Monday, 29 January 2018


December is a month of short dark days, weeks that compete for gloominess and a month that seems to shudder to a halt with the indoor excesses of Christmas. Yet just a week or two later as the days  start to draw out in the new year there is a also a subtle change to the quality of the light. Now on sunny days it has a vibrancy that was missing in December and comes with a gentle hint of the Spring to come. 

Ken Hill Woods last Friday, I quite liked the light
Last Friday was just such a day of promise, a clear night left a heavy morning frost that coated the cars windscreen with a thin layer of ice. In the local woods at lunchtime a bumblebee sat in a stupor on the ground woken to early from its winter sleep, the vibrant yellow flowers of a Gorse bush were out a little early for pollinators like the unfortunate bee. As I enjoyed my walk snatches of Great Tit and Nuthatch song cut through the trees, whilst a large mixed flock of Long Tailed Tits, Goldcrests and Coal Tits reminded me that this was still January.

But it was something about the light on a woodland ride and how it brought out the colours of the bare trees that made me stop in my tracks and pull out my little compact camera. To the left of the ride sunlight streamed through a gap in the trees, creating a natural spotlight at 45 degrees. This light hit the bronze leaf litter on the forest floor and reflected back up onto the white bark of the silver birches that edged the ride. Behind all this a belt of conifers suffused with the same winter light gave a soft green background to the scene.

This viewpoint is one that I have passed many times before, it is on one of my favourite walks through these woods, a walk I do probably at least once a week throughout the year. It is pleasant but it doesn't normally having me pausing and reaching for my camera. But today what for me briefly lifted the scene was the light helping me see a different view and bringing this bend in a path in the woods to life.

As I stood and tried to capture an image that would go someway to capture the spirit of the scene in front of me, I was acutely aware of the transient nature of what I was enjoying. All it would take for the magic to fade would be a change in the position of the sun as the afternoon wore on, or a light breeze pushing in some cloud and with it turning off the magical soft winter light.

I carefully composed my image and pressed the shutter button, then after taking one last look at the scene in front of me continued my walk around the wood and eventually back to my office and a full afternoons work at my computer.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Den Brooker - walking amongst the birds

I found out recently that my old friend Dennis Brooker died just before Christmas, a couple of months short of his 96th birthday. I first met Den 34 years ago back in 1984, when I was an impressionable 19 year old volunteer on Operation Osprey and Den was in his early 60's.

At that time the Osprey camp was still run on the model set up by George Waterson and Frank Hamilton, volunteers slept in tents and used chemical toilets. The rota was based on teams of three taking turns to guard the nest, talk to the public and do the chores around the Osprey camp and perhaps more importantly to a reasonably obsessive young birdwatcher every three days you got 24 hours off to do with as you wished. If you were lucky and had a car owner in your team this could mean birding excursions all over the Highlands.

Den Brooker outside the Osprey Hide 1984
During that first hot summer on the Ospreys I must have found myself on Den's team and I recall his easy going company, thoughtful speech and a twinkle in his eye when it came to the ladies. He was to my young mind charismatic and a bit of a unconventional role model. A social sort of a chap he was often to be found in the kitchen sipping a glass of red wine whilst helping the invariably young female cook.

Plants were Den's passion and I must have agreed to go looking for Bog Orchid's with him one day, I think I negotiated a promise out of him that we would go birding on the coast afterwards. Something which he graciously agreed to. Many years after he sent me a printed booklet of short essays his "fragments of a personal flora" I got it down the other day and re-read the account of our excursion. I had to laugh as I read his short pen portrait of me. "So one Sunday morning S and I set forth to Inverness. S was large, ginger haired, loquacious even in his sleep (we shared a bell tent), later served as Information Warden, and at that time was profoundly uninterested in plants."  Funny I have some vivid memories of that particular day out looking for what I uncharitably described as "Bogey's on a stick" After our successful botanising we headed to the coast at Burgh Head a austere Moray Coast fishing village. I vividly remember sitting on the slope of a hill overlooking the sea whilst a male Kestrel hovered for ages at eye level, then a pod of sleek battleship grey Bottle Nose Dolphins swam past close inshore, my first dolphins and I later put an elderly passer by right when he tried to tell me that they were porpoises.

Den will have been known to a large number of RSPB seasonal staff and volunteers who worked at the Osprey camp in the 80's. I wear as a badge of pride the fact that he used to refer to me along with Richard Thaxton who went onto be the RSPB Site Manager at Abernethy and Zul Bhatia who was RSPB Site Manager at Insh Marshes and then Lochwinnoch as his "young men". The passage of time means that Richard and Zul have both now retired from the RSPB, I the baby of the trio have a fair few years ahead of me yet before I stop work.

In recent years I saw little of Den but would look forward to his homemade Christmas cards usually an abstract photo of a plant accompanied by his almost indecipherable scrawl. Sometimes we'd talk on the phone and he'd tell me about his latest visit to Kew Gardens, his curiosity and lust for life still strong in his early 90's. the last call was difficult as his hearing had gone. My spell working at Titchwell coincided with Den's girlfriend being a retired lady doctor based in Cambridge and would look forward to occasionally bumping into him on the West Bank path. I still use in public talks that I give about the Norfolk Coast something he said to me on one occasion at Titchwell. "The great thing about Titchwell is that you can walk amongst the birds" A great summation of a fine place and perhaps also of Den's life walking amongst the birds.

Goldeneye, Loch Mallachie, Abernethy Forest

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

A Look back on 2017

Every year is different and 2017 felt like a year that started well and then bird wise petered out into a bit of a damp squib in the autumn. Below are a few highlights of my bird and wildlife watching year based on the Norfolk Coast with the occasional foray further afield.

Boat dashboard in a Norfolk harbour
January and I can still see the scene a brute of a Glaucous Gull on the Fresh Marsh at Titchwell eating the corpse of a Herring Gull. It really did stand out from the large numbers of Herring Gulls present even from a distance. The fact that it had a food source also meant that it hung around and was easy to find.

Glaucous Gull and dinner at Titchwell
Each year I get a "volunteering day" at work and this year I decided to carry out two Beached Bird Survey sections on Sunday 26 February. This meant walking the tideline from Old Hunstanton to Holme and from Titchwell to Thornham Point. I found just three dead birds on this long stretch of coast the most interesting being a Common Scoter. I unfortunately also found a large number of shoes: single kids welly's, deck shoes etc and a large number of sealed dog poo bags abandoned by their owners and washed up on the beach. 

Dead Common Scoter during Beached Bird Survey
The birding was good with the best birds being a small flock of Snow Buntings just east of Old Hunstanton and single Merlin and Peregrine resting on the shingle bank that is forming off Holme

Spring and my Great Aunt died and I decided to do a day trip to west Yorkshire to attend the funeral. Before the service I had a brief walk on the moors and saw some Red Grouse. In the late afternoon I went down to the River Wharfe at Bolton Abbey to clear my head and had a wonderful walk the air full of hirundines and on the river Mandarin Ducks and Dippers to set me up for the long sugar fuelled drive home to Norfolk.

The first of a trio of Rares that I saw in the spring was a very unexpected Red Flanked Bluetail at Titchwell on the evening of Sunday 26 March. Given given how poor the autumn was a doubly good bird to get. Then on the 6th of May I joined the crowd at Choseley to watch a Red Footed Falcon hunting over the fields for a couple of hours before it suddenly disappeared. Saturday 6th May and I spent an enjoyable hour in the car park at Holme watching a stunning summer plumage Red Breasted Flycatcher. 

Red Flanked Bluetail, Titchwell

Red Footed Falcon, Choseley

Red Breasted Flycatcher, Holme
But much of my time in the field these days is spent in the company of my family and at Whitsun half term we had a weeks family holiday on the Northumberland Coast. On the first of June we booked on the whole day excursion to the Farne islands landing on Staple Island and Inner Farne and had a simply amazing time watching Puffins landing with beak full's of sand eels running the gauntlet of Herring Gulls and the crazy antics of nesting Arctic Terns on Inner Farne perched on our heads and crapping down our backs. 

Arctic Tern making memories for the boys on Inner Farne
In early June a work trip took me north to Speyside and a chance to briefly revisit some of my old haunts, places that I have visited and loved on and off for the last 35 years. What struck me most as I looked out of the Osprey Hide at Loch Garten was the amount of regrowth of the forest with the view changed considerably since my first visits back in the eighties. Bird wise it was a little quiet [and very wet] but the prize for least expected bird of the year probably goes to a male Woodchat Shrike in the Findhorn Valley a pretty good but not quite adequate consolation prize for not seeing a Eagle here.

Forest Regeneration, Glen Feshie

My oldest son was eight this year and old enough to accompany me on a evening visit to Dersingham Bog in search of Nightjars, we invited his friend and his dad to join us. Labelling this as a Nightjar walk was in hindsight a mistake as we had one of the worst evenings for them that I can recall [we did get very brief views and heard them churring] But the kids loved their night hike and especially the large numbers of Glow worms around the boardwalk. 

Another wildlife highlight shared with the kids was at Holkham Pines in early August when we realised that we were in for a great butterfly day with the boys enjoying stalking them and trying to catch them by hand. A Dark Green Fritillary was the best of the day for me. 

Dark Green Fritillary, Holkham
As a family we spend a lot of time on the beach and in mid August I enjoyed slithering on my belly in the wet sand along the edge of the sea getting close eye level views and photographs of Sanderling freshly arrived back from the Arctic and sharing the beach with holiday makers.

Sanderling, Gore Point, Holme

Back at Holkham in September we "found" an Osprey [well we didn't know it was there] and watched it diving into the Lake several times before being seen off by a Red Kite. Not a sentence I would have imagined writing when I first moved to Norfolk over twenty years ago.

With the wind in the west for pretty much the entire autumn I saw very little in the way of unusual migrants this year. But In Early November I enjoyed a great day out with some former work colleagues on a boat on the Blackwater Estuary in Essex, looking at areas of managed realignment from the sea and marvelling at what an amazing wild place it was. We also saw the incongruous sight of a Clouded Yellow butterfly and Glossy Ibis on the same day that we watched hundreds of Brent geese.

Our Boat on the Blackwater
On the last day of the year my oldest boys friend who joined us Nightjar watching in the summer accompanied my two sons, wife and me to Welney to watch the swan feed and as well as the pleasure to be gained from bird feeders dripping Tree Sparrows and flocks of Whooper Swans it was great to see all three kids enjoy the spectacle and comparing the photos that they were taking of the bird's.

Welney, New Years Eve dusk
So not a bad year with some great memories and I even managed a respectable 202 species on my year list. Here's to more memories in 2018.