  Is PayPal so difficult to implement?


Thursday, 15 May 2014

Of anglers' pools and the Heart of England Way

I've said it before and I'll repeat here, in terms of prevailing local weather conditions, what a difference a day makes.  Nay, our current experience in Staffordshire has been very much a case of what a difference a few hours make.  Ignore he early morning drizzle, by the time  you reach your planned destination, the weather will have changed, with clear skies replacing the former gloom.  That pattern has repeated itself consistently throughout this current sojourn, from the shores of the Isle of Mull to the distant conifer-rimmed edges of Cannock Chase.
The local television weather forecasts had been predicting a significant change in meteorological conditions across most of the country over the coming week, with longer, more intense, sunny spells.  By Monday [12 May] that prediction was beginning to live up to its expectations.  On Tuesday we had a momentary spit of rain at around 0500 hours which cleared as I turned over the motor.  Yesterday [14 May] there was no rain.
It has been said that the British are fixated with their weather [who mentioned Melbournians anyway?]; birdwatchers worldwide share the same interest.  Birds and weather go hand in glove.
The other morning, a bright and clear start that persisted throughout, our birding target was at least partly dictated by lingering memories of bygone high school days and more recent driving experiences around Cannock Chase.  We needed to answer the question of whether Marquis Drive came out on the Hednesford Road or did it veer off in some other direction.  One of us thought it  did, the other remained sceptical.
Accessing Marquis Drive from the former White House intersection and driving up and down without any [road] signs of an exit point onto the Hednesford Road we pulled up in a large lay-by and almost immediately noticed a large pool on the other side of the hedgerow.  A small flock of Northern Mallard Anas platyrhynchus greeted us as we peered down at them through gaps in the hawthorn but there didn't appear to be a way through the locked gate.
The grounds belong to the Hednesford Angling Society, or more precisely to "The Gaffer" whose father had originally dammed up the small stream to create a series of three fishing pools, although it seems that nowadays only the larger "top" pool was actually fished.  He made his living from selling drink and hot food to both anglers and a substantial flow of passing traffic; on a subsequent drive we noticed several large trucks pulled up into the lay-by.
Having seemingly satisfied himself that w were not would-be fishing permit dodgers [I suppose the lack of fishing rod and the binoculars around our necks was something of a give-away] "The Gaffer" invited in to look around his pools.  We didn't need to be asked twice.
It made for a pleasant enough interlude, with the nesting  European Blue Tit Cyanistes caerleus  as an absorbing highlight.
Thanking "The Gaffer" for his kindness we continued our search for Marquis Drive and found ourselves at the old Moor's Gorse pumping station.   Since our days here the track from the Hednesford Road to the pumping station has become part of the Heart of England Way, one of many long-distance walking [with horse ad bicycle riding also permitted] trails that are scattered across the country: perhaps they can serve as a hopeful beacon to the burgeoning Brisbane Valley Rail Trail.
Birding was difficult.  The birds were there but difficult to pinpoint amid the lush foliage.  It became more a matter of birding by ear rather than by eye - until we spotted the soaring Common Buzzard Buteo buteo.
Moments later we got onto the immature Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus skulking in a beech tree alongside the track.
Post lunch we returned to Blithfield Reservoir in hopes of the Black Tern Chlidonias niger and/or the Red Kite Milvus milvus; neither Lifers or even new to our British List but both would be welcomed additions to our current Trip List.  Neither bird was present although the Black Tern was reported on Staffordshire Bird News for the day.
We decided to chance our luck with the bird feeders along the Permissive Walk. It proved a productive option with a ménage a trois [a male with two females] Common[Ring-necked] Pheasants Phasianus colchicus scratching around beneath the feeders themselves.  A common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybite called from behind bushes.  A Common Chaffinch Fringella coelebs was the first to drop in on one of the feeders; a European Blue Tit was a close second on the nearby vertical feeder.  A Great Tit Parus major also adorned the conglomeration of feeders and horizontal perches.

There was a moment of indrawn breath with a couple of soundless "ooohs" when the Great Spotted Woodpecker Dendrocopos major suddenly appeared on a branch just beyond the cleared area; a more audible sound as the bird approached the feeder itself, albeit for only seconds.  It flew offseemingly as its claws lightly touched the wooden platform.  A moment later the cry of excitement was clearly discernible as the woodpecker landed on the caged feeder and hung there while it extracted a nut from within. The excitement became almost uncontainable when we realised that  in fact we were observing a possible breeding pair of woodpeckers.

Our birding session ended with glorious views of a pair of European Nuthatches Sitta europaea

That surely deserved  a glass of red wine back at my sister's house.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Staffordshire Start

Days go by; plans go awry.

Much of last Saturday 10 May] was spent in travelling from the Isle of Mull to Rugeley in Staffordshire.  The weather was terrible which precluded any decent birding through the windscreen.
Keith had suggested that we consider heading out to Stirling [via the A9] rather than returning along the route we had originally taken out to Oban; Loch Lomond presents a picturesque backdrop but the road itself is a narrow corkscrew with a seemingly endless array of road works and traffic lights.  The Stirling detour, while longer, offered less stress, hence lower blood sugar levels.  In the end, according to "Tomasina" [our borrowed GPS unit] the deviation cost us only a mere seven minutes in time!
Once the A9 filtered seamlessly into the M9 it became motorway driving [M80, M73, M74 and M6] all the way Stafford - and from thereon in we were in our former "backyard."  To avoid the usual rush hour traffic we simply navigated our way around lesser used country lanes, reaching Rugeley a little after 1700 hours. 
The fact that Jayne wasn't expecting s until the following day was a minor hiccup.
While perhaps not as early as we would have preferred but nevertheless earlier than Jayne [or indeed most of the neighbourhood as far as we can judge] arose, Fay and I were up on Sunday [11 May] heading out to our former stomping grounds at Blithfield Reservoir.  It was time to start some serious birding in Staffordshire.
Our planning could have been a little more precise.  We'd left the telescope and tripod behind; we'd forgotten to bring the Collins fieldguide and the only "app" we had brought along with us was warning of "low battery.  As if to add injury to insult it started to rain and we had no flask or hot coffee to compensate.
Not that any of these philosophical adversaries prevented us birding.  Even before we had traversed the causeway there were dozens of Common Swift Apus apus hawking the skies above us.  We pulled up in the parking bay to scan these "wall gliders" [as their German name suggests].
Among the myriad of Common Swift we spotted several Common House Martin Delichon urbicum and mong those we isolated a small handful of Sand Martins Riparia riparia [te American Bank Swallow; the South Asian Collared Sand Martin].
Then it rained.  The rain eased off.  Then it rained.  The rain eased off.  We were beginning to detect a distinct climatic pattern: rain, no rain, rain, no rain, etc.  The lack of hot coffee was beginning to to tell but we persevered.
By mid-morning we conceded defeat and retuned home.  The Black Tern Chlidonias niger and Red Kite Milvus milvus reported in Staffordshire Bird News must have appeared some time after our capitulation.
Following lunch and with no indications f rain in the overcast sky, we ventured forth to Brocton.  No sooner had we stepped through the entry gate than Fay noted a pair of Eurasian Treecreepers Cathia familiaris scrambling up a nearby tree.
From the hide overlooking the pool we had cracking views of Canada Goose Branta Canadensis.
The rain returned; we returned home.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Clear Day Birding

What a difference a day can make.  Yesterday was marred by frequent squalls of rain although never heavy enough to bring birding to an end; the urge to try a new red played a more prominent role in that decision.   In contrast, today started with clear skies and sunshine, albeit rather weak by Queensland standards.   It continued in that vein through to the late afternoon, by which time we were in dire need of more red wine, although the local beers [by the bottle] with names such as "Iona Monk," "Terror of Tobermory" [based on an actual historical figure] did much to  appease a pair of male near-alcoholic birders.
As has become our norm during the week, Fay and I, accompanied by Les, took a morning stroll along the road to Gorten.  The village is a simple ribbon development skirting the banks of Loch Don.  A few birdfeeders makes it a top stretch for birding: European  Greenfinch Chloris chloris, both European Blue Cyanistes caeruleus  and Great Tits Parus major, the ever-present Common Blackbird Turdus merula and Song Thrush Turdus philomelos, along with European Herring Gull Larus argentatus , Eurasian Oystercatcheru Himatopus ospraleg, Eurasian Curlew Numenius arquata and Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator on the water itself.
Earlier in the week we had taken note of the Aros Park turn-off, signposted as being the source of three good walking tracks.   We opted for the Lochan Trail, leading around Lachan a Ghurrabuin, an inland loch fringed with tall, moss-laden trees.
There was the usual array of small woodland birds: European Goldfinch Carduelis carduelis, Winter Wren Troglodytes troglodytes and Common Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita but coming across the mating Blackcap Sylvia atricapilla pair  was noteworthy, topped moments later by the totally unexpected, spectacular, views of the delightful White-fronted Dipper Cinclus cinclus.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014


It rained, then it rained some more, 
It started as a mild drizzle but built up to almost a minor downpour.  That was in those few minutes around 0500 hours.  By 0600 hours the sun poked through the grey clouds; by 0604 hours the drizzle was back.  That seemed to establish the climatic pattern until well into the afternoon when the sun forced its way through and seemingly established a clear victory. 
By 1700 hours we dared a small venture to bird the road to Grasspoint and to buy a 2kg bag of freshly harvested mussels at one pound per kilogram.  And what mussels!  It's going to be hard to ever enjoy ordinary Australian mussels again.
In between spats of rain we explored the northwest corner of Mull.  We eventually ran into a hardy English birder, camped out in a small tent on the banks of a loch [one of many on and around Mull, let alone the rest of Scotland] who put us onto our second Mull [third, world] White-tailed Eagle Haliaetus albicilla. 
Nearby we spotted our first Common Kestrel Falco tinnunculis .
Back at the cottage, overlooking Loch Don, the Eurasian Bullfinch Pyrrhula pyrrhula  of the first day again failed to re-appear but the Yellowhammer Emberiza citrinella  was pleased to announce its arrival at the feeder.  It was soon joined by the European Robin Erithacus rubecula, Song Thrush Turdus phiomelos  and Common Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs.  They were, however, all overshadowed by the Eurasian Siskin Carduelis spinus .
On reflection [and a bottle of good Italian red is conducive to a lot of reflection] the sighting of the day has to be the small flock of Dunlin Calidris alpina in full breeding plumage.


Two down, one to go.
While the Golden Eagle was always the primary objective of targeting the Isle of Mull, at least part of the motivation to include Mull during our first week in the United Kingdom was the close proximity of the even small island of Iona with its medieval monastery, the home of St Columba [surely the patron saint of pigeons, especially of the original Rock Dove Columba livia  The unexpected presence of the almost equally ancient nunnery was aflan added bonus.
The sudden appearance of the Twite Caduelis flavirostis was another unexpected Lifer.  Along with the Go5.05.2014]lden Eagle and Hen Harrier Circus cyaneus [both "ticked" with Richard Atkinson on 05.05.2014] the more humble Twite was also on the trip's Wish List, albeit scribbled somewhere less prominent.  To find it while scanning a bed of flag irises in an attempt to locate the source of the Corn Crake Crx crex call [a potential Lifer for both Les and Sandy; originally recorded by Fay and I back in the 1990s during our trip to Ireland] was an unlooked for turn.  It took some time and studied perusal of the Collins BIRD GUIDE and the RSPB's BRITISH BIRDS app before we duly added the Twite.
Sadly, Sandy dipped on the Corn Crake as only Les and Fay actually caught fleeting glimpses of this most elusive of birds.
On retuning to Mull we had our second, far better,  sighting of Golden Eagle and added Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus to he Trip List.
The drizzle re-appeared to bring effective birding to an end.


Monday, 5 May 2014

Mulling on Mull-2

Such is life.  One moment you seem to have it all under control, the next some gremlin sneaks in under the radar and sets the cat among the pigeons.

Adam had kindly offered me the use of his Tablet; to join the 21sr century and use an electronic recording system rather than persevere with my norm of hand writing all bird entries.  It would also be useful in blogging on a day-to-day basis rather than waintg until I returned home to write up the entire trip weeks after the event itself.

Great idea!

We arrived on schedule; we explored the immediate vicinity, recording birds.  Yesterday we went out with Richard Atkinson, a professional Isle of Mull wildlife guide.

We saw the Hen Harrier [Life No.2] and [following much hard work] we saw the Golden Eagle [Lifer No.3].

It rained but it did not deter.