A WALK AROUND MY ‘PATCH’
AND A BIT OF ‘GOIN’ BACK’
I am fortunate to live in and around some diverse, bird rich habitats. Within walking distance from home I can overlook a large pond, an even larger loch, follow the course of a shallow , meandering, fast flowing river, sit in small coniferous and deciduous woods and climb a steep scree sided hill. I am here at the foot of the Cheviots beside the Bowmont river. Add to that my bird friendly ‘wild’ garden and I am hopeful that I will have plenty of encounters with birds to report on a regular basis.
Before we begin all that it might be of interest to account for the origins of my birdwatching. Where did it come from, why did it start? Growing up in the Oxfordshire countryside in the 1950’s and 60’s was the perfect place and time. Children then could wander and explore, build dens, climb trees, go fishing, sledge, whittle, make dams: you name it we did it. (for a fictional account of this access ‘Being Valiant’ via my KDP page). While enjoying all this stuff out in the open air one naturally became aware of the bird life all around. This did stimulate one particular ‘birding’ activity; nesting. I hasten to add that me and my boyhood friends were not like the “rude” boys who took birds’ eggs referred to by John Clare (1) . Indeed like him we were sure to “leave it as we found it”. In my case I went a bit further and noted the nests whereabouts and contents in a little book. Here are a few entries from all those years ago.
1960 Thrush’s nest by moorhen’s nest round little lane.
Blackbird’s nest round little lane path: 3 eggs March 25th
Jenny wren’s nest round little lane path
Blackbird’s nest up Foxhole lane in hedge: April 2nd 3 eggs
1962 Tree creeper’s nest in my Grandfather’s hen house. May 22nd 6 eggs, June 3rd 1 baby, June 7th 2 babies.
Yellowhammer’s nest in bush at bottom of Gritney hill: May 28th 3 eggs.
So as you can see the interest in birds arrived at an early age a spin off of life in the fields and woods, especially the latter as my grandfather was a gamekeeper on the Blenheim estate. He was not bird friendly but his Knott Oaks wood allowed me to wander and erect nest boxes. Of course my Dad helped with construction of the latter, and equipped me with a tool set in the process while my mother saved food scraps for the bird table and helped me thread groundnuts or a coconut onto string to hang from the table for the blue, great and coal tits that came. She must have chatted about these simple bird related activities to the next door elderly couple who employed her as a housekeeper. Their names were Cecil and Hilda Emden.(for more see …) Both were keen birdwatchers and on hearing of my boyhood interest were keen to encourage it. So keen in fact that they gave me a pair of opera glasses’ to set me on my way. A few years later when the interest was well and truly rooted Mr Emden read my accounts of walks and sightings and bought me some Ross binoculars; quite the thing back then in 1964. Accompanying this gift was a handwritten note. It gives a clear idea of the kindness of the man:
“ I have enjoyed reading the diary. Some people don’t think it worthwhile studying the habits of quite common birds, but the experts see the value of this kind of fieldwork. Birds that work on the trunks of trees are easy to watch. I have noticed lately the greater spotted woodpecker, the nuthatch and the tree creeper near the village. In March the snipe will be drumming in the valley and I think it is about then that I have seen (and heard) the redshank down below – one of the most attractive of the waders. They seem to like standing on the posts of the fences. I wonder why? Best of luck.”
What had he been reading about? Well, 1964 was evidently a notable year. On April 6th “while looking for bird’s nests down the river, two friends, John Towler and Peter Calcutt told me that they had seen some Crossbills in Knott Oaks wood.I hurried home to get my binoculars. When we reached the place….a male crossbill flew onto a cows’ drinking tank and had a drink. This bird had brown wings and a beautiful red head and body.”
Things got even better that year, when on July 20th, “John and I found a Hedge sparrow’s nest with a young cuckoo in.” Ten days later I was back on site. “The weather was good with slight patches of cloud in a clear sky..I took up position 8 yards from the nest behind a wall. At 14 minutes to 12 am I started my observations. The bird was roughly the size of an adult blackbird. The beak was slightly curved and pointed.The throat was bright orange in colour. The young cuckoo issues loud high pitched song when the hedge sparrow is near. Flight any day now!”