This piece is about birds, but it’s also about being confined to my locality and the new mind-set I’m trying to embrace. I wrote a long introductory piece, but some might find it a bit heavy so I’ve made it an optional read here: http://phototwynog.co.uk/The%20Frustrations%20of%20the%20Local
Above is a picture of a common bird in a common tree. it’s a Chiffchaff, perched in a Alder, one of the many Small Brown Jobs (SBJ) relegated to the second division by the Birding community. To me this bird is special, but why should it be any more special than that other SBJ, the House Sparrow? That’s an easy one to answer because the Chiffchaff is one of our first summer visitors. It’s the herald of spring. I photographed one of the early arrivals at Kidwelly in March:
So why bother catching it again? Partly it is the excitement of the whole concept of migration – the enormous distances these little birds can travel and the romance of distant lands and the journey. I also think they are beautiful in their own right, and they are on my “Patch”. I now have to introduce a nasty bit of birder jargon – “Patching.” This has nothing to do with sticking on patches but refers to the study of your local patch and its avian inhabitants. Suddenly this is the only kind of bird-watching now available to almost all of us. Springwatch rises to the occasion, but I find it hard spending hours looking at areas which in previous years I would have dismissed as lacking in quantity and quality of wildlife. “Quality”? What does that mean? Is a chiffchaff of higher quality as a species than say a Dunnock? It’s a good question. Why for example would we be prepared to spend good money to see a Red Squirrel or a Pine Marten but would not cross the road to see their close relations the Grey Squirrel and the Mink? The first two are native species and rare, the latter introduced and common. The Native has more charisma than the Introduced, the Wild has more than the Domestic and the Rare more than the Common.
Take Canada Geese. (Yes please and as far away as possible). Here they are in April:
They are a familiar sight anywhere there is water and have become a pest in some cities. In their native North America they are migratory and their haunting cries from high above as they set off or return must be as exciting to birders in their homeland as the cries of our migrant geese such as the White Fronted are to us.
Yet I now find myself keen to study and photograph these common birds. There are four geese here. The males are apparently bigger than the females, but not otherwise distinct. They divide into two pairs, though I don’t know if the pairs are male and female or both the same sex. One pair is dominant – those on the right – and bullies the other pair. The two pairs were still chasing each other around on the 11th of May, but all 4 birds stayed on the lake for the whole time I watched which led me to believe that they were not nesting pairs.
With permission from the landowner I set up my pop-up hide by the lake, though not anticipating much in the way of excitement. My next visit on the 25th was therefore quite a shock. Only two adult geese were in evidence; they were clearly a pair and clearly looking after their 5 well-grown goslings. I still don’t understand how 4 geese without a nest between them became a pair with young. Normal nesting behaviour for geese would be for one bird to stand guard – usually the male – while the other incubates the eggs. When the goslings hatch the pair would stay with them to adulthood. How had these 5 got to be here? Why did I think my patch wasn’t interesting?
It got better too. Another common bird on lakes is the Little Grebe or Dabchick. I’ve taken many pictures of these cute relatives of the more charismatic Great Crested Grebe, but I’d never seen them with young before let alone juvenile hitch hikers. Then a strange sound which took me immediately to the wild places of the north – the rippling trill which is the Grebes’ song. I was enchanted:
Further up the valley is a bend in the river which can only be reached on foot by beating a way through the undergrowth of a large patch of land which had been left untended for years. With encouragement from the landowner I moved the hide up here to a little pebble beach where on previous trips I had watched nothing much more than the water flowing, but it was an idyllic spot and it was still the breeding season. To get the hide there I had to strap it to a rucksack already laden with camera gear and cycle the three miles from home. As soon as I had it assembled I stepped inside, unzipped the small “windows” and lowered the mesh screens which enable me to see but not be seen. I waited an hour, taking pictures of the birds I expected to see. As well as Mallards which can be seen pretty much anywhere there is water, there are three species which are quite common along the upper Towy – Dipper, Grey Wagtail and Pied Wagtail. These are occasionally joined by the more charismatic but still quite common Goosander and in the summer by Willow Warblers, Chiffchaffs and with luck a Spotted Flycatcher. I had for years been watching and studying Dippers nearer to home, and had also once, on different occasions seen an otter, a mink and a weasel. The wagtails and the dipper showed up, but there was a thrilling surprise – another bird quite common elsewhere but not here: a Common Sandpiper.
My next trip struck gold. The birds were now used to the hide and after a half-hour wait the Sandpiper popped up just in front of me. It was too close and I missed focus. Agony!
Then things got exciting:
A Goosander and something I had never seen before – Goosanderlings!
They seemed to be in a hurry to get away so I thought they must have been frightened by the movement of the camera lens. Not so. The hide was working as it should. Fifteen minutes later they were heading back towards me and spent another ten minutes exploring the area in front of the hide:
My day was made. The common had been made special.