Bracknell – New Year’s Day with Waxwings
Words and pictures by Ceri Levy.
My New Year resolution is to get out into nature more. This last eighteen months I have spent too much time working indoors for the birds and not getting out and spending time with the birds. That is going to change. What better time to do it than the first day of the year. Jackie and I go and collect Jeff Barrett who is at a loose end and drive down to Bracknell where there is an eruption of 50 or so waxwings. Birds take you to the oddest of places and no disrespect to Bracknell but it is not what one would expect a wildlife hotspot to look like. We wonder where we may find the birds having only a vague location to go on and as we come off the roundabout we see half a dozen birders staring up into the first tree we see. Easy! We park, get out and watch these incredibly beautiful birds. Wings looking definitely like they have been dipped in thick gloopy red sealing wax with gorgeous yellow tips. Stunning. We get to within a few feet of them and soak up the view. We are on an estate that sits on the edge of nature and presumably this was once all woodland as every road is named after a bird. We found the chorus of waxwings in Peacock Lane, flanked by Osprey Avenue, Goldcrest Road, Ouzel Chase, Flycatcher Keep and Merlin Way amongst other bird thoroughfares; names that signified that this was probably a hot location for birdlife and it still is with these chunky Scandinavian visitors thrilling the audience. Then one call from a bird and they rise in the air and wheel off in an easterly direction. We spend the next forty minutes or so looking for them but they have disappeared as only birds can do. It’s time to head back to town for a round of backgammon and tea. A perfect birding start to the year.
Yesterday reminds me of a waxwing haiku written by the wonderful poet John Barlow after a walk around an industrial estate back in 2010 searching for some waxwings that had been sighted there. We spent a couple of hours getting cold and damp in the drizzling rain on a fruitless hunt for them but more often than not the journey is more important than the destination and it was thanks to the absence of the waxwings that John and I got to know each other and have been firm friends since. A few days later he sent me this haiku, which summed up our day perfectly.
leaving the morning
to us and the misty rain
the absent waxwings
I often watch the London Bird Club’s website, in particular it’s latest sightings page, which is a wonderful resource for knowing what’s appearing in the London area. Today there have been sightings of short-eared owls down on Staines Moor. Having not seen many owls in my short birding life I decide to go and look for them. It is always hard to know when is the best time to go to search for owls but I am reckoning a good time will be early to mid-afternoon when the light is drawing in. I take off down to Staines and walk down the side of the reservoir to the kissing gate that leads to the Moor. I meet three people coming out, all of whom have a woeful tale of coldness and lack of birds to tell me. Could be one of those days but you never know. I march on through the incessant mud, slipping and sliding my way past the burnt out car – God knows how it got here – and on towards the open expanse ahead. It is nearly one o’clock, bitterly cold but bright and I’m glad I have put my thermals on. There is one other birder wandering around and I start to chat to him and see if there has been any owl action. Bryan tells me that he’s been there for some time and it has been quiet. He also explains that he is writing a book on short-eared owls, and in his experience he doesn’t really expect them to appear until about 2.15 and that they like to hunt into the wind, which today is westerly so this gives me an idea in which direction to look for them to come from. It is quiet apart from a kestrel, which is floating around the trees. Several times I think about heading back home as my body is freezing even with thermals on and keep clock watching hoping that my new acquaintance is incorrect and that the birds will appear sooner. The minutes go slowly. I watch the traffic whirr past me on the M25 and and wonder at the juxtaposition of the two worlds that sit next to each other. The incessant motorway and this ancient pocket of land that is an SSSI, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. It is time travel as nature clings onto its chance for life amidst the chaos of the world we have imposed upon it and it seems to be doing well. The Moor has been common land since 1065 and registered commoners may still graze stock on it.
I head back with the westerly wind behind me and I see a large pale shape flying low over the thickets that cover the land and heading into the wind towards me. It seems so large that I think it must be a bird of prey. It couldn’t be an owl could it? I have no idea what size of bird I am looking for. I need to see this bird better. And then it raises its head and looks directly towards me. It is close enough for me to recognise the perfectly circular face of my very first short-eared owl. I love it so much. And then to the left another owl appears, rising out from the centre of the moor and another floats up and out to the left of it. I cannot believe this it’s more than I could have hoped for. The first bird I saw is now being mobbed by an angry crow and the owl is trying to ignore it but it is being consistently dive-bombed by the corvid. Two more owls appear and join forces from the trees and fly at the crow. Now three owls are mobbing the crow. The odds have changed and there’s only one winner and five, yes five owls in my line of vision now. Once I am over the initial surprise and joy I watch these birds in action quartering the site. Gliding and turning so gracefully, their large pale wings steering the course each bird must take to feed. They are hypnotic birds to watch and there is something very primal about them. They are often represented as birds of magic and as they weave their spell upon me I think of them having hunted here for centuries and hope they continue for many more.
As I leave I see Bryan and thank him for his information on the owls. Without him I may well have left early and missed such a bewitching spectacle. I wish him luck with his book. I’ll buy it.
Short-Eared Owl at Staines Moor. Picture courtesy of Bryan Benn
The snow’s a-coming in to mess with our lives. There have been reports of a smew at the London Wetlands Centre in Barn Elms and as I have never seen one I decide to hot foot it down there and beat the adversity that will face us all in a few hours.
Thankfully it only takes a moment to find the female red-headed smew and it is a very pretty bird indeed. It’s a shame it’s not one of the striking drakes but next time, there’s always the next time with birds. Feeling that beautiful iciness in the air I decide to push it and go for the bearded tits that have been found in Hyde Park. These are a first for inner London and have apparently been hanging out in the reedbed by the Diana memorial for some weeks. Often this is a skulking bird that is only found by its metallic pinging sound and not too readily available to view. As I park the car the snow begins to descend. I rush towards the location wondering if they will be easy to see and if anyone else is there to point me in the direction of the birds. I needn’t have worried. There is a small crowd standing in front of the small row of reeds in front of the memorial and it is impossible not to see these striking little birds as they climb up and down the reeds feeding and then drop to the ground and then perch up again. Such a weird feeling watching two such normally reticent birds as these while the snow falls all around. After so many visits to see birds that never appear it is always unusual when birds are so readily available to see that I drink from the cup of views and head off in the snow knowing that that is probably it for the foreseeable future for birdwatching. But what a good few days it has been.
Music to write by.
Gravenhurst-The Ghost In Daylight
Rebekka Karijord – We Became Ourselves
I Am Kloot – Let It All In